I'm a Witness

"Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." (Pope Paul VI, EN 41)

My Catholic high school was small. At 305 students, we were over capacity for the building! As the teachers got to know us and our talents, we were divided into two tracks of course study -- business and college prep. If one was in the business track, besides the regular curriculum of English and social studies, you took typing and accounting. If you were in college prep, as I was, you had a different course load -- music, advanced math and science. I blame this class placement for my lousy typing skills.

During junior year, I was asked what I wanted to do after college. Because of the example of my sixth-grade teacher, my answer was easy -- I would be a teacher.

It took me just one semester of college to understand that my teaching would probably be as good as my typing. I didn't have the patience to deal with students like the one I had been: boisterous, talkative, and never minding my own business. Other people's business was MUCH more interesting!

Still, the desire to work with people remained. My life took some twists and turns and I found myself in ministry with The Pontifical Mission Societies, which had me going into classrooms to teach our children (see what God did there?) how to offer their prayerful support for their peers in the missions, making a difference a world away.

Yet, something was missing. Then, I read the above quote from Saint Pope Paul VI, and it clicked. To make it real to others, I needed to experience it myself.

So, I immersed myself in the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere, spending my days massaging AIDS patients and feeding orphaned babies who would die from TB or malnutrition before the year was out. While working in a wound care clinic with Mother Teresa's Sisters, I bandaged knife wounds from gang fights, babies with rat bitten ears, elderly with untreated, erupted tumors.

I became a witness to some of the worst living conditions humans can suffer as well as the deepest kindness and selfless love that a person can give when inspired by Jesus. I knew I was forever called to tell the stories of these great missionaries and more.

God has a great sense of humor, don't you think? When I finish classroom presentations, I am sometimes asked, "Are you a teacher?"

I smile and, praising God, reply, "No, I'm a witness."

- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.