Joe Finnerty owned any classroom into which he chose to walk. Truth be told, he held title to anyplace he was, be it classroom, hallway, exercise yard, or even some neighboring parish. Not that he was trying to corner the market. Far from that. He was as unpretentious as he was smart, both to the innermost core. It’s just that he was that kind of guy. Some people eat up a room. The world was Joe Finnerty’s banquet.
He was in reality the Rev. Joseph Finnerty, S.J. That’s correct. He was a priest, a member of the Jesuit order. In the classroom — or anywhere else for that matter — he was Father Finnerty, or simply Father. But outside of his hearing and sight, to some of us at any rate, he was Joe. He knew, and he didn’t seem to mind. That was all part of the picture, too. Everything fits together.
Joe Finnerty was a teacher, by far the best I’ve ever experienced, and it’s my good fortune to have been taught by some really expert people. I had him for Senior Year Latin in Brooklyn Prep. Fine old school, but that’s a story best kept for another time. This is about teaching. Closer to the point, it’s about greatness. Closest still, it’s about, well, it’s about holiness.
The curriculum was Virgil’s Aeneid. We did the initial six books, and, to say the least, it was challenging. I still remember that very first day. Joe walked into class, opened his book, and began to read: Arma virumque cano, Trojae qui primus ab oris… Roughly translated: It’s of arms I sing, and the man who first sailed from Troy’s shores (and came to Italy)… Ah! Such memories. To drive the matter home, he proceeded to sing the opening lines to the tune of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. It was a teachable moment, and Joe Finnerty seized it vigorously.
In that first week, Joe taught us the beginnings of mythology, scansion, and how best to render the Latin into English. Get a hold of a good, solid translation, he advised us. That way — having made our own attempt at a passage — we could then compare our work to that of a professional writer. We even memorized the opening 15 lines, laboring under the impression we had to do likewise for all six books. We settled for 15 lines.
Yeah, Joe Finnerty knew his material. He never sat down, and he worked the whole room. But that’s far from the totality of the tale. That’s not everything that made him the teacher that he was. Joe could spin a yarn. He was the best storyteller I’ve ever encountered. He would cover his entire lesson plan, at the appropriate instance in the text a certain glint would sparkle in his eye, and he would utter: That reminds me of the time… And we knew Latin was… to be continued yet another day. It was time to learn more of life. He didn’t do it every day, nor did he do it every week. He did it just enough.
English novelist Philip Pullman hits the center of the target when he writes, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are what we need most in this world.” Father Joseph Finnerty, S.J. did more than his part in meeting the world’s needs. Not a bad legacy, that.