Fr. Daniel Sormani: A Life Called to Love

Fr. Daniel Sormani: A Life Called to Love

For Teachers’ Appreciation Week 2016, Joel Lim interviewed Fr. Daniel Sormani, C.S.Sp., who teaches Theology classes in the Ateneo. Fr. Dan, as he would prefer to be called, is a member of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, and is recently celebrating his 30th year as a priest. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Fr. Dan has taught several subjects such as Spanish and English in areas as far as Algeria to places as near as Iligan, before settling in among the Jesuits in the Ateneo. Fr. Dan often narrates to his class about his experiences as a teacher and as a priest to his neighborhood, and often encourages his students – even those who do not share the Catholic faith – to share prayers and reflections before the class begins to provide inspiration for the class. Fr. Dan is also known for his uncanny resemblance to Santa Claus, not only in appearance, but also in sharing the spirit of joy, generosity and, above all, love.


Joel Lim (JL): Fr. Dan, you’ve been teaching for a while now, so what inspired you to become a professor here in the Ateneo?

Fr. Dan Sormani (FD): Here specifically in the Ateneo, because I’ve been teaching for over thirty years, and here in the Ateneo, only since 2009, and to be quite honestI hope this doesn’t sound bad butAteneo came because we, our community, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, decided to open a house of studies for our young men from all over Asiathe Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, [and] India. [They] will be studying at the Loyola School of Theology here on campus, and at Maryhill School of Theology, so, obviously, living in close proximity to the Ateneo and being a teacher longer than I’ve been a priest, I wanted to continue teaching, so I applied for a teaching position here in the Ateneo.


JL: So, now, having been teaching for thirty years, as you’ve said, what do you like most about teaching?

FD: I think it’s just the excitementat least for me, it’s excitementof learning, of helping people. I say “learning” because it’s for everyone. I was a Spanish teacher, I was an English teacher, and then I was a Theology teacher also. Depending on where and when I’ve taughtat college, at university, high school level, and for a short time, during the problems in Algeria, I was even hired to teach grade school childrenit was quite a challenge for me.


It’s just the sheer excitement of helping to empower people, helping people to see their own potential, their own goodness, their own understanding, and when I see students realize they can do what they thought they couldn’t do, it’s so exciting and humbling to be a part of that, that somehowyou know I get to help people see that they’ve got it inside of themthe possibility to learn, even if it’s the languages. But the fact students so often say “Oh, I’ll never learn,” or “I’m not smart enough,” or “I don’t have the capability,” when they suddenly find themselves speaking or reading in this foreign language you’re teaching—this was when I was a Spanish teacher or an English teacher to non-Anglophonesit was just so exciting to see people realize [and say] “Wow, I can do this!”


JL: To unleash their inner potential, in a way?

FD: Yes! And it’s the same thing, quite frankly, for theology. It’s the same excitement to help people realize that they can understand how loved they are by God and that they can have insights and understand the Scriptures, or the Word of God, or the sacraments, or prayer, or things thatyou knowmaybe they never even attempted to understand. [They were] just thinking [that] it was all beyond them. That’s the job of pastors and priests and bishops. It’s also kind of the same dynamic, even though obviously, [it’s] vastly different—the material and the way of approaching itbut it’s still that same. Like you said, [it’s] helping people realize their potential and that they have [that potential].


JL: And rediscovering their first love, in a way.

FD: Yeah! Exactly.


JL: Ok, so, I’m pretty sure you’ve had many inspiring stories of students reigniting their potential in a way. So, among those stories, for you, what’s the most memorable moment you’ve had in class?

FD: I have to be really honest. I’ve never been asked that before, so there really isn’t one moment that really strikes me so much. It’s just a real blessing for me. I guess it’s why I love teaching. I can think of so many moments, but there really is that momentwhere people suddenly realize how gifted, how talented, and how loved they arethat they never saw before, and to be a part of that, it’s so life-giving and inspiring.


