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Philosophy of Life

When I was a high school senior I shared a characteristic with many seniors before and since: I knew everything.
That meant, among other things, that I knew more than my teachers.
My senior English teacher was a good example. She was a Christian, but not a Catholic.
My surname might have made it obvious to her that I was a Catholic, but my guess is that she never thought about that—or, at least, she never would have thought about it if I hadn’t been so heavy-handed.
The occasion was an essay assignment that was popular with teachers at the time in which we gawky, barely self-aware creatures were to articulate our “philosophy of life.”
Thanks to the oral tradition in our high school, I knew that this teacher would make this assignment, and I was ready for her.
This teacher was a gracious woman with a trained voice of operatic quality, and she was a patient and encouraging instructor.
But because the essay topic gave me the opportunity to raise the subject of religion, I picked her as the target of my righteousness.
I devoted a significant part of my “philosophy of life” to my belief that the Roman Catholic Church was the one, true faith and that anyone outside of it was living in denial and error, and I meant for my teacher to take that personally.
My tone suggested that I, at the age of 17—not only the pope and the college of bishops—was infallible.
My teacher gave me an A-minus, but she wrote on the essay, “This is a very good expression of how you feel right now, but I think that if you look at this in the future, you’ll be disappointed in it.”
I kept the essay and still have it, and it wasn’t long before I was, indeed, disappointed.
I had grown up in an environment in which most of the people I had daily contact with were Catholics.
My parents never taught me intolerance, but other adults did, and I concocted a sort of triumphalism based on a superficial knowledge of Catholicism. I knew all about ritual, thanks to my somewhat obsessive service as an altar boy, but I didn’t know much about faith.
I knew the rationale for why I was a Catholic. I didn’t know how to be a Catholic.
That started to change when I went to Seton Hall University and was compelled to study theology and philosophy and to interact with people whom I did not know and who were unlike me in a variety of ways including, in some cases, religion.
I came away with a deeper, better founded belief in the authority of the Church, with a sharper awareness that people who didn’t think as I did were not necessarily odd, and with no desire to use my faith as an instrument to humiliate someone else.
Shortly after I left Seton Hall, the Second Vatican Council, particularly Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, made things even more clear to me:
“The Catholic Church professes that it is the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church of Christ; this it does not and could not deny. But in its Constitution the Church now solemnly acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is truly active in the churches and communities separated from itself. To these other Christian Churches the Catholic Church is bound in many ways: through reverence for God’s word in the Scriptures; through the fact of baptism; through other sacraments which they recognize.”
And, one would think, through a spirit of fraternity and kindness that a self-assured teenager did not extend to his teacher but has since learned is a necessary response to the great commandment: “that you love one another.’’


Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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One Response to “Philosophy of Life”

  1. Honora says:

    When one truly knows one’s Catholic faith then it seems natural and easy to be open and loving…when mis-information, lack of identity or belief in oneself or fear fills us, the opposite happens. If only we could all imagine a world where we could be open and loving, understanding of one another’s views and beliefs while we respectfully disagree?

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