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The spirituality of the Catholic Teacher

The Spirituality of the Catholic Teacher

Convocation Address to the Catholic Teachers of the Diocese of Pittsburgh (August 24th, 2010)

Deacon Doug McManaman

It is really a great honour for me to be invited to address you this morning, and so I would like to thank Chris Chapman and Father Kris Stubna for their invitation. I really do see this as an honour, and I am so pleased to have an opportunity to offer you some sort of encouragement, because teaching is such a profoundly noble vocation, and it is a very difficult vocation. To get up every morning and face teenagers every day, week after  week, month after month, and to carry that huge responsibility of teaching them and

constantly having to think of better ways to do that is a real cross to carry, a very heavy one at times. I know, because I am a teacher, and I really don’t think anybody other than teachers in the classroom understand that.

As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of the days when I worked for a landscape company in Ontario, during the summers while studying Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. I was the crew foreman one year and we were always astounded at the boss, who’d worked in this field all his life. He’d always be surprised at how few houses we’d aerated and dethatched on a particular day, or that it took so long to complete a particular

lawn. We just didn’t understand him. He was pleased with our work, because customers were pleased, so he didn’t pressure us all that much, but we didn’t quite understand his expectations. We saw them as unrealistic.

One day there was a problem with the transmission, so I had to drop off the crew first thing in the morning to the first house on our list, and it was a huge piece of property. I took the truck into the shop, and the mechanic took five or six hours to repair it. When I arrived back at the house, I was shocked that my crew were not finished aerating, dethatching and raking up the lawn. They reminded me how big the property was in square footage. It was huge, and when I thought about it, I realized that they were right, there’s no way they could finish in six hours. This was a ten hour job, and so I got to work and helped them finish.

But I thought a great deal about how things happen so differently in the arena of the mind than in the arena of the real world. And its not as if I was away from that kind of work for a few years. It had only been one day that I was not out working with the heavy machinery, but sitting in a chair talking with the mechanic while he worked on the truck. I would picture where my crew would be after an hour, where they’d be after two hours,

and so on, and I was convinced they’d be done after 6 hours. How wrong I was, and I’d only been off the job for a day. I found that rather fascinating.

I believe that thinking about the work of a teacher is similar. I am convinced that one has to be right in the crucible of the classroom every day in order to fully appreciate the difficulties involved.

Now, I do believe that it is the same for administrators. I didn’t fully appreciate the difficulties that a principal and vice principal have to face every day until the year I had to take over chaplaincy—I only did that for one year, but that gave me the opportunity to see what I simply hadn’t seen before, because I could not see it. I was in the classroom all day, and that did not permit me to see the school from the vantage point of an administrator.

That was a very important experience for me. I had a good friend who was a Vice Principal, so I could talk to him in a way I wouldn’t dare talk to any other administrator. I remember walking into his office one day and asking him, why do you allow this, that, and the other thing to go on? Why don’t you do something about this? This is ridiculous! That is unjust. Why do you continually allow this kind of thing to go on? Etc.

I have forgotten what the issues were exactly, but because I was his friend, he didn’t have to worry about offending me, about being unprofessional, or receiving a grievance letter, so he turned to me and told me why.

I had no idea things were so complicated, multi-layered, that there are so many angles and levels an administrator has to consider; I had no idea how much an administrator needed foresight and circumspection, and how much foresight and circumspection I was lacking, for the simple reason that Id never been an administrator, I had no experience on that level and that I was looking at things solely from the angle of a teacher.

That was the last day I held any kind of cynical attitude towards administration. And since that time I’ve had a number of friends who have become administrators, and so I know even more now about the difficulties that principals and vice principals have to face, which is the reason that I’m still a teacher and I plan to retire from classroom teaching.

As a Deacon, I have somewhat of a glimpse of what it means to be a bishop. Or better yet, I understand that I really don’t understand the weight of the difficulties that bishops face today, and that is why I’m so glad I’m just a lowly Deacon. Were on the bottom of the hierarchy, and in many ways that really is the best place to be.

But I really do have a much deeper sense that there is a lot that I don’t quite understand, such as the full weight of the responsibility that belongs to administrators, the weight of responsibility that bishops have to carry, there’s a lot about the priesthood that I don’t quite understand, and as a Deacon who ministers to those who suffer from mental illness, I really don’t understand the extent of the suffering of those with mental illness and the weight of the burden that they have to carry every day, struggling with paranoia, hearing voices urging them to suicide, suffering with the horrible despair of clinical depression, struggling every moment of every day not to kill themselves. I understand that I don’t understand, and yet part of my vocation as a permanent deacon is to serve the mentally ill, to visit them, keep them company, bless them, pray with them, visit them every week,

week after week, month after month, year after year, for the rest of my life.

