It's not always easy, but Michael Dante is learning how to teach the faith.
"The Resurrection is hope," he explains to a group of 11 eighth- and ninth-graders in Langley Park, most of whom have families from El Salvador and Guatemala, and every one of whom is dressed in baggy jeans and sneakers.
"I want you to draw a picture of something that represents hope for you," Dante says, as his 38-year-old colleague, Enrique Varela-Nungaray, passes out paper. "What for you is the Resurrection?"
There's silence as they contemplate art-worthy symbols of hope, until one boy pipes up, "I'm drawing Wal-Mart." Dante smiles; he's a hard man to ruffle.
The teenagers have gathered in a barren basement rec room within the nondescript building that houses the Catholic Community of Langley Park, an outreach program affiliated with St. Camillus Church in Silver Spring. They're here for a dose of afternoon Sunday school -- taught in the kids' preferred language, English -- on a chill spring afternoon.
This is the "ministry" part of Dante's studies at Washington Theological Union, a Catholic graduate school of theology. He and Varela-Nungaray join the kids here every week, and measure progress in baby steps. During the first few classes, the two theological students' questions were met by stony silence. Now at least there are a few signs of life.
The Resurrection is a potent symbol for Dante, who's undergoing a major transformation at the age of 35. A former mathematician for the Pentagon, he's now in his third year of studies leading toward a joint degree, a master's in divinity and in theological studies. After he graduates next spring, he'll become a lay minister. Though he plans to devote his life to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, he also hopes to marry one day -- which, of course, makes the priesthood an impossibility. So unlike his fellow student Varela-Nungaray, a priesthood candidate dressed on this Sunday afternoon in a long brown Carmelite habit, Dante wears a pale-yellow button-down shirt and black pants. He has slightly wiry, receding red hair with a touch of gray in his sideburns, a freckled face and a mouth that seems perpetually turned upward at the corners.
He smiles often despite the fact that today's challenge of preaching the relevance of Christ to apathetic adolescents is just one hurdle on his educational path. Another is his blindness. A victim of vision loss that began with congenital cataracts and glaucoma in infancy, he has a prosthetic left eye that was necessitated years ago by glaucoma treatments. It's colored his natural greenish-brown. The vision in his right eye, which has turned a cloudy blue from calcium deposits, has slowly deteriorated throughout his life.
Dante can only see "fuzzy shapes and colors," and he uses a white cane to guide himself. But by anyone's measure, he has adapted to the disability with aplomb. Though he takes the Metro nearly everywhere, he can give driving directions like an oral version of MapQuest, and he approaches his problems with sight as a way to find deeper spiritual vision. God, he now thinks, used his blindness to lead him to the church, turning something so emotionally painful into "a source of new life" and "liberation."
One of Dante's professors, Sister Theresa Koernke, says: "He sees in ways that people with perfect vision can't. He sees with intuition."
Dante grew up in the suburbs north of Baltimore, with parents who instilled in him perseverance in the face of hardship. It was "always move forward," he says. His father worked as a physicist, his mother was a homemaker for the family of six (Dante has two brothers and a sister). The Dantes went to church regularly. "It was a part of who we were," he says, but "I wouldn't say we were overly devotional." Still, his dad would engage them in discussions about the gospels they'd hear 0n Sundays, and every Christmas his mother would bake Jesus a birthday cake, insisting that "this is what we are remembering."
Dante's poor vision didn't accelerate toward blindness until he was in college, studying under a weighty workload at Johns Hopkins University toward a double degree in physics and math. He underwent a series of surgeries, but the vision loss was irreversible.
"A horrible experience," he calls it. "I felt so depressed to watch the vision just kind of fade away before my eyes . . . I wondered if they had told me I had had a terminal illness if that would have been better news." He had to face his intense fear of crossing the street, where he remembers "hearing the screeching of brakes and thinking, 'Oh my God.'" But then what he characterizes as "the perseverance thing" kicked in. He finished school, and went on to get a master's in math from the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Throughout his twenties, he worked as a mathematical contract consultant for the Air Force, monitoring space programs at the Pentagon. After nearly seven years on the job, "I realized there was something turning inside me," he says. It was a kind of spiritual tug. He felt, he says, "the Holy Spirit calling me forward to a deeper relationship and new ways of serving."