And I can think of examples. There’d been a number of times at the prayer or sharing that we have at the beginning of class when students have come out with these amazingly beautiful, moving songs, and a couple of times, I remember people reading these poems that just gave everybody goosebumps. This filled [the room with the] silence of reflection. Then I would ask that student, “Wow, where is that song? I wanna find it on Youtube to post it on my Facebook so everybody can see it.” or, “Gee, I’ve never heard that poem, could you give me the reference, I wanna get it!” and, you know, buy the book. Then [I] found out [that] it was the students themselves who wrote the song. Even their classmates didn’t know that. I remember, every time that came out, which was a number of times, the whole room went up in wild applause, and people even saying, “Hala! You never told me that! I didn’t know that!”  [I] see their facesthey turn red. They’re embarrassed but they’re also proud. There are all these things [that] you could see hitting them, and for me it’s just like, “Wow Lord, this is, like, so cool that I got to be a part of this!” I’m watchingand in front of mepeople growing and people coming into who they are.


It’s really interesting because, obviously, certain students who were really cliquesin terms of a human relational levelkeep in touch, and when they’re no longer students, they still drop by the office now and then, [and] they’ll send me a nice message for Christmas or Easter. Then there [are] some who after class I never really see, who I never really bump into. I don’t wanna exaggerate. There were hundreds, but there had been a number thatway after, semesters after, some have graduated, and they’re off to who knows whereall of a sudden, I’ll get this message on Facebook or on my email saying something like, “You know, Father, I don’t know if you remember me, and bla bla bla, but you know I’ve been having a difficult time (or a struggle or something), and then it suddenly dawned on me. I remember what you said in class.” Or, “I remember this discussion.” And they’ll actually repeat the discussion. Even the other students who were in it remember that she told that story about her grandmother, “and you were saying it’s like this, and that was such a big help. And I just thought that, I really have to let you know because I wasn’t a very good student. I was kinda foolish at the time, but know I’m realizing, that’s what he meant in class.’” And I’m thinking, like, “Oh my God, that was, like, three years ago.” Then I just get goosebumps and I’m like, “Wow! This is so cool!” It reminds me of that old Scriptural idea: you keep planting the seed, even though others might harvest it.


It’s not that I expect to see all the results of my teaching immediately, and I may not see [the] results from many people ever, but then I’ve really been blessed that I’ve seen results, years after, from people I’ve totally lost contact with and haven’t a clue, that they’ve decided [that] they wanted to let me know. [It tells me] “Hey, keep planting those seeds, because guess what? It really does have an effect.” Those are the moments that I just dance on air when I get those kinds of messages.


JL: I notice that you’ve been part of many stories from your students in a way. The students have shared lots of experiences and their own stories with you. Before teaching in the Ateneo, you’ve taught English in Algeria, right?

FD: Actually, before the Ateneoit’s still in the Philippines thoughI was in Mindanao. In Iligan, I taught English and philosophy to the seminarians for a while, and what they call “religious studies”, which was kind of like theology, but on a different level. I taught that in the southern part of the country, Mindanao. Before that, I was in Algeria for ten years, and that’s where I taught English. It’s a non-Anglophone country, so it was a foreign language. The minute people left the classroom, there was nothing. They weren’t going to watch any English-language TV, movies or radio. There were no English-language songs or papers to be found in the newsstands, so it was really very interesting.


JL: You’ve been around the world, as you’ve said, so what’s the difference between teaching here, teaching in Iligan, and teaching in Algeria?

FD: I guess in the sense of the situationsthat’s not the important thingbut the one obvious difference that I always share at the beginning of every semester with my students is the fact that it’s only in the Ateneo [where] I’m teaching a core course, meaning that I know that my students didn’t necessarily choose the course, nor are they necessarily excited or even interested in the course, but you have to take it to graduate. That certainly sets up a different dynamic, at least at the beginning of the semester, than, let’s say, when I was teaching English or those other courses, because those were courses that were simply free for anybody who wantedfree in the sense of free choice. And if anything, that’s [because] people paid a lot of money to take them. They were really demanding a funny thing, which is true, but I tell it and people laugh.


