From “Me” to “Them”: Fr. Paul Ybarra on Adopting an Outward Perspective
Rising up out of the industrial landscape of South Bend’s West Side stand two architectural gems: St. Adalbert and St. Casimir. The brick and mortar, the stained glass windows, and the vaulted ceilings of these two Churches emanate beauty, but there is a sense of life, too, that pulsates throughout the buildings. It permeates the parish offices where parishioners come and go, perhaps in search of a quiet conversation with their pastor, Fr. Paul Ybarra. It flows through the halls and classrooms of St. Adalbert Catholic School where the average visitor is greeted with a colorful display of student artwork and the reverberations of children’s laughter. Founded in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries by Polish-American immigrants, both parishes have experienced a surge in their Latino populations over the years, with parishioners praying together in English, Polish, and Spanish throughout the week. Beauty and life—apt characteristics for the parishes that Fr. Paul Ybarra, C.S.C. calls “home.”
These characteristics are, in many ways, a link to Fr. Paul’s years at St. John Vianney Catholic School, where he served as an ACE teacher, and where he would later return for three more years after being ordained a Holy Cross Priest. When Fr. Paul walked through the doors of St. John Vianney for the first time in 2002, he was still Mr. Ybarra, with the priesthood being, at that stage in his life, nothing more than a glimmer of an idea. Standing at the outset of his two-year placement in Goodyear, Arizona, Paul imagined the potential gains of the next four semesters: an advanced degree from the University of Notre Dame, a paycheck, and the potential to grow into a master teacher.
Having been missioned to teach English and Social Studies to nearly one hundred middle school students, approximately two-thirds of whom were the children of first generation migrant workers, Paul’s focus quickly shifted from an inward to an outward-looking perspective. He felt that turning point most profoundly within the first few months of teaching when his academic supervisor, Dr. Rachel Moreno, reminded him that every lesson, every on-time arrival to school, every M.Ed. assignment was for “them.” “It’s them,” she said, gesturing toward his students. “It’s not about you. It’s about answering the question, ‘What are you doing for that child?’” Her approach to field observations and teacher evaluation remained true to this philosophy she professed. Throughout her visits to St. John Vianney to observe Paul teaching, she dedicated time to reading and watching the delivery of Paul’s lesson plans, but not without taking the time to speak with his students—to get inside their own wonderings, curiosities, and struggles that—to her—were inseparable from the work of a teacher.
Through mentors like Dr. Rachel Moreno, and through the vocational work of teaching, Paul learned to see people at their utmost potential for beauty, most especially his students. He heard it in the voices of the children’s choir at the weekly school Masses; he read it in the pages of prose planted in the sixth grade class’s literary magazine by the student who had yet to pass a vocabulary quiz. By looking and listening for that capacity for beauty, Paul Ybarra has asked, ever since those formative years in ACE, not only “What do we want these students to be able to do?” but moreover, “Who do we want these students to be(come)”? Teaching was for him the “stuff of life”, a chance to enter into human beings’ experiential act of becoming. His work as pastor of St. Adalbert and St. Casimir is a continuation of that discovery made years earlier in Goodyear, Arizona. As pastor, he is committed to ensuring the status of those two parishes as far more than brick and mortar buildings. He abides by the philosophy that these parishes must be dwelling places, where God acts in and through the practical everyday living of a beautiful people.