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The Practical Applications of Theology (Teaching Parish Reflection)

by Eric Zenisek on October 10, 2018

Eric Zenisek is a second-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of Dubuque.

Before I entered seminary, I studied to be a high school and middle school social studies teacher at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). During my final year at UNI, the College of Education required us to take a teaching methods course. The course involved practical classroom management techniques, how to make a lesson plan, and overall advice for teaching in a classroom.

The first day of the course the professor introduced herself, gave us her basic biographical information, and said something I will never forget. She said, “I designed this course to give you the basic tools you’ll need to teach in the classroom. With that in mind, this course is not enough. If we designed our education program to give you everything you need to teach, you would never set foot in a classroom. The best way to learn how to be a teacher is to go out there and do it. At a certain point, you need to trust the basic skills you’ve acquired and go from there.”

I’ve always cherished these words. During my semester of student teaching, I learned firsthand that you will never learn everything about teaching from sitting in a classroom; at a certain point, you need to go out and teach. Now I’m in seminary and I see my professor’s educational philosophy every weekend in the Teaching Parish Program.

For me, seminary is about learning how to be a priest. But if the goal is to give seminarians everything we need before priesthood, we would never be ordained! At some point, you learn how to be a priest by doing priestly things. That’s why I thoroughly enjoy the Teaching Parish Program. It’s a way for seminarians to grow into their priestly identity within the context of the parish.

Currently, I am assigned to Ascension Parish in Oak Park, Illinois. I couldn’t imagine a better place to grow into a priestly identity than Ascension. The People of God are very kind to Kevin Ripley (the other seminarian at Ascension) and me. Our first weekend, we had groups of people welcoming us to the parish, inviting us over for dinner, even giving us the code to their garage (seriously!). Every week, the people in the parish lovingly challenge me to grow into my identity as a future priest.

In the parish itself, I enjoy the various encounters with the people of God after Mass. Whether it’s a pregnant woman who asks me to pray for her and her child, or a parishioner that seeks clarification regarding the readings, I am blessed that the people of Ascension invite me to walk with them during these moments in their life.

The pastor at Ascension, Fr. Jim Hurlbert is a wonderful mentor, and a fantastic witness to the joy of the Gospel. I am blessed to work with, and be formed by, such a knowledgeable and pastoral priest. Fr. Hurlbert is always willing to answer any questions regarding parish life, the liturgy, and the priesthood in general.

Last year I was blessed to walk with members of the RCIA program. Before the Easter season, we met once a week. These regular meetings were routine, but they were far from ordinary. I was constantly amazed at the questions both the children and the adults would ask me. The adults would ask fantastic questions about current events and issues and the kids would ask about the nature of heaven.

One of my favorite parish activities is teaching the 8th grade religion classes at our parish school. The 8th graders always have great questions and are eager to grow in their Catholic faith. It seems like every time I teach them, they also challenge me to grow in my understanding of our Catholic faith.

One of the things I appreciate most about the Teaching Parish Program is the way it gives a face to our studies in theology. We aren’t learning about the Trinity or Catholic Social Teaching just to pass a test. Instead, I study theology so I can explain it to Charlie, Daria, Owen, and Olivia.

It turns out I didn’t leave the classroom when I entered seminary.