Rev. John P. Cush is a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. He serves as Academic Dean and as a formation advisor at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State. Fr. Cush holds the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD) from the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he also teaches as an adjunct professor of Theology and U.S. Catholic Church History. He has served as a parish priest, high school seminary teacher, and as a Censor Librorum for his Diocese, as well as a theological consultant for NET TV. Fr. Cush is a regular contributor to the Brooklyn Tablet and the Albany Evangelist.
A great reality check for a priest is being assigned full time to teach high school. Nothing, in my opinion, is as much a great equalizer for a young priest, after all his years of theological education, than being thrown into a high school classroom and told to teach students. They, by and large, could care less about where you studied, on what topic you wrote your dissertation, or even the subject matter being taught. Students, especially high school students, can sniff out the “blood in the water,” recognizing that the teacher doesn’t know his or her subject.
I consider myself very, very blessed by God for having had the opportunity to teach, full time, in my Diocese’s high school level seminary for eight years. It was a way for me to give back to the place where I really began to discover my vocation to the priesthood. It was a way for me to exercise a talent for teaching that my Bishop saw in me. But, above all else, it was a way for me to learn to communicate the faith of our Church to the next generation of young Catholic leaders.
In my years teaching high school, I taught Religion on all four years, English for Freshmen and Seniors, Italian for Seniors, a Senior elective in Philosophy and even a class in Fine Arts. Teaching on the high school level full time prepared me for my later doctoral studies and now for teaching on the university level. One of the things that most energizes me is teaching my students in the classroom. It is one of the great joys in my priesthood.
Being a teacher requires three things in my opinion:
First, you have to have natural ability to communicate. You have to be a bit of an entertainer, to make it interesting.
Second, you have to have knowledge, or at least be a page ahead of your students. Always keep in mind that you have to know more than they do about your subject.
Third, and finally, you have to have a lesson plan. This lesson plan does not have to be complex, but it should, in one way or another, have these elements:
- an objective, meaning what are you planning to do?
- a means, meaning how are you going to do it?
- an assessment, meaning how are you going to determine that you indeed di what you said you were going to do?
In Matthew 7: 24-27, we hear the parable of the wise and the foolish builder: “ “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.” (Revised Standard Version).
Jesus is the master teacher. He speaks of the need for a firm foundation, lest the rains fall, floods come, and winds blow and buffet, and eventually collapse our house, which in this usage means our very selves, and we become completely ruined.
In the same way that a teacher needs to have those three elements I mentioned in order to be a successful teacher, so too do we need them for a successful life in Christ. I believe that this is especially true for priests and future priests.
First, we need to have that natural ability. We have to have basic reason and a basic human foundation with which to work, with which we can be formed to sentire cum ecclesia(to think with the Church). But we do not have to only rely on that natural ability alone. Through baptism, through confirmation, and for those called to the priesthood, through our ordinations, we are given supernatural grace to work with our fallen human nature.
Second, we have to have knowledge; for the Christian in general, and for the priest in particular, it is essential that he continue to grow, to read, to update himself. No one ever becomes a complete master of the fonts of Divine Revelation, Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition; there is always something more we can learn, and, as such, it behooves us to always be men and women of study.
Third, we have to have a lesson plan in our lives, especially in the lives of priests. What’s our objective: nothing less than salus animarum suprema lex, (the salvation of souls is the supreme law.) Our objective is to save our own soul and help to save the souls of others. What are the means in which we can complete this objective? It’s pretty simple, by living our vocations to the best of our abilities, to truly be, in our words and actions, alter Christi to all. And finally, what’s our assessment? Nothing less than the Beatific Vision, living forever in the Presence of God.
Being a teacher, even if we never are part of academia again after ordination, is part of who and what priests are. It is part of the threefold munera we who are priests share in through our bishops- the teaching office. Fr. John Courtney Murray, SJ wrote:
“... theology presents itself as an essentially ecclesiastical science, whose function must be regarded primarily in social perspectives. Theology must exist in the Church; it must also exist for the Church, to serve her needs—fundamentally her need to teach the word of God. For this reason, as Petavius pointed out, ‘it must properly reside in those who are the overseers and directors of the Church and of ecclesiastical teaching, and whose office it is to pass sentence in matters of Christian and Catholic faith in solemn councils, lawfully convoked, and to set for others the norms of belief. These are the bishops and hierarchs.’ The conclusion would be that thesimple priest is under the necessity of being trained as a theologian because of his association in the magisterial office of the bishop.”
The priest is called to be a teacher. And, in living out wisely and well their vocation, so too is the lay person and religious. We teach with not only our words, but with our lives. We can do this by building our houses, indeed our very selves, in the firm foundation who is Christ.