“I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if not for him.” You don’t often hear a pop music star credit a Catholic priest in this way, so it is worth taking notice when it happens. The pop star in question is Dion–that is, Dion Dimucci, who rose to fame in the 1950s as the lead singer of the Belmonts and who went on to a great solo career in the 1960s, one including multiple hit singles: “The Wanderer,” “Runaround Sue,” among many others.
Dion wasn’t crediting the priest with making his musical career, however, but with something much more important: teaching him how to be a good man. This story was told a couple of years ago, when the New York Times profiled Dion in relation to his return to the Bronx, where he grew up, to collaborate on a musical about his life. Walking the streets of his old neighborhood, the singer recalled that, even after his career had begun to take off as a teen singer, he would still stop into Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church to talk to Monsignor Joseph Pernicone. Evidently, this priest was not content to leave Dion on the level of a teenager, but “pushed him” to “think about the meaning of love or happiness.”
“He once asked me, ‘Dion what would make you happy?’ ” Dion said as he settled into a pew at the back of the church. “ ‘Well, there’s this girl Susan I’d love to get close to. And while you’re at it, throw in a hit record and a Thunderbird.’
“ ‘No, Dion. The virtuous man is the happy man,’ ” the monsignor replied.
“I had no idea what he meant,” Dion said. “But he told me, it’s the predisposition to do the right thing at the right time in the right way for the right reason.”
He sat and looked around the sanctuary, which was bathed in a soft, golden light.
“I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if not for him,” he said. “I got lost in my life. But I eventually came back to what he taught me.”
There’s the long arm of the Church, which so many have tried to escape, only to find, to their own benefit, that they just couldn’t get away. Also the long arm of Aristotle, whose philosophy of virtue Saint Thomas Aquinas incorporated into his own thought, which has been such a treasury for the Church.
I think this story is worth noting, however, not just because it shows the intersection of secular fame and Catholicism, but also because it provides us with a lesson about the importance of teaching by precept. It is often said that teaching by example is more important or more powerful than teaching by precept. “The faith is caught, not taught,” we have heard. “Preach the gospel at all times–if necessary, use words,” we are told was said by St. Francis of Assisi. Fine, but what about teaching by precept? Isn’t that important, too?
I don’t mean to disparage the wisdom of teaching by example. If we teach by precept but not by example people will think we are hypocrites and will not listen. But I do think that sometimes, in our efforts to encourage teaching by example, we inadvertently disparage teaching by precept. We certainly should not want to do that. After all, Jesus himself, in addition to his perfect example, taught by precept every day. That’s why they called him “rabbi” or “teacher.” He sent the apostles into the world to preach the good news, that is, to teach by precept, by speaking the truth.
Teaching by precept corresponds to our nature, after all. Human beings are rational creatures, capable of using language. One of the most human things we can do is to try to explain the truth to each other, to instruct each other using words–to teach by precept.
This is exactly what Monsignor Pernicone did for the young Dion. He sat the young man down and told him the truth about the connection between human virtue and human happiness. He did it, moreover, in a way that posed a direct challenge to the young man’s opinions. The priest told him, no doubt gently and politely but also rather pointedly, that his understanding of what is good in life–cars, girls, fame–was superficial and wrong. Whatever he thought of it at the time, and for some time thereafter, Dion finally came to realize that this priest’s effort to teach him by precept was a blessing, and even a turning point in his life.