Teaching the Faith to Teachers of the Faith
A conversation with Matthew Tsakanikas, newly appointed director of the Institute for Religious Studies at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. By Anthony Flott.
BY Anthony Flott
April 15-21, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/10/07 at 9:00 AM
Matthew Tsakanikas figures that grown-up questions deserve grown-up answers. Unfortunately, he says, too many Catholics today only are equipped with “little-kiddie” answers.
Tsakanikas hopes to change that through the religious education of religious educators. He’ll do so at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., where in March he became director of the university’s Institute for Religious Studies. An outreach program on behalf of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., the institute educates and certifies Catholic school teachers, directors of religious education and catechists.
The 34-year-old Tsakanikas has held various religious-education posts himself the past 12 years. Most recently, he spent nearly three years earning his licentiate in sacred theology through the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, Australia. Tsakanikas spoke with Register correspondent Anthony Flott.
Give us a brief outline of your family growing up.
I have three brothers. We were very Catholic in name growing up, but it wasn’t until I was attending a state university and had a conversion experience that I rediscovered my Catholic faith. And it was all because of one dedicated parish priest, Father Francis Peffley. He somehow got me into confession, I think because of his devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and his promises.
A lot of us wouldn’t think our hearts are hardened, but sin blinds us to just how hardened our hearts are. This priest, through the promises of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the promises given to St. Margaret Mary, was able to change people’s hearts. He brought my whole family back to really practicing the Catholic faith.
What was your life like before that conversion experience?
I had just been initiated into a Greek social fraternity at James Madison University, and I would say I was living that lifestyle.
The Animal House lifestyle?
I’ll just leave it at that. I would say I was your typical nominal Catholic who was an excellent pagan.
Why has the education field captured your interest?
The faith was given to me by people who spent themselves. I saw Father Peffley spend himself. He could have said, “I don’t have time for this,” but he always made time. He always made time for confession, for counseling us, for teaching us. So education for me is a reaction of charity. It was a real work of charity to help people accept the faith. I had so many obstacles keeping me from embracing Jesus as God and Savior. I know how important it is to help remove obstacles for other people so that they can be authentically free.
What prompted you to apply for the Benedictine position?
I was considering beginning my own catechetical school. My wife, being the realist, said, “I’d really prefer that you have another job in the meantime while you do this,” and I agreed with her. Then I saw that Benedictine College was [looking] to do the very thing I wanted to do, which is help Catholic teachers continue their formation in theology. It fit what both my wife and I wanted.
Then, when I met with Benedictine College, they explained to me all that they had been doing to renew their Catholic identity. I’m a fan of seeing what Communion and Liberation is doing. That’s another prevalent spirituality on the Benedictine campus. Having both that and seeing the dedication of the heads of the college to it — I wasn’t sure if someone was going to pull the rug out from under me and say, “Ha ha, we fooled you; it really isn’t this great.”
But so far no one has done that. Since they’ve implemented Ex Corde Ecclesiae they’ve seen a 50% increase in enrollment. It’s done wonders for the college. It makes me proud to be a part of their whole effort to become really one of the great Catholic colleges in the United States.
What is your immediate priority at Benedictine College?
Our goal is, simply summarized, to make Jesus better known and better loved. We’re going to do that in collaboration with the other ministries in the archdiocese. We’re going to provide a rich presentation of the wealth of the Catholic Church in the theological formation of those we serve, forming them through a core which has been really well established. The program will be built on the sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
What is the most important aspect of your role as director of the Institute for Religious Studies?
The most important thing I do is cooperate with the bishop’s vision, helping him through his Catholic school teachers to pass on that fire in the heart and love for Jesus Christ. Teachers need support, and that’s what we’re here to do.
On average, how well do religious educators know the Catholic faith?
That’s pretty broad. I would say sometimes there’s an ethos as to what is Catholic, and that ethos dominates oftentimes in many areas in Catholic education. But the perception of what the Catholic Church teaches as opposed to what it in fact teaches — there is often a disparity.
What is the greatest need today for Catholic religious educators?
To not be afraid to witness to Jesus Christ as the only savior.
Does that fear exist?
I think it exists in many ways throughout the Catholic Church as a whole.
How would you describe the average Catholic’s knowledge of their faith?
I would say that, before Father Peffley met me, I was convinced I knew everything about the Catholic faith. I could pretty much repeat the Ten Commandments and name the seven sacraments. I thought I knew it all, but I certainly realize now I hardly knew a thing. The issue is that most Catholics have pretty much a second-grade education in the Catholic faith. We goofed off from the second grade to being confirmed in the eighth grade. Then we got to our late teens. We could now ask real questions, and all we had to rely on were little-kiddie answers. So we drift from the faith having never really learned it, thinking we’ve outgrown the faith.
It sounds like you’re a proponent of later confirmations?
Absolutely not. It’s up to families to realize they are a domestic church and for men to step up to the plate and be real leaders of their family, especially in the religious life of their family. It doesn’t matter when your child is confirmed, it’s up to men to learn their faith and to bequeath it to their children.
Does real knowledge of the faith always lead to orthodoxy?
Does knowing the faith make a person less likely to dissent or immerse himself in the world?
It helps. I believe more than anything else it is a living relationship with Jesus Christ. With a person, not with doctrines. The doctrines exist for the sake of an authentic relationship. To keep us on the right path. For authentic worship. In order for us to know God we need orthodoxy, but we need grace to love God. Our faith is a proclamation. That’s not all it is, but we have to proclaim the faith and not just react to every false idea. We don’t present the faith by our reactions to false ideas and false beliefs. If that’s where we leave it, as a set of reactions, we skew the faith. Evangelization and catechesis have to be a proclamation of the Good News.
What is your general guiding philosophy on the purpose of higher education in a Catholic context?
I think people need a framework into which they can put all of their knowledge. And I think that framework is especially realized in understanding Jesus as the New Adam and understanding how the sacraments are designed to integrate us and transform us into New Adams in Christ. It helps make a lot more sense out of our faith when we view the Garden of Eden in terms of God always wanting to make us partakers of the divine nature.
Anthony Flott writes from
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