Thirty-seven years ago this month I began what is these days referred to as a ‘gap year.’ In the spring of 1981 I sat in the office of then principal Fr. Frank Cody, S.J. on the penultimate stop towards being offered a contract to teach Theology in the fall. Fr. Cody asked me a number of questions that have been lost to the mists of history, but one of them will stick in my mind until the day I die. He asked me if I was willing to give a three year commitment to Saint Ignatius; to which I replied, “Yes, definitely.”
I don’t recall if I had ever lied to a priest before. I guess I could play the casuist and say that since he was offering me a one year contract he had no legal right to ask me to commit to more than he was willing to offer. Despite the fact that my Plan A was to attend law school in a year, the legality of the question never occurred to me. In my mind I was simply lying to a priest. For the sake of full disclosure, Plan B – and my great friend Jim Cahill ’89 taught me that it is always important to have a Plan B – was that if I enjoyed teaching enough I would go to graduate school, earn a Ph.D., and teach on the college level.
Whenever I tell this story to my students I always conclude by making this anecdote into a ‘lesson’ that they can learn from: Don’t ever lie to a priest. Why? Not because it is morally reprehensible, but because whatever you tell him will become the truth whether you want it to or not. There’s the guy you want teaching Theology to your sons.
My so-called ‘gap year’ has been transformed into a ‘gap career’ all because I was not forthright with a priest about my intentions concerning the offer to teach Theology – Theology! – for a three year period. I never enrolled in law school and my graduate school career related directly to my work as a high school theology teacher.
Recently though, my thinking on this whole ‘gap year’ phenomenon has been brought to the front of my mind, and I find the concept to be fraudulent. The phrase itself is condescending to those who embark on that yearlong commitment – a commitment that is seen by the world as a time-out between school and what one should really be doing. The ‘gap’ is an imagined fiction – seriously, how can one have a ‘gap’ in one’s life?
These thoughts arose while driving home from Pittsburgh last weekend after dropping off my daughter Mary Kate as she begins a year of service with the Change a Heart Franciscan Volunteer Program. In my mind this is not a ‘gap year’ or a pressing of the pause button on her career, but instead it’s a logical continuation of her life’s journey.
At every stage in life there are lessons to be learned, and a year of service can offer a veritable plethora of experiences that can help to shape a newly minted college grad into a person who is more well-rounded, compassionate, and humble. When Mary Kate begins her work for a day care center that serves the children of young parents earning GEDs or receiving job training it will not be ‘gap year Mary Kate’ who is using her talents in graphic design and marketing to help raise funds to keep the costs of service affordable. It will be Mary Kate, Bachelor of Fine Arts, who now has the credentials to do what she has always wanted to do – make the world a better place by using the gifts that God has bestowed upon her.
Those of us who know and love a young person who is willing to give back to society in a substantial way are truly blessed because we are witnessing the Gospel in an up-close and personal way. For those who offer themselves in service there is no such thing as a ‘gap year’ – there is only a continuation of a commitment to Jesus, a commitment to Him in the lives of our sisters and brothers in need.