As a teacher in the school, I came to discern that a very important part of my vocation as a teacher is to support administration. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t challenge them or point out when I think they are wrong about something. It means that they have to trust that I am not going to gossip about them behind their back in the staff room during lunch, and that I am not going to allow myself to be poisoned by cynicism. That if I have a problem with a decision that they’ve made, I go straight into their office, shut the door and ask them to explain to me the reason for their decision, and then challenge them to get me to see the reasonableness of it, and if they cannot, get them to see the reasonableness of another point of view.

And of course, a very important part of that support is to pray for the administration, that they be given the strength that I know I don’t have, the wisdom, prudence, foresight, circumspection, and shrewdness that is required to be a good Catholic principal and vice principal.

But the classroom is where its at for me, and that’s where I want to stay, and I believe that this is where the Lord is calling me to stay. And I’ve thought about teaching for the past 23 years, and I’ve thought about what a spirituality of the Catholic teacher might mean. And that’s what I’ve been asked to speak on: the spirituality of the Catholic teacher. And what comes to mind, as a starting point, is the very first time I entered the United States. That was 31 years ago. I was 17 at the time.

I was an atheist as a teenager. I went to Catholic school up to grade 3, my parents divorced and we moved to a new neighbourhood in the suburbs of Montreal, and I was enrolled in a non-Catholic school. There were no pictures of saints on the walls, no crucifixes, no prayers over the PA, no Masses, no sacraments, nothing. So by the time I was 15, I remember thinking: God does not exist. How could God exist? No one talks about Him, no one mentions Him. He’s a non-issue.

At the time I fell in love with Bluegrass music. I was a 5 string banjo player, and I was intrigued with Bluegrass music and the whole culture that this music opened up. I was the Canadian Bluegrass Banjo Champion in 1980, that’s how serious I was about this, and my dream was to be a musician all my life.

In 1978, wed moved from Montreal to Ontario. Moving was difficult. I was a lost soul in many ways, but I was determined to make it in music. I received a phone call one day from a young man whom I taught banjo when I was in Montreal. He was on his way to Tennessee, and on the plane there he’d sat next to Ronny Prophet, the Canadian Country Singer who was living in Nashville, but who had his own show here in Canada,

The Ronny Prophet Show, which was taped at the Channel 9 Studios in Toronto.

He calls to tell me that he sat next to Ronny Prophet, and that he was looking for a banjo player for his band. My friend told him all about me, and Ronny Prophet told him to tell me to show up at the Channel 9 studios on such and such a day to audition.

So immediately I went out, bought a bright blue three-piece suit—I have no idea what I was thinking. I took the subway to the end of the line, took a bus, and about 45 minutes later was in the line up for a taping of the show. I got in, sat down in the studio audience with my Gibson Banjo and three piece suit, and eventually the band comes out. Everybody in the band was wearing a bright blue three-piece suit. It was uncanny.

But I noticed a banjo on stage. One of the band members picks it up, they introduce Ronny Prophet, and what does he do? He introduces his brand new banjo player. To make matters worse, they are playing a song that I could have blown out of the water: “Rocky Top”. He introduces his new Banjo player, who then takes a solo break in front of the camera, and he is not all that good. It is obvious that banjo is not his first instrument. But they cut, and they have to do the introduction all over again. So, Ronny Prophet comes running out with his guitar, the audience is applauding, and he repeats, “…Id like to introduce to you all our brand new banjo player…” I have forgotten his name, but the camera is there right in front of him, and he picks a verse of Rocky Top, and again, it isn’t all that good.

I’m in the audience, young, egotistical, I just paid money for this ridiculous looking suit, I was told to be there to audition, and I have to put up with this? Well, they had to redo the introduction a few more times, but I couldn’t take it any more. I jumped down off the bleachers, made my way out of the studio, went right to the bus stop and waited.

Then I said to myself, “No, you came this far. Go back and go right up to Ronny Prophet and remind him of the conversation he had with my friend on the plane.” So I did. And while they were on break, I went right up to him and reminded him, and he remembered.

He took me to his dressing room and told me to play for him. I took out my banjo and played like I never played before, while he was walking around in his underwear. He told me to wait where I was, he leaves and returns with Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers. So I played for them, and they each shook my hand and thanked me, and Ronny told me to wait till the end of the show and he’d drive me to a subway station.

But as he let me out of the car, he had to shrug his shoulders: “Sorry, but Id hired a banjo player already”, and of course it was perfectly understandable. He couldn’t just drop one he’d just hired. It was a great time, but it was still a disappointment.

