In my column of Sept. 29, I described a moment in high school in which my religion teacher, Sister Marie McCloskey, OSU, stressed that our God is passionate about the here and now as well as the hereafter.
As we learned from this publication in the Nov. 10 issue, Sister Marie died in New Orleans on Oct. 4 at age 105.
Besides teaching me in a religion course on social justice in 1974, Sister Marie was my first-year Latin teacher at Decatur St. Teresa High School, 1971-72.
I can remember how exuberant Sister Marie was when I met her somewhere between St. Teresa and a nearby movie theater. She had just seen Franco Zeffirelli’s film Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), about Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi, and she described to me the joy expressed by the film as it portrayed these two 13th-century young people and their turning to Jesus as the foundation of their lives.
I think of the joy which Sister Marie expressed in all of her work, and I realize that I began to develop a new way of looking at teaching and learning.
I used to think that learning was something like eating a meal. The food is in front of you, and you eat it. I have to admit that I did not recognize the agency of the “teacher” in the process of learning, and I just assumed that learning was my process of assimilation of facts.
I can recall that, when I was being introduced to algebra, I could not fathom how a negative number, multiplied by a negative number, would yield a positive number. With time, I had the insight that the word “times” could be replaced with the word “of.” Suddenly it became clear to me: The negative of a negative number is a positive number, because negating a negative causes the result to be found on the other side of zero.
Teachers aid students in finding a path toward insight — that is, really understanding what is going on. Teachers also show students what is worth studying. The course on social justice included a review of the “social teaching” of the Catholic Church, which is understood to have begun with Pope Leo XIII in 1891 and his concerns about the conditions of laborers and their families in light of the social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution.
Decatur was and is a factory town, and one would think that the papal upholding of the rights of workers would be front-and-center in the consciousness of local Catholics. But it was Sister Marie, in my 11th year of Catholic school, who introduced to me the concept of justice — as demanded by Christian recognition of human dignity — in relations between owners and workers.
I return to the image I shared in these pages in September: of Sister Marie holding up the classroom’s globe and exclaiming that God is concerned with you and me in this world, here and now. I remember as well, in that class on social justice, how she called us to think seriously about vocations to priesthood and religious life. Her own joy, and her pointing out the things which are worth studying, helped me with the insight that responding to the call to holiness places us within the joy which our God allows to spring from the present moment.