Share This Page

Incisive, not divisive

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

I don't know what President Obama was thinking.

Speaking in Northern Ireland last week, he said Catholic schools are divisive: “If towns remain divided — if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can't see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden —that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.”

Begorrah! What was he thinking?

I was lucky to attend a Catholic elementary school through the eighth grade. I didn't know it at the time, but our church and our school reflected a religious tradition that was brought to America by millions of immigrants, many of whom arrived to work in Pittsburgh's mines and steel mills 100 years before I was born.

The immigrants built magnificent Catholic churches that were the centerpieces of their communities — churches that advanced simple values that seeped into the local culture: Be charitable and kind, tell the truth, take care of those less fortunate, don't cheat on your taxes.

And they built Catholic schools. My parents bought our house because it was within walking distance of St. Germaine Catholic School and Church. They wanted us to receive a solid education — something parochial schools still do way better than public schools — and be taught solid values.

And boy, were the nuns determined to teach us both.

The nuns were all business, you see. Their business was to work us hard in math, science, reading and writing. They had no interest in or patience for obsessing — as too many adults do now — over our precious little egos and self-esteem.

When they weren't ramming home our lessons, they were teaching us to embrace the virtues: prudence, temperance and courage. They taught us about the competing ideas, too, the Seven Deadly Sins, and demanded we fend off every one of them: pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth.

And when they weren't ramming home lessons or virtues, they made us sit up straight and keep our shirts tucked in. They made us say “please” and “thank you.” They didn't suffer fools gladly — they didn't suffer fools at all.

We envied the public-school kids. They got to wear blue jeans and tennis shoes to school — not uniforms and hard shoes. They didn't fear their teachers half as much as we feared ours — and nowadays, public-school teachers fear their students.

Though the old Catholic school was often unpleasant for a daydreamer like me, I have incredible, fond memories of my time there.

My older sisters, both fine artists, helped me create a beautiful picture for art class, but Sister Mary Angela refused to believe I created it alone — it was hard to fool the nuns.

Tommy Guillen and I got into big trouble on the last day of classes one year for riding our bikes to school and locking them out front.

And my eighth-grade nun confronted me in front of the class when I got a “B” on a test that she knew — had I studied for it — I should have gotten an “A” on.

Looking back, I realize that my Catholic school experience was marked by clarity, order and a sense of purpose — the seriousness of our teachers made us feel that we really were on Earth for a special reason and we'd better do our best to accomplish it.

That is why Obama has it wrong about Catholic schools: They teach tolerance, kindness, compassion and understanding — concepts central to Christianity — not division.

And while many of us former Catholic-school students frequently fail to live up to these high standards, we know when we have crossed the line.

We know when Obama has, too.

Tom Purcell, a freelance writer, lives in Library. Visit him on the web at TomPurcell.com. E-mail him at: Tom@TomPurcell.com

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.