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A Teacher of Doctrine

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By:Tom Piatak | October 30, 2015

Last week I was busy preparing for the upcoming meeting of the John Randolph Club in Cleveland. But on Wednesday of that week, I came across an item promoting another event being held in Cleveland on the Friday the Randolph Club began that I knew I needed to attend. This event was a Mass to mark the first anniversary of the death of Jim Skerl, who taught one of the theology classes I took at Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School many years ago and about whom I wrote in the January issue of Chronicles. In announcing this Mass, Jim Skerl’s fellow theology teacher, Tom Healey, provided a lovely reminiscence of how Mr. Skerl had found just the right gesture to celebrate the birth of his son and just the right way to console him when his son died, some 21 years later. He recounted how Mr. Skerl had also found just the right way to respond to a well-meaning proposal by some students to begin shaving their heads as Mr. Skerl was losing his hair to chemotherapy. Instead of shaving their heads, Mr. Skerl responded, they should do something that “really mattered:” they should go to Mass and receive the Eucharist. Mr. Healey also noted something about Mr. Skerl that many others have also observed: “Jim made everyone he met feel like that person was the most important person in the world to him. And we believed it—because it was true. Jim’s love had that Christ-like ability to be both universal and particular at the same time.”

So, last Friday, Scott Richert and I made the short drive over to Ignatius to attend the 7:20 am Mass in the school’s chapel. The chapel was packed. Afterward, the entire student body assembled on the school’s mall for a brief prayer service to commemorate the anniversary of Mr. Skerl’s death. We prayed a litany recalling the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the same theological concepts that caused Mr. Skerl to initiate the St. Joseph of Arimathea pallbearer ministry, the St. Benedict Joseph Labre homeless ministry, and Friends of L’Arche, all programs that continue to thrive. (And, yes, the litany included the most unfashionable work of mercy: “For the sinner and that we will admonish them, we pray to the Lord.”) We prayed a decade of the rosary, a prayer to which Mr. Skerl was deeply devoted. Another of the positive changes Mr. Skerl brought to Ignatius is the practice of having all the students in the school, as part of their theology class, pray the rosary in the chapel on January 22, the awful anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We recited the Apostles’ Creed, recalling some of the last words Mr. Skerl shared with his students, before leaving the school for the last time: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” Throughout the day, there was Eucharistic Adoration in the school’s chapel, another form of prayer to which Mr. Skerl was deeply devoted. Yet another of the positive changes Mr. Skerl brought to the school was the practice of having each graduating senior spend some time in Eucharistic Adoration. Indeed, the last time I saw Mr. Skerl he was in prayer before the Eucharist, on one of those occasions when seniors were engaged in Eucharistic adoration. Younger graduates of St. Ignatius probably take all of these things for granted, but when I went there, there was no Eucharistic adoration, no public recitation of the rosary, no pallbearer ministry, no friends of L’Arche, and no Labre ministry to the homeless, although there were other worthwhile student service programs.

A few weeks before, I gathered with some of my classmates to honor the school’s new president, also a member of our class. He told us that, to honor Mr. Skerl, the school was hoping both to build a Marian grotto and to institute a program giving the students a chance to practice another of the corporal works of mercy, visiting the imprisoned. I thought that each was a fitting tribute to Mr. Skerl, and that both would call to mind the old statues now adorning the entrance to Loyola Hall, “Ora” and “Labora,” prayer and work.

It is no secret that the recent Synod of Bishops was the cause of trepidation, even anxiety, among some Catholics. Their concern was over the coherence of doctrine. This is not a trivial concern. Indeed, it is one I fully share. But most of us are not called to teach doctrine. What we are called to do, instead, is to live it. And a coherent life lived according to faith is often the best way to convince others that the faith is coherent. As a theology teacher at a Catholic high school, Mr. Skerl was called to teach doctrine. But what gave his teaching the extraordinary credibility it had was the way he lived his life, both in the classroom and outside it. Whenever we are distressed by goings on in the world or even in the Church, we would do well to remember his example. There is, after all, always one more rosary to say, one more Mass to attend, one more person to whom we can try to show the love of Christ.

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