Fr. Henehan: The best Catholic school teachers nurture souls

Photo Caption: Father Patrick Henehan, pastor of St. Jude’s Parish in Peoria, speaks with some of the 850 participants at the 2011 Diocesan Teacher Institute Oct. 7 at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria.

By: The full text of the keynote talk by Father Patrick Henehan at the 2011 Diocesan Teacher Institute in Peoria

Jesus took his disciples up the mount, and gathering them about him, he taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are those who are persecuted.”

Simon Peter said, “Do we have to write this down?”

Andrew said, “Are we supposed to know this?”

Philip said, “Will we have a test on this?”

Bartholomew said, “Do we have to turn this in?”

John said, “The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.”

Matthew said, “Can I be excused?”

And Judas said, “What does this have to do with the real world?”

Then one of the Pharisees asked to see Jesus’ lesson plan and inquired: “How are you focusing on formative assessment rather than merely summative assessment?”

And Jesus wept.


Jesus understands the difficulty of teaching.

It is great to be here. “I’m your substitute teacher.” When Brother William asked me if I was coming to this event, I told him that I had already RSVP’d saying that I couldn’t attend because it was First Friday. Then he asked if I would speak. I thought to myself, “I thought I wouldn’t have to go to any more teacher institutes.”

I should tell you, though, that I am honored to be here because of the respect I have for this group. Some of you do what I couldn’t do, or should I say, wouldn’t do. 7th grade is not a class that I would be willing to teach. Even kindergarten is so difficult. Seniors are easy compared to kindergarten and now I teach 3rd/4th grade at St. Jude’s Grade School.

I remember my first day of teaching. It was 1993 at St. Philomena’s and I was the K-8 P.E. teacher and the 7th grade religion teacher. It was the first time that I had kindergarteners. Their kindergarten teacher was a typical teacher. She seemed so happy and they loved her. It was almost as if she was out of a Walt Disney movie with bluebirds and squirrels.

She brought in the students and then left me with them. It was as if light had left the room. One kid started crying . . . and then another. Another child started to tell me about her dog and before the period was over another child had an accident.

I thought to myself, “How binding is my contract?” “What have I gotten into?” “Why am I doing this?”

Many of you may have had those days. Days that you ask yourself why you are doing this. Today, that is what I want to talk to you about, or really remind you. I want to remind you and me why we are doing this; what it means to be a Catholic school teacher. Why we need you. Why you are so important to our schools, our children, and our diocese.

As I begin I should tell you that there is a short answer and a long answer. Realize that you will get both. The short answer is that we teach in order to inform minds, change hearts, and ultimately effect souls for Christ. Realize these are the three levels of a Catholic school teacher. Good teachers inform the mind. Better teachers inform the mind and change hearts, and the best teachers inform minds, change hearts and effect souls for Christ.

Sometimes we think that teaching is all about giving our students information, but know that if we only teach them math, we have failed them. That if science is all they got, then we have missed the mark.
Our goal is to lead souls to Christ, and this is the ultimate measure of our schools.

For the long answer, I will remind you of three things today; how we teach differently, what we teach differently, and what helps us to teach at all. Notice the key word, different. Catholic schools are different from public schools. If they were the same, we wouldn’t need them. We don’t compete with public schools but have a different approach. We are different because of our faith.

To begin with, we can start by seeing how we teach differently. I’m going to bring up a bad word, maybe, for some of you. In fact, you date yourself if you remember the Bosco Institute. It was a diocesan program where teachers were expected to take so many classes on Saturdays, and young priests were expected to teach them. I really shouldn’t say anything bad because it was a well-intentioned program even if the details were a little off.

But John Bosco is a great saint and the patron of those who work with the youth. I want to read a little from one of his writings. He says this:

“First of all, if we wish to appear concerned about the true happiness of our foster children and if we would move them to fulfill their duties, you must never forget that you are taking the place of the parents of these beloved young people . . . .let us regard those boys over whom we have some authority as our own sons. Let us place ourselves in their service. Let us be ashamed to assume an attitude of superiority. Let us not rule over them except for the purpose of serving them better. This was the method that Jesus used with the apostles. He put up with their ignorance and roughness and even their infidelity . . . . and so he bade us to be gentle and humble of heart.”

So what did he do? How did he teach differently? Simply put, he loved his students. He saw himself as taking the place of the parents and teaching as Christ taught. This is how every Catholic school teacher should think.

I remember on one occasion during a school break, a teacher jokingly saying to me how nice the school was without students. I, of course, agreed that it was so quiet and calm. But in reality, we know that our schools are for them. They are the reason that we have our schools.

