Marquette University recently bestowed its highest teaching honor – the Robert and Mary Gettel Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence on Fr. Bryan Massingale, an associate professor of theology and a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. (Catholic Herald photo by Amy Rewolinski)

“Over the years I’ve learned that that’s very valuable advice and it’s part of my own preparation of teaching that as much as I prepare with keeping up with research and lesson planning and making my lecture as stimulating and as clear as possible, I also approach teaching as spiritual exercise, where I really want and hope that the Holy Spirit uses me and is present in our classroom deliberations to lead us all to the best use of our talents and abilities,” he said.

“And I always try to presume that the students are doing the best that they can, even when they’re learning difficult and challenging concepts, and so I try to pray for my students and especially for the ones who seem the most resistant to learning,” Fr. Massingale added.

Marquette University recently bestowed the Robert and Mary Gettel Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence – its highest teaching honor – on Fr. Massingale. The priest is an associate professor of theological ethics at Marquette. His courses focus on Catholic social teaching, African American religious ethics and racial justice.

“To be recognized by your colleagues and your students as embodying the qualities that I hoped to embody, to have that confirmed was humbling and deeply gratifying,” Fr. Massingale said about the award, which he plans to frame but for now sits on his cluttered but organized desk.

“I look upon teaching as really a part of and an extension of my priesthood, that it’s a way I find myself living out my priesthood,” Fr. Massingale explained. “I enjoy the give and take of classroom situations; I enjoy helping students to wrestle with their faith and especially with the topics that I teach. I teach in the area of social justice and social ethics, and so I want them to see that religious faith matters in how our society has been constructed, both for good and for ill.”

Born in Milwaukee, Fr. Massingale attended Pius XI High School and received a bachelor’s degree in theology and philosophy, with a minor in psychology, at Marquette University. Soon after, Fr. Massingale answered the call to priesthood – “a thought always in the back of my mind” – and entered Saint Francis Seminary for his master of divinity studies, and was ordained in 1983 at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

After serving as associate pastor at St. Sebastian Parish in Milwaukee, he studied at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and the Academica Alphonsianum (The Higher Institute of Moral Theology located in Rome), where he earned a doctorate in moral theology in 1991.

Since then he has used teaching as an “extension” of his priesthood responsibilities, serving as a faculty member for Saint Francis Seminary, and then Marquette University.

While Marquette is home to Catholic and non-Catholic students, it doesn’t change the way that Fr. Massingale teaches his theology courses.

“I think that one of the things that people are looking for, Catholic or non-Catholic, here at Marquette is someone to point out the relevance of their faith,” he said. “I mean, many students come having been exposed in their catechesis, in terms of, well, they know what the answers are but they just don’t know why they’re particularly important, what the meaning is, what the significance is. How does this make a difference in how I look at the world?

“So one of the things I want to do in my classes is to have them look at life through a theological lens, through a faith lens. What difference does it make to look at life through the perspective of faith, and through an intelligent critical examination of faith?”

Through a mixture of personal experience and creativeness, Fr. Massingale finds ways to captivate his students’ attentions and drive his message of social justice home. For example, he incorporates a simple twist on the Parker Brothers’ game, Monopoly.

“I teach a course on racial justice, and so one of the things I try to do is teach about white privilege,” he explained. “About the fact that our world is being created in ways that converse certain advantages and privileges and benefits toward those who are white skinned, and ways that those are denied to those who aren’t, and get them to (understand) that this isn’t due to their own personal fault, it’s just the way the world is set up because of certain final assumptions we make in our culture. So, they learn this and they memorize this, but does it mean a whole lot to them?”

Fr. Massingale has each student choose a racial identity card and allocates to them a “sandwich bag” of assets, based on whether the card they choose is an upper-class white, middle-class white, black or Hispanic. This is to reflect that in American culture people of color generally have only one tenth of wealth that white families do.

“It’s a way of making visible the fact that even though they’re now all treated equally – they all get paid the same amount of money when they pass go – some by virtue of some social policies in our country, have a head start in life, and others don’t.” Fr. Massingale said, noting that this is one way that helps his students understand the material he teaches.

Steve Blaha, assistant director of campus ministry at Marquette, was a student of Fr. Massingale and one whose perspective was changed because of those courses.

“When I was an undergraduate student here in the 90s, I was a theology major and I took his course, the Church and Racial Justice,” Blaha explained, calling it “literally the best course I took as an undergrad. From a teaching standpoint, from a learning standpoint, (Fr. Massingale) was really phenomenal.

“His class allowed us to do some journaling, some frank conversations, tons and tons of reading and academic work,” he added. “(It) was one of the most rigorous classes I’ve ever taken, but also just extremely powerful.”

Mary Kate Wagner, another former student of Fr. Massingale, was one of many students who wrote a recommendation to Marquette University nominating him for the teaching award, and was “really happy” to hear that he had won.

“I loved them,” Wagner said about the two classes she took from the priest. “They were hands down the most challenging classes I’ve taken at Marquette and my favorite. I absolutely loved them.” In addition, Fr. Massingale’s ability to relate to his students really helped in the classroom.

“He was really involved with students,” said Wagner, a recent graduate who majored in social welfare and justice. “He’s not lecturing at you, he’s talking with you and involving everyone. So, yeah, he definitely takes a very different approach than other professors have.”

For Fr. Massingale, the award reinforces his approach to teaching.

During the recent presidential election, he challenged his students to reflect on the debates through the lens of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

“Students began by grumbling about how they have to watch these debates, but afterwards, it was like ‘Wow, I never knew that theology or faith could be so relevant to real life.’ That’s the whole point,” he said, explaining that one of the gratifying things about receiving the award was that “it provided confirmation from my students that what I hope for in a classroom actually happened.”