Monday, February 15, 2016

My Debt to Justice Scalia At a Life Changing Moment

I had taken a leave of absence from medical school (Marquette) in the spring of 1958 after my freshman year for the purpose of going to Rome nine months later. I had joined Opus Dei the previous February and was offered the opportunity to be in Rome with the founder, St. Josemaria Escriva, and to pursue studies in philosophy and theology while there. While life changing, the choice was clear to me. I stayed in Chicago until the following June filling in some gaps in my education (calculus and searches in philosophy). My mother was beside herself for all the logical reasons: what was Opus Dei? why was I throwing away my life for the unknown?, etc., etc.
                As the date approached to leave for Rome in June she pulled out all stops. She had no access to significant personalities from my university years since I had studied in Toronto, Canada, and logically went to what was for her power sources to get some traction with me. She went to the headmaster of my high school (Xavier [Jesuit] whom she knew well and a person who was notorious in my house, Antonin Scalia.
                Scalia and I spent four years at Xavier from 1949 to 1953 studying in the same home room and taking the same classes (except he took French and I took German in Sophomore and Junior years). We did four years of Latin and three of Greek and found ourselves duly exercised particularly in Latin – Junior year – under the tutelage of a wonderful Jesuit, Fr. Morton Hill - who drove us relentlessly through the five declensions of nouns and four conjugations of verbs under pressure of a stop watch. We were marked on speed and accuracy every morning. This was followed by approximately thirty lines of Cicero’s Catiline Conspiracy to translate, translating an English sentence into Latin with all the pitfalls of using verbs that take the dative or ablative instead of the accusative, and all this in indirect discourse where the subject of the infinitive is in the accusative except where the infinitive would take the dative. Daunting piece of work. Every day.
                We were on the phone many nights, and through the misery, you get to be good friends. There wasn’t a time in the following decades that we did not resort to the common ease of conjugating an irregular Greek verb – particularly the principal parts of “to go:” ercomai, eimi, ailthon, elelutha (as it were) -  and laugh with the sheer joy of remembering it, and pulling it out of some recondite cavity we both had within.
                My mother called Scalia (I did not know it). He and Fr. John J. Morrison, S.J. appeared at my house in Jamaica, Queens. The priest tried to give me a sense of timing and proportion, which I thanked him for. Nino came up to my room (actually my brother’s), asked what this was all about. I explained Opus Dei as I understood it, the imperative I experienced to give it all – now – in this radical way of being in the world and living Christ  -  doing it. [Contemporaries, he had graduated from Georgetown and was in his second year at Harvard Law. I don’t think he had met Maureen yet]. He took in everything I said, and got it. “Sounds good to me.” As for himself, he was on his way to the Supreme Court, and knew it.
                I don’t know what he said to my mother on the way out, but it was decisive. He had the stature and authority then to calm nerves. I appreciated then that he took the time and effort to do what he did, and seeing it now in the perspective of who he is, I love him for it. What was astounding to me over the years was his loyalty to that friendship built on a few Latin and Greek verbs.
   There was also the French Horn and the Trumpet, but let's not go into that.

Rev. Robert A. Connor

No comments: