There are times when teaching adolescent males can be a bit of a challenge, but last Friday and this Tuesday were not among them. When the time comes to look back on my years at Saint Ignatius those two days will stand out in my memory as among the most meaningful of my entire career.
Last Friday most of the members of the Theology Department took a brief respite from the classroom and spent the day at John Carroll University to hear talks related to their jobs as catechists, and to connect with fellow theology teachers throughout the Diocese of Cleveland. Several of us remained on campus to hold down the fort, and to speak with different grade levels about topics relevant to their class year.
My role was to give our seniors a context for the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the passing of Theology Department legend Jim Skerl ’74. During each period a group of seniors gathered at the Marian Mall as I unfolded to them the story of Jim’s importance to Saint Ignatius. What started out as, to quote Michael Stanley, a cold Ohio morning where everything was grey, ended with a blaze of sunshine and the warmth that it brought.
I began my words about Jim in the only way that made sense to me – by speaking of the other person commemorated in the Marian Mall: Dr. Mike Pennock ’64. Just as with so many of us at Saint Ignatius, and not only in the Theology Department, Mike Pennock had a profound effect on Jim Skerl and on his teaching ministry. Mike was to Jim what Plato was to Aristotle, or what St. Albert the Great was to St. Thomas Aquinas. As a friend and mentor Mike Pennock nurtured the teaching vocation of his student Jim Skerl, and in many ways enabled Jim to become such an influential friend and mentor in his own right.
As I spoke first about Mike and then about Jim, I was able to let a new generation of Wildcats know what great gifts these men brought to their alma mater, and how – without even knowing it – the seniors have been influenced by these two legendary teachers. The audience, between thirty and ninety seniors each period, sat in (for the most part) not ideal conditions, yet their attention did not waver. My impression was that they were genuinely drawn into the story of Mike and Jim, and were open to becoming what these two men wanted for all of their students: to become men who – to use a thought taken from Bl. Charles de Foucauld – would treat others with the kind of Christ-like love that would make people ask, “If this mere man is so good, what must his Master be like?”
I urged each senior to think about his specific talents, and to ponder how they could be used to make the world more of a place filled with the love of Christ. My purpose was two-fold. First, I wanted to bring to them the message that Mike and Jim brought to thousands of students. But I also wanted to prime the pump for our experience on Tuesday when two members of the Class of 2017 would talk to them about what their Ignatius experience, especially their Christian Manhood experience, meant to them.
On Tuesday morning, as they gave the first ever James E. Skerl ’74 Christian Manhood Lecture, Ryan Cook ’17 and Chase Miller ’17, both juniors at Notre Dame, did one of the most difficult things possible: they held the attention of almost four hundred adolescent males for ninety minutes as they presented what they called “The Good Lecture.”
Ryan and Chase are both very bright young men who gave our seniors a great example of what can happen when talent meets effort. Over the course of an hour and a half they ran through the major branches of moral philosophy, set against the background of their work as students – and then as teaching assistants – in a philosophy course called “God and the Good Life”. They also showed an episode of the television show The Good Place (“Jeremy Bearimy”: season 3, episode 4) and pulled it apart just as they have done in their philosophy course entitled “The Good Class.”
Along the way they had the seniors ponder and discuss such stimulating questions as: “Would you rather face one bear-sized bee or a swarm of bee-sized bears?” and “If you could take a pill every day to keep you from ever being sad, would you take it?”
I could not imagine a better way to honor the memory of Jim Skerl than by having college juniors come back to speak and to model for the senior class the traits that Jim strove to instill in generations of students.
And because of the generosity of the Saint Ignatius Alumni Association this event will be held each fall. We are so grateful for the support of our Director of Alumni Relations Garen Distelhorst ’96 and the Alumni Association Spirituality Commission – support that enables this talk to take its place alongside so many other great senior traditions.
I know that there were young men in the audience today who will stand on that stage in three years’ time and give the fourth annual Jim Skerl lecture. And I also know that they will follow in the footsteps of Chase and Ryan and make all of us, especially Mike Pennock and Jim Skerl, very proud.