International relations and priesthood in Holy Cross have defined the world of my different ministries of service, teaching, and research since my first classes at the University of Notre Dame in 1972. I have kept my grade book with evaluations of every student since that first year of teaching. That year, there were 97 undergraduate political science majors crammed in a rickety classroom on the fourth floor of the Main Building. That was the year that O’Shaugnessy Hall had the most modern classrooms on campus. I’m trying to remember the joys of that first year (and there must have been some), but they are clouded by some other memories of initial frustration and total inadequacy.
I recall going to the office of my mentor, Dr. Steven Kertesz, discouraged and in tears, telling him that I thought I had made a big mistake in my choice of careers. “I’m not cut out to be a teacher,” I confided in him. I can still hear his quiet, consoling voice reaffirming my call to teaching and priesthood. He then recounted his own frustrations and challenges under the Magyar system of communist repression. “Now,” he assured me, “the Communists won’t bother you here at Notre Dame. You’re doing fine. Just keep up the good work.”
Good advice – since 40 years later I’m still teaching international relations at the University of Portland, in addition to serving a visiting professor at the University of Chile and Uganda Martyrs University, an assistant for Spanish ministry in Cornelius, and a chaplain at Iverside prison in Portland. I cannot imagine any career other than as a priest in Holy Cross and teacher of politics. It continues to be a wild and crazy journey that I love with my whole mind, my whole heart, and my whole soul.
As I look at that first class book, I now recall a student from one of my classes who attended daily Mass in Keenan Hall where I was serving as chaplain. I recount that he was amused by my style of preaching and lecturing. He thought that my lectures in class sounded like homilies and that my homilies at Mass sounded like political lectures.
Nearly 40 years later, I think of my Spanish homilies on Sundays at San Alejandro’s in Cornelius, Oregon, as privileged educational opportunities. I like to explain the Mass readings through the rich religious history of the Mexican Church, where I began my love affair with Latin America.
Early in my academic career, I studied Spanish in Cuernavaca under the guidance of Ivan Illich, who was a member of my dissertation board (from Denver) and an education specialist at CIDOC (a research center). I also learned from Dom Sergio (Bishop Mendez Arceo), who taught me Mexican religious history through his Sunday sermons. These remarkable sermons attracted listeners from the Americas and Europe. They were exciting and challenging times. Mendez Arceo and Bishop Samuel Ruiz (the Bishop of Chiapas and a close friend of Dom Sergio) represented the early sources of liberation theology. Dom Sergio was sometimes called the “Red Bishop of Mexico”. Both bishops miraculously survived many death threats.
A close friend through all this was Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and writer who lived in the United States. I convinced him that he should come to Cuernavaca to learn Spanish and meet my mentors, Illich and Mendez Arceo. Later Bishop Sergio invited me to do ministry in a remote corner of Morelos, and Nouwen invited me to finish my dissertation with him at Yale. Both of these experiences shaped my ministries.
I cannot separate my teaching and research in the politics of Central Europe and Latin America from my ministry as a priest in the U.S., Chile, Mexico, and now Uganda. I have never understood “hyphenated-priest” as a description of my approach to ministry. Both from my theology in Le Mans and Rome (during Vatican II) where my professors were among the best research and teaching scholars of the Council, and from my teachers at Notre Dame and the University of Denver who pushed me to study religion in Europe and Latin America, I have never found that there was any need to connect my world of ministries with hyphens.
My research and education come from the parishes, colleges, universities, and prisons of Chile and Argentina. Today, these same world classrooms provide all the academic and ministerial challenges needed to nourish my vocation.
Yes, it has been a wild and crazy ride. And I cannot tell you how much I appreciate those soft-spoken but brilliant guides that led me through the classrooms of colleges, universities, prisons and parishes of the U.S., Latin America and East Africa. My world is now filled with Dutch, French, Chilean, Mexican, Czech, Italian and U.S. accents and humor. But it is also Frs. Bob Antonelli, C.S.C., and Don McNeil, C.S.C. who guided, chided and inspired even my craziest projects – along with the Holy Spirit – working through that unique community of creative Holy Cross colleagues.
Fr. Claude Pomerleau, C.S.C., took Final Vows in the Congregation of Holy Cross on August 16, 1961 and was ordained a priest on December 18, 1965. While his permanent residence and assignment is as Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Political Science at the University of Portland, he serves in many other capacities, including assisting at Uganda Martyrs University in Africa. This post inaugurates a new series for the Spes Unica Blog in which we will hear from some of our Holy Cross scholars who work in education. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross in the field of education, as well as our men in advanced studies preparing for such work in the future.