Priest’s Word to the Wise: Love to Study, Study to Love

This book review first appeared in The Tablet, newspaper of the Brooklyn Diocese, on Dec. 3, 2022.

“Theology” can be an off-putting, academic word. But a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn has emerged on a mission to enrich Catholics’ everyday lives through that field of discipline, whose name simply means the study of God.

He is advocating his pursuit to others who preach the Gospel—and model it for the sake of people in the pews—with a new book, Theology as Prayer: A Primer for the Diocesan Priest.

“It’s not exclusively for priests,” according to Father John Cush, a native of Windsor Terrace. He asserted in a recent Tablet interview that seminarians, ordained deacons, consecrated religious, and laypersons will find life more meaningful as they encounter God using the works of great theologians.

The book, co-authored with Monsignor Walter Oxley, focuses primarily on suggestions for the parish priest. Serving a diocese, his tasks allow limited time for spiritual reading but generate many opportunities to teach, and demonstrate, “pastoral charity for the people he will lead,” Father Cush wrote in the early pages.

Reflection about God through solid theology has one purpose, namely the salvation of souls, he wrote. “Without this truth firmly established in the minds of priests and seminarians, when problems arise, they can be tossed to the wind, following whatever trend so pleases them, leading to a promotion of decline and a reverse of progress.”

Convinced that prayerful study can help to integrate personal holiness and dynamic love throughout a priest’s life, Father Cush this year joined the faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, NY.

He previously completed his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.) at the Pontifical Gregorian University and served as academic dean at the Pontifical North American College.

Years before his multiple advanced-degree assignments in Rome, Father Cush attended high school at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, Elmhurst, and studied English and Philosophy at St. John’s University, Jamaica, graduating in 1994.

He went on to priestly formation at the Cathedral Seminary Residence of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston. Ordained in 1998, he ministered to two parishes—Good Shepherd in Marine Park and St. Helen in Howard Beach.

His return to the United States in 2022 has allowed him to visit his Windsor Terrace home. He contributes frequently to The Tablet. This Yonkers-based professor of systematic theology also reaches out nationwide as the new editor-in-chief of a leading magazine for clergy, Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

“I’m loving every second of it,” Father Cush said of his primary job—preparing seminarians. He has welcomed a challenge set forth by St. John Paul II, who called for integrating “the four dimensions of priestly formation”—the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral.

Aspirants to the priesthood must start with a life of Christian love and prayer, Father Cush told The Tablet. “Unless we have the foundation on the human level and on the spiritual level, our priests won’t really be effective ministers of the Gospel.”

All study of theology should be done “in a spirit of faith,” as he instructed in the book. “With the help of the Holy Spirit, whom you implore before your reading, you are allowing the meaning of the text and the deeper intentions of the theologian to permeate into the deepest recesses of your heart.”

The book’s co-authors make practical suggestions. Based on Church tradition, they show how theological texts can lead to meditation and purposeful conversation with God. They also give tips on how a busy pastor might set up time periods and circumstances where contemplation is possible.

Father Cush shows intellectual heft by describing noted theologians in valuable mini-biographies which, he promises readers, will “whet your appetite.” His menu of prospects includes Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Speaking with The Tablet, Father Cush expressed thanks for the inspirations of Monsignor Oxley, another Doctor of Sacred Theology, who contributed extensive experience as a spiritual director serving clergy and parishes.

Their book was published this summer by the Institute for Priestly Formation.

But the technique of spicing theologians’ thoughts with practical tips and prayerful intent has a precedent in Father Cush’s first book, The How-To Book of Catholic Theology: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You.

Published by Our Sunday Visitor in 2020, it explained to a wide audience that the study of God isn’t only for saints and scholars.

Humans instinctively seek deep, authentic relationships, Father Cush said. “They want time to study about someone whom they love—Our Lord. When you fall in love, you want to know everything there can be about that other person. That’s hopefully what the study of theology does for us—as priests, as lay, as deacons, as religious people—as we go forward in our own lives of faith.”

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About Bill Schmitt

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