“My religion teacher”
by Enza Maria Mortellaro
Translated from the original, here
He was my dearest friend. A gentle friend, who was able to understand me with his gaze full of tenderness, a friend who lifted me out of the pit of desperation and anguish where life and things had no meaning for me.
I first met him at the Vittorio Emanuele [high school]; he was my RE teacher at a time when I was going through the worst years of an existential crisis, due to a mistaken notion of faith I held, according to which God was a judge to be feared because he had the power to send us to hell.
Then one day this ‘priest’ asked our class if we wanted to take part in a summer camp on the topic ‘What is the meaning of my life?’ — just what I had been asking myself. And so, with my mind already made up on the subject, I thought “Let’s see what this priest has to say for himself”, and I went along. At Mezzojuso, where the camp took place, straightaway my preconceptions were challenged.
I found myself suddenly full of doubt: I had grown up with the idea that priests too were people to be feared, because ‘they had the power to send you to hell or not’; I saw priests as a category of people to be ‘respected’ or ‘praised’, ‘to garner their esteem’; I thought that priests could only talk of ‘how to turn you into a nun or a priest’, and that that was all you could ever talk to them about. My RE teacher, though also a priest, was something else altogether.
Our camp was self-managed, so we had a rota for the various tasks. He was not on the rota, but during the whole time we were there he was the one who carved the meat, took out the rubbish, served at table, closed the gates in the evening, did the shopping, filled the water containers etc. etc.; also he told jokes — he knew countless funny jokes — he laughed heartily and played games, and he liked singing, despite being out of tune.
And then he loved nature because, he said, our invisible God shows himself in his visible creation. We climbed so many hills together. We would set out at night, in single file, and he would walk in front with his rucksack and walking stick, leading us along those dark paths he knew so well; he got us to be quiet so we could appreciate the moon and stars, the frogs and the flowers we encountered, even butterflies and strange insects.
He liked to sing on those occasions: “lead me, gentle Light, lead me in the dark that presses round me, one step is enough, just the first step…” And then finally we would arrive at the top of the mountain where, after a hearty breakfast, we would watch the sunrise and praise God.
The Eucharist was the centre of his life and he celebrated it every day because, as he said, “I can’t do without it”, “I’m a priest because I love the Eucharist”.
He loved the Word of God very much and was in love with the figure of Christ, above all with his humanity, against which he constantly measured himself and invited us to do the same. I remember his great love for the Gospel of Luke, because “This evangelist in particular depicts the traits of Christ’s character with great delicacy” and he especially loved the verses containing the Beatitudes, which he gave us many times so we could reflect on them.
In company he was discreet but profound, never pushy, always sincere and selfless.
He taught us to pray, and when he suggested reading the Gospel as a means of prayer, he said that the first attitude we have to have towards God was that of thanksgiving for all the gifts we have been given, for the gift of his Presence.
His words were simple, and particularly when he spoke of God his voice took on a gentler, more subdued tone. In this way, he taught us not to fear our God, because Jesus himself called God Abba, that is, Daddy; how then could we be afraid of this God who is so full of tenderness for his children?
Little by little this ‘priest’ I had been afraid of became my friend, as I said before my dearest friend. He knew all my thoughts, all my fears, my worries, my disappointments, and he kept telling me “I care for you deeply, but He cares for you far more”.
He also taught me this: he taught me to trust in HIM, he led me towards the Sun, not only with words but with the example of his own life, which by now I knew very well. People have said he must have had threats, telephone calls… how alone he must have felt! I’m sure too that he received intimidations, but I don’t believe for a minute that he felt alone.
The last time we met he was radiant, glowing, and he said to me: “…but you mustn’t be sad…” and I replied “3P, I’m not sad, just afraid…”. He said “you mustn’t be afraid, because He is with you and he loves you, and I love you too and I will always care for you”.
And it’s true, now that he is with God in his glory, I don’t feel sad, in fact I rejoice because I know he has finally met the Sun, that Sun he loved so much and taught us to love.
Despite the distress caused by what happened, I feel a powerful peace inside, which gives me the strength to keep smiling, and gives me the courage to say with faith “I believe Lord, and trusting in your Word I will continue to love and praise you all the days of my life, and who knows, I too may be your instrument for leading others to desire you and your Love”.