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Learning Thanksgiving from 'Yoda the Barbarian'

By Thomas Pierog
November 20th, 2012
Prodigal Dumb Ox (prodigal-dumb-ox.blogspot.com/)

It was a warm September morning. I was a 14 year old kid who had gone to public schools his whole life, and I was about to have my first religion class at Central Catholic High School. I was nervous because I was a freshman, I was over dressed because I'd never had a dress code for school before, and I had no idea what to expect. I walked into the room and there was....Yoda.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Okay, so it wasn't REALLY Yoda, but he certainly looked like Yoda. His name was Brother Vinnie. Or, as he occasionally reminded us, Brother Conan (as in 'The Barbarian') Vincent Dinnean. He was roughly 4 feet tall, with an under bite that made him look a bit like a bulldog, and ears that were a little pointy, like Yoda. And to us young boys, just entering adolescence, he very well seemed to be roughly 800 to 900 years old.

Brother Vinnie had been at Central Catholic for a long time and had served in many capacities. At that time, aside from his duties of teaching us the basics of catechism, he monitored attendance. He had been doing this for a long time and had a couple of interesting stories about excuses for tardiness so outlandish that he had approved them on the basis of their creativity alone. His attendance duties added to the enigma of Brother Vinnie as well. You see, Brother's cassock was just long enough that when he walked, it brushed along the ground and you couldn't see his feet, creating the illusion that he was floating down the hallway collecting the classroom attendance sheets. Now that I think of it, to this day, I cannot say with 100% certainty that he was NOT floating down those hallways.

I remember Brother telling us some of his cautionary tales. For example, during a discussion about ordering our class rings, Brother told us of one evening a few years before, that he had gone to a grocery store dressed in his cassock. The young lady ringing out his purchase asked him if he was from 'Central', and when he told her he was, she said, "Oh, I have one of those!", and proceeded to pull out a keyring with the 'spoils' of relationships with several boyfriends' class rings from various local high schools. The message was clear. Your class ring belongs to you. If you want to keep it for posterity, do not risk making it part of some girl's collection. Although, in the battle between Brother Vinnie's advice and common sense verses hormones in a 14 or 15 year old boy, the deck is most definitely stacked, so I suspect some of my classmates now wonder where that damn ring went.

I think that all of us managed to develop an affection for Brother Vinnie. First of all we appreciated his teaching style by which he would give us a list of questions and answers, and then a week or two later give us a test, which was basically him, in the front of the room, asking those questions in the same order and having us write down the answers. But more importantly than that, we could tell that there was not a mean bone in his body.

This man who had inadvertently chosen a name during his ordination that would become inextricably linked with a fictional 'Barbarian', had struck a balance between an easy-going authority and a keen sense of humor. I think he truly saw each of us boys as having great potential that he did not want us to squander and he did not want to crush. Some of that may be a nostalgic revision of Brother Vinnie, or maybe I'm starting to realize what it was. As I work my way closer to Yoda age and look at the upcoming generations of young men, I feel like I see that promise and I hope that they don't squander it, despite being in a world encouraging them to do so at every turn.

There are two stories that Brother Vinnie told us that strike me more poignantly as I grow older and since I returned to the faith. The first was a story he told us about a time, many years before, when Central Catholic hired a teacher who was Jewish. I have never understood why some Christian denominations have issues with people of the Jewish faith. I particularly do not understand why Catholics would have an issue with them, but apparently, they did. Because when Central hired their first Jewish teacher, there was an uproar and they received quite a bit of less than enthusiastic feedback from concerned parents.

One of these parents found Brother Vinnie in the office and started to express his displeasure. Brother Vinnie, who was never wanting for 'chutzpah', was totally frustrated with these complaints and told the parent, and I paraphrase, that, 'all comments regarding this situation were now to be directed to the Jewish lady on the front lawn', and gestured out the window to the statue of our Blessed Mother. The parent reluctantly retreated.

The second story has had a profound impact on something I do every day. Once, in a discussion about prayer, Brother talked about how he remembered during World War II, the churches were full of people praying for the end of the war. Then, when the war ended, the streets were flooded with people celebrating, but the churches were empty. It reminds me now, of the gospel story from last Wednesday's readings,where Jesus heals the ten lepers and only one comes back to give thanks. Though many came to God when they wanted something, no one came back to Him in thanksgiving. This has shaped my prayer life such that, every time I pray I start by thanking God for the gifts He has given to me.

Now let's face it, sometimes life is difficult, you can feel overwhelmed, like you've had too much piled up on your plate. Sometimes it seems like you have nothing to be thankful for. At times like that, however, if you start prayer with thanksgiving, it can focus you on the fact that when you think you have nothing to be thankful for... you're just plain wrong.

A while ago I checked in with my old Alma mater and found out that Brother Vinnie had passed away in 2007. He was 91. I wasn't surprised , of course, I mean, although he wasn't actually as old as Yoda, he was apparently in his 70's when he taught me and I was in high school.... well..... let's just say it was a while ago. A few years after I graduated, Central Catholic went co-ed, they've expanded and I imagine they are charging a little bit more for tuition these days. I know that there are many beloved teachers there doing a fantastic job, but I just can't help but think it's interesting that the teacher who had an effect on my daily life and spiritual development, turned out to be, Yoda....The Barbarian?

So as we all gather around our tables this Thanksgiving, let's remember to put a bit of that celebratory day into our prayer life every day. As I said, when you think you have absolutely nothing to be thankful for, you're just plain wrong.

And may God bless you, Brother Conan Vincent, in dedicating your life to teaching us, I'm sure I am not the only young man whose life is a little bit better by your example.


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