TEACHERS – A million thanks

– FAUSTO GOMEZ OP

After Albert Camus received the news of the Nobel Prize for Literature, he wrote a letter to his teacher Monsieur Germain (November 1957): “I have just been given far too great an honor, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened. Despite the years, your little schoolboy has never stopped being your grateful pupil.”

Like Camus, like many others, I – a perpetual student – owe eternal gratitude to my teachers and professors: to those who accompanied and guided me in my “pilgrimage to ethical maturity”; to those who gave me formal and non-formal education. I can only mention here just a few, who are representatives of all.

From our parents Maudilio and Florencia, my other three brothers and two sisters learned the most essential and permanent lessons for life, above all, to love. From our father, an excellent farmer, we learned to do what we had to do well and in particular we learn the values of justice, honesty and truthfulness. He had learned most from his teacher, Don Mariano his uncle. Our mother was the perfect mother and wife and housewife. She lived a simple lifestyle, totally dedicated to her family and God. My father told me once: “Your mother had two special kinds of friends: the saints and the poor.” From her we learned by her deeds to be sensitive to the poor, to forgive, and to pray. Her prayer was very powerful, I believe: she asked God for a priest and she got one! And if he continued being a Dominican priest through the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, and up to now, it is due, of course,  to God’s unmerited graces, and also partly to my mother’s  (and Mother Mary’s) continuing prayers. 

My sister Laurentina is partly mentally disabled, or better, differently abled, but manages herself well, understands, converses and does ably different things. The doctor told us that all her life (she is now 70 years old), she would be psychologically between 12 and 14 years old. It takes so little to make her happy – just a true expression of love.  She continues teaching me to appreciate the little things of life: a kiss, a smile, an appreciative look, a walk, a funny remark, a cup of coffee … Laure is the only person in the world who has told me more than twice: “I am so happy that there is no more space in me to be happier.” She teaches me to respect and be close to the “different” brothers and sisters among us.

I remember gratefully my primary school teacher, Don Jacinto. He believed in me and in my future. He wanted me to study. At that time the only possibility for simple rural children was a school run by religious men. So he asked me – and one classmate – to go to the Dominicans of the Province of Our Lady of the Rosary. I did. I will be eternally grateful to Don Jacinto Santos for putting the first stone in the building of my priestly and Dominican vocation.

My high school teacher of religion, Fr Jose Cuesta OP, was a zealous and vibrant teacher passionately in love with his subject.  I was never distracted in his classes because he taught with passion and enthusiasm, and made us part of the stories. The words of the great Plutarch come to mind: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled” (Plutarch). From my wonderful high school days, gratitude obliges me to mention two great teachers who introduced us to the classical Spanish, Greek and Roman writers: Dominicans Felix Gil and Felix Tejedor.

From our Dominican novitiate, we remember a marvelous teacher: our master, Fr Ricardo Rodrigo. He was to us a unique wise grandfather: kind, pious, familiar, in love with his vocation, and at our total service. There is one event I will never forget: while explaining to us the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple (February 2), with incredible fatherly-motherly love in his face – what a smile! – he imagined himself holding the little Child Jesus in his hands. It looked so real. Amazing grace! He was like a perfect Simeon.

Florencio Muñoz, then a Dominican, was our teacher of homiletics, preaching, and pedagogy. An elegant preacher and writer, he was for his philosophy students very approachable and kind – and he never got angry with us. He taught us how to speak in public, how to preach, how to speak in radio (he founded a radio sub-station in our convent that was linked to Radio Avila), and also how to appreciate films. 

From my ecclesiastical studies I have to mention Fr Claudio Garcia, excellent professor of ecclesiology and missiology. He introduced me and encouraged me to write articles. I considered myself his disciple until he passed away a few years ago. He was always updated on theological bibliography and new trends.

Fr Marcos Fernández Manzanedo, who taught us rational psychology, loved to quote from outstanding contemporary Spanish writers. One day he gave us a written exam. The following day he asked me in class the questions of the exam. Thanks God, I was able to remember and answered him correctly (my memory then was good, but short-lived!). Many years later, the professor told me in Rome: “I am sorry. I suspected you of cheating.” That was a magnificent lesson of humility one never forgets. Another significand lesson he taught me, also in Rome: “I believe friars are good; I have encountered two saints: Fr Vidal Fueyo and Fr Luis Lopez.” Why? He told me: “These two never criticized any one.”  Amen!

Among my professors at the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of the Dominican Province of Saint Joseph in Washington DC, I remember well Fr Maurice Bonaventure Schepers, OP, our professor in moral theology, cantor, and my supervisor of the thesis for the degree of Lector. He was a man of God – prayerful, competent, kind, humble and respectful.

Fray Gregorio, a Filipino Dominican brother assigned like me to the University of Santo Tomas (1960s and on), Manila, taught me simplicity, joy and fraternal life. As Fray Valentin, another lovely brother Dominican, told me: “Fray Gregorio es un santo varón”- a holy man. Indeed, he was a saint: never angry, never impatient, always approachable and available, helpful, very kind to all – and deeply prayerful. He taught me by praxis what is true fraternity, and faithful and joyful dedication to daily work.

El Chato, Fr José Pérez, a brother Dominican priest from a lovely town in Avila close to mine had a wonderful sense of humor. He was dedicated to his school and pastoral work. In times of suffering and darkness for us, he was there to make us laugh without hurting anyone. And then, one day (he was not yet 65) the doctor told him that he had cancer in the stomach. I was very much saddened, and told him. His answer: “Fausto, now it is time for me to carry out in my life what I have preached to others on the meaning of suffering for a Christian, and on how to accept it for Christ’s sake, and thus imitate him.” He did. An admirable lesson!

Another Dominican I will never forget is Fr Silvestre Sancho, who as our superior was personally concerned with the students: with our life, our studies, and our personal needs, in particular the books we had – or wanted – to buy. As an old person, Fr Sancho was very fraternal, familiar, dialogical, prayerful – and a wonderful confessor.

Dr Angeles Alora MD is a model of a professional believer: a competent, compassionate, and committed doctor of medicine. A Filipina, she has a passionate love for her vocation. Her commitment to bioethics is amazing: at 80, Angie is still eager to learn, and search for new ways to help students and young doctors and nurses on the ethics of medical practice. 

Let me add one more name: the Venerable Fulton Sheen. He is my model of preaching the Word of God. When I was a student in Washington DC, he was my icon. His preaching was very moving, attractive: intellectual and affective, simple and elegant. I hope and pray he will be beatified soon.

Viewing the past from the present, and adorning our truthful perception with much love, I say that all my teachers and professors taught us beautiful and fruitful lessons.  Some weeks ago, I watched a video of a conference by Francisco Mora entitled “The teacher is the jewel of the crown of a country” (El maestro es la joya de la corona de un país). Indeed, as Dr Mora says, the teacher is always needed. He or she cannot be replaced by a machine: the machine (internet, the mobile phone, the tablet) does not transmit humanity, emotions – and it cannot say “thank you.” The teacher does and can – like my teachers and professors through life. To them, a million thanks.

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