This past weekend, I received the Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education as part of the Commencement ceremonies for the University of Notre Dame's ACE Programs. As such, I was asked to speak about what has sustained my commitment to Catholic education.
In a word, my family has.
"As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:15)."
Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, OH, I owe my commitment to the Catholic Church and Catholic education to my family and the institutions of my Catholic educations.
My mother Linda worked for the majority of her career as a teacher in a Catholic school. As a 2nd grade teacher she handled preparations for the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. In addition, she worked as a catechist on both the Middle School and High School Levels. My father Bob not only volunteered as a coach for the CYO basketball teams of both me and my brother, he served the Church as a lector and Eucharistic minister. My parents tithed regularly and set an example of giving by affording their children opportunities to give as well. They sang at Church, which outside of celebrations here at Our Lady's University is rare. We ate family meals together practically every day of the week. We prayed before we ate, giving thanks for both our food and for each other. While none of their children attended Catholic elementary schools, all went on to either Catholic high school and/or college. As my sister, brother and I left home my parents became more and more involved in the Church to fill their empty nest. When my father passed away this past December, we celebrated not his death but his life and his passing into eternity with our Savior, Jesus Christ. His funeral Mass was perhaps the most beautiful celebration I have ever witnessed.
The Catechism of our Catholic Church states that parents are the primary educators of their children. As I reflect on my professional career, spent entirely in Catholic schools, I recognize the important role that my family has played and continues to play in sustaining my commitment to Catholic education. My beautiful wife, Emily, is a product of Catholic education on all levels and as a fellow ACE graduate, she has also continued her service to Catholic education beyond the two year commitment - 7 years at Villa Madonna Catholic School in Tampa and the past three as a stay at home mother. Her Catholic home school has a classroom of two, our daughters Elizabeth and Catherine.
As for the Zelenka house, we will serve the Lord.
Despite this strong Catholic upbringing, I didn't step foot in a Catholic school as a student until high school when I entered Cleveland Benedictine. My brother and I had followed our father and his two brothers to this all-boys Catholic high school on Cleveland's east side. It was there that I began to build upon the solid foundation of faith that my parents had laid. I appreciated the rich traditions of not only the school but also the order and developed a profound respect for the humility portrayed by the priests and monks working at the school. Benedictine fostered a family atmosphere - our football team took the field to the rallying cry of the word "together". Prayer became an even more entrenched part of my life. The Benedictine motto, Ora et Labora, or prayer and work, resonated deeply with me. Prayer during my time at Benedictine was no longer separate from any other aspect of my life but rather intimately intertwined with everything I did. Prayer and work, not prayer OR work. We prayed before classes. We prayed before meals. We visited our grotto before and after practices and games. We went to Mass before sporting events. We prayed the Rosary. Students had the opportunity to attend daily Mass, furthering this connection between faith and life, prayer and work.
My faith experiences at this wonderful university continued where Benedictine left off. My understanding of Eucharistic celebration blossomed here at ND, and I again appreciated how at home I felt while here as an undergraduate and for my two experiences in the ACE Program. Obviously, a sense of family is strong here as well. Dorm Masses here at ND are perhaps the best representation of a true extension of a family of faith rivaled only by ACE Masses and evident by the wardrobe selections (pajamas) and length of time needed for the exchange of peace (hugs take longer than handshakes and peace offerings are never limited to just those in seats in front of or behind you). A spirit of service also started to form within my heart. It wasn't enough to use my Notre Dame education for selfish gain; instead, I realized that I was being called to fight to make the world a better place. I joined ACE Service through Teaching and what started as a noble graduate-service project blossomed into a vocation. Joining the Remick Leadership Program furthered my commitment to this vocation as a Catholic educator. I recognized my inclusion in a movement much broader than my school or diocese. I also realized the grand importance of sustaining Catholic education in our world today. Our work truly changes the world and touches on eternity.
As for my high school and college, they serve the Lord.
I am so proud and honored to be a Zelenka and now have the chance to educate my own children in the Catholic faith bestowed upon me by my parents. I am so proud and honored to be a Man of Benedictine. I am so proud and honored to be a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and owe my formation as a Catholic educator to my professors and classmates here. I am so proud and honored to be a Catholic and to fight for the greater good of the Catholic Church and our world.
I am humbled to receive this prestigious award and be held in the company of my fellow recipients, Drs. Gray Werner, and Yeager, as well as the family of Dr. Michael Pressley for whom this award is named. I am truly and incredibly honored.
As for me and my house, we are Catholic and we serve the Lord. Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. Always.