Sunday, March 1, 2009

Remembering Father Canavan—Part 3

Late last year, having entered the M.A. program at Dominican House of Studies, I mailed Father Francis Canavan S.J. a copy of my first moral-theology paper, which I thought would interest him as it centered upon St. Ignatius of Loyola's Suscipe prayer.

He did like it, so much so that he urged me to consider teaching at a Catholic college once I got out of school, particularly one of the newer, smaller colleges that are strong on both academics and orthodoxy.

Up until that time, I had fantasized about becoming a professor, but was reluctant to set my sights so high. Everyone else in my family is some kind of teacher, and I had never thought of myself as having that gift. Being airdropped into a campus, giving a talk on chastity, and jetting off to the next college—that I could do. But facing the same group of students three times a week with a different lecture each time? That just seemed scary.

Well, it was scary for a beginner, Father Canavan allowed, speaking from personal experience—but he believed I was up for the task, and he wanted me to teach because Catholic colleges sorely needed good, faithful professors. He launched a mini-campaign to encourage me in that direction, starting by mailing me a newsletter for tiny but well-rated Magdalen College in New Hampshire (which had recently honored him), as an example of a good Catholic institution in a beautiful place that could use my talents. Shortly thereafter, in mid-January, he phoned a former student of his who was a department chair at a larger Catholic college, recommending me as someone who would one day make a good professor.

It was the sort of pitch that my father might make for me, and I was deeply touched. If I become a professor—and that has become my hope, despite fears of not being up to the task—it will be thanks to the inspiration that Father Canavan gave by showing such faith in me.

* * *

Of the many stories Father Canavan told me, two remain in my memory pretty much verbatim. I shared one of them last week; here is the other, which sticks with me because it captures both his wit and his humility. It takes place in the mid-1950s, a few years after Father Canavan was ordained to the priesthood. Father Canavan is in his 30s, a recent graduate of Woodstock College, where he received his sacred-theology licentiate. As the curtain rises, it is his first day of class at Duke University, where the order has sent him for doctoral studies. Here's how he told it:

"The young lady who was seated next to me informed me that her daddy was a vice president at General Motors.

"I tried to think of an appropriate response. So I told her that I had just graduated from a school where all the courses were taught in Latin, and all the exams were given in Latin.

"And she said to me, 'That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.'"