Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Keys to the Kingdom

In the movie, The Sandlot, the main character, Smalls, makes a pretty big mistake. Unknowingly, he uses a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth so that he and his friends can continue to play their games of sandlot baseball. It’s not that he doesn’t know that someone signed it, he just doesn’t realize that Babe Ruth is the Sultan of Swat, the King of Crash, the Colossus of Clout, the Great Bambino. 

And, in what ends up triggering the rising action of the movie, Smalls actually hits a homerun with this autographed ball, sending it into the yard of Mr. Mertle and the clutches of his dog, the Beast. The rest of the movie centers around the gang scheming ways to get this ball back and out of one of the greatest pickles ever.

Sometimes we can go about our work within Catholic education like Smalls did with this autographed ball: we fail to recognize the magnitude of what’s in our hands. 

As Catholic school educators, we know that our goals are twofold: get our students to and through college and, more importantly, into heaven. We do all that we can to make our students not only smarter but also better. We work tirelessly to ensure that we simultaneously train students’ intellects and spirits so that they can take their knowledge and their conviction out into the world to make it a better place. 

But, the work is hard. Demands are many. We get worn out. The zeal we have on day one becomes a grind at some point in the fall or winter, maybe the spring. We can get so lost in the weeds of our days that we can lose sight of the fact that we have a Babe Ruth autographed baseball in our hands. Our patience wears thin. Prayer might take a back seat. We begrudge parents, colleagues, students or administrators that demand and deserve our best. We casually play with the ball and it can get lost in the clutches of the beast. 

In a 1988 Church document written by the Congregation for Catholic Education, entitled The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School:
From the first moment that a student sets foot in a Catholic school, he or she ought to have the impression of entering a new environment, one illumined by the light of faith, having its own unique characteristics...an environment permeated with the Gospel spirit of love and freedom. In a Catholic school, everyone should be aware of the living presence of Jesus the “Master” who, today as always, is with us in our journey through life as the one genuine “Teacher”, the perfect Man in whom all human values find their fullest perfection (#25).
Friends, it’s not just that every minute matters, every moment is Incarnational. Every moment is an opportunity to heal, to transform, to mend, to lift up, to direct, to form. Every interaction, every discussion, every email, every duty, every game, every lesson - every moment - is the moment that could forever change a life. Every moment within our ministry is an opportunity to make God incarnate - to make Him known, loved, and served. 

Every moment is a moment that could change the world. 

Fr. Pedro Ribadeneira, a Jesuit priest, said, “All the well-being of Christianity and of the whole world” rests on the work of Catholic school teachers. 

As a ministry within the Catholic Church, you’ve been given the keys to the Kingdom. There is a direct line emanating from you and linking you all the way back to Peter and in turn Jesus Christ Himself. 

And all of it matters. This isn’t a message to turn your schools into full-time catechesis programs. Our Church recognizes that those things that make us more distinctly human, those things that make us more like the perfect human - Jesus Christ - are the things that makes us become who God created us to be. Fr. Michael Himes, another Jesuit priest, says, “Whatever humanizes, divinizes.” Therefore, our work in science or math or English or music - whatever makes us advance in human endeavors - can bring us closer to God. 

Pretty amazing, huh? 

Catholic schools play an important role in the mission of the Church; the Church baptizes academic content as well as extra-curricular activities.

All of it matters. Everything is an entry-point into the divine. 

I had been working at the University of Notre Dame for about a month and I was walking with colleagues from the ACE building to a meeting across campus. At one point I lagged a bit behind the group so that I could get a glimpse of Mary on the Dome. When it seemed as if I was headed in the wrong direction I had to confess - I was making sure that I was aware of the amazing opportunity I have to work under the watchful protection of Our Heavenly Mother Mary at her University. 

It was my way of reminding myself that I’m honored and humbled to be working on something more valuable and important than a baseball autographed by a baseball legend. 

Catholic educators, that you, too, have something more valuable than sports memorabilia at your fingertips. