A Man for All Seasons

February 22, 2006

Sir Thomas More (Lord Chancellor of England): Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich (Solicitor General): If I were, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You, your pupils, your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.
                             — Robert Bolt, 1924-1995
                                 English playwright and screenwriter
                                 from A Man for All Seasons

He was my Mr. Rosenthal, Lynn’s legendary English teacher who still exerts enormous influence on her (and on me) three years after his death. The Reverend Thomas R. Haney, however, is still alive, recently retired, and still exerting profound influence on me after more than forty years.

Father Haney became the assistant principal of Bishop McDevitt High School in the fall of 1964, the start of my senior year. We were assigned a new principal as well, and many of us were not happy about this. We liked the administrative team we’d known since ninth grade, and presumably the students at the schools Father Haney and his colleague came from were happy with them, and we couldn’t understand why there was all this shifting around of personnel.

Most students have little contact with their administrators unless they’re in trouble a lot, and that certainly didn’t describe me. But Father Haney became my Religion IV teacher. Our class met first thing in the morning three times a week to study Christian Living. (We’d learned about the life of Christ in ninth grade, church history in tenth, and apologetics in eleventh.)

Although “forced sectarian prayer” had recently been outlawed in public schools, we at Bishop McDevitt were under no such sanctions. We prayed before every class, always the same petition (“Direct Oh Lord, we beseech thee, all our actions by thy holy inspiration, and carry them on by thy gracious assistance, so that every thought and deed of ours may begin in thee and by thee be happily ended, Amen”).

Father Haney thought this rote recitation not very useful in fostering a relationship with the Lord. (Truth be told, it had not occurred to many of us that such was the purpose of prayer.) He favored “spontaneous prayer,” and called on a member of the class each day to offer one. “Margaret Mary,” he might say, nodding toward me. “Please offer a prayer to get us started.” We felt enormous pressure to perform, and began writing our “spontaneous” prayers in advance. (Actually, I wrote a lot of them and passed them around. I didn’t have much of a prayer life then, but I was a pretty good writer. Father Haney would help make me a better one.)

I still have the notebook I kept for Father Haney’s class. It’s a traditional marble cover copybook, its pages covered in my neat Catholic schoolgirl hand, notes on how to study scripture, suitable topics for prayer, wisdom concerning friendship, love, and sex. “Sex is biological in animals but profound in man. It is the only faculty we have designed to give to another, not the self. It is to be used with care as the very great gift that it is,” I have written. I can only assume that I am paraphrasing or perhaps even quoting directly my teacher. Pretty wise stuff from a celibate priest, and words I still live by.

Tucked into the notebook are a few papers I wrote, the only writing I have from those days. A piece on “the impact of Jansenism on modern attitudes towards the Eucharist” is marked “well done,” and “good” is written several times in my analysis of “the necessity of a person like Martin Luther in the fostering of true Christianity.”

I left Bishop McDevitt High School in the spring of 1965 to make my way in the world. “Go in peace, girls,” he told us on the last day. “Seek the truth, serve the Lord.” And about the first thing I did as a seeker was to begin “falling away.” As I used the tools Father Haney and my other teachers had given me, the tools of critical reading and thinking, analysis, and argumentation and debate, I began to question the easy piety and the facile theology I’d been brought up with.

By the time I met Father Haney again fifteen years later, I had “fled Him, down the nights and down the days” (Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven,” a poem I’d learned from Father Haney), and I was fully “unchurched.” If you’d asked me, I’d probably have shrugged and identified myself as an agnostic, unwilling to put so unequivocal a label as “atheist” on myself and my nebulous ideas about anything divine or supernatural.

Father Haney was by then the pastor of a small parish near the school where I taught. Two of our students, eleventh graders I’d known the year before, had been killed in a car accident on the first day of school, and on the morning of Friday, September 5, 1980, I was present at the memorial mass Father Haney celebrated for the boy, Pasquale (Pat), who had been a member of his parish. I was accompanied by some of Pat’s classmates, and in the car on the way over I gave them a short course (from memory) in Catholic mass and funeral etiquette.

Father Haney said the things that you expect at such an event. We don’t know why this has happened, we are bereft, and even the certain knowledge that Pat has gone on to eternal life cannot mitigate our sorrow. What I didn’t notice at the time but which one of the girls pointed out on the way back to school was that Father never mentioned Pat without also mentioning Stacey, the classmate whose memorial service would take place that evening in her Methodist church. The thing I would remember most about that day is that, as I turned the ignition and my car radio sprang to life, we heard Paul McCartney begin “Let it Be” (“When I find myself in times of trouble . . . “), and we didn’t drive away until it was over.

I can’t say it was that moment or that funeral sermon that softened my heart and let me, like Francis Thompson, hear the still small voice of God say “Rise, clasp my hand, and come!” But that week in my life had raised serious, heavy questions. It was the beginning of my conversion experience, the start of the development of the faith that now so wonderfully informs my life. That Father Haney had words of wisdom to offer then cannot be a coincidence.

While he was still in the full-time pastoral ministry, Father Haney became the editor of the diocesan newspaper. He wrote a “one minute meditation” every week, and a column called “Herr Ditzel Speaks,” brief Socratic dialogues in the voice of one of his seminary professors. He became a published poet and essayist with books on spirituality and prayer, and a novelist as well, with two thrillers set in the Vatican.

The first page of my Religion IV notebook contains the lines of poetry Father Haney put on the board that first day of class, from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s famous 1874 “Ode.”

We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams; —
World-losers and world-forsakers,
Upon whom the pale moon gleams;
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.

The words jumped off the wall as if they had been written just for me. He understands me, I thought, and I copied out the lines, probably missing the next day’s assignment in the process. Many of us in the Class of ’65 became movers and shakers. Our ranks include a congressman, a judge, a big deal television producer, as well as dozens of nurses, teachers, coaches, and other solid citizens whose purview might be small but whose way of moving and shaking this world was shaped in part by Father Haney’s guidance.

Father Haney retired on February 3. The newspaper he edited for thirty years published a four-page celebratory tabloid that indicated he turns 74 today.

Happy Birthday, Father. Thank you for your wisdom, your prayers, the possibilities you showed me, the skills you taught me. May every blessing be yours.