As part of the 9 steps of Augustinian Formation, friars spend one to two years out of their studies at the Catholic Theological Union on what is called the Pastoral Year of Service. During this year, the friar enters into one of the active ministries of his province, in order to gain practical, hands-on knowledge of pastoral service.
In the article below, Br. Bryan Kerns, O.S.A. tells of his experience teaching at St. Augustine School in Andover, MA, where he received the unexpected assignment of teaching Math.
(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The Augustinian)
When I first sat down with the principal and assistant principal of Saint Augustine School in Andover, Massachusetts, a month or six weeks before school was to begin, they asked me how I was with math. I told them that I was not a “math person.” Their response: well, you’ll be teaching math, but it’ll be fine, because it’s elementary school math, and we both like math, so we’ll help you if you need it, and the classroom teachers will, too.
Okay? Sound good? Okay. Sounds good. Meanwhile, in my head, I’m thinking: how did this happen? Into what have I managed to get myself ? Why didn’t I say, “No, really, you don’t understand. This is a terrible idea. I had phenomenal math teachers in high school, and that’s the only reason I’m even barely competent. I don’t love math. I don’t even like it.”
A few weeks later, on vacation with family, including a math teacher, the response to my predicament is laughter and mild derision. You? Math? No way. This is going to be great. But math—and some other things—it was. Almost a school year later, when I see my fourth graders doing basic algebra; or my third graders dividing fractions; or my seventh graders graphing; or my fifth graders talking about engineering fields and designing theme parks; or my eighth graders working through theological subtleties in their own terms; or my other students grasping this concept or that idea with which they might have struggled, all I can do is look on with a little bit of wonder. The same wonder I experience when they win basketball championships, or rock the school play, or win spelling bees, or demonstrate a kindness to a classmate, or when they ask God to bless every single adult who walks into the room every single time one enters. Sure. Math. Teach math. I can do that.
But what I have done really isn’t all that special. It was the task I was given. Those students did the hard part. I just had a bit more knowledge and experience than they did at the time I taught them what I taught them. They had to do the heavy lifting. And it’s their achievement. And God’s. But not mine. Just don’t ask me to do science. You think I’m talking about an elementary school? I am. I’m also talking about a pastoral year as part of my initial formation with the Augustinians. Except in that scenario, I’m the student, and I have a lot of teachers, including my own students.
My classroom teachers number a multitude: my brother friars; the parishioners whom we serve at Saint Augustine’s; my colleagues at the school; our parish staff; the staff and residents at Mary Immaculate Health Care Services in Lawrence; the guests, the staff, and my fellow volunteers at Lazarus House Ministries; our religious education students; and my family and friends who listen to me tell stories about life in an active apostolate. After nearly five years studying theology, I was quite happy to leave a formation house and move into some sort of application of that learning. What I think is difficult to appreciate as one enters into this experience is that it’s another sort of learning. The application of the classroom is important, essential, integral, but what’s really happening on a pastoral year is the formation of a new base of knowledge and experience that has to interact with the book learning, fusing to form a minister.
I spend two days a week at the school, teaching, going to events, interacting with students and families, and the perilous “other duties as assigned.” Two days a week, I’m at a local food pantry, helping prepare for and participating in distribution of food that works its way to a few thousand people each week, and I have also led the creation and implementation of a program that brings our 8th grade students to the food pantry at Lazarus House for a couple hours of service a week, building on a long partnership between our parish, school, and Lazarus House. I lead Communion Services and do visits with senior citizens at Mary Immaculate, often just listening to the stories people tell about their lives, occasionally offering some little bit of insight as a young friar talking to someone decades wiser than me. I teach Confirmation class to 10th graders for our religious education program. More generally, I assist with parish functions like funerals, baptisms, liturgical planning, Sunday Masses, and the exciting “other duties as assigned.”
That’s all the apostolic activity, but I also have a community. Our friars are experienced in education, parochial ministry, provincial administration, and all have many years in the Order, resulting in many stories and a lot of questions coming from me. My experience of community life in an active apostolate has been heartening. We eat together. We pray together. We laugh together. We sit together. We talk together. There’s not much more for which an Augustinian in my position could ask.
Math. Math? Really? Sure. Why not? The achievement isn’t mine. It’s God’s. And for whatever kind of teacher I am to my students, I am a student to them, and to all of those to and with whom I minister, all the more. The subject they’re teaching me, more than anything else, comes from Augustine’s sermons on the First Letter of John: “Love, and do what you will.” Math. Sure. But, please, no science.