Monday, January 23, 2012

My teaching moment

Meeting Father Canavan for the first time at the Human Life Foundation's October 2006 award dinner. Top, Canavan makes me (center) and Lynette Burrows laugh. Next I try to conceal my displeasure as a priest I do not recognize interrupts my conversation with Canavan. (It is Father Richard John Neuhaus.)

Father Ed Dowling S.J., speaking of what happens when the faithful get rusty, quoted a priest friend of his who said that when we get to heaven, the first thing we shall say is, “My God, it’s all true.”

I catch myself feeling a similar shade of functional agnosticism during the times when I miss loved ones who have passed on. It happened the week before last, when I gave three talks over three days at the Pontifical College Josephinum. I wished very badly that Father Francis Canavan S.J., the great Fordham University professor emeritus of political science who died in February 2009 could see me as I gave my first-ever academic-level lectures. Then I had to remind myself that if (as I believed) he was in heaven, Father Canavan could indeed see me. More than that, he could see me as God sees me, with clearer and deeper vision than he ever had during his earthly life.

One of my last memories of Father Canavan is of straining to hear his faint voice over my cell phone while standing in the foyer of Pat Troy’s Irish pub in Alexandria during a Theology on Tap event on a cold night in January 2009. I was worried about the 91-year-old priest because he had left me a shaky-sounding voice mail that seemed urgent. When I reached him, it turned out that his concern was over my having told him, in our last conversation, that I did not think myself capable of teaching, let alone becoming a college professor.

A few weeks earlier, I had sent him a paper I wrote for my Theological Virtues class on the meaning of St. Ignatius Loyola’s Suscipe prayer. It was the first paper I wrote after entering the M.A. program in theology at Dominican House of Studies. My vocational plan, as I had told Father Canavan, was to stop at the master’s degree and then work in campus ministry. It seemed like the most natural thing to do, since the success of my book The Thrill of the Chaste had led to my speaking on chastity at college campuses. What was more, having recently survived thyroid cancer, it seemed most wise to get a degree that would lead as quickly as possible to a full-time job (as opposed to my freelance writing and speaking), so that I would not have to worry about being without health insurance.

All those goals of mine Father Canavan had supported until he read my Suscipe paper. Somehow, reading my account of how praying St. Ignatius’s words facilitates the return of love to God, he got the idea that I was called to be a professor at a Catholic college. He pointed out to me that there were a number of small colleges, such as Magdalen, Thomas Aquinas, and Christendom, that were trying to embody a strong Catholic identity. “Faithful Catholic colleges need faithful Catholic professors,” he said—and they wouldn’t have them unless people of my talents got the education necessary to teach. Therefore, I had to continue towards a doctorate—and he would do everything he could to gently but firmly encourage me in that direction.

So his seemingly urgent voicemail message on that winter’s night turned out to be merely part of his ongoing lobbying campaign. As I stood in the foyer of Pat Troy’s, trying to stay as far as possible from the noise from the packed bar while staying warm inside the front doors, I tried to explain to him over the long-distance connection that the idea of teaching was too scary. To me, it like being a parent except that one had thirty children and no spouse. It seemed a tremendous responsibility. Although nearly single member of my family had the gift to fulfill it, I believed the "teaching gene" had passed me by.

Father Canavan granted that teaching was scary. He proceeded to tell me how daunted he was when he was thrust into the task as a scholastic (that is, a Jesuit seminarian). After the first class he taught, to a group of boys (either to high-schoolers or young collegiates, I can’t recall), one of his students, who had been unruly, told him frankly that he was a terrible instructor. Canavan’s response was to ask the student what he was doing wrong. The student was only too happy to inform him, and he took the criticism to heart. From then on, the student was well behaved.

I was touched beyond words to hear Father Canavan's recollection of the humility he had as a scholastic, and to realize that he had kept that same saintly humility throughout his life.
So I told Father Canavan that I would continue studying towards a doctorate, and find out if I had a vocation to teach. Although I have been blessed to receive the prayers and support of many friends and family, it is fundamentally because of his faith in me that on January 12 of this year, three years to the day after that phone conversation with him, I had the confidence to give the first of my talks at the Josephinum.

The newness of my experience at the Josephinum was not that I was speaking—I have given about 120 talks on chastity and conversion—but that my teaching was not my own. This time, I was asked to speak on John Paul II’s teachings on celibacy. So my talk on January 12 was a two-hour lecture to the seminary’s theologate (those completing their theological and pastoral studies), was on “Celibacy and Communion in John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love.” Two days later, I gave a one-hour version of the same talk to the collegiates (men discerning the priesthood while pursuing an undergraduate degree) and pre-theology seminarians. In between, on January 13, I gave an additional two-hour talk to the theologians, on “Pastoral Care for Those Seeking to Overcome Habits of Sexual Sin and for Those Seeking Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse.” That talk included the reading of a chapter of my upcoming book My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints.

I don't know where to begin describing what it meant for me to give those talks and witness the response, because the entire experience was filled with signal graces. There was the applause, which was wonderful—both my second and third talks received standing ovations. There was also the gratitude that the seminarians expressed personally. For example, after every one of my talks, a different seminarian thanked me for discussing “sacramental theology.” To me, having been immersed in a Thomistic study environment for the past three and a half years, it’s all simply “theology,” minus the qualifiers. It was a joy to discover that, just by passing on what I had been taking in at school, I could help seminarians gain insight into the meaning of the sacraments they would soon be celebrating.

It was even a joy when, during the break in the middle of my second talk, a seminarian suggested to me, rightly, that one of my points could have been put more finely. I’m usually very sensitive to correction, even when it is minor, so it was strange to find myself reacting so happily. All I could think about was how wonderful it was for God to be calling men to the priesthood who have such a hunger for the truth.

But the most amazing gift was something that I had never before experienced in my years as a speaker. Every time I give a talk, I pray beforehand that I may be given the grace to love my audience. Likewise, every time in the past, when I went before an audience, it was with the will to love them. But even though God accepts our will to love others, and can bring grace from it, it is not the same as actually loving them.

What I felt in every talk I gave to the Josephinum seminarians was that I really loved them. It was a completely new feeling, and was, more than anything, what made the experience there vocational. That was what I wanted to tell Father Canavan about. I am beginning to know something of the love he felt, the love he shared with me and all he mentored. And I want to keep passing it on. Suscipe, Domine.

Please pray for me as I continue my studies at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception towards the degrees I need (STB and STL) in order to pursue a pontifically licensed doctorate. Please also pray specifically for my vocation. Thank you and God bless you.