If you've heard one of our talks which includes my own testimony, you'll know that a turning point came with my first encounter, at 19 turning 20, with an example of a sacramental marriage worth emulating. Today on the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle, I'm posting the first part of a three-part series on the husband and wife behind that story.
I have intended this series since June 4, 2012, when we assisted at the Mass of Christian Burial for Professor Thomas Langan, Knight of Saint Sylvester and husband of Professor Janine Langan, Lady of Saint Sylvester. Here are his death notice in The Globe and Mail, his obituary in The Catholic Register, Deborah Gyapong's post on the funeral, and a tribute from the Catholic Civil Rights League.
I was so blessed to be present -- not least because I was with The Sheepcat, a great gift of God whom I was able to recognize partly because of the Langans' influence. Towards the end of Papa Tom's long illness, we'd prayed Vespers with him at Bridgepoint, and I told him what he meant to me as he tugged up and down on my thumb. Lady Janine said that even though he wasn't too verbal in such encounters, he did use words later with his family, to tell what he'd experienced. His wife and family were so precious to him, and especially at the graveside service led by Fr Robert Barringer, I was deeply conscious of the many sacrifices the Langan family had made so that students like me could be formed on every level.
Deep down I knew that if we went on our Vancouver speaking tour, we would miss Papa Tom's passing. And that we were supposed to go anyway.
Sometimes it's hard to articulate the impact the Langans have had on my entire adult life. Even now I feel shy about naming the ways, partly because the most precious memories belong within the Langan family itself, partly because other students and friends have known them better, and partly because of the inadequacy of words. I can't fully articulate the Langans' meaning for me, let alone for others. Still, less has been recorded on the Web than they deserve, so I'd like to help contribute more.
Today I'll list some lessons Papa Tom taught me; then I'll post about some lessons Lady Janine has taught me; and finally, and more importantly, I'll share some of what they conveyed together as a married couple. Readers, whether you're former students or not, I invite you to add your say (including correcting anything I have remembered wrong or filling in omissions) -- or to share how one or more great professors has shaped you for the better.
- Gratitude needs to permeate our being. Sometimes when I was younger, the concept of giving thanks was distorted by the ritual of whitebread letters and forced oral acknowledgments. Confused by injustice and resentment, I wasn't able to sufficiently express something that seemed to belong more to the realm of etiquette than to the heart. While his family of origin was more secure than mine, the Papa Tom I knew was no stranger to hurt. Yet he was mesmerized by the tender care and marvelous glory of God, and he looked for earthly reflections of that goodness. So his overwhelming appreciation for the Lord was reflected in his consistent appreciation for people. To confront the apathy and entitlement that characterized our society, Papa Tom taught gratitude not just by example, but also directly to students. I learned that gratitude is part of prayer, relationship, and a well-ordered viewpoint -- and that the more I practise it, the more joy I feel.
- I am welcome, as are all the others. I had many uncertainties. The Langans' warmth was healing to me. Papa Tom served on the editorial board of Communio: International Catholic Review and invited students into both general and themed discussion groups. I was one of the few undergraduate students, and sometimes the only undergraduate, participating in Communio circle activities -- and I was treasured. Papa Tom put me at ease by attending to little details as he graciously accepted a gift of wine and a card. He told about how he had succeeded at his then-future father-in-law's test: choose the wine in a restaurant, by picking from the middle of the price list. He took delight in students and visitors from a wide range of backgrounds, by genuinely caring about our well-being; he also ensured that everyone was introduced well and valued each other.
- Failure is an opportunity. The man who'd once been fired from his alma mater and had since endured many letdowns helped me as a role model in learning to deal with disappointment. While I applied to various schools, I had several good reasons to prefer one particular Master's program -- and I didn't get in on my first attempt. I had been naive about my application and certain course selections. I wasn't at all sure what to do next. Professor Tom took great care to connect me with two people who ensured I used the following year wisely and so obtained the necessary knowledge and experience to earn the degree of my choice. Almost 20 years later, I'm glad things turned out when and how they did -- and our apostolate is the better for the results.
- Empathy and diligence underlie comfort with people at every level of human regard. Papa Tom knew that men were just men, and he wanted everybody to do their best -- as fellow creatures. He was good at solving problems; as an adolescent he stunned adults by developing an unsolicited and highly usable transit plan -- but he became a philosopher instead of a railway executive.
He had the competence to relate well to presidents and prelates, and to give good counsel. He understood how difficult life could be for people in different stations -- and he wouldn't tolerate idle complaints. He showed charity, elicited it from others, and expected it.
- Typical quotidian preoccupations don't matter. Papa Tom railed against popular obsessions with fashion and professional sports. He grappled with the destructive effects of what he termed HTX (the “high-tech I don’t know what to call it”) on individuals, families, communities, and society. He pushed us students to discover what really matters in life and to order our lives around that. Papa Tom strenuously objected to personal and collective hypocrisy while encouraging personal and collective integration.
- Daily Mass is a thing. The erudite professor had, to his credit, a simple, childlike faith. He loved the prayers of the Church, and he carried around a little Living with Christ missalette, folding back its paper cover to the readings of the day. After class one time, he asked me if I'd been to Mass yet. I was confused by the question. It wasn't Sunday or a day of obligation, sooo? Papa Tom invited me to come with him. He sat with me. I hadn't been raised Catholic. I'd been received at 13, but I didn't have this sort of role model, and even though I loved the Lord, it just hadn't occurred to me to go to Mass that day. I'm glad it occurred to him.
- "Do you want more and different sins?" is a rhetorical question Papa Tom posed to students, based on the frequent complaint he'd heard from us that we confessed the same ones over and over, so why bother? A point well-taken, which has stayed with me since as a good counter to despair and a reinforcement of the value of the sacramental life. One hopes to accept the graces of conversion to gradually approach Christian perfection, but one doesn't give up the good fight when one falls short of the mark; one seeks reconciliation with God and the Church and basks in mercy. Papa Tom trusted God and exuded the hope He gives.
- Faith and reason are compatible, and we need to act like it. The 1998 encyclical on the topic, Fides et ratio, fit Papa Tom like a glove. The original CCRL bio says: "Tom Langan was part of the original steering committee that established CCRL in 1985 to respond to media defamation against the Church, particularly rampant at the time due to debates around the abortion law. He served as president for many years, helping to guide the organization from a loosely-organized group of volunteers to a professional organization with a full-time staff and national support base."
I was an adolescent in the days when some "pro-lifers" thought that yelling "Murderer!" at patients was an effective witness in front of the Morgentaler clinic, and I thank God that my pro-life beliefs survived that experience. The Langans once found themselves at dinner face to face with Henry Morgentaler, and they made the most of it. Papa Tom recalled that Dr Morgentaler thanked them, because while their opposition to abortion was clear, he claimed it was one of the only times he'd been able to have a rational conversation about it. (May he too rest in peace.)
- For Catholics, John 6 is where it's at. The comment I most remember on my Christian philosophy papers was from when I wrote about the importance of "sacrament and Word" to salvation, and Professor Tom wrote back that Protestants were correct on this point, and it should be "Word and sacrament." Yet he believed that the Eucharist was at the core of the faith. We read Augustine and Balthasar, but I think Professor Tom enjoyed himself the most when we examined this favourite chapter of the Bible -- despite his sadness for Christian disunity. How, he wondered, could the Sola Scriptura crowd deny the plain language about the "hard saying" that so many disciples would not accept? "So Jesus said to them, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.'" The words are pretty clear, you know?
- God has a sense of humour, and so should the rest of us. Papa Tom had great responsibilities and many burdens. He wanted to protect his wife and kids and do the right thing for society and the Church. He implored us students to get serious, to be serious, to be what I'd now call an intentional disciple. And yet, for all his cares, he maintained a twinkle in his eye. That combination matters to me. On January 9, 2007, The Sheepcat wrote to me. When I looked up his picture (Ooh boy! Our "senior child" and I have aged him, haven't we?), I saw a twinkle in his eye. I'd had the gift of learning what a Catholic gentleman should be, and I was about to meet my husband.