TEMPUS FUGIT: Pep talk from 4th-century saint

Note to reader: The following article was in the Fall 2016 issue of Today’s Catholic Teacher (1967-2020).

Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) gives great insight and clarity on the Christian vision of reality when he wrote in Confessions (Book XI): “O sweet light of my hidden eyes . . . there are three times . . . present of things past, memory; present of things present, sight; present of things future, expectation.” The words of the great sinner turned Church Father is extremely applicable to the vocation of the 21st-century Catholic educator. 

We draw inspiration from Church history, or as Saint Augustine so eloquently put it, “present of things past, memory.” We are part of the largest organization in the world that, through trials and tribulations in its two-thousand-plus year history, has presented a clear, though imperfect, vision to the world. In short, we are part of something very, very big and extremely meaningful. We defend life. In the 4th century Emperor Valentinian, after lobbying from bishops, outlawed infanticide and provided funds to the Church to support orphans. We praise God in song. In the 7th century, Gregorian Chant was invented giving us the roots of written music. We are giving. In the late 8th century Peter’s Pence was created, the earliest large-scale organized charitable group. We seek to know God’s creation more intimately. In the 9th century universities were created out of the Cathedral schools (The University of Leuven in Belgium, is the oldest Catholic university still in existence, founded in 1425). We see nature as a gift from God.  According to Saint Francis of Assisi’s (1182-1226) student Saint Bonaventure, his teacher “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’”. We create tools to help discover God’s majesty. In the 16th century the Vatican Observatory was founded – one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world. The modern calendar, organized by Pope Gregory XIII, soon followed. We attempt to heal not only the soul and mind but the body as well. We are the largest supplier of healthcare in the world. We speak out against injustice. In 1922 Oregonians made attending public school compulsory. In short, they wanted to close parochial schools. The Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary would have none of it, arguing that parents have the right to send their children to the school of their choosing, taking it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Brace yourselves for the amazing gifts and talents that will be uncovered this year. Building the kingdom of God depends on it.

We are present and meet the student where they are, trying our best to be the model of Christ that they can see. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Some who come to mind are saints Jean Baptiste de la Salle, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Don Bosco, Katherine Drexel, and the first and greatest disciple, Mother Mary. The same Gospel that revealed holiness in them is also our light. Early in my career, a mentor shared with me that it is a good idea to keep a journal highlighting the good moments. I failed to see the point then, but it sure makes sense now. It is very important to take stock and remind ourselves of why we were called to the vocation of a teacher. One person shared with me that those in education are crazy, like a firefighter running into a burning structure without any gear. We know better, though. As in life, teaching has its good and bad days. It is untruthful to be Pollyannish. At times our vocation may seem more like a job — mundane, frustrating, trivial, and exhausting. Pope Francis reminds us in The Joy of the Gospel that all Christians are to care “for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds” (24.). What a glorious challenge! However, even Pope Francis gets impatient and flustered at times. He gives sage advice on how to deal with it. First, breathe in, breathe out! Just like when we tell young people to step back and think before they act, we sometimes need to heed our own advice. Pope Francis shares, in such a situation, one can choose between two attitudes, the one that is reactive and brash or the other, reflective and persevering “with this inner gladness, because you are certain of being on Jesus’ path.” Holy doors have been opened in cathedrals around the world symbolizing the Jubilee Year of Mercy. See the doors to your classroom, as Pope Francis shared in the bull “Misericordiae Vultus” or “The Face of Mercy”, “. . . through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope” (3.).

The most challenging for the educator, I would argue, is coming to terms with what Saint Augustine shared, “present of things future, expectation.” We will never know in this life the totality of the fruits of our labor. We plant seeds and pray that by the grace of God that they will bloom. I assume that nearly 1500 years ago in the early cathedral schools the educators saw their pupils graduate and they prayed often for their well-being, knowing that they would probably never see them again. The Parable of the Sower speaks so intimately to the Catholic school educator. As God’s instruments, we help the Sower. We yearn for our students to recognize the Catholic faith as rich soil (cf. Mt 13:1-8, 18-23). We hope that they will have a deep desire to lead virtuous lives continually seeking guidance from the Holy Spirit. Our deepest fear is learning about the struggles of a past student. At the core of all that we do is give the young people in our care the tools to build a house that can weather any storm, to see and embrace the joy, and to live lives with hearts set on eternity. Someone did this for us, more than likely, and was a major reason we entered our vocation.   The words of the author of the Second Letter to Timothy, written 1900-plus years ago, still ring true today. Leaders in Catholic schools must, “. . . proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tm 4:2). Our solemn charge demands that we remain strong in the face of the unknown.

A quote from the mini-series Pillars of the Earth, based on the novel by Ken Follett, helps put all that we will do this year into focus. Philip, Prior of St-John-in-the-Forest, says the following at the consecration of the Kingsbridge Cathedral:

And for . . . our beautiful church, I thank God, our king, the people of Kingsbridge and several generations of tireless workers. But the cathedral is not finished and nor will it ever be. Just as human perfection is something we all strive for and can never attain, so this church will forever be changing, growing, crumbling at times, an ongoing legacy of our feeble efforts to touch God.

A cathedral, my friends, is neither stone nor statues nor even a place of prayer. It is a continuum of creation; beautiful work, that, pray God, will never end.

Though what we do may seem feeble at times, let us continue to strive to touch God. Like the workforce who built the cathedrals of yore, may we use our gifts and talents to shape the future for the greater glory of God. May we look forward to this year always with great hope. May we persevere in our own faith so that we can confidently pass the Faith on, knowing full well that God, with our help, will touch the hearts and minds of the young people in our care. Let our collective prayer for this year be; O sweet light of our hidden eyes, help us to see you with more clarity so that we may better serve you. Amen.

Christian Clifford has been a teacher in the schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco since 1997. He is also the author of Saint Junípero Serra: Making Sense of the History and Legacy and Who Was Saint Junípero Serra?


  1. Augustine. Confessions. San Bernardino, CA: Benton Press, 2013, 157. 
  2. Alvin J. Schmidt. How Christianity Changed the World, “The Sanctification of Human Life.” Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2004.
  3. Robert Sherrane. ipl2, “Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music.” http://www.ipl.org/div/mushist/middle/.
  4. Peter’s Pence, “An ancient custom still alive today.” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/obolo_spietro/documents/history_en.html.
  5. Pierre Riché, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1988, 191.
  6. Regis J. Armstrong. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, vol. 2, New City Press: Hyde Park, NY, 2000, 590.
  7.  John Agnew, “Deus Vult: The Geopolitics of the Catholic Church,” Vol. 15, No. 1, Geopolitics, Dec 2009, 47.
  8. Pope Francis. “Time is God’s Messenger,” L’Osservatore Romano, Weekly ed. in English, n. 17, 24 April 2015, accessed June 14, 2016, https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/cotidie/2015/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20150417_time-god-messenger.html.
  9. Pillars of the Earth, “The Works of Angels”, August 27, 2010, accessed June 9, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikvaazw6Crw.

Note: All scripture references are from the New American Bible Revised Edition