Later on I received a call from the Toronto Folklore Center and was told a local singer was looking for a banjo player. And so I went the next day to audition. He wanted to hire me, but he was a terrible singer. I would have been embarrassed to play in his band. So I said I’d give him a call. I walked back to Union Station in Toronto, got on the go train, and went into despair. It was a very dark despair. I saw how difficult it was going to be to make it in the music industry. Nothing was working out. When the train stopped at Long Branch station, I recall looking out the window and realizing that the thought of suicide took on an appeal that it never had before. I was frightened by that thought. So in the midst of that dark despair, I called out to God, for the first time since grade 3, and I said: “God, if you exist, get me out of this mess”.

Suddenly, it was as if the clouds parted, the despair dissolved, and a feeling of consolation came over me. I felt hope. I knew when I got off that train that God exists. And I decided that I would pray every day to this new found friend of mine, out of gratitude. And I did, every day.

I went back to work in a metal fabrication shop for a few months, until one day in May I walked off the job. I went right to the bank, took out all I had, $150 in travelers cheques, came home, found a piece of cardboard, wrote Nashville on it, packed a backpack full of clothes and a few cans of beans and a can opener and a spoon, a pup tent, told my mother I was hitchhiking to Nashville the next morning, and I did just that.

A Philosophy student gave me a lift to Windsor. We had a good chat on the way, but when we got to the U.S border, I was refused entry. After all, I had only $150, and I was hitchhiking, and hitchhiking was illegal in Detroit. So I had to take a bus through the Windsor tunnel back to Canada. I called my mother and told her I wasn’t allowed to enter the U.S, she was relieved. As I was walking back towards the 401 to hitchhike back, I

stopped and said to myself: “No, I’ve come this far, I cant give up now.” So I went back and found the Greyhound bus station. A young man at the counter advised me to buy a round trip ticket to Toledo, Ohio, about a half hour from Detroit, and to hitchhike from there, which would be much safer. So I did just that.

After I got to Toledo, I looked for a house on which to set up my tent, knocked on the door of an old house near the highway, and an old man allowed me to set up my tent. The next morning I was given a lift by a young man who dropped me off in Columbus, Ohio.

Just outside of Columbus, I put out my sign, and shortly thereafter a young man stopped the car. He opened the trunk, I put my backpack and banjo in it, got in the car, introduced myself, shook his hand, and asked him what he did for a living. He said he was a priest. I immediately told him I was Catholic. He said later that he couldn’t have looked more like a priest that day if he tried. He remembered, because it was a hot day, and he was wearing all black, so he knew that if I had to ask him what he did for a living, obviously I hadn’t seen the inside of a Church in many years. And I hadn’t.

But when he told me he was a priest, I was overjoyed, because I wanted to tell him about the experience I had on the train, praying for the first time in years.

So I began telling the story to this priest, whose name was Father Tom Wells, from the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. This ride on Highway 71 was the beginning not only of a great friendship, but it was the turning point of my life. I questioned and questioned this priest, and he answered my questions very clearly and at times very emphatically.

And I saw that there was a great joy in his eyes and that he belonged to a world that I once knew. I wanted what he had, and when I asked him why anyone had to go to Church, why we cant just pray in the quiet of our own home, he boomed out the answer: “To receive the body of Christ”. I hadn’t heard those words since the third grade, and those words brought back memories of a time when I belonged to that world to which Father Tom belongs, and so I knew that the body of Christ was the key to the joy that possesses him and the light that radiates from him. I just knew it. And so Id decided right then and there that I would return to the Church. It was a very easy decision for me.

I played my banjo for him at the side of the highway just outside of Erlanger, Kentucky, and I made sure to take his address down, wrote in on my map, and I was determined to keep in touch with him. And friendship with this priest was one of the greatest gifts that the Lord had ever given me.

I went on to get a few more rides. I made it to Nashville, auditioned for Rudy Meeks, the six time Canadian National Fiddle Champion, and played in his band. So I traveled all the way to Nashville to join a band back in Ontario. But I returned to the Church and studied the Catholic Faith, and I went to Churches all over Canada while traveling with the Rudy Meeks band.

But eventually I decided to leave music in order to study Philosophy. I thought I had a vocation to the priesthood, but after some discernment, I felt that I was called to be married to a woman I met while studying philosophy at the University of Waterloo.

It was Father Tom who witnessed our wedding and he baptized the child we adopted. In June of 2000, he was murdered in Germantown, MD, by an unemployed tree trimmer who robbed his home one night after drinking all night at a local bar. It was a huge funeral, and it was one of the few times, if not the only time, that the Washington Post had anything good to say about a Catholic priest. They spoke very positively about him,

referring to him as the “widely beloved priest”.

