For fifteen years, I taught at a Catholic high school. (In reality, it was only nominally Catholic, but perhaps I’ll address that in another article.) I was hired the same year as another fellow – I’ll call him “Jeff.” Jeff had come into the Church as an adult, and he took the faith very seriously. He and his wife had nine children together – something that admittedly surprised me initially, but that I found quite admirable. I used to join Jeff for lunch, and he always said grace before eating. (This was something else I found admirable, and also something that no one else on our faculty seemed to do.) I well recall the way our colleagues would react when they learned about the size of Jeff’s family. “I feel sorry for your wife!” “How can you afford all those kids?” “You know, there are ways to prevent that!” Those were just some of the typical responses he would get. “You know,” he once shared with me, “I expect those reactions in the secular world. But it’s really disheartening hearing them at a place that’s supposed to be Catholic.”
And it wasn’t just the number of his children that would cause my friend to be treated like a misfit. Jeff and I both had wives who were stay-at-home moms, and we’d come to school with lunches they prepared and packed for us each day. I recall more than one occasion on which our female colleagues would (not so benignly) tease us about it. “You guys make your poor wives pack your lunches?” Their disdain at the very idea of it was palpable. It was quite eye opening for me to see how Jeff was regarded as some oddball, while other staff who were openly divorced and remarried, cohabitating, etc. were the “normal” ones.
Jeff was a history teacher, and a brilliant one at that. I recall one time he was called out by the school’s administration because he was discussing the theological reasons for The Great Schism with his students. (Apparently a parent was upset that religion was being discussed in history class.) Jeff made the quite reasonable case that, even though the theological aspects were not covered in the textbook, understanding them was key to grasping the causes of this significant event. This would not be the only time Jeff would be chastised for being “too religious” in the classroom. Meanwhile, we had theology teachers, including a deacon, who taught heresy (e.g., Mary wasn’t a perpetual virgin), and a priest/principal who openly advocated the ordination of women.
In spite of the opposition he faced, Jeff had a positive influence on his students and many colleagues, myself included. And when I say, “positive influence,” I don’t just mean in some generally feel-good fuzzy way. Several of his students converted as a result of things that were discussed in his classroom. Many would even go on to enter into religious vocations. I recall one particular lunch conversation during which Jeff and I were discussing the proper role of patriotism. At one point he said to me, “Well, if you’re truly Catholic and you truly love your country, then you should desire that your country be truly Catholic.” I nearly fell out of my chair. I’d never heard anyone say anything like that. But once I had a chance to think it over, I realized he was absolutely right.
So why is it that an orthodox practitioner of the faith was so socially ostracized and even persecuted by his superiors? That may be a fairly complex question worthy of unpacking. I would be genuinely curious as to whether any readers have ever encountered similar scenarios. At the heart of it seems to lie a sad reality that, particularly over the past few generations, too many in the Church have conformed to the world.
One of my best friends lives just down the road from me. He happens to be an atheist. (He’s a bright and decent fellow, and I always pray for his conversion. I know he’d make a formidable Catholic.) His neighbors happen to be a family I’ve come to know over the past few years. They’re a devout Catholic family with six children, all of whom are homeschooled. They’re wonderful people who all seem to emanate a glow that can only be attributed to the one true faith. Like my friend Jeff, they travel to a Latin Mass parish. (I’m not going to get into a Latin Mass vs. Novus Ordo thing, but I do find it interesting that nearly all the large families I know belong to Latin Mass parishes.)
One day while hiking with my atheist friend, he commented about how much he liked his neighbors, despite having so little in common with them in terms of beliefs and lifestyle. “They remind me of a family from the 1950s,” he remarked. “There’s just something sweet and nostalgic about them.” Upon hearing that, two things came to my mind. The first is that, even to the non-believer, there is something undeniably attractive about the faith when it’s authentically being lived out. But, secondly, how sad it is that Catholic families such as these are the exception and not the norm.
[Michael Thomas Cibenko was a teacher of German, Japanese, and Theology for fifteen years at Pope John XXIII High School in Sparta, New Jersey. His book, Masaru, a work of historical fiction based on the 17th century Shimabara Rebellion in Japan, won a 2022 Catholic Media Association award for best inspirational novel.]