Practically speaking then, we are reminded that we teach people and not merely subjects. We are not college professors that wax eloquently on a given topic but are trying to effect eternal souls that are put in our charge. We must deal with the person sitting in front of us even if we struggle with them.

Great teachers can teach all students, even difficult ones; whereas good teachers can only teach so-called good kids. We must foster a relationship with them (not friendship) and care for them because they are our work.
One day at Central Catholic, I remember a student interrupting my office work and I was frustrated. I had so much paperwork to do. But then I realized that they were the most important thing that I did. I had to stop and say that this soul needed me and paperwork had to wait.

Along with the idea of charity in forming how we teach differently is the idea of where we are leading them. We need to challenge them to excellence by expecting more and not less from our students. Our students will aspire to the goal that we set for them and we need to push them to do more. Our goal is excellence in everything. We are to be excellent in math, in art, in music, and in sanctity. We must teach “up.”
Mediocrity is almost a disease in our society, but mediocrity is not an option for us. We can’t be happy with merely doing ‘ok’ for our students.

I know that this may sound somewhat melodramatic, but I often think of St. Isaac Jogues who was a great missionary priest to North America. He learned six Native American languages to bring Christianity into the New World. I wonder if I would have learned six languages.

But realize that missionary work exists in our schools. I don’t need to go to China or India to mission for Christ. I merely need to go into my school. But just as St. Isaac Jogues learned Native American languages, I need to come up with creative ways to get through to my students as well. To find a way to get through to them and let them know someone cares and believes in them.

I remember my first principal, Ron Spandet, used to tell a story about a Chinese foreign exchange student who he had taught. The student failed his class and came in to him to talk. She told him that she was sorry that he failed her. He didn’t understand and said that he didn’t fail her, she had failed. She explained that in her culture the teacher was a failure if the student didn’t learn, and of course there is truth in that.

Lastly, though, how we teach differently is by realizing who is in charge. I find it funny to listen to spouses sometimes talk about their kids, especially when the kid is struggling. They say things like, “Do you know what your child did today?,” as if only one parent was involved with the child.

We can learn from this. We need to bring our students to God in prayer and say, “Do you know what your child did today?”

Prayer for our students changes our perspective and brings them to the real teacher. We have to pray for our students every day by name, especially for the challenging ones, the ones that we need patience with or the ones that we need to persevere with. They are God’s children and he can change them and us.

How we teach differently is important, but what we teach differently is equally important.

Of course, the quick answer to what we teach differently is religion but realize that religion is not merely a class offered in Catholic schools. Catholic schools are not: “We teach like everyone else and offer religion class as well. We also have a Mass once a week or a month.”

Our faith must pervade every aspect of our school; from our classes, to the arts, and to our athletics. The primary way this happens is when every teacher, regardless of their field of expertise, sees themselves first and foremost as a religion teacher. Each of us should be able to say, “I teach religion and (whatever is our area of expertise).” So, “I teach religion and chemistry,” or “I teach religion and art, or “I teach religion and I cook, or “I teach religion and coach.”

Realize your power to lead souls. You are far more powerful than I am. When students see me praying, they say that it is my job. I don’t get credit. But, when they see you praying, they know it is real.

I remember my high school basketball coach when I went to public school. I didn’t see him model religion at school but I saw him at Sunday Mass. I watched him kneel in prayer and if affected me greatly.

Understand that you also have the power to lead away from Christ and his Church. When we complain about the pastor, or the bishop, or the Church, our students hear us and are affected.

Our faith then seeps into everything we do and gives our students a different vision than other schools. They are given a Christian vision and a philosophy of hope. I don’t need to tell you how hope is a virtue not readily found in our world. Despair seems to be on the rise which is seen in violence and suicide, yet our schools are to be different.

Everything in a Catholic school is to be connected to the divine and to eternity; the mystery of God in nature, in the arts, in the sciences, in history, in athletics.

I remember a former student named Kyle Brady. We were walking off the football field after a game which we won, and he asked if that was heaven? I explained to him that the victory was merely a foretaste of heaven. That heaven was better! What was amazing, though, was that he even asked the question. That we can constantly point beyond this world will lead them beyond this world.

I find it sad that for so many in our society, high school football is the high-point of their lives. We must lead them higher. We must teach them that life isn’t merely about money, or status, or fun, or a good job, but that success is judged in relationships; relationships with God, family, and neighbor. That true success is judged in eternity. We teach them that this world isn’t everything for us, and that this world isn’t to be everything for them!

