Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 41
I just returned from visiting my former grade school teacher who is sick in the hospital. He is aging and has been chronically ill for many years. Most recently he’s had surgery to remove some cancer. While my three teenage boys dutifully sat around the hospital room showing quiet reverence to this suffering man, I told my teacher something that surely surprised my boys at least a little. I told him that he was my hero.
A hero doesn’t have to be perfect
The surprise in this comes from their immediate perception of the man to whom I was speaking. This is a guy who does not conform to modern society. He smokes and drinks and makes odd jokes and dresses out of step with the modern world. Today as he sits in that hospital bed, he is no longer particularly handsome or strong or athletic. He is not wealthy, has no spouse or children of his own, and never accumulated many public accolades for all the good things he has quietly done over the course of his lifetime. So how could their father possibly call him a hero? Was it just a white lie to comfort an ailing man? Or was there something more going on?
No lies were being told in that hospital room. This man is a hero to me. I first met him when he became my teacher in seventh grade. I was smart, but I didn’t care about school very much. In fact, I considered it embarrassing that I was pretty bright. My adolescent mind was filled with two things and two things only: sports and girls. The rest of life was simply a necessary inconvenience to endure. He changed all that for me.
Over the course of two years, he taught me about just every subject: English, science, social studies, literature, and even some Latin. He exposed me and my classmates to great books, intellectual humor, beautiful architecture, and concepts like chivalry and romance. Many times he held a group of us spellbound with salacious tales of decadence and destruction. These tales would inevitably turn toward repentance and faith and courage and ultimately torturous bloody martyrdom. These tales made us conceive of our lives as an important story with each of us being a central character. It was inspiring stuff.
But he also taught us other miscellaneous life “lessons,” and while these lessons may sound irrelevant to the faith, they made an impression on me that I’d never forget. He had very memorable opinions. For instance, wine is “the nectar of the gods,” a gift for which we should be profoundly grateful! Cheese is always best made in France. Soft cheese is superior to firm, white cheese superior to orange or yellow. Crackers deserve better than to be eaten directly from the box. They should always be arranged on a plate and admired for a brief moment before being devoured. They are a late entry into culinary evolution you know, so we must appreciate how valuable they truly are.
He also loved to dazzle us with insights and observations about things that may not have been immediately evident. For example, the population of Ireland tripled within 100 years of the introduction of the potato. The French developed their famous sauces due to the poor quality of meat found in Gaul. There is no word for “wine” in Polish because grapes don’t grow in Poland. I could go on and on with these tidbits, but there isn’t enough room.
By teaching us how to see and enjoy all this, how to be alert, engaged, clever and polite, he bestowed a great gift upon us with warmth and hospitality. This made me pay attention to everything my hero did and said. It was all very Catholic and incarnational.
With such yearning love we chose to impart to you not only the gospel of God but our very selves, so dear had you become to us. (1 Thes. 2:8)
This man’s impact on us was life changing because he cared so deeply about us. It didn’t matter that he knew nothing about basketball. He came to our basketball games and cheered us on. He knew nothing about football either, but there he was every weekend with a smirk on his face, holding court on the sidelines while chain smoking cigarettes. His strange sarcastic comments were always punctuated by a shrill and distinctive cackle. He detested fast food, yet sometimes he’d walk with us to the local Taco Bell after school just to taunt us playfully with the idea that we were indeed eating kangaroo meat.
However, I have yet to mention his biggest impact on me. He took me many steps deeper into my Catholic faith. I listened to him— really listened—because he cared about me first. He taught Church doctrine and history in a way that made sense. These were scholarly lessons that were sometimes over my head, but I listened attentively because I didn’t want to disrespect him. He spoke about things like authentic holiness, and I knew he really meant it because I saw him apply it to his everyday life. Throughout those two years, I saw him be kind to his students. So when I witnessed him going to Mass every day—can you even imagine that? EVERY DAY!— it made an impression on me. The way he knelt there in reverence after receiving Communion, the way he took off his hat when he entered the Church, were like many small tacks fastening his abstract lessons to my mind and heart.
The first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life, given over to God in a communion that nothing should destroy and at the same time given to one’s neighbor with limitless zeal. (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 41)
Yes, there were times when he’d overwhelm us with too much information all at once. Sometimes he would over-stimulate us and lose control of the classroom and in a fit of rage slam his meter stick all over the place. He was wont to blurt out sharp and witty barbs before really thinking about them and he had a slightly bitter and cynical streak when it came to most elements of modern culture. These things along with the cigarette butts he’d discard all over the ground sometimes made us feel slightly uncomfortable.