I remember in Algeria, even when during the troubles and the civil unrest where there’d be all those very violent things going on, some classes had to be missed for the day, but then the very next class, my students were, “When’s make-up class? When are we gonna get…” And I’d be like, “Woah, okay, but you know it’s very difficult.” “Oh come on, we paid for so many sessions, and we need our classes,” They were so driven to learn, because the course I was teaching was totally an elective that they had decided.


So it was a bit of a shock for me when I realized when I started in Ateneo, that this course is [mandatory]. People are here because they have tothey have no choice. When I’m teaching the more advanced [courses], they choose me as a teacher because they’d have more choices, but when you’re teaching the intro, which I taught for so many years, the 121, it’s done by block. They didn’t even pick their teacher. They didn’t pick my course. They’re just stuck. [It’s] a challenge, but [it’s] also exciting [because] you realize then that you’re in a position to really try and wake people up to see things that they never really [saw], at least with the language. They really want to [learn], and it’s exciting to show that you want to, and [to show that] you can.


In Theology in the Ateneo, it’s often [that] there were some people who really could care less, and feel stuck, but you can still show them, like, “Surprise! This really is exciting. This really is part of your life. You really are important and loved and a part of what’s happeningthat God is at work through you.” And that’s why to see that, especially when you know people haven’t decidedlike “Oooh, I really want to take Theology. I can’t wait to sign up.”that they’re kind of there because there’s no option. [That] makes it even more exciting in a certain way. It’s like a major difference from my other experiences of teaching. It’s only here in the Ateneo where I’m teaching courses where people have no choice, in the sense that [they’re required] to take the course.


On terms of the way you ask the question, it might have been even moreI get the feeling. [Some say] the Philippines has some major cultural dynamic, and to be honest, I don’t think so. I mean, I can say the little things in terms of how people show respect, or those little cultural differences, but I think it just shows that young people, they want to learn, they want to. I don’t mean, no offense young people, but in college, when you’re my age, you guys are young people. But to show that college-aged people, that they really do want to learn. What I really notice even [in] teaching languages [is] that people wanna make the world a better place, that there is this basic goodness. Even the people who were studying English, they were doing it for their careers. Many of them were doctors, were lawyers, some I had were actually airplane pilots, but they always talked about how to be of service of the people and what we needed for a better world. Even in the language course where I’d have them write different things just to practice the language on essays, so many had to do with making the world a better place, and I always felt there was a great spiritual [aura] and I thought that I’d be the one pushing it. I just noticed that even my language classes always had a very spiritual sense. Even in Algeria, where it was strictly forbidden for me to mention anything about God or anything like that, but there was still a deeper sense of “we belong to each other, we have to work together for goodness and right.” So that is something I’ve seen [that’s] really common.  


JL: I notice that it’s a motivation of yours to bring out the goodness in people. I can see it through students applying it through the reflections before class in the morning, or the prayer reflection. It’s kinda unique, because instead of, like, “Oh, let’s have a prayer,” and it’s the usual prayer and then you start the class, you give the students more liberty to explore, like they can share reflections, or they can show goodness and it’s very open to people who are not Catholics or non-believers in religion or God. So, when did you start doing this practice in your class? Was it from ages ago or was it relatively recent?