This June I was in Washington for the ordination of his nephew; when he was 17—10 years ago—, he was so struck by the number of people at the funeral whom his uncle had influenced that he began to think of the priesthood, and he was ordained this June, on the 10th anniversary of his uncles death. That vocation was one of the fruits of Monsignor Wells death.

But it was this summer, on my way home back to Canada, that I began to reflect again about what it was that enabled this priest to have such an influence on me 31 years ago and such a wide influence on so many other people.

And I believe a large part of the reason had to do with the way he looked at a person. It was in his gaze. It was in the way he related to me. I am reminded of that great 14th century mystic, Blessed Julian of Norwich. She writes of her vision of Christ, crowned with thorns, heavy drops of blood dripping down, and she said something about Christ’s gaze that I found striking. She said that when Christ looked at her, she was deeply impressed with the familiarity and courtesy in his gaze. It is that “familiarity” that always stood out when I think of her vision. Christ was familiar with her, knew her profoundly, and he loved what he knew. That’s one thing we are not permitted when it comes to the royal family—to show familiarity, and we shouldn’t expect the Queen to relate to us with any kind of familiarity. But Christ, the King of kings, beholds his subjects with


That’s probably the best way I can describe Monsignor Tom Wells. He was not a monsignor when he picked me up on the highway, but I was 17, he was in his early 30s, and there was courtesy, but also familiarity in his gaze. There was no pretension in him, he was a very down to earth priest, and he loved people. He loved being alone, but he loved people.

I don’t know if anyone has read any of the writings of that great Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, but his classic work I-Thou was entirely devoted to what it means to truly and genuinely enter into relation with another. Not everyone who looks at you is looking at “you”, not everyone sees a “You”, and such people do not encounter “you”, they do not enter into relation with “you”. Rather, they experience a human entity, an It, but

they do not enter into relation with “you”.

The human person is a mystery; for each person has been created in the image and likeness of God, who is the primordial mystery. God is the unutterable mystery. And each person has been created through Christ, the eternal Word, the Second Person of the Trinity, through whom all things came to be, and each person was created “for him”.

The human person can only understand himself through his origin. And since the origin of the human person is mystery, the mystery of the Second Person of the Trinity, each individual person only comes to know the mystery of himself through the mystery of Christ, who is the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity.

And since God is infinitely knowable, each one of the students in our classrooms is a mystery that is always more than what we understand him or her to be at any given time. Each one of our students is an inexhaustible mystery who reflects, in some finite way, an aspect of the primordial mystery that is God.

And that is why each person has the capacity to reveal to me something about myself. He holds the key to an aspect of myself, but if I do not see the human person before me as a “you”, but as an It, a human entity to be experienced or used as a means to an end, I will never discover that aspect of myself that the other is able to reveal to me. And because I refuse to encounter the human person as a unique and unrepeatable mystery, forever more than what I currently understand him or her to be, I will never awaken that person to an aspect of him or herself to which I hold the key.

I believe that priest on Highway #71 that I met 31 years ago saw me as a unique and unrepeatable mystery that could reveal to him something about himself, and I believe that’s something that I had only encountered once before in my lifetime.

One year early on in my teaching career, I had a recurring dream. And it was a very simple dream. I just saw my grade 7 French teacher looking at me, in the way he did back when I was in his class. He was just smiling as he did back then, but it wasn’t a big syrupy smile, with the “pearly whites” all laid out in front. It was just him, sitting there looking at me, as if he was glad I was in his classroom.

And I would wake up in the morning in great peace, and I felt a surge of tremendous strength to go on—in my first ten years as a teacher, I taught in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto, which is a very tough area of the city, i.e., lots of crime, drugs, a tremendously broken area, and very few of our students would go on to university. And this dream really strengthened me, for some reason, and I didn’t know why at the time.

And the dream occurred again, and the same thing—Id wake up feeling a real peace. It was a very healing experience. That year I had that dream a few times, and I remember praying about it at a nearby monastery. Not far from where I live, there is an old Augustinian monastery with an old chapel on the hill where I would go often to pray at night, especially in the winter. And I remember thinking about this dream, and I wanted to know what it meant.

And as I thought about it, I realized that this teacher, although he only taught me French one semester—I was not close to him, had nothing to do with him after that semester—, I realized that he had a tremendous impact on me. It wasn’t the content of his course—I forgot everything he taught me.