But a hero doesn’t need to be perfect. A hero just needs to be good at being a hero. And that he was.
I called them “Mom” and “Dad”
Heroes are people admired for some kind of remarkable greatness. The greatness of our heroes could come from a single act they perform in response to an immediate need, or it could come from sustained personal character over the course of a lifetime. But almost always, when it comes to understanding and embracing the faith, the practical precedes the theoretical. We usually must experience something before we become truly interested in it.
My Catholic faith was given to me by my first heroes. I called them “Mom” and “Dad.” They began to educate me in the faith in my very earliest years. As a toddler, this education consisted of being the recipient of warm and tender love, prayers before bedtime, simple stories told at the table and family trips to church. This education was woven seamlessly— sometimes perhaps unconsciously— into every moment of my early family life. This education preceded, accompanied, and enriched all the other forms of education in the faith that I experienced throughout the years. It all started when my heroes simply treated me with love and taught me how to pray.
It is therefore primarily by her conduct and by her life that the Church will evangelize the world, in other words, by her living witness of fidelity to the Lord Jesus—the witness of poverty and detachment, of freedom in the face of the powers of this world, in short, the witness of sanctity. (Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 41)
Mom and Dad are my heroes, but they are not perfect. An honest appraisal will reveal that they are limited human beings, bound with human shortcomings just like any other person. But they are still my heroes. How could they not be? They loved me from the first.
Can I get a witness? Can I get a witness?
This all leads back to Pope Paul’s original insight on placing the emphasis on teachers who are witnesses.
A teacher is an embodiment of his teaching, a living witness to the truth he teaches. To be effective in our teaching ministry, we must love two things: our students and the truth. If our students sense that we are too busy for them, that we don’t care about them, that they are simply another face, most will not care at all about what we teach. Only by love can education really liberate the mind and inspire the soul.
In the same way, good teachers must passionately love the truth. Since its origin is the one same Eternal Being, all truth, mathematics, science, history, grammar—it makes no difference—is a window to God, a clue to the Divine Mind and Heart. The truth which informs our faith is a seamless garment, inseparable from any other truth we might pursue. Christ teaches, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” We must approach every subject with the understanding that ultimately all truth dwells in Christ, He who is the incarnation of Truth itself.
Not only do we need to “talk the talk,” but also we absolutely must “walk the walk.” Our teaching is only genuine if we embody it. But still, a hero doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, a common problem is that we often set the bar too high for heroes. In this day and age of constant surveillance and available information, people’s flaws are more visible and public than ever. How can we call someone a hero when we can find fault with something they’ve done or said?
My wife and I discuss this all time. We’re resigned to the fact that somehow, some way, we’re going to manage to screw up our job of parenting. There is just no avoiding it. All we can do is try our best, pray for God’s grace, and trust that our love for our children will transcend our shortcomings. In the end, it is this love which will allow them to forgive us for our imperfections.
It is consoling to remember that by definition the Church is made up of hypocrites. Hypocrites say one thing and then do the other. Sin is hypocrisy put into action. A person acts contrary to an ideal that he or she claims to espouse. “You know it’s wrong, but you do it anyway!” We are a Church of sinners. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need the Savior. So yes, the Church is full of hypocrites because the Church is full of sinners. But that’s okay. A sinner can still be a hero.
How to become a hero when you are actually a sinner
To be good at teaching the faith, our only recourse then is to focus on the model for Catholic educators. He was a person of prayer, devoutly religious, and spoke all His words, even His many harsh ones, out of a loving concern for his listeners. He taught simply, using parables to explain great mysteries to anyone sincerely seeking the truth. Eminently wise, the common person could understand Him. Sophisticates and intellectuals often did not. His “yes” meant “yes” and His “no” meant “no.” He taught with authority and spoke the truth with passion and conviction, not worrying about offending people or whether the truth would be well received. He both encouraged and rebuked, and was willing to take responsibility for what he taught. He taught difficult doctrines, which disturbed and outraged many people and which ultimately led to the torture and death He freely accepted. To imitate Him requires courage and humility, but as Catholic educators we are called to do just that, for He is Jesus Christ, the Way, The Truth, and the Life.
It is in the imitation of Christ that we can transcend our own flaws and petty faults and be a hero to others. At the end of the day a hero doesn’t need to be perfect, but a hero does need to lead with the most important things. My hero taught me quite a lesson. When it comes to teaching the faith, there is great value in being a witness. Orthopraxis must always accompany orthodoxy. Visits to Taco Bell with your kids are every bit as important as quotes from the Catechism.
This article was originally on pages 25-27 of the printed edition.