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The Teacher-Martyr: St. Cassian of Imola
As we continue our reflection on education from a traditional Catholic perspective, it is worth reflecting, even briefly, on some of the models of education. Of these, a great many saints are well-known as great men and women who have devoted their lives to education and to educating students at all levels of learning. These include saints like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Angela Merici and the Ursulines, and the early Jesuits who developed so many colleges throughout Europe.
Yet, it is also worth remembering, from time to time, lesser known, but still valuable, men and women who have done so much to merit our admiration. One of these is St. Cassian of Imola. Cassian is remembered more locally than by the universal Church, and not very much is known of him.
There is, however, one better known and amusing popular reference to him in John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces . The protagonist, Ignatius Jacques Reilly, rails, in pen, against a professor for whom he (justly) feels a hearty contempt. The professor in question was almost entirely ignorant of the subject he taught, getting by with smoothness, clever remarks, and the appearance of wit and sophistication. One night, the professor in question is desperately trying to cobble together enough lecture notes to seem competent the next day, when he comes across an old note, left by the protagonist years ago:
“Your total ignorance of that which you profess to teach merits the death penalty. I doubt whether you would know that St. Cassian of Imola was stabbed to death by his students with their styli. His death, a martyr’s honorable one, made him a patron saint of teachers. Pray to him, you deluded fool, you “anyone for tennis?” golf-playing, cocktail-quaffing pseudo-pedant, for you do indeed need a heavenly patron. Although your days are numbered, you will not die as a martyr—for you further no holy cause—but as the total ass which you really are…”
The quotation is probably the most famous from the novel, and the reference to St. Cassian can’t help but draw one’s attention. For, Cassian, according to the protagonist, is the exact opposite of the smooth, sophisticated professor in the novel.
From the little we know, St. Cassian lived in the 4th century AD and was martyred in what would have been one of the last Roman persecutions against Christians under Julian the Apostate. St. Cassian was the schoolteacher and headmaster at Imola when he was denounced as a Christian. According to Roman practice at the time, he was tested by being ordered to sacrifice the Roman gods, including the emperor. Centuries earlier, the Emperor Trajan had prescribed this as a way to test accused Christians. Those who would sacrifice to the Roman gods were spared, those who would not were executed.
St. Cassian refused to make the sacrifice, and so he was sentenced to death. His death, however, was a particularly gruesome one, as he was not directly executed, but was executed by being stabbed by his students with their styli: a slow and painful way to die. His faithful perseverance in suffering, however, made him a patron saint of teachers and one worth remembering.
St. Cassian would not sacrifice to the heathen gods because he loved the truth and the true faith more than he loved his own life. Teachers also are called to love the truth, which they then want to share with their own students. When anyone loves something and believes that thing worthy of love, he wants others to love and value it as well. This love should drive all teachers in general and Catholic teachers in particular. There will be many temptations to do otherwise. Catholic teachers may worry about families, homes, reputations, health, and many other things: but they are called to put God before all these.
The education field often seems to be moving from the path of truth in the direction of modern errors and ideologies. Even should it make one into a martyr, such must the teacher resist, bearing in mind the example of St. Cassian of Imola.