Brother John Sullivan: A Latin Legend


By Samuel Matt, Assistant Reporter

As a student in the Latin II class, I decided to interview the man who has taught me all I know about the world’s finest language. I would like to sincerely thank Br. John for his years of service teaching young Xavier students the glorious and certainly not dead language ab antiquo. He is also the photographer for the school and moderator of the photography club, and our hearts light up whenever we see him walking around the school, camera encircling neck, snapping pictures of students, events, and teachers. Br. John runs the school store with his business partner Br. Ryan, and we thank him for this service as well. Many a day I walk past the school store, and a simple “hello” from the two brothers puts a smile on my face. He is an asset to the school in many ways, with his steady, unfailing nature.

Br. John has truly made the phrase ad astra per aspera come alive in me and my fellow Latin comrades. And de facto, we constantly aspire to reach the stars through our hard work, as taught and exemplified by our teacher.

Samuel Matt: Could you give a bit of a background on your Latin journey? Were you taught it in school, and if so, did your teachers influence you in any way? 

Br. John Sullivan: I took four years of Latin in high school beginning at North Cambridge Catholic High School.  I majored in Classics [Latin and Greek] at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC.

SM: What drove your interest to become a Latin teacher?  

Br. John: I’ve always enjoyed language and literature.  Latin offers a better understanding of language in general.  Literature read in the original language helps with a greater feel for what the author is trying to communicate.  I’m happy to be a Latin teacher because I see how much the study of Latin helps the student become more expert in many fields of study.

SM: What is the most fascinating part of Roman culture for you?

Br. John: Three ideas fascinate me: First, the evolution of the language [ending in modern Romance languages]; the Roman philosophical attitude toward life; and mythology, which classical civilizations used to explain what they could not explain about the world in which they lived.

SM: Who is your favorite Roman Emperor, and why? 

Br. John: Hadrian because he was an outstanding administrator.  He listened to members of his government and took a low-key approach to dealing with people and the problems which arose.  He did not want to act too quickly nor too severe.

SM: In the classroom, what is your objective for your students and yourself? Do you find teaching rewarding?

Br. John: I think a student can learn many skills in the Latin classroom which he can apply to his other academic subjects and to life generally. The experience of learning any language and the cultural value of knowing it makes us more human.  There is a great quote from the late Latinist in the Vatican: “Latin is the best thing that ever happened to humanity. It leaves you zero room for nonsense. You don’t have to be a genius. But it requires laser-sharp concentration and total maturity.”  I would hope that the values contained in this quote will, somehow or other, impact my students.  I wouldn’t know how to answer “rewarding,” but I’ve been teaching since 1967.  That a good number of students taught.  I hope something I brought to the classroom has impacted in some way.

I think a good majority of my Latin Fellows could agree on this last statement-in a positive way. Br. John has brought life, humor, discipline, a love of language and culture, and amazing teaching into the classroom. Driven by the values that he has instilled into the very recesses of our souls, we are constantly fighting for the right to be moved into the “smart row”. We are happy when Br. John encourages us, saying, “If you keep this up, you will someday be moved into the smart row.” The spirits of Zachary Potter are especially lifted when he receives this praise from Br. John, as he has gleefully expressed to me and our other Latin amici.

I am glad that Br. John mentioned the late Latinist of the Vatican, Father Reginald “Reggie” Foster. He was truly the character! One of the things that piqued my interest about him was that he would take the familiar melodies of nursery rhymes and replace the words with Latin verses about the glory of ancient Rome, and especially Caesar.

May we continue to spread our love for Latin, and keep on studying it: ad maiorem Dei gloriam.