I realized that he looked at me as a person, with a degree of reverence in his gaze, as someone equal in dignity to himself. Although I was only 13 years of age and he was an adult, there was something in the way he related to me and to each one of us, individually, something in the way he saw us. There wasn’t a drop of arrogance in

his gaze, not a drop of condescension, nor was there any indifference in his gaze, as there was in the countenance of a lot of my teachers at the time. It was as if his end, the very purpose of his being in the classroom, was the students. Not students in general, but each one. Each one had a dignity that he could see, and I believe he awakened me to  something in me that would otherwise have been left covered up.

And then I began to see that I relate to my own students in much the same way, and I began to worry less about whether students will remember all that I am teaching them, Id worry less about curriculum, although I know curriculum is of the utmost importance. But there is something more important. I don’t remember anything that this man taught me, but he imparted to me something that I cant adequately articulate, something that has

lived deep within me for many years afterwards, something that gave me a great deal of strength and peace. And it was also a kind of pre-conscious knowledge of myself as an unrepeatable mystery who is loveable and who is loved.

All the knowledge we impart to our students is ultimately useless, possibly even dangerous, if they leave our school without knowing, in the depths of their hearts, in their pre-conscious intellect, that they are loved by God. And they will not know that love if we only love our students for what they do for us, not for their own sake. If the first thing we do at the start of the year is count the days remaining to the Christmas holidays, and

after that the number of days remaining to the March Break, and after that the summer holidays, then we are not there for the students first and foremost. They become a means to an end, and the end is the self, not the other, not the kids. And teenagers can sniff out a fake in no time at all.

But as St. Catherine of Siena points out, the Lord loves each one of us as if there is only one of us. The only way we can channel the divine love to our students is to love them for their own sake, to enter the classroom for their sake, not ours, to look at them with reverence and mirror their own goodness back to them, in order to awaken them to that goodness, which belongs to them because God loves them, and it is His love that causes the goodness that is in them.

We cannot impart that knowledge if we don’t know the courtesy and familiarity in Christ’s countenance as He gazes upon us, individually. But to know that is to know joy.


I was in New York recently, and I was thinking of my great grandfather, John Henry Cahill. He came over from Ireland in 1859. When he was only fifteen years old, he hopped a freight train to seek his own fortune in New York. He eventually became the Vice President of the New York Telephone company, later to become AT&T, and so he had a lot of money.

When my great grandfather died, my grandfather dropped out of Princeton and moved to the South of France. He never worked a day in his life, and all he did was throw parties for his friends, like Ernest Hemingway, Somerset Maughm, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, and he was very close friends with Eugene O’Neill.

But my grandfather and grandmother had three children, all girls. The youngest was my mother. And they traveled a lot, and wherever they were in their travels at the time their daughter was old enough to begin school, that’s where she would end up, in a boarding school. And so my one aunt went to boarding school in France, another in England, and my mother was in a convent in Quebec City. My mother never knew her sisters growing up. The only time she would see her mother, my grandmother, was in the summer time, and they would go off to a cottage in Quebec for the entire summer, then shed drop her off at the convent in the fall.

And so my mother was virtually abandoned, and it was not a pleasant experience in the convent. Needless to say my mother had a great deal of resentment towards her mother, all throughout her life. I saw it when I was young, but I never gave it much thought. And of course that resentment had everything to do with her drinking problem later on. She eventually joined AA and was 20 years sober when she died, and she was an addiction

counsellor in her final years.

At one point in the early 90s I was reading the works of two psychologists, Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons and Robert Enright, who are pioneers in the psychology of forgiveness. And I remember going out for supper with my mother one day in Toronto, and she was telling me about what it was like growing up in a convent. And I could see her resentment towards the Grey nuns, I could hear it in her voice. And so I asked her at one point: “Do you think you could ever forgive the nuns—for their lack of kindness, their meanness?” She said: “Oh, sure, I forgive...” And she paused. Then she said: “Ah, no, I’m not going to forgive them. Why should I?”

I remember being somewhat shocked. But something in me gave me the sense to just leave it. And we never spoke of it again.

In December of 2000, she fell and broke her hip. She spent a long time in the hospital, and she was not recovering well. She eventually ended up at St. Michael’s hospital in Toronto, and I would visit her regularly and read to her. At one point during the March Break of 2001, she suffered six seizures in the middle of the night, and so we thought that this was the end. She was profoundly unconscious, on oxygen, my friend Father

Don Sanvido drove down to give her the anointing of the sick, and then we just waited. But it was not the end. I came to visit her one day and she was gone, not in her room, I thought she’d died. But they told me they moved her to a different floor. When I entered her room, there she was, sitting up in bed talking to another lady.

But when I began talking to her, it was clear something was off. She thought I was my deceased brother. And when I visited her the following day, she didn’t remember that I was there the previous day. She was suffering from severe dementia.

