Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion
by Scott D. Moringello
If it’s a sign of our fallenness that we get the politicians we deserve, it’s surely a sign of grace that we get the teachers we don’t. For the last 52 years, the boys at Regis High School have been graced to have John L. Connelly as their teacher.
Soren Kierkegaard says somewhere that Christianity can’t be taught, it can only be witnessed.
Frank Oakley, former president of Williams College, once told me that I was part of a “great apostolic succession” of Regis High School graduates who had gone to Williams College. If we follow the metaphor, Mr Connelly is St Peter. Although Oakley’s formulation is likely unique, I know that there are college professors around the county who encounter somewhat precocious young men from the New York area and wonder why they’ve read Plato or studied economics or know copious amounts about the history of the Society of Jesus or the Hapsburg Empire. These students can be a tad insufferable once they start talking about their high school, but they are all intensely devoted to and grateful for Mr Connelly, who (and they can’t tell their professors this) was the best teacher they ever had.
Soren Kierkegaard says somewhere that Christianity can’t be taught, it can only be witnessed. And Joseph Ratzinger has said that the proof of Christianity is found in the art it produces at the lives of the saints it animates. Because I agree with them, I’m always on the look out for the holy ones in our midst. Holiness, after all, is “simply” a matter of recognizing moments of grace amid fallenness, of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, of making the scarcely possible look easy, of living life in a way that makes it just a touch easier to be courageous and temperate and wise and just. At least, the holy ones make it look simple.
It take a particular charism (bordering, perhaps, on alchemy) to take a classroom full of overambitious high school boys and ever so slowly lead them through the intricacies of economics, geography, and medieval history; or European history; or classical political thought. But to do that year in and year out for 52 years, educating thousands in the process, is barely possible, it’s extraordinary, it’s virtuous in a way that can only be described as holy.
Of course, none of us will ever know as much as Mr Connelly has forgotten. And we all have forgotten most of what we learned in his classes. But what we will never forget is the deep empowerment that came with learning what we learned in the way we learned it. It wasn’t just that in junior and senior year of high school we read books that we’d read again in college. Nor was the empowerment a result of taking the AP European history test and doing well on it even though we weren’t “officially” in an AP class. Instead, this empowerment came because we realized how convinced Mr Connelly was that learning the things he taught us was part of a life well lived. Puzzling over equilibrium price or the Defenestration of Prague or Aquinas on natural law helped you encounter the world more fully, more enjoyably, and, yes, more reverently.
By his example, we learned that you couldn’t be a Catholic intellectual unless your learning and your interests were catholic. He knew – and knows – everything, or so it seemed. And he made us want to know everything as well. Now I can’t say I understood all of this when I was sixteen or seventeen, but looking back, all of that was central to the person I’ve become.
Only so much goes on in the classroom, even with the best teacher. With Mr Connelly, we learned as much outside class hours as within them. I remember fondly a reading group he agreed to lead when a few friends and I proposed it to him. We would get together one morning a week to discuss Catholic-y stuff. It was in those meetings that I discovered Waugh’s biography of Campion, Gilson’s Thomism, Eliot’s poetry, and papal encyclicals. More important than any of those discoveries, though, was the friendships that developed because of those discussions – friendships with each other and friendships with Mr Connelly. It’s no accident that so many of his students are still in touch with him, that he’s attended so many of our weddings, that the announcement of his retirement has brought so many of us together to celebrate him.
Once, when asked to sum up his philosophy of life, Mr Connelly recalled a slur Republican presidential candidate James Blair used to tar Grover Cleveland and the Democratic party in 1884. A vote for Cleveland, Blair announced, was a vote for “rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Mr Connelly characterized the rum as the enjoyment of life, Romanism as the Church, and rebellion as the courage to stand up for what is right even when – especially when – it’s not popular. Because of what he has taught us and the example he has given, I know I’m not the only one whose life is more joyful, more reverent, and – I hope – more courageous.
The same grace that gives us the teachers we don’t deserve allows us and bids us and helps us to be thankful. But how do you thank someone who helped give you yourself?