When in Rome, do not get caught between nuns and the Pope. When you teach, listen.
Father Pat Fitzpatrick learned many lessons as a Spiritan priest and long-time teacher at Neil McNeil High School.
But one stands above all.
One day after class, a Grade 12 student hung back to tell Fitzpatrick he was leaving Neil McNeil for Birchmount Collegiate. He gave a few reasons, including co-ed classes. But he also gave Fitzpatrick what he now calls the best teaching lesson he has heard in one sentence: “You always seem to be looking a little bit over our heads, instead of into our eyes.”
“I went home and thought about that Friday night, Saturday, Sunday,” Fitzpatrick said. “You asked me about religion teaching. That’s where it starts.”
On May 5, Fitzpatrick won a special merit award for 50-plus years of service to Catholic students and teachers in Toronto.
Much has changed since 1964, when Fitzpatrick took a boat from his native Dublin to Liverpool, then another for the six-day North Atlantic crossing to Canada. (He landed in Quebec City on his 30th birthday).
This September marked the first time since its 1958 founding by the Spiritans that Neil McNeil has none of them working there.
The last to go was Father Obinna Ifeanyi, who grew up in Nigeria, where today there are more active Spiritans than in Ireland, where the order built several high schools, including Fitzpatrick’s own, or in France, where the Spiritans began some 300 years ago.
Unlike Fitzpatrick’s first few years at Neil McNeil, there are now female teachers on staff. It also has nearly double the 400 students it did in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Spiritans’ original north-end residence has become the John Candy Wing – a school extension named after the famous comedian and Neil McNeil graduate.
Things have also changed in the wider Roman Catholic Church.
After studying English and French at university, then teaching elementary classes for two training years in Ireland, Fitzpatrick was sent to Rome to study theology.
He was there when Pope John called the modernizing Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s – a gathering of Catholic bishops that, among other things, allowed Catholic masses to be said in non-Latin languages.
Fitzpatrick remembers watching Pope John carried past him by Swiss guards during a huge mass at St. Peter’s. A group of nuns was pressing close behind him, anxious to see the Pope up close.
“I’m convinced that Pope John XXIII deliberately looked me in the eye when he was coming down,” he said, laughing. “I was being pushed from behind by the sisters, and I think that maybe he had pity on me.”
Today, Pope Francis is shedding that image of a leader poised above everyone, and has instead made headlines for reaching out to everyday people.
“I think it’s a very needed, down-to-earth contact with people,” Fitzpatrick said.
That attitude is not unlike the one he suggests priests should have when they visit Catholic schools.
One winter, he was speaking with a kindergarten teacher when the recess bell rang and her students trundled back inside.
“She said, ‘Well, now that the kids are here, would you like to say a prayer with them before you go?’”
Fitzpatrick said he’d never prayed with four and five year-olds, but he would try.
“I struggled my way through, in language I thought they would understand,” he said.
But after his ‘Amen,’ one student piped up, saying he knew a much better prayer.
Fitzpatrick swallowed and said, ‘Okay, could we hear your much better prayer?’
“For all that lies before us, thanks be to God,” came the reply.
It was likely just a table prayer, Fitzpatrick said, but he thought it was wonderful. He still uses it today.
“The simpler the better,” he said.