I really blame my teachers in grade school.

When I was a small boy, growing up in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn, I went to the local Catholic school, Holy Name of Jesus (now known as Saint Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy), which was right down the block from where my family lived over Farrell’s Bar, one of the most famous pubs in all of New York City. I went to Holy Name from kindergarten to eighth grade (1977-1986, so you can imagine how ancient I am now). It was an interesting time in the history of the Church, these early Saint John Paul II years.

One of my earliest memories of Mass was a rousing guitar version of “Peace is Flowing Like a River,” which we sang as first-graders at a school Mass. This was a time when many traditional practices were left behind. (For instance, the very first time I actually experienced Exposition and Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament was when I entered the minor seminary.) For the most part, it was a bland, whitewashed period in U.S. Catholic Church life. To imagine what the parish church looked like when I was growing up, check out Deacon Greg Kandra’s article linked at Patheos.

Outside of the principal and the sister who taught art to all grades, we had no presence of religious women in the classrooms at all. We were, however, blessed with two very fine Xaverian Brothers in the upper grades. Our classes were taught by most younger lay women and two in sixth and seventh grades were the very first persons ever to ask me to consider a priestly vocation. As an obedient young man (who had a massive crush on one of the teachers and would have done anything that she would have asked), I really thought about it and wanted to learn more.

When the time came to apply to high school, there really was only one choice for me, Cathedral Preparatory Seminary in Elmhurst, Queens. A free-standing day school, Cathedral was the perfect high school for me. (The Diocese of Brooklyn is blessed to still have Cathedral, now known as Cathedral Prep School and Seminary.) It was at Cathedral that I met some of the finest priests (and people) whom I had ever met. Inspired by daily Mass, adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, retreats, spiritual directions, some great classical education (lots of Latin and history), and, perhaps most importantly, the daily presence of diocesan priests in the classroom and in all areas of student life, I felt that call to explore the vocation even more strongly. When people ask me what I did before I entered the seminary, I tell them that I was in eighth grade. I am a “lifer” when it comes to my seminary formation — and proud of it. For eight happy years of my priesthood, I was assigned to teach at Cathedral Prep and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

For my college years, I went to Cathedral Residence of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston, Queens — now known as Cathedral House of Formation, a minor seminary and pre-theologate for the Archdiocese of New York, the Dioceses of Brooklyn and Rockville Centre, Scranton, Albany and a few others — while attending Saint John’s University. After my college years, I was asked to study for the priesthood in Rome at the Pontifical North American College.

The College (or NAC, as some call it) was a wonderful experience of priestly formation. Our rector, Monsignor (now Cardinal) Timothy Dolan, and his faculty were stunning examples of priesthood. The formation we received was top-notch. When people ask me if I had read Cardinal Dolan’s book, Priests of the Third Millennium, I tell them that I lived it. Currently, I am honored to serve on the formation faculty of the North American College as the Academic Dean and a formation adviser, as well as a professor of theology and U.S. Catholic Church History.

It was in Rome that I truly fell in love with theology and the great tradition of the Church. I grew to love the study of theology as an academic field and the application of theology to the daily life of the Church. Having been blessed to have been assigned to complete the License in Sacred Theology (STL) in the field of fundamental theology and the Doctorate in Sacred Theology, also in fundamental theology, at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, I can tell you that studying theology has truly changed my life as a person, as a Catholic believer, and as a priest. Theology, for me, isn’t an esoteric, abstract subject; it’s talking about someone I love — Jesus and his Church.

It is my hope in this column to discuss the connection between theology and life. Sometimes that will mean exploring the intersection of theology and ecclesiastical life. Other times, it will mean a Catholic look at politics and even popular culture. As a priest and theologian, I am excited to be with you and I look forward to this time together, trying to fulfill in my life as a priest, Christ’s command to “docete omnes gentes,” or “go and teach all peoples” (Matthew 28:19). And, in teaching, I hope to learn a great deal, too.

In our next column, we’ll discuss what it means to be a theologian and you’ll learn that, even if you have never studied theology formally, if you have a desire to pray, to be of service, and to learn more about the one who loves you, you are already a theologian.