Updated: Feb 15
I’ve been called a child molester three times since I’ve been a brother here in San Francisco. On all occasions, I have been walking outside in my habit, minding my own business when all of a sudden, a person will lean over to me and ask:
“Off to molest another boy, Father?” or “How many children have you raped today?” Thankfully, for every one of these awful remarks, there are 50 others which are overwhelmingly positive. For every person who thinks it’s okay to group all male religious as molesters and rapists, there are countless others wanting us to pray for themselves, to bless them, to hear their confession, or to offer them spiritual guidance.
Before I received the brown habit, I expected to be called names. The day before my noticing, my novice guardian informed me of the negative attention walking around in a habit would occasionally attract. I recall him saying something to the tune like, “Although there is plenty that could be said back to these ignorant people on the street, the best response is to ignore them.” So far, I’ve found that this is indeed the best way to handle comments like these. For any newly minted brother, my advice is to: “Be like Teflon. Let no bad words stick. Don’t let someone else’s anger ruin your day. Instead, pray for them. Chances are, if they have been hurt by the Church or by religious in the past, prayer is what they may need the most.”
Before I was a brother, I had to learn a version of this lesson already. Like many new teachers, fresh out of college and new in the classroom, I wanted to be liked by my students. I wanted to be the “cool” teacher. I wanted to be admired and looked up to. I had this dream of being like the teachers you see in movies who are able to transform the lives of his or her students.
What they never show you in the movies, however, is the tremendous emotional cost this level of involvement places on teachers. If a teacher takes every mean or snide remark a student says personally, he or she would inevitably burn out after the first year or two. This was how I felt after my first year teaching. Combined with my low self-esteem and undiagnosed depression and anxiety, suffice it to say, my first year teaching was an emotional struggle. There would be weekends I was fixated on what a student said to me on a previous Friday that I could not let it go. By the end of the first year, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.
But somewhere along the line, wisdom slowly emerged. Like muscles torn and repaired after a workout, I became emotionally stronger as I entered my second, third, and finally, fourth year teaching. The year before I joined the Society of St. Francis was the best teaching year I ever had. Ironically, as I started caring less and less about gaining popularity amongst the students, I became more popular than ever. I received more positive feedback from students, parents, and the administration than I ever did before.
To me, the lesson here is clear: Not everyone is happy with my decision to be a Franciscan brother. And that’s okay because I haven’t made my decision for someone else’s approval. I do not live wondering what other people think of me anymore. Like teaching, so long as I’m doing the best I can, believe in the work I’m doing, and have the support of my Franciscan brothers, nothing can bother me.
If God is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31).
The above picture is of Msgr. Joseph Jessing, the founder of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio. The base of the statue has the above biblical passage in Latin. When I first visited the seminary in 2006 (discerning a call to the Roman Catholic priesthood) this statue and the Biblical passage always stuck out to me. The photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license and was taken by the user Nheyob.
Brother James Nathaniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.