Already active in his parish, Dante started taking night classes in theology at Georgetown University. Then he went on a 40-day silent retreat in Canada, which fueled a passion for introspection and a desire to finally come to terms with the long-ignored but still-throbbing psychological wounds from his vision loss. In 2002, he quit his job, gave all his furniture to his sister in Baltimore and moved from an apartment in Arlington to spartan private residences on Washington Theological Union's campus to begin his studies and, as he puts it, "re-envision who I am in the world."
He loves it. But although he's embraced the creed to its core, he says, the embrace doesn't preclude serious questioning of the church's prohibition against married and female priests, or its stance on other matters. "I struggle and wrestle with . . . the criteria for ordained ministers," he writes in an e-mail, and often contemplates "the balance or proper relationship between the local dioceses and the Vatican."
He says his background in the concrete realm of math isn't as incongruous with faith-based study as it might seem, because the disciplines "share a common origin, a way of trying to grasp and understand the world in which we live." But faith, he concedes, offers a challenge by requiring him to be comfortable with "the not-knowing," since God "dwells in the mystery of the future." The not-knowing can be scary for someone like Dante, who's used to hard data, mathematical proofs and a stable government job. And it's paired with the not-seeing -- a level of uncertainty that requires its own sort of faith (mainly in Dante's fellow humans) every time he steps outside his room.
Washington Theological Union, founded in 1968, is one of the largest schools of its kind in the United States. The campus in D.C.'s Takoma Park neighborhood is housed in a brick complex of three buildings once owned by the Seventh-day Adventists. Its walls are painted pale gray, the classrooms small and unadorned for the approximately 160 men and 110 women of all ages studying here full and part time. Most, unlike Dante, live off-campus. About half are heading toward the priesthood, the others toward a form of lay ministry or professorship.
Dante supports his studies with a mix of financial aid, outside grants from organizations for the blind, and some personal savings. He also works as a resident assistant in his dormitory.
On a Wednesday morning, after a class on "Hebrew Prophetic and Wisdom Literature," Dante heads to Koernke's class on the Eucharist, the sacrament in which bread and wine are consecrated and distributed as the body and blood of Christ. He opens up an old Toshiba laptop, set to type three-inch high letters, which are still blurry for him. Then the gray-haired, bespectacled Koernke asks this class of 11 students, "What's the meaning of the Resurrection?" It's something like the Sunday school lesson Dante led with Varela-Nungaray, though on a far higher plane. The professor adds a disarming casualness, referring to Saint Thomas Aquinas as "Uncle Tom" and making the students laugh by telling them how silly it was when adults told her as a child, "Don't chew the Host, you'll hurt Jesus."
Dante's fellow students range from an older lawyer who is here as a continuing-ed student; to several priesthood candidates, including Varela-Nungaray; to a retired judge contemplating a new career. They all take notes, and Dante types with earnest concentration.
Dante has strategies for plowing through the readings for all his classes, which also include "The Papacy in Ecumenical Perspective" and "Sexual and Biomedical Ethics." In his cramped book-strewn room, he's got a computer monitor with a text-to-speech output, along with a camera that magnifies a page to a few words. It's the same sort of setup he used to analyze spreadsheets at the Pentagon, he says, where his colleagues would marvel, "It's like looking at the computer through a straw." He's also helped by books on tape he orders through Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, based in Princeton, N.J.
Lining the walls of his room are bookshelves, one of which is stuffed with the 11 or 12 journals that he's filled with ruminations over the past few years. Among the heaps of papers stacked against the wall are books that include The Wounded Healer and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Dante isn't dating anyone right now, he says, though he'd eventually like to be in a serious relationship. "I know that meeting the right person will come," he says. "It's an important part of who I want to be down the road." On weekends he goes swing dancing at Glen Echo Park, sometimes with friends, sometimes alone. He also likes to play his trumpet, and, clearly, to talk. He jokes that "I don't always see people's body language, so they could be falling asleep for all I know." But he's the sort of guy whom neighbors will invite to sit on their porches for a chat.
This summer he has an internship at St. Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House on Long Island, where he'll plan liturgies and direct prayers. After graduation next year, he's thinking of teaching, maybe as a director of religious education in a parish or maybe on the high school level. He's also considering working toward a PhD in theology. He's not sure. Sometimes he thinks about what his life would have been like had he stuck with his Pentagon job, a route that he says would have been "very stable, rather predictable compared to where I am now."
Where he is now, he says, is "both exciting and also terrifying. But I'd want to live nowhere else."
Christina Ianzito is a frequent contributor to the Magazine.