An Interview with Dr. Christina Zaker

by Gordon Nary




Gordon: When did you and your family join St. Robert Bellarmine Parish and how has the parish enhanced your spirituality?


Dr. Zaker: The first time we went there for Mass was on Christmas Morning 1995. I was 8 ½ months pregnant with our first child and we had been searching for a community around our new house. We walked in there and everyone was so welcoming, it felt like coming home. We have been parishioners there ever since. I wrote an article for NCR about a community carrying each other’s crosses with SRB in mind.


The way a community supports and cares for one another is so important to our spirituality. This community has helped us raise our family and sustained our faith in countless ways. No community is perfect, but when you get involved, journey with others through their ups and downs, and risk a little vulnerability of your own, then you see God’s fingerprints everywhere.


Gordon: When did you join Catholic Theological Union and what are your primary responsibilities?


Dr. Zaker: This is the start of my 5th year employed at CTU. I started taking classes in 2006 and graduated with my Doctorate in Ministry in 2012, so it feels like I have been there longer. I am the Director of Field Education. Every student in a ministerial degree has to do a ministry placement in a parish, school or non-profit. I am in charge of arranging those placements, working with site supervisors, and engaging the students in the theological reflection course that helps them integrate what they are learning in the classroom with what they are experiencing in the field.


In addition, I teach in the Spirituality and Pastoral Ministry department with a primary focus on Family Spirituality and am also in charge of the English for Theological Education program; which provides students with the tutoring support they need to read and write at an academic level.


Gordon: In your doctoral studies, you focused on Theological reflection. What is the discipline of Theological reflection”?


Dr. Zaker: That is a great question. The short and simple answer is that theological reflection is a way of noticing God in our everyday experiences. Theologians and ministers see it is a process of looking at moments in life, or a particular issue and engaging in a dialogue with various conversation partners such as theology, sociology or economics, about all of the different aspects of what is happening and why in order to determine how we might respond. But it is fundamentally a question of do we see God in the world, do we see God in the mix of everyday life. If we allow ourselves to be surprised by God’s nearness (or maybe even challenged by it) then we have to wrestle with how to respond? If God is near, shouldn’t that impact everything we do?!


I like to muse that we are all hard-wired to notice God in the world; we have just stopped naming it as such. But if you took out your cell phones and looked at the last picture you took, you would see God there. Why did you grab the phone to snap that shot? Was it a moment of joy in a friend’s smile; was it abundance in a delicious meal, or beauty in a glimpse of nature? We grab our cameras to capture the moment… theological reflection invites us to pause and reflect on those moments; to see if we can recognize God there and if so, then reflect on what we might be invited to do as a response.


If people want to read a little more about theological reflection, here is a link to an article that I wrote for the journal Reflective Practice: Formation and Supervision in Ministry.


Gordon: Please share with our readers an overview of your course on Family Spiritual for Ministry.


Dr. Zaker: There are a lot of books on spirituality; especially in this age of people saying they are “spiritual but not religious.” But these tend to focus on an individual and their own spirituality. However, our Catholic faith sees spirituality very much tied up in what it means to be a community. My focus on family spirituality is about helping a family recognize the role they play in each other’s lives to shape and encourage not only the spiritual journeys of the individuals in the family but the family unit as a whole through time. The spirituality of a family of school-aged children is different from the spirituality of a family unit with college-aged children. But at each stage, the family must determine what are their ultimate values and what is the “glue that keeps them together” as Ronald Rolheiser would say.


The course talks about this nuance in spirituality and tries to prepare ministers for their work with families. We also take to heart what Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “A family lives its spirituality precisely by being one and at the same time a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world.” I truly believe that families (in whatever form they find themselves) are at the heart of how hope, love, and compassion enter into and transform the world. Families collaborate with God’s hope, love and compassion in countless little ways!


Gordon: What are the most pressing challenges to Social Justice in the United States?


Dr. Zaker: I feel that in our individualized American context, we have forgotten how to build relationships with others outside of our inner circle. One major theme in Catholic Social Teaching is solidarity, which means entering into the right relationship with one another. There are so many things we can be distracted by and we fail to see the oppression, racism, or pain right in our own communities much the less the wider world. Solidarity asks us to enter into the life of another person and feel their pain, know what they struggle with and engage in the effort that brings both of us to wholeness.