Eventually I was able to get her to a nursing home two minutes from where I live. I remember going to see her every day, twice a day, during the first week, and I would get her into a wheel chair and bring her to a spot where there was a nice view, and Id sit with her and talk. She said a priest came in that morning to say Mass. I wasn’t sure if that was true, because shed said a lot of things that were imagined. But it turned out to be true,

our local pastor really did say Mass there on Tuesday mornings.

She then said: “He spoke about forgiveness”. When she said that, I suddenly recalled a picture that my cousin showed me. It was a picture of my mother when she was four years old, dressed in a little black tunic, as she was being dropped off to the boarding school in Quebec. My own daughter was four years old at the time, and the thought of dropping her off at a school in a foreign country and leaving her there for the year was

heartbreaking, it was inconceivable. So I asked my mother this question. I said: “If there is one person in your life that you have to forgive, who would it be?”

She thought about it. I suggested: “Your mother?”

“Yes”, she said, “my mother.”

Then I thought of something: I said: “Mom, lets play a game. Close your eyes. Say: „Mom, I forgive you.¡±

My mother sat there in the wheel chair for a few seconds, picked herself up, and said: “No, I don’t think so.”

Well I was shocked, and I thought, of course! What was I thinking? She was abandoned all her life, and I think that forgiveness is so simple a matter as that? But I knew what my work was for the summer, and her dementia was just what I needed to succeed.

So I returned the next day, got her in a wheel chair, took her to the same spot, and said: “Mom, I hear a priest said Mass the other day.”

“Oh?” she said.

“Yes, and he spoke of forgiveness.”

“Did he?”

“Yes. Hey, let me ask you: „if there is one person in your life that you need to forgive, who do you think it would be?

She didn’t hesitate this time. She said: “Oh, Id have to say my mother.”

“Hey, lets play a game. Close your eyes and picture your mother. Now, tell your mother how angry you are.”

And she did. Boy did she ever. I thought: “What have I gotten myself into?”

After a while, I said “Okay, that’s enough. Lets talk about other things.” But the next day, I did the same thing, initiated the same discussion, and I got her to tell her mother how angry she is for abandoning her.

Much more happened that I cant recall, but she was eventually able to say what she couldn’t say before: “Mom, I forgive you”. It took a while to get there.

I felt a sadness when I left, because I knew her work was done and that there was no reason for her to stay. I sensed that the end was near, and it was. She died shortly thereafter and we buried her on September, 11th, 2001, on the morning the Twin Towers collapsed.

I tell this story of my mother’s forgiveness, because I have seen how the decision not to forgive had affected not only my mother throughout her life, but many of my colleagues in teaching. One in particular is a very gifted writer who wrote two books. He had such a gift to be able to open up the world of Toronto in the 40s, 50s and 60s. But his writing is always mixed with terrible bitterness. It was like watching a good movie, then suddenly

the gratuitous sex scene, and you think, “Could we not do without this? Do we need this?” It’s the same thing with my former colleague, only it isn’t lust behind it, but bitterness and anger.

There is so much bitterness in him towards the Church, and it has been sitting in him for so long, that he can no longer think straight. It has affected his natural writing gift. Reading his first book was like reading from two different authors. Inexplicable mood changes would occur, and he’d contradict what he’d said in a previous chapter, but he couldn’t see it, likely because he was so ruled by anger.

In one chapter he’d describe the nuns that were his elementary school teachers, and he would depict them in such a beautiful light. They were evidently not the kind of nuns that raised my mother. He would depict beautifully the heroism of one nun in particular and some holy and unknown priests that taught him and coached baseball and other sports, and then an inexplicable mood change would occur in the next chapter and he’d begin mocking the education system of his upbringing, referring to it as irrelevant, after he wrote, in a previous chapter, that anyone who dismisses the education of those days is blind and in the grip of denial.

There is no doubt in my mind that his anger is rooted in a refusal to forgive, a refusal to heal, to allow himself to be healed. Enough about him, though. What is my point in all of this?

Unforgiveness stifles; it stifles the flowering of our gifts. And the anger that we hold onto will find for itself an object, an outlet. The unresolved anger we have will be directed to someone, often to the Church, the hierarchy, the Pope, bishops, priests, authority figures, father figures—that’s one of the benefits of being a Deacon, nobody pays any attention to you before Mass, but all kinds of people come in looking for “father”, no matter who he is, hankering about this and that, asking him about this or that or the other insignificant thing, and I’m chopped liver, and its great. But there is something about the figure of a priest, the “father”, which makes him the object through which many people will try to work out their own psychology, the issues they have with their own fathers. It’s not about clergy—I’m clergy. It’s about “fathers”.

