My Year as ‘Mr. Rogers’

Throughout the first ten or so years of my life, my most persevering career aspiration was to be a teacher. I remember being mesmerized by the life and work of my own teachers—their seemingly limitless wealth of knowledge, their passion for building up young souls and filling up young minds, and their creative and effective ways of leading us into understanding and of helping us to realize our full potential. I was even fascinated by the physical supplies used by my teachers in their craft: the red pens; the gradebooks; the dry erase boards and markers; the overhead projectors; and the ever-cool “pointers,” sometimes a simple wooden or metal stick, and sometimes a magical laser beam. I often played school at home with my imaginary students, and once my six-years-younger sister was old enough, she became my student in these home class sessions. While my classmates asked for toys and video games for their birthdays and for Christmas, my wish list consisted of an overhead projector, transparencies, and all manner of teacher supplies. I loved being a teacher, even if just a pretend one.

As I continued through my later childhood and into my teenage years, I moved on to my next most serious career ambition, which was to become a lawyer. This interest stayed with me into college, where I majored in political science on a pre-law track, with hopes of going to law school after graduation. Of course, the Lord had a bigger plan for a vocation to the priesthood all along, and I eventually became open to this during my college years. But even as my career and life plans changed and developed over time, my early passion for teaching was always present in the back of my mind and heart. In the first several years of my priestly formation, I didn’t fully realize how my passion for teaching would be an integral part of my life and ministry as a priest, even as a seminarian. One of the most significant experiences of my pastoral year so far has been seeing how teaching is very much a part of my priestly calling.

Priests, through their sharing in the ministry of their bishops, participate in the threefold munera of Christ (priest, prophet, and king) by way of sanctifying, teaching, and governing. During my pastoral year, I have been introduced to the teaching office of priestly ministry, not only through participation in the parish’s various religious education programs, but also by serving as the religion teacher for grades six through eight in our parochial school. I have developed, perhaps more deeply than ever before, an immense appreciation for all that I have learned during my life’s journey so far, both in formal education and beyond academia. I have also discovered within myself a profound love and concern for those entrusted to my care. I’ve always sensed my passion for the Lord and for handing on the truths of the faith, but my experience as a seminarian teaching religion in a parochial school has awakened within me a sense of awe and appreciation for the unique opportunity and privilege of shaping the hearts and minds of the young. At the same time, my experiences thus far have awakened a sense of urgency and responsibility—something I’ve understood to be quite fatherly. Standing in front of these middle school students, the Spirit that is within me stirs into flame as my heart burns with loving concern for these children of the Father. I want them to know about Him, but even more, I want them to know Him. I want to share with them all that the Father has revealed to me. I want, in my very person, to be an image—a face—of the Father for them. I want to be the friend of Christ, the Bridegroom, bridging together Christ and these His young beloved by teaching them the truth about who He is. I want to warn them of the dangers (spiritual and otherwise) that lay ahead as they transition into public high school and beyond. I feel that all of this is a sharing in the Father’s own heart, in His desire. And it has come to me through my role as a teacher.

One particular teaching moment encapsulates all of this well. It was the beginning of a new unit entitled “Jesus and the Gospel Message.” We had just concluded the previous unit, which was focused on personal growth, particularly by way of the virtues. I was most excited because, as I exclaimed to the class, “We finally get to talk about Jesus!” This introductory lesson concluded with a reflection and discussion activity based on two images: the “Christ the Redeemer” statue in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil, and Christ on the Cross above our classroom door. The overarching point that I was teaching that day was the fact that Jesus is the fullness of God the Father’s revelation of Himself—that in the person and Passion of Jesus, all that we need to know about the Father is contained. As I was speaking, I remembered an activity we did at the beginning of the semester in which the students anonymously wrote down on scraps of paper the “baggage” that they are carrying in their lives right now. After they wrote, they crumpled the papers and we mixed them up on the floor. The students, sitting facing outward in a circle, stood up one at a time, picked up one piece of paper, and read out loud the baggage that one of their classmates was dealing with. My heart was moved most particularly by how many of them shared about broken and struggling family situations: divorce, possible divorce, angry and mean fathers, etc. As all of this ran back through my mind in the middle of my lesson on Jesus as the fullness of God’s self-revelation, my heart was enkindled with a desire for the students to know that their imperfect earthly fathers, while they communicate some truths about God’s self, do not adequately or accurately reflect the full truth of God the Father. I pointed to Jesus on the Cross, with His open arms and pierced-open heart, and said that this is the truth of the Father’s heart for us. This is how our Heavenly Father reacts to our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our failures. He enters in; He pours Himself out; He pursues us and wins us back.

The whole time I was speaking (preaching?), every pair of those thirty sets of young eyes was locked on mine. As my fatherly heart beat in unison with the Father’s heart for them, I could see their hunger, their desire to know, their desire to be loved and fought for in the way that God the Father already does and already has. Our class time was running out, so I had to wrap things up, but the energy and concern that I felt in that moment fed my labors for the next class session when we would go even deeper into how God has progressively revealed Himself over time, culminating in Jesus.

My experience of teaching during my pastoral year has affirmed and confirmed my priestly vocational calling. As much as I like teaching in and of itself, there is a very unique and particular way in which a priest is able to teach that no one else can. Because of his life of dedicated celibacy, his particular conformity to Christ through Holy Orders, and his fatherly responsibility for the children of God, particularly those within his parish, the priest has privileged access to the hearts and minds of God’s people, most especially the young. My experiences of teaching both in and outside of the classroom have increased my desire to be a Father and to give all that the Heavenly Father has given to me so that they might come to know Him ever more deeply.