St. Benildus and St. Cassian share a feast day. One was loved, the other loathed. They both found sanctity.
An undersized child born to illiterate parents, Pierre Romançon didn’t look like he was cut out to be a teacher in 19th-century France, where schoolmasters ruled by intimidation or a leather strap. But he was clever at his lessons and good with kids, so when he first encountered the Christian Brothers, a teaching order, it seemed obvious to him that this was his call.
Pierre’s parents didn’t want him to enter religious life. The Christian Brothers didn’t want him either, concerned as they were that a man of such diminutive size would be incapable of commanding the students’ respect. But they watched him teach for a few days and admitted him without reservation, seeing how skilled he was both as a teacher and as a disciplinarian. And while his parents threatened to cut him off financially, money didn’t mean much to a man longing to make a vow of poverty. So Pierre became Brother Benildus and embarked on a fairly unremarkable teaching career that would ultimately win him a halo.
Br. Benildus wasn’t welcomed when he first arrived to teach at a new school; the parents of the rowdy, nearly illiterate boys were doubtful that such a small man could keep their sons in line. But he was tougher than they expected and more loving, too, earning the boys’ respect by respecting them first. A strict disciplinarian, Br. Benildus was still so kind that each of his students felt himself to be the holy teacher’s favorite. He spent hours tutoring the slower students and even learned sign language so as to instruct a deaf 18-year-old who wanted to make his First Communion.
Benildus played games with the boys, gave them rewards, and taught them to make simple musical instruments (which he then bought back from them in order to save himself from the irate parents who had to endure the cacophony said instruments produced). Before long, even the parents who had initially opposed him were coming for lessons at the night school Benildus set up for adults.
None of this came easily, though. Saints don’t become saints by having naturally impeccable temperaments, but by overcoming their inclinations to sin, and St. Benildus was just as easy to anger as you or me. In one of the most relatable saint quotations of all time, he confessed the difficulty his intractable students gave him:
I imagine that the angels themselves, if they came down as schoolmasters, would find it hard to control their anger. Only with the help of the Blessed Virgin do I keep from murdering some of them.
But however they provoked him, his response was love. Stern love, sometimes, but love just the same. And they loved him right back.
St. Benildus worked no miracles and had no visions. He inspired many conversions and vocations, but nothing terribly remarkable. Pope Pius XI summed the saint up well when he called him the “Saint of the daily grind,” remarking, “Sanctity does not consist in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” And in his ordinariness, his students loved him, knowing that he had loved them first and best.
Another holy teacher: St. Cassian
On the same day that St. Benildus is remembered, the Church celebrates another holy teacher. But while St. Benildus was loved by his students, St. Cassian of Imola was not. A 4th-century primary school teacher, he was responsible for helping young boys learn to read and write. History hasn’t told us whether or not he was a good teacher, just that he was despised by his students. It’s not uncommon for excellent teachers to be hated because they’re strict or challenging, so perhaps it’s best not to pass judgment on St. Cassian even in the light of his fate.
And it was a gruesome fate. As with many early martyrs in Rome, Cassian’s faith was discovered and he was ordered to sacrifice to the pagan gods. When he refused, he was condemned to death. Rather than chop his head off, the governor ordered that St. Cassian be killed by his students. So the elementary school teacher was led before some 200 disgruntled pupils, each armed with the metal stylus used for carving letters in wax tablets. They broke their tablets over his head, carved their names in his flesh, and finally stabbed him to death. All the while, St. Cassian stood patiently, demonstrating that perhaps their rage said more about them than it did about him.
St. Benildus was successful, beloved, and recognized in his lifetime as being a great gift to those he served. St. Cassian was hated beyond all reason. But both were serving God by serving their students, loving them in small ways regardless of whether they were loved in return.
On August 13, the feast of St. Benildus and St. Cassian of Imola, let’s ask them to pray for teachers, both loved and loathed, that they would have supernatural patience and would love with Christ’s love. Sts. Benildus and Cassian, pray for us!