FD: It depends where. I mean, I like that idea of doing that. I guess I’ve been in other kinds of situations with people of different traditions where we pray together. I’ve been in groups for Christian-Muslim dialogue. That of course, even in the States with my friends, [is] where Catholics are not the majority of Christians, so many of my close friends were not Catholic, but those of us who were believers, on certain occasions we’d wanna pray together, even before we eat, and we’d take turns on who’s gonna lead the prayer. I guess in my mind it’s always been a beautiful way to unite and to share, and if you don’t believe at all, you still have something. That’s why I never would wanna give the impression that, “Hey, you don’t believe, so forget it.” It’s still [something] like, “Okay, but then, you still can inspire us with what you feel is the direction we should be moving.” Obviously, like I said, in a country like Algeria where it’s a very strict Muslim country, you couldn’t do any kind of religious [activities] that are not about Islam, so obviously there was no possibility for me to say, “Let’s pray.” [Despite that], we’d certainly share about life goals and what we’re all about before class, but I never had any kind of official prayer [session]. When I was teaching in Mindanao, it was in, again, a very Catholic setting, so it was a bit more of the traditional kinds of Catholic prayers. Everybody in the class was Catholic in that kind of thing, so it was a different situation.


When I got here, I realized right away who my students are. It just seemed to be the normal thing then. “Okay, we’re gonna invite everybody. So if you believe, share.” And I’ve in the past, only twice, Muslim students who read from the Qu’ran and, after their sharing, end with a traditional Islamic prayer that obviously they alone said [because] there were no other Muslims in the class. That was a nice kind of sharing. That’s just to show everybody that there’s enough that we have in common [and] that there’s an urgency to build on our common humanity and goodness, than to sit around, debate, and argue [on] what [we] might not agree on. But I think we have an urgency in the world today to work together on what we do agree on, and because we do agree on so many of the essentials in terms of goodness and life, we can see the good in each other. Even if I don’t agree with you totally in your belief, I can still celebrate it and realize that it’s who you are. Yes, lead me in prayer how you pray, even though I may not believe [in] everything you believe. Even if you don’t believe, I’m not gonna be offended and try [to] change your whole mind, [because] that’s you. [If] you don’t believe in [my] God, then [I’m okay with that], but I will make no apologies for what I believe and [for] sharing that with you, and I think that’s the way to go.


That’s why I don’t like to limit it, and the amazing thing for me is that I’ve never regretted it. I’ve never had an occasion where I find myself looking at [my] watch, thinking, “This is way too long” because it’s not “We’re wasting time,” or “I need to get to it.” Even if I come to class all prepared [and say] “Okay, we’re gonna talk about this, this, and this,” the few times that the prayer the person’s sharing or what he prepared has really taken a long timeit’s only after it’s done that I’ll suddenly look and go, “Oh my God, we don’t have much time,” and I just realize, “Ok fine, I’m not gonna get to what I thought I would.” I’m more than willing to keep juggling what I prepared for classes, because I can honestly say that the experience of somebody “wasting time” [and] going [on for] too longit’s always been so valuable. Yesterday was really interesting. We were talking in a class about the article when somebody raised their hand and said, “I was thinking, it’s like, remember last week, so and so, and they shared a prayer in the beginning of class.” Again, this made me so happy. “Yeah, exactly, can you imagine?” The reflection, even on what we’re learning, wasn’t from something I said. It was from one of the opening prayers that a student felt called to share, and it made such an effect on another student that, that’s what helped the student understand the reading. Again it shows how we’re all helping each otherwe’re all in this together.


JL: You’re here now in the Ateneo, a Jesuit institution, and you’re a Spiritan, which is not that common. To be honest, I haven’t really heard of Spiritans until you mentioned it.

FD: We’re a really small in America, and in the world we’re only 3,000.


JL: How is the experience being a Spiritan in a Jesuit institution?

FD: It’s interesting, because, certainly I see the difference in the fact that in the church, you know peopleI know you yourself aren’t Catholic, so it may not strike you right away, and maybe many Catholics wouldn’t realize, but there are many different spiritualities. [By] spiritualities, [I] mean simply how you best approach Godthat relationship we keep talking about. Like the way people are different, there are different ways I might have fun with my friends by sitting over dinner and talking, but if you wanna have fun with your friends, you’ll play cards or play basketball, and she’ll have fun with her friends by going to the movies and then getting a pedicure or something. Everybody’s got their different ways, and they’re all terrific if the point is to deepen that relationshipto bond, to share. If you ever [want to] befriend [someone], this is how you act, and this is what you must do. It’s the same thing with God.


