After nearly three decades of teaching religion, Roberto Costa has a simple replay whenever people mention retirement.
“I say, ‘What are you talking about?’” reports the 57-year-old Costa, who has master’s degrees in divinity and theology. “I am very passionate about what I do, and I want to continue doing it.”
Born in Turate, in Italy’s Lombardy region, Costa moved to Chicago at age 23 to study at Catholic Theological Union. After graduation, he ended up staying permanently in the Windy City, where he met his wife, Sandra Hou, who was born in Burma (now Myanmar) and grew up in Hong Kong. The couple recently celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary and have two sons, ages 23 and 20.
Costa has taught religion for 28 years and Italian for five years. For the last 14 years, he has taught at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles. He currently teaches three religion classes: World Religions, Honors World Religions, and honors Catholicism in Literature.
“The approach I have is first, not to be judgmental about faith. You have to have empathy. You try to see it from the point of view of the people who believe (each religion),” he says.
“Religion tries to give answers to the mysteries of the universe. ‘Where do we come from? How do we live here? How do we live a good life? What happens after we die?’ We see how different traditions —Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity – answer these questions,” he says. “And to see these questions through different lenses sometimes opens you up to understanding your faith in new and different ways.”
Modern culture devalues religion, which gives his role even more weight, he says. “We live our life as if God does not exist. I don’t see this as a negative. I see it as a sign that re-evangelization is needed.”
The most important thing as a teacher is to develop a meaningful relationship with students, he says. “I am not very formal, and I listen to what they have to say,” he says. “I want them to think for themselves and I want to make sure they know I care for them.”
Costa started teaching Italian five years ago as the program at Notre Dame expanded under the guidance of Laura Longano, the main Italian teacher there.
When he teaches Italian, he makes it a point to bring his culture into the classroom and instill enthusiasm in his students, he says. He especially loves teaching Italian 1 to beginners.
“Learning (a language) is about practice, practice, practice,” he says. “And if you go into a class and you don’t show enthusiasm, you don’t get any enthusiasm back from the students.”
Looking back at a lifetime of teaching, his most treasured achievement is simple, he says. “To me, the big reward is knowing I made a difference in the life of my students.”