Students erupted into applause after an April 16 school Mass at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville upon learning that their theology teacher, Paul O’Brien, was selected to be one of the 10 winners of the Archdiocese of Washington’s annual Golden Apple Awards, which recognize excellence among Catholic school teachers.

Marco Clark, the president of the school, said O’Brien exemplifies what Pope Francis wrote about in his latest apostolic exhortation, when he talked about the need to be “saints next door.”

“We literally have a saint next door who we are going to recognize,” he said.

In the nomination letters, colleagues and students described O’Brien as “a truly dedicated and passionate Catholic educator who models and witnesses the Catholic faith in everything he does,” said Laura Roland, the assistant superintendent for Catholic identity and accreditation for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Father Everett Pearson, the pastor of Mount Calvary Parish in Forestville, has known O’Brien since they were both studying in college seminary together. While Father Pearson went on to become a priest, O’Brien went on to become a teacher, but “faith was always at the center” of what he did, said Father Pearson.

After leaving the seminary, O’Brien began to think teaching was his vocation.

“Twenty-five years later, I am still pretty sure that this is it. This seems to be all that I was hoping for as I entered the seminary, (it) seems to be lived in a daily way here at McNamara…I really found a home here,” he said.

Noting that vocation has been defined as “when the greatest needs of the world meet with your greatest needs and desires,” Clark agreed that in teaching theology at Bishop McNamara, O’Brien “has found his true vocation.”

“When you look into Mr. O’Brien’s eyes, you see authenticity, you see genuine joy, you see somebody who knows that he’s been called to this time and place,” said Clark.

O’Brien teaches not only by giving students information, but also by getting students to think it through and understand that the faith comes from a logical foundation, Father Pearson added.

“He doesn’t just give you a certain type of perspective, he expands your perspective instead,” said Carlos Yovany Saravia, a junior at McNamara. “He gives you the opportunity to deepen your understanding of certain things, especially our faith. If you’re struggling with something, he will try to make you ask questions about it.”

By doing so, Saravia said O’Brien encourages students to talk about their faith.

“He always tries to bring something within you that draws you closer to Christ, as if Christ Himself was talking,” said Saravia.

Inside and outside of the classroom, O’Brien said he tries to model a way of being faithful and spiritual and “off your knees a bit more,” by living the faith through “how you treat people, how you greet people, how you see them as children of God and made in God’s image.”

O’Brien said he makes an effort to go see them “doing what they love to do,” whether that is on the ballfield playing sports or on the stage performing.

“That might be where Christ is most powerful,” said O’Brien.

Clark said O’Brien really pays attention to the students’ needs, and “makes God known, loved and served by knowing, loving and serving his students.”

Lindsey Bayes, a freshman at Bishop McNamara who plays on the softball team that O’Brien helps coach, said O’Brien took extra time outside of practice to work with her on her hitting, which has helped her improve her batting average. She added that he helps the team see that “there is always a bright side to losing” because they can learn from it, rather than stay angry about it.

“Coach O’Brien puts so much time into building us not only into better student athletes but into better people as well,” said Bayes.

O’Brien also emphasizes the importance of prayer to his students, and in particular prayer that involves listening to what God has to say to them.

“It is one of the pillars here at Bishop McNamara – we are called as Holy Cross folk to bring hope, and this world is in such need of hope right now,” said O’Brien. “These kids have such enthusiasm and such talent, they can certainly bring hope to a very tired world.”