Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, founded by the Sisters of Mercy in 1926, offers a four-year bachelor of arts major in religious studies, as well as minors in ethics, Catholic studies, and religion and society.
Father James Piszker is the university chaplain, interim director of Campus Ministry and an adjunct faculty member in religious studies and Catholic studies for 24 years. One of his classes focuses on the sacraments of the Catholic Church. He spoke to Our Sunday Visitor about his experience.
Our Sunday Visitor: Are the students taking the class to pursue Catholic professions such as parish or diocesan positions or teaching, or for personal enrichment of their faith?
Father James Piszker: Over the years, I would suspect that it is both. I think, too, that there is a curiosity about the sacraments from an adult perspective.
Our Sunday Visitor: How are symbols and sacraments incorporated into the studies? For instance, do you talk about the tradition/origin of water for baptism, holy oils for anointing of the sick, etc.?
Father Piszker: I have used an integrated approach utilizing the work of (the late) Joseph Martos (theologian, professor and Catholic sacramental scholar). We look at the sacraments from psychological, sociological, ritual studies, moral and spiritual perspectives. We also look at the history and evolution of each sacrament from its inception up to the current day. For symbols we utilize an examination of what would be referred to as sacramentals and also open students up to the understanding of “sacramentality” from Vatican II and contemporary theology.
“Ritually, the Eucharist provides stability, equity, healing and repletion, which can have a profound cumulative effect on the individual. … Spiritually, the Eucharist challenges us in our identity as Christians, especially as to the question: Are we living what we say we believe?”
— Father James Piszker
Our Sunday Visitor: Can you give an example?
Father Piszker: From the perspective of the Eucharist, psychologically it is the entrance into limited space, sociologically the building of community and a source of identification particularly when in a new and different place. Ritually, the Eucharist provides stability, equity, healing and repletion, which can have a profound cumulative effect on the individual. Morally, the Eucharist challenges the idea of feeding and who is fed as well as other social justice issues. Spiritually, the Eucharist challenges us in our identity as Christians, especially as to the question: Are we living what we say we believe?
Our Sunday Visitor: How do these ancient traditions of sacraments and symbols fit into contemporary faith? Why is it important for students to know about the sacraments for their own faith journeys, and to pass on the Faith?
Father Piszker: I think that students as young adults hunger for explanations that fit an adult perspective. The question of “why?” comes to the surface and getting them to appreciate the theology of sacramentality helps.
Our Sunday Visitor: Have you seen any changes in how the sacraments are being taught to young people? Do today’s students, compared to when you were studying, have different questions and different expectations in what they want to learn about the sacraments and their faith in general? Or is their search for understanding their faith timeless?
Father Piszker: There is no question that the teaching of the sacraments has evolved over time, from a Tridentine understanding that was very strict, succinct and mechanized, as attested to in the Baltimore Catechism, to a much more expansive appreciation coming from the teachings of Vatican II, which emphasized the communal nature of the sacraments.
Our Sunday Visitor: What do you hope that students will take away from your class?
Father Piszker: My hope is that they begin to appreciate the sacraments from an adult perspective and begin to see the possibilities connected to an understanding of sacramentality, which complements their spiritual lives.
Our Sunday Visitor: How does the course fit in with the mission statement at Mercyhurst?
Father Piszker: We are a Catholic, Mercy institution of higher learning, preparing young adults for the large, complex world of today, and the sacraments are an integral part of our self-understanding with ramifications that are interdisciplinary and preparatory for their futures.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.