I have gifted colleagues who are bitter towards all levels of the school administration, because of very hurtful things done in the past, and I have colleagues who are very bitter towards the hierarchy of the Church, and all they see now and in the past are the sins of the Church, or the sins of the administration. That’s about all they have eyes for. And I’ve noticed that when we take that bitterness into the classroom, we leave the kids

completely unmoved, because they don’t have the same hang ups. They don’t understand the background of that anger that has a hold on their teacher. And the students are not full of anger towards the Church. The beautiful thing about teaching kids today is that they are so open. Everybody thinks teaching adolescents religion and morality must be the hardest thing in the world. It isn’t. I think teaching English literature must be the hardest thing in the world. I think English teachers should be paid double.

Teaching religion and morality, in terms of getting kids to see and appreciate truth, is rather easy. Teaching in itself is hard work, but I have always found that when you give kids truth, they come alive. Dealing with all the difficult questions, like sexual morality, contraception, abortion, technologized parenthood, etc., is not hard at all, because young people today are so open to the truth. You just have to articulate it clearly. They are bright, just as intelligent as any previous generation of students. Granted, they don’t read as well, but they are just as intelligent, and they can deal with some of the most abstract concepts, and they are able to imagine difficulties and argue against Church teaching in order to test it. But there is an honesty about them, so that when they see clearly how certain conclusions follow from given premises, which are grounded in first principles, and they are taught the basics of logic and the first principles of natural law, they embrace it.

But often they are not getting the goods, because their teacher is bitter, and perhaps legitimately so, for good reason. But he or she has not forgiven the priest who was just not there for them, or has not forgiven his father who was a successful business man, but was emotionally not there for him, yet went to Church every Sunday and was a traditional Catholic in every other respect, and so he has associated traditional Catholicism with that

emotional absence, which is why he rejects anything that smells of traditional Catholicism.

Harbouring unforgiveness destroys—whether you are an orthodox Catholic or not so orthodox. It makes no difference. There is no peace in the heart of one who refuses to forgive. And there’s the reason for that foreboding line in the prayer that Christ taught his disciples: “…forgive us our trespasses, but only to the degree that we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” That is why my mother did not get her wish. She wanted to go, she thought she was ready to leave this world. She certainly did not want to be in a nursing home dependent upon the care of nurses. Her greatest fear was to be a burden to others, because she felt that she was a burden to her parents all her life, which was why she was abandoned to a convent. But the Lord did not take her at that point, because she had not yet forgiven her mother, and that was a great mercy on Gods part, because unless you forgive, you will never be forgiven, Christ said so often.

The teacher who is bitter through unforgiveness renders himself so much less effective. Unforgiveness blinds the intellect. I have colleagues whose bitterness has taken them so far left that they leave students with a very defective Catholicism. And I have other colleagues whose bitterness has taken them so far right that what they give their students is so lacking in the scope, breadth and depth that belongs to our rich Catholic heritage.


The life of a genuine Catholic teacher, true to the name, all begins with finding Christs face of courtesy and familiarity, there in the depths of the heart. If we find the face of Christ in the depths of the heart, well see that face in our students, even the worst of them, and well awaken them to something that will live in them for the rest of their lives, even if they are not explicitly aware of it.

The locus of our vocation is always that place where the Lord is calling us to love. We were created for love. That’s all. We were created to know the love that God has for us—and He loves each one of us as if there is only one of us. And we were created to love. Teaching is primarily about love, and secondarily about knowledge. What good is all the knowledge we impart to our students if they leave our school not knowing that

they are loved by God—if they die not knowing that they are loved? All education serves love. If it does not, it is twisted. In the evening of our life, we will be judged on love, as St. John of the Cross says.

And God needs you, He needs you and me to channel that love to the students He entrusts to us. He calls us to this, and it is a tremendous responsibility that will have repercussions extending far into the future—negative ones if we fail, but inconceivably marvellous repercussions if we say „yes to the Lord.

Teaching young people is a tremendous blessing, because every day we are given the opportunity to die to ourselves and to love the kids before us. To love them, to pray for them every day, to put up with them and suffer for them as they go through the obnoxious stage of adolescence, to teach them what it is the Lord wants them to know. Life itself is about learning how to love and learning how to pray, and it takes a lifetime to learn.

But if we are in the process of learning to pray and to love, our students are learning from us, pre-consciously, in the pre-conscious intellect.

The great enemy of the spiritual life is concupiscence: the inclination to sin, the tendency in us to selfishness. Its one of the wounds of original sin, and our life must be a battle against that tendency. It is very difficult to love another as another self—to love your neighbour as yourself. To do so, I have to love him as if he were another self, another me.