The Jesuits have, obviously, Ignatian spirituality. They have a very clear and well-known approach to God which has been time-tested as really helpful [and] really terrific, and that obviously affects even their approach to teaching, as it does to their approach to everything. Because it is a time-tested, wonderful, valuable, helpful way of approaching God, it’s not that I feel like a foreigner, or totally out of what’s going on here, but it is, in fact, a bit different than the stresses. Let’s say, in our community, in our founder, we have, even coming from our name, the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. There’s this great sense of openness to the Spirit of not planting things very setlike “a” then “b” then “c”but rather listening to the Spirit. We have a lot of different ways of celebrating,and we’re very big on the gifts of the Spirit. Look at those giftshow are you receiving them, how are you putting them at the service of the church. I think it’s all very complimentary, but it’s very personalized [because] of how the Spirit works inside of each of one of us. Maybe that’s also what pushes mewhat we’ve been talking aboutmy approach to students and where they’re coming from. Even the question you ask me or the remark you made about the fact that everybody, no matter what you believe or don’t believe, is called to share that at the prayer or the reflection, and I think that’s typical of my community’s approachwhat God is doing in your life now for you and how you celebrate that. I think it’s kind of fun because I learn a lot and it helps me. There’s a discipline, a clarity in Ignatian spirituality, and there’s a very clear way. It kind of compliments my own personal approach, which is also very much in line with our community, which is much morethe Spirit is “organized chaos.” We’re kind of “go-with-the-flow” with whatever’s happening and see what the best way to deal with it. I guess the organized part is by listening to the Lordby verifying it with Scripture and prayer and discernment, but we don’t have any priority, like “Oh, this is how it should be taken care of,” but sort of “Look at the person, the circumstance, the moment, and go with the flow.” It’s fun and I think there’s been a real respect both ways, even among [Jesuits].[ They’ve been] very respectful to me as a Spiritan. Since I’m teaching at a Jesuit university, I’ve gone to workshops on Jesuit spirituality, Jesuit educational approaches, and they’ve been so helpful to me. I’m [really] grateful for that.


JL: You’ve had lots of stories, of joy, of being inspired by former students and all, but you’ve also told stories about how the country is still corrupt even though it’s a largely Christian nation, or how you’ve had rude students before, so with your profession comes a lot of frustrations. So what drives you to keep teaching despite all these frustrations happening?

FD: If I’m in a difficult moment or frustration or even when there’s something that’s really getting on my nerves, I thank God that I have enough sense by now to say, “But look at all the other things. How can I be so taken up with a certain problem or a certain situation that’s not going the way I might not wanted to be, and that would make me blind to all of the other amazing things that have happened. Also, what we were saying a while ago is that, let’s say with a particular studentif I’m wondering “Am I doing the right thing? Why don’t I seem to be getting through? Why don’t they seem to care?” Then I’ll always remember, “Well, there were other students, and I’m kinda worried about that too,” and it was years after that [when] I found out that [when] you plant a seed, all you can do is trust in water. They may not even know it was you. [I hope I did something.] It’s all that in God’s hands, and maybe later on, other people will build on it. In the end, they’ll realize, “Woah, what this person did really helped me,” and they’ll have totally forgotten that I was somehow a part of it, and that’s fine too because the whole purpose and joy is that you’re helping the people realize who they are and [what] they’re about. [With that] I can honestly say I’ve never been that stressed. I mean, certainly, there were moments of stress, where I’m shouting or whatever, but I’ve never been in a point where “Oh, I should just stop teaching, or it’s not worth it.” I’ve never, ever thought it wasn’t worth it. I’ve never thought I’d wanna stop.


JL: If there is one advice you can give to students, what will it be and why?