Jesus wept when he saw Martha and Mary mourning the death of their brother, Lazarus; as much as he was outside their experience of death he was still moved to tears of compassion. If we fail to weep when we see others in pain, we can’t even begin to work on the most pressing issues of Justice. We have to understand solidarity in a broad context; being in right relationships with others includes recognizing the impact we have on people across the world and even the earth itself.


A current example of this is in the immigration issue where our government is separating children from their parents; literally using another human being as a deterrent, rather than seeing their terrified faces as the face of God. Not only is this inhumane treatment, but we also have to be appalled by the comments of some politicians who have tried to draw a distinction by saying “these are not our kids, these are not kids from Idaho or Texas…” as if to say that only US children and families deserve human dignity. That is a soul of a nation that has lost touch with God’s vision of mercy and solidarity.


Gordon: You have previously worked in campus ministry. What are some of the primary spiritual challenges facing young adults?


Dr. Zaker: I’d actually like to shift that question a little. I feel like we often look at young adults as problems to be solved rather than recognize them as the gifts they are to us, and the church. So perhaps we can reframe it and ask, “What are some of the spiritual gifts young adults bring to the table, and how can the church walk with them authentically in this moment of their life?


In my time working in Campus Ministry at DePaul University, or as the Executive Director of Amate House (the young adult volunteer program for the Archdiocese of Chicago) and even now teaching young adults who are studying to be priests or nuns or lay ministers in the church I have worked with hundreds of young adults involved in volunteering or ministering throughout Chicago. I am constantly amazed and humbled by their unyielding hope and passion. Their willingness to volunteer or engage in issues of justice – to fall in love with public health concerns or the students in their inner-city classrooms or inmates in the juvenile detention center is inspiring. They fall in love and their hearts are broken open and their spirituality is raw and deep.


I have always said that being involved in service is the back door of our faith. People feel a desire to be involved in something bigger than themselves and they turn to service. The church has to provide opportunities for them to put words to that passion that they feel, to offer a touchstone of naming that love as building the kingdom of God on here and now. That is where theological reflection becomes a critical tool for ministry. How do we carve out space in this face-paced culture to engage our young adults in authentic conversations about what they are passionate about and how that is their collaboration with God?


In the communities that get this right, the young adults bring their raw spirituality and the wisdom figures are energized and engaged as well. The process of handing on the tradition is much like in family spirituality; an intergenerational community, each teaching and learning from the other, recognizing that at different moments the youngest ones might be the spiritual guides.


Gordon: Who is your favorite saint and why?


Dr. Zaker: Well, she is not a recognized saint yet, but the canonization process has begun. Sr. Dorothy Stang, was a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur. She was shot on a forest path in the Amazon in 2005. When her assassins approached her, they asked her if she had a weapon, she said, “yes,” pulled out her bible and began reading the beatitudes. She was killed because of her work fighting for the land rights of peasant farmers throughout Brazil. Since her death, Brazil has set aside over 22,000 acres of land in her name. Her efforts with the peasant farmers were also an effort to protect the rainforests from illegal logging. She was essentially protecting all of us. With the environmental devastation that we see all around us, her work to protect the “lungs” of our planet was an incredible gift.


In addition to being inspired by her life’s work, I feel a very close bond to her because the religious women who taught our children at SRB are also Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and when she was killed, it hit them very hard. Since then I have spent a lot of time reading about her life, and talking to our sisters about their friendship with her. It is inspiring to think of a person who lived and breathed at the same time as you, who was dear friends with some of the same people you hold dear. It makes you realize there are saints among us every day!


Gordon: What is your favorite book and why?


Dr. Zaker: That’s a hard question! My husband teaches high school theology and when our kids were younger they would groan, “Not another Jesus book!” when the two of us would get to talking about a book we were reading. So in honor of that fun memory, I’ll pick a book that is not explicitly theological but one I have come back to at several moments in life: Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees...


It’s a beautiful coming of age story about a young woman and a toddler she is suddenly tasked with raising. Kingsolver writes with such engaging beauty. The theme of finding ourselves when we are absorbed in attending to the needs of another always rang true to my own experience as a young adult, as well as with the young adults I journeyed within the ministry. I have recently shared the book with my daughters too. It was a delight to read this together in the evenings and watch as their own sense of who they are and who they can be mingled through the lines of Kingsolver’s prose.


Gordon: Thank you for an insightful interview!


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