We are capable of doing so, because we have the ability to know that this person and that person are of the same nature as myself. Human intelligence is the ability to apprehend the natures of things. That person is another „me, of the same nature: human. And just as I naturally will the best for myself, he too naturally wills the best for himself. But we do not naturally will the best for others. We can only do so through a deliberate act of the

will, and the will is inclined to the self, as a result of Original Sin. I know that person as another me, another „self, but I have to choose contrary to that tendency to will the best for him as I naturally will the best for myself.

But when I will his good for his own sake, not for the sake of what he does for me, then I am no longer one, but I have become two persons. That person has become another self, another me. And if I love a third person over there as another me, another self, I am three, and four, and five, and so on. It is through genuine love of another that I expand, that I become larger than myself. And the larger we become through genuine love, the more

joyful we become; the greater our capacity to be possessed by the life of God. Teaching at that point becomes so much more meaningful, because it has become a work of love. We become channels of his mercy.

And that is why regular confession is so important. That’s where we meet the mercy of God. That’s where we find the face of Christ, the face of his courtesy, his familiarity, his incomprehensible and unexpected mercy.

Its really wonderful to know that mercy, that there is nothing I can do that will diminish his love for me in the slightest—that his love for me does not depend on me in any way, that the sight of all my imperfections, all my neurosis, my frailties, none of that  diminishes the Lords love for me. When I know that, in gratitude I can channel that love to the students before me. Then the charism of teaching is released in you.

You can be the most boring teacher in the world in terms of teaching methods, but if you have the charism of teaching, students will like being in your classroom. They will find a piece of heaven in your classroom, and it will not be the result of anything you do, any methods you employ, it will simply be a result of what you have become. You will bring a piece of heaven into the classroom with you, and it will be your joy that will be the

opening to that supernatural world, for your students.

Theres a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is in us, we contain it, like a glass contains water. But joy is not in us. We are in joy, it is larger than us, it contains us. And the key to joy is to relinquish the pursuit of happiness, to give it up. That basic human right that is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we have to give that up if we wish to be possessed by joy. It is a matter of surrendering to something higher

and allowing oneself to be used by God in whatever way He wishes to use us. To live for love, to live primarily in order to channel the divine love, the divine mercy, that is when we discover that we’ve been possessed by joy.

We don’t possess joy; it takes a hold of us. It really is a matter of allowing ourselves to be carried along, like a baby is carried along in a car seat. God is in control, not us, and the more we relinquish the pursuit of our own happiness and allow ourselves to be carried along by divine providence, the more we realize that God is in control, and then anxiety loses its grip on us. When things don’t go our way, that doesn’t bother us much anymore, because we know from within that God is in control, and everything, to the very last detail, is subject to his providential control.

It is a great blessing to have a chapel in our schools with a tabernacle, containing the Blessed Sacrament. I can think of nothing more effective that will do more good for you as a teacher and administrator than spending time every day in front of the Blessed Sacrament at school. The blessings that will come to you as a teacher are simply incalculable. When we sit before the Blessed Sacrament, as one would sit in the sun, we expose ourselves to the radiance and heat of this divine Son and we then bring the heat and radiance of the host-life into our classroom every day.

The students may not notice anything different, for the Lords presence among us is “in the gentle breeze”, not the fire, the earthquake or thunder. But many years down the road, our students will recall these days and they will become aware of something that is here in the present moment that they were not explicitly aware of, but at that future time, they will become aware of it. The strength of the host-life, that Eucharistic presence, a

presence that is in a sense attached to us, like a sun tan, the strength of that living presence that we brought into the classroom will outlive everything else that happens to distract them at this time, such as the desire to be accepted by their peers, their fears of the future, their preoccupation with sex, their pride, their anxiety about their family, etc. One day they will become more explicitly aware of that delicate presence of Christ associated with your classroom, a presence that endured in their memory, and they will come to know that the subtle joy and light of this presence is stronger and more enduring than the pleasures that sin and self-seeking brought them. Your prayer before the Blessed Sacrament could very well be the reason for their return to the Church later in their lives.

It really is a great and noble vocation to be an ordinary Catholic teacher who is destined to be forgotten by the world, but not by the myriads of students that we will have influenced—and certainly not by God.

The effect that a teacher who prays will have on future generations is incalculable. And when you enter into the kingdom of God, and the Lord reveals to you the distant and long term effects of things you said that you’d forgotten, things you said that were inspired as a result of your living out of the heart of Christ, without you having even realized it at the time, but inspired as a result of your prayer life, that will be a moment of

indescribable joy for you, and it will be a moment that will never pass away. It will be eternal. Amen. Thanks be to God.

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