Joe Paterno and the Jesuits

Joe Paterno and the Jesuits December 21, 2009

Today is Penn State Coach Joe Paterno’s birthday, and from the blog Scholium we take this account of his senior year at the Jesuit-run Brooklyn Prep:
“In my senior year, we were the best Catholic-school team in New York. We lost only one game, to St. Cecilia’s High from Englewood, New Jersey, which had a sharp, intense young coach named Vince Lombardi. I had hurt my arm the previous week, and all through the St. Cecilia’s game I had to conceal my pain—not from the other team, but from my own coach. I was afraid he’d pull me out. Don’t get the wrong idea. Football was not the most important thing for me at Brooklyn Prep. Student politics and government fascinated me too. Every year my classmates elected me a class officer, finally class president, and then they picked me for vice president of the student council. But that wasn’t the main part either. What school was really about—and I never had a moment’s confusion about this—was getting an education. Every one of us at Brooklyn Prep had to take four solid years of mathematics, four years of Latin, and two years of a modern language. Our teachers, those who weren’t Jesuit priests, were scholastics, young men on their way to becoming Jesuit priests. All of them burned with idealism, and that made them marvelous teachers…….. At the beginning of my senior year, this austere big brother of a priest-to-be led me to Virgil. Father [Thomas V.] Bermingham (seen above) told me that Virgil was the greatest of the Roman poets, that he lived just three or four decades before Christ, and that he is known mostly for his epic poem, the Aeneid. Father Bermingham asked if I’d like to read it with him. I did. “What I had in mind,” he said, “was reading it together in the original Latin.”“In Latin? A poem as long as a book?”“Yes.” The book was on his desk, more than four hundred pages thick. As a schoolkid, I always had the attitude about any challenge, hey, if it’s difficult, let’s do it. That made it more fun.“But if it’s in Latin,” I asked uncertainly, “will we be able to cover all that?”“What’s important,” he said, “is not how much we cover. It’s not how much we do but the excellence of what we do.”Excellence. The way he pronounced that word made it shine with a golden light. I’ll never forget the majestic ring of the opening lines and of how we approximated them in modern English: Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris …Of arms and the man I sing………. Aeneas is not a grandstanding superstar. He is, above all, a Trojan and a Roman. His first commitment is not to himself, for he is bugged constantly by the reminder, the fatum, “You must be a man for others.” He lives his life not for “me” and “I,” but for “us” and “we.” Aeneas is the ultimate team man. A hero of Aeneas’ kind does not wear his name on the back of his uniform. He doesn’t wear “Nittany Lions” on his helmet to claim star credit for touchdowns and tackles that were enabled by everybody doing his job. For Virgil’s kind of hero, the score belongs to the team. Father Bermingham didn’t have to lecture me on most of that. We were just reading, sentence by sentence, in Latin, and there it was, like a living experience. For entertainment today, we flip the channel to Rambo or Miami Vice and get caught up by the fight scenes and the chase. But it’s not the same kind of experience. Once a person has experienced a genuine masterpiece, the size and scope of it last as a memory forever.”
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