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John-Paul Heil: Time Measured in Firsts and Seconds

heil feature

Alumnus John-Paul Heil has returned to the Mount as an adjunct professor. He also is a semifinalist for a Fulbright for the second time.

John-Paul Heil, C’15, has experienced God’s call and exudes the humility, and humor, of a man who trusts God’s plan for his life.

Time has been a significant theme for this Mount St. Mary’s University graduate and now adjunct professor, experienced in both chronos and kairos. He had won more than 75 local and national writing awards, been an inaugural member of the NASA INSPIRE Online Program and Collegiate Experience at Virginia Tech, a six-year participant in Capital Area Science and Engineering Fair and a Junior Alternate Grand Champion before he came to the Mount at age 16.

In 2015, he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in history, philosophy and Italian studies. He was an honors student and recipient of the Edward J. Flanagan Memorial Prize, awarded to the member of the senior class who best represents the tradition of Mount St. Mary’s University in scholarship, conduct and leadership.

His senior year, he both received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Award and was accepted to the University of Chicago. He declined the Fulbright to pursue his doctorate in history at the prestigious academic institution. Heil earned his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 2016 and is currently a Ph.D. candidate working on his dissertation titled “Virtue and Vice in the Political World of Renaissance Naples.” He has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Department of Liberal Arts and the University of Chicago in the Department of History. This academic year, he returned to teach at Mount St. Mary’s University in the Department of History as an adjunct and aspires toward a more permanent position at his alma mater.

Again, Heil was chosen.

In January 2020, he was notified of his status as a semifinalist for a Fulbright Research Study Award to Italy for academic year 2020-21. “The submission would not have been a quarter of as good as it ended up being without the help of Christine Blackshaw and Jamie Gianoutsos. They helped me with my Fulbright ETA back in the day and they helped me with this,” he added about the Office of Competitive Fellowships.

Born the oldest of eight, Heil was educated at Immaculata Academy Homeschool. His parents met at Johns Hopkins University where his father, a man of math and science, fell in love with his mother, a woman of language and art. Heil grew up in a happy home with subtitles on the television and books before bedtime. He learned to read ahead of his third birthday, discovered in the doctor’s office when he read an eye chart. A consultation with priests and friends of the Diocese of Arlington led his mother, a translator and linguaphile at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to give up her job and focus on his education.

“My mom taught me, God bless her,” Heil said. “She left her job, which was very high-paying, and decided to teach me.” A young Heil started school shortly after, graduated high school and turned 16 the summer of 2011, and has been in the world of higher education ever since.

His Fulbright project is titled: “Quattrocento Humanist Ideas of Royal Feminine Virtue Between Ferrara and Naples.” Heil plans to go to the northern region of Emilia-Romagna to Modena.

“One of the really interesting things I found is that Modena actually has extremely intact archives of Neapolitan documents because of the person I’m studying.” He will study Eleonora Trastámara d’Aragona (1450-1493), daughter of the King of Aragon-controlled Naples and the mother of “first lady of the Renaissance” Isabella d’Este (1474-1539). “[Eleonora] makes a very wise marriage alliance and marries into the d’Este family of Ferrara,” he said.

If he is awarded a 2020 Fulbright, Heil will study the education Eleonora received in the classics from Neapolitan humanists and how that education was manifested in her rule over Modena and Ferrara. The scholars who taught Eleonora, Heil argues, believed that “A woman can rule just as effectively, if not more effectively, than a man can. And she received an education and led her own state.” Heil said nobody has looked in Modena, located in the north of Italy, for documents related to Naples, located in in the south of Italy, furthermore postulating Eleonora d’Aragona has been overlooked because she was Spanish and does not neatly fit into a narrative of the Renaissance often focused exclusively on Italian geniuses.

“When we think of the Renaissance, we think of an aesthetic period when all these great sculptures were made or as a political period when the republics and monarchies were fighting with each other,” he explained. “Many haven’t looked at it as a period in which there was a great moral upheaval. Very few have looked at the Renaissance as a period in which [new] ideas about morality [and virtue] itself were developing.”

It’s clear that Heil is passionate about his intellectual pursuits. Asked why he turned down the Fulbright in 2015, he says it was a process of discernment.

“I was inspired by the study abroad trip I did in my junior year when I went to Florence, which was what woke me up to the beauty of Italy and the Renaissance, in particular.” Heil says he chose between going to Italy to teach English and pursuing the chance of a lifetime to study at University of Chicago. “I come back to the idea of providence,” he said.

The reassuring wisdom that God cares for us has guided Heil throughout his life—which, at one time, he believed would include the priesthood. He talks about growing in his faith and being thankful for those who have walked alongside him in love. Heil’s mind tried to plan the way but God determined his steps. Deus noster refugium et virtus.

Last year, around Easter, after a series of health issues, Heil received word that the Mount was looking for an adjunct to teach in the university’s core curriculum, which Heil is particularly enthusiastic about. Still he wrestled with coming back to the Mount. On Holy Thursday, right after Mass during adoration at the University of Chicago’s Catholic center, he asked God for help.

“Look, Lord, I could go back to the Mount or stay here. I don’t know what you want me to do,” he prayed. “If you want me to leave here, give me a sign and make it very obvious, really hit me over the head; make it extremely clear if I should leave.”

God soon fulfilled Heil’s request. Twenty minutes later he was mugged on his way home from Mass. He fought his assailants off but found himself the morning of Good Friday sitting in the emergency room, covered in blood, concussed. As soon as he left the hospital, he called Associate Professor of History Greg Murry, Ph.D. and agreed to take the teaching job back at the Mount.

“I came to the Mount last semester and it has been one of the most grace-filled experiences I’ve ever had being back here, teaching,” Heil said. He has worked hard to redeem time, make the most of every opportunity and wait for God’s instruction.

“Love is the motivation and sometimes love means laying down things that you want to do out of love for another person. There’s not a day that I don’t wake up and think I would not be here if it wasn’t for my mom and dad and the sacrifices they made,” Heil reflected. “That’s the sort of love that led me here and that’s the sort of love I hope to give back to my students—if I can even give a fraction of what my mom gave me, I will be happy with my life.”

Heil laughed about how God blinded Paul (Saul, of Tarsus) on the road to Damascus. “My heart is open to the will of God and hopefully he shows me the path forward in a way that doesn’t require a concussion. Thankfully, I haven’t lost my sight,” he quipped. Indeed, he continues to walk by faith and not by sight. He views Paul as a perfect example of someone who allowed God to work in his life and it didn’t matter where he started—God knew where he would finish.

Inscriptions found on sundials throughout Europe read: Ab hoc momento pendet aeternitas (On this moment hangs eternity). Variations include horam dum petis, ultimam para (While you see the hour, prepare for your last) and occasum tendimus omnes (We are all on our way to sunset).

Grace is performed in the knowledge of truth—and in his perfect timing the seconds are measured by significance.