Mother-son tandem teams up to teach religious education class

Julio Zuniga, 15, says St. Anthony inspired him to serve as catechist

GREEN BAY — Last September, when Julio Zuniga Jr., 15, was asked by his mother, Juanita Fiscal Zuniga, to help her teach the confirmation class at St. Philip the Apostle Parish, he turned to his confirmation saint, Anthony of Padua, for inspiration.

St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, and Zuniga cleverly took this theme to heart when he decided to take up his mother’s invitation.

“I figured that maybe if I help (teach the confirmation class), I can help students find their faith, find the connection towards God,” he said.

Julio Zuniga, 15, addresses the confirmation class at St. Philip the Apostle Parish in Green Bay on Nov. 13. Zuniga, a sophomore at Notre Dame Academy, assists his mother, Juanita Fiscal Zuniga, pictured at left, as a catechist in the parish’s confirmation program. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

Zuniga, who was a student in last year’s confirmation class, said he was initially reluctant to volunteer. “I had trouble coming to class (when) I was doing my confirmation, so I figured I might not have time for it,” he said. “But little by little, I started feeling the call … and thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’ So far it’s been great being able to help students.”

Juanita, who works full time at St. Philip as coordinator of Hispanic ministry, said this is her third year teaching the same 23 students — or as she says, “walking with them” through the religious education program. The students will receive the sacrament of confirmation next spring.

“We try to use several things in the classroom to remind them” of their call to grow in faith, said Juanita.

Outside of the second-floor classroom door, she has the words “Come Holy Spirit” over the door. “I remind them, ‘Every time you step into the class, call upon the Holy Spirit, because he is going to be the only one to help us, and this is what confirmation is about,’” she said.

“On the inside of the door, I have a written Scripture passage that says, ‘Go out and make disciples of all nations,’” added Juanita. “I remind them, ‘Remember as you go out, don’t think that this is the end, that you are already checking this off your list. It’s the beginning, you’re going out to the world to make disciples.’”

Having her oldest child (the Zunigas’ other children include Julissa, 13; Julianna, 10; Joanna, 8; Jose, 5; and twins Jonathan and Jesus, 3) in the classroom is an example for other young people, said Juanita. “The last thing they want to do is be in church, doing church stuff,” she said. “So by others seeing him doing things here, kids his age are going to realize they have a place here in church, too.”

Service to the church is nothing new for Juanita. She and her husband graduated from the diocesan lay ministry formation program for Latino Catholics, “Discipulos de Cristo,” in 2015 while they were members of St. Willebrord Parish.

As part of their preparation for graduation from Discipulos, the couple started a youth program with other parents called “Amigos de Jesus” (“Friends of Jesus”) as a way to help children learn about the Mass and participate in liturgical roles.

Seeing his parents involved in church has had a positive impact on Julio. “I got to see how they, themselves, became better people as they got closer to their faith. I figured that maybe if I take the same route, I will become a greater person,” he said.

Julio, a sophomore at Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, said moving to St. Philip Parish and transferring to NDA last fall played roles in growing his faith.

Julio Zuniga hands out rosaries to confirmation class students at St. Philip the Apostle Church in Green Bay Nov. 13. His mother, Juanita Fiscal Zuniga, who leads the religious education class, looks on. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

“After I moved to St. Philip, I started to become stronger in my faith. I started opening more to God and the rosary, it was something I was always hesitant about,” he said. “But nowadays, I feel myself … having the mindset that I really do need it. After I transferred to Notre Dame, my first Mass at the school was really heartfelt. I almost wanted to cry, to see how they celebrated Mass. I really enjoyed it and I think now I am enjoying it even more.”

During a recent class, Juanita and Julio led a discussion about praying the rosary. Their talk focused on praying the living rosary, in which each participant is asked to meditate on a single decade of the rosary every day for a month. Prior to class, Frank and Trudy Bonack of Three Lakes, Wis., introduced the living rosary to parish religious education students.

Students were given rosaries to take home and handouts to help them successfully pray the living rosary.

Julio said the experience of encouraging his peers to grow in their faith is something he will probably continue. “I really enjoy it so far,” he said. “It’s a good experience.”

“We keep telling him the more the program grows, the more need there is going to be (for catechists), so to really put it in prayer and see what God wants from him,” said Juanita.

She added that her message to all youth is simple: “I just want for youth to know that the church needs them. Do not wait to be adults.”

“We really do have a need for youth, because nowadays they are just drifting apart from their faith and their families,” said Julio. “I feel like this would be a great chance to bring them all together, to have them closer together, closer to God, closer to their families and unity.”

He said he is putting his faith in St. Anthony, patron saint of lost causes, to help him make that happen.