Amen: Extra-curricular anecdotes of an unforgettable educator

By Erik Zygmont

“Yeah. Get Bill – he’ll know what to do.”

My freshman religion teacher, whose first name was Bill, delivered the line in a grotesque and mocking voice, doing his best to imitate that of a demon who he said had possessed  an acquaintance.

If I’m remembering his story correctly, the possessed was an ex-convict with whom Bill had prayed during the man’s conversion. It came out that while in prison the man had undergone a ceremony in which he “sold his soul to the devil.” Bill speculated that the ritual and intention behind it had opened the door to the supposed possession.

This was not a normal classroom topic at my all-boys Catholic high school in Massachusetts. My religion teacher, however, had either converted or reverted to the faith himself, and he also had a past (though not including, to my knowledge, any imprisonment or demonic pacts). He dutifully followed the freshman religion curriculum – largely sex education from the Catholic perspective – but at times he couldn’t help sharing the circumstances of his own faith, about which he was passionate.

He said he was not present when his acquaintance manifested the signs of possession, but some friends were. Knowing that Bill, an athletic guy who loved Japanese motorcycles, had in a previous incident helped restrain a different possessed person while a priest made his way to the scene, one of them blurted something ripe for mockery: “Get Bill – he’ll know what to do.”

I knew Bill for four years and there was never any indication that he departed from the truth as he saw it. The above was the most outlandish story he told, but apart from whether you believe it, you have to admit that fallen angels, their tendency to mock and their ability to possess are, according to the Catholic Church, real.

As he meandered through the boilerplate, largely positive discussion points of our class curriculum, Bill mentioned lots of things pertinent to Catholicism that are infrequently highlighted: Blessed Teresa of Kolkata’s lambasting of our country for its embrace of abortion, for example; the Blessed Virgin Mary’s terrifying warnings of a “great chastisement” to come; the distinction between venial and mortal sin and the grave danger that the latter brings upon the soul.

Until Bill brought up the degrees of sin, I (who had undergone parish preparation for the sacrament of reconciliation some years before) effectively thought that confession was something to be done “just because” – because God loves us unconditionally and we should take our problems to him.

And that is truth, too. I have always found it reassuring: “He is still there; it’s not too late.”

During those times when I have drifted toward ignoring God, however, it has been the scary stuff that makes me stop and think, “Is this really OK?” or “Maybe I shouldn’t …” or, at least, after the fact, “I shouldn’t have.”

Many parents and alumni say Catholic schools are one of the most consistent sources of quality in education. It’s a fact. As I learned to work and think, I received conscientious guidance, from the third-grade teacher who made me write summaries of every short story I read to the senior-year English teacher who challenged my assertion that nobody was really to blame for the bloody culmination of the Shepherdson and Grangerford feud in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” because “they had been brought up from birth to see things that way.”

But I’ll also always be grateful for those teachers like Bill, whose rough-hewn and deeply personal faith would not be hid, and who introduced me to a God from whom I couldn’t hide.

Erik Zygmont is a staff writer for  the Catholic Review.

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The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.