All of the talk this week of VETERANS, those truly noble servants of humanity,tempts me to add a lovin thought of another kind, different in many ways but so similar in many others, the VETS of the Classroom. i am thinking especially of people like Mr. John Burns, who in his 32nd year of humble service is finally on the verge of receiving his well-deserved “medal of honor,” Retirement. But to find the proper “medal” for him and his noble colleagues, i must reach back to the life i once lived, friarhood.
When i left home in 1968 to enter a seminary of St. Francis, i was attracted especially by his idea of “friars minor,” that is, that they were all “just little brothers” to each other and to every creature, human and otherwise. It was his translation of the Great Challenge of Jesus Christ, that if anyone wanted to be GREAT in life, he or she must DARE BE LITTLE.
Small wonder that, even at my age of fourteen, something struck me as odd, when i immediately heard everyone calling the friars who were in charge of each friary (“house of brothers”) by a whole different name. Some hideous word, which to me seemed so out of place, they were calling these men “the Superiors!” Many times i would see these “superiors,” men who also bore the title of holy priesthood, treating their “little
brothers” pretty darn rotten! It became an instant dilemma in my life. Sadly, i would discover over time that it was just what was wrong with my whole Church in general, this quest for Power. No one who follows Jesus can ever feel superior!
There is a little graveyard in our city, where i love to go and sit. It belongs to these very Capuchin Friars, to
whom i once upon a time belonged. It is so amazing to wander through and stop at every little headstone, wondering over the names before me. Wave on wave of memory comes over me, some bad ones, yes, but infinitely more good ones, reminding me how privileged i was to know them. Often i will chat with this one or that.
The “medal of honor” i found in the greatest little story, which involved three of the men who now rest there. It had to do with Jesus’ clear and certain command: Be little! It had to do with Bro. Matthew DiFamio over
there, truly a little ball of wonder. He had been the cook for our small army at the seminary for so many years,
day after day after day. Brother had actually served in General Patton’s Army on the Western Front, and it
was while on the ship returning to America that he reflected on all that he had seen – and LOST – and he decided to offer his life to God. He never felt a call to priesthood, but he wanted to serve in any way that God saw fit for him as a “little brother” of St. Francis.
The friar who most recently joined this sacred company in the graveyard was Father Jude Duffy, one of my lifelong heroes. He told me way back at the start, when i was going through my grave shock about “superiority” about that dear little man behind the pots and pans, Bro. Matt, and about a certain friar who felt like he was far superior to little Matt. They were living together, just the two of them, in a friary far away from the rest. i opt here not to give the third man’s name, as he did have his wonderful side, which i wish to see preserved. It was just that he had fallen into that common – yet gross – misconception of his place in the family of the Church. i can see how easily it can happen. Having been a priest myself, i felt the feeling of power
running through me. This Fr. Jude was such a wise man with such a great heart. He, too, was a priest, but never the kind to lord it over. Jude Duffy was a “master of littleness” in the great tradition of St. Francis. So, he
went to visit the two friars, hoping to promote peace through a little understanding. He knew how horribly little Matthew had been suffering. He also knew something about Bro. Matthew that not many others knew. Soldier DiFamio had been one of George Patton’s best marksmen. So, on his diplomatic visit Fr. Jude asked Bro. Matthew to go get the rifle that was in the friary. It was wide open country there, suitable for hunting, and there was a barn on the property far enough from the friary that one could barely make out the weather-vane on top. Bro. Jude challenged Bro. Matt to hit the vane, which made the “superior” laugh his head off! But,
when Matthew hit the vane with the first shot, the superior understood that there were other ways that his head might come off! Oh, everyone who knew Bro. Matt knew he would never do such a thing. But, Bro. Jude wanted to remind this “superior” that there is just so much abuse that each man can bear. LOL! In the end it was Matthew’s superiority that counted, his talent with a gun. No one who follows Francis of Assisi or Jesus Christ should ever feel superior to another. The word should not even be in one’s vocabulary, except perhaps when used by another in describing some “superior love” or some amazing ability the person has, almost like a superman for being humble or little. Fr. Jude and Bro. Matthew were both “superior servants,” and i imagine now they are laughing their heads off in heaven over that day. And i like to imagine Brother Matthew’s “superior” there, on his knees, now serving Matthew some tea.
Look at me, back with the great Veterans, Matthew from the U.S.Army and Jude from the U.S. Navy, and the lessons they learned and passed on. And so from them back to John Burns and his “comrades in battle” in many a classroom. i can honestly say that i found that greatest challenge of Christ picked up and carried by these men and women, my teachers and the teachers of my children, just as well, if not better, than many a friar or priest. Look at my Molly’s favorite teacher. Why, he has a wing-span that could wrap around our whole family (little people that we are!) One of the biggest guys we ever met! Yet, his true Greatness has not been in his physical prowess but in his daily abilities, or at least his willingness or eagerness (toward those who did not accept his gifts), to LEARN WITH the children in his care. What Jesus meant by “the Greatness of Littleness,” humble and self-effacing, always ready and willing to bend, as low as he must, to reach a kid that may be lost. By a daily mindset of NOT BEING SUPERIOR, such a man proves himself to be an exceptional, magnificent, shall i say “Superior” human, he who would never think of having the title as his own.
These Veterans certainly deserve their “medals of honor” as well.