Our schools also teach the value of human life differently. Our world often focuses pragmatically on the human person. So you are good because you can do something for me. You are good because you are pretty or popular or funny or smart or athletic, or rich. Even the degree most popular in colleges nowadays is a business degree. I’m not slighting business degrees, but it can teach our young people that happiness is tied up with money.

We don’t teach that. We teach that you are good not because of anything you do or anything you have, you are good because of who you are. You are a child of God with inherent value, that every human being has value; the unborn, the sick, the poor, the elderly, the handicapped.

One of the trips that I dreaded as chaplain was going on the National Right to Life March. I went on nine of them. I dreaded them because I wasn’t a fan of bus rides through the night, but I found them tremendously helpful.
I often found that I would teach more in 3 days than I did in 3 months of class. Students on the trip learned about the dignity of life, but they learned a lot more than that. They were drawn out of their selfish world (even if just for a moment) into the world of others; encountering the worth of a human being.

Our schools teach the value of every human being, and in so doing, our schools teach the meaning of life; giving oneself away to others like Christ. Our students must learn that life and happiness is found not in getting for oneself, but in giving of oneself to others.

Ultimately, though, how we teach and what we teach are wrapped up in what helps us to teach at all; an encounter with the living God.

I’m sure that some of you may know my father, especially those from St. Mary’s of Kickapoo. I’m sure you have seen his pictures of him meeting the Pope. (Realize that he shows everyone these pictures, at least everyone who will look at them.) My family got to meet the Pope John Paul II after my ordination, and this was every Irish Catholic’s dream, including my father. He often carries pictures of him meeting the Pope in his wallet.
Why does he do this? He does what everyone does, he shares what he loves; whether it be stories of their grandchildren, their animals, or even the Pope. You can’t stop him from sharing what he loves.

This is to be our call as well; to share what we love. Pope Benedict addressed Catholic educators in Washington D.C. a few years ago and in part of his speech he said the following: “Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy.”

Even a few months ago, I had a conversation with our Bishop, and he confided that so many of our people don’t seem really converted. They may go to Mass sometimes; they may even say their prayers but they often just go through the motions and aren’t convinced. They haven’t encountered Christ and know that he is real.

These are many of our students. These are even many of our parents. These are the souls that hunger for Christ in our day! And we will convert them when WE are more converted! They will encounter the living God whom we have encountered.

Practically that means that our prayer life needs to be substantial, our commitment to the sacraments need to be concrete, our reading of Scripture and the saints should be regular, and we should make real retreats.

First and foremost, our prayer should be substantial; no Diet Coke prayer lives. What I mean by that is to use the appearance of prayer without any substance like a dieter who orders the Big Mac value meal at McDonald’s but then orders a Diet Coke. Are they dieting? Similarly we say a few Hail Mary’s and a few Glory Be’s and consider this enough of a prayer life, but we need substantial time each day with our Lord. We need to put ourselves in his Eucharistic presence and have him speak to our hearts. He will change us.

Along with this, we also need to avail ourselves to the grace of the sacraments and not just the Eucharist. Reconciliation is integral in our growth in holiness. Regular use of the sacrament will keep us striving for perfection and excellence. We can’t avoid our Lord in the confessional but can enter more deeply into his mercy and love.

What we read also affects us. We need to immerse ourselves in the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. Then the life of our Lord will be seen in our words, our actions, and even our thoughts.

And this encounter with Our Lord should also be seen in a real retreat. The talk some priest gives you at the beginning of the year when you are distracted with lesson plans and the preparing of your classroom doesn’t count. We need to take time away to be with the one that we love. That love is attractive; that peace is attractive; that joy is attractive. Our students will see that love and want that love.

One of my seminary professors used to have a saying; good, better, best, never let it rest, until the good becomes the better and the better becomes the best. May we strive to be the best of teachers. Every day I say Mass and I can forget how amazing it is to be able to offer the sacrifice of the Mass. I have to remind myself how important the Mass is and how awesome it is to be a priest. May you be reminded of your vocation today and how important you are to your students, your parishes, and our diocese.

That good Catholic teachers inform the mind.

That better Catholic teachers inform the mind and change hearts.

But the best Catholic teachers inform the mind, change hearts, and nurture souls.

May our schools continue to nurture the soul of our diocese and introduce our students to the one that we have encountered; the person of Christ!


Father Patrick Henehan is pastor of St. Jude’s Parish in Peoria. Ordained in 1998, he has served as chaplain at Marquette High School (now Marquette Academy) in Ottawa and Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, and was named director of the Council of High School chaplains in 2010.

Write to him at

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