FD: I guess it would be that whole, “Trust yourself.” That’s so easily said and not easily done, but I think it would be, trust yourself because that’s the other difficulty that I’ve found, even in teaching. Teaching anything is that whole thing of how students would often feel like they absorbed everything from articles, fromeven when teaching a languagethe grammar books, and that therefore what they need to do is simply then repeat it all to the teacher, and that makes them a good student. To try and get them to have self-confidence and to realize, “You bring yourself to whatever it is you’re learning, so don’t be afraid. Who are you? What are you thinking? What do you want? What are you dreaming? What other gifts and talents do you bring?” ‘Even when I was teaching language, I would often do that. I would ask my students, “Who’s musical? Who plays an instrument?” Even in Algeria, I would actually have them learn different songs in English. Then I’d ask them, “Find a good poem in English that really speaks to you, and try to learn part of it to recite, and share why.” Why would I want them to learn just the grammar, learn the spelling, write an essay on this? Now that you’re getting this language skill, in this new language, share what you’re thinking. Share who you are, however you want to do that, and I had people bring guitars. I had a funny experience in Algeria. In Muslim Algeria, [they’re] dressed kind of folkloric, because that’s how they were still dressing. Then they bring in a guitar and they’re singing country WesternDolly Parton songs,  and I was like, “Oh my God, this is so weird.” Then it’s like, “Oh, I love this song,” or “I heard it once on the radio,” They looked it up, and it’s really fascinating.


My advice is “trust yourself”. You have something. Find it. If you think there’s nothing there, it’s just because you haven’t found it [yet]. I guarantee you there’s something there. Look and don’t be shy in showing it, because you’ll never know if you don’t look and present it to everyone. Everybody has some gift. Everybody brings something to the table. I guess that’s my advice to students, no matter what your subject, no matter what your major, no matter what your future plans are, in every subject, you have something to bring to the table, because you’re you. There’s only one of you in the whole universe, so that means you’ve gotta be special. Find out what that is, share it with us.


JL: What is the most important thing you have learned from your students?

FD: I guess that you never stop learning. My students say thingsthey write [things] that really just take my breath away and get me thinking. That’s why I often, even in class now and then, jot things down in my own notebook because a student will make a reflection and I’ll be, like, “Whoa!” And I’ll wanna jot that down, because I don’t wanna forget that idea.” Sometimes it’s through questions students ask that’s so powerful. I’m always honest. If I’m not really ready, I’m go “Whoa, I really have to think about that. That’s a really good question.” I’m just so grateful. Even through my years of teaching, it just makes life so exciting because I’m always so aware of [how] I have so much to learn. There’s still so much about life, about love, about God, about goodness, about even who I am and what I need to do to bring this goodness into the world, and it’s thanks to my students that I do that. I guess that’s why I begin to miss my students.


In the classroom, it’s so terrific. I have students who are saying, “Well, I don’t agree with that,” or “Why would you say that?” or “It’s not clear to me.” I have to keep thinking, I have to go deeper, I have to ask God, “Okay, God, what am I supposed to do about that?” I might think I’ll have this brilliant way of explaining this to my class, but I go in and start [talking about] what I think is a brilliant, and I notice half the students are falling asleep. The others are doodling in their book, and I realize, “Okay, Lord, I wasn’t paying attention. Sorry. What am I supposed to do?” I think that’s the greatest thing I’ve gotten from my studentsthat for my entire life [until] they bury me, I’ll be learning, I’ll be discovering, and that’s kind of exciting. That really makes life exciting, and I think that’s what keeps me young. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but some people have said to me, “You don’t act like an old priest”, and I’m thinking, “How could I when I teach?” My students keep me young, not because we sit around and do silly thingsalthough sometimes we dobut precisely because we also sit around and do serious things that keep me thinking and learning. You know, I never sit back and go, “Got it, know it, done with it.” [I’m] always learning, always discovering, [and] that’s exciting. That’s why I love living, and that’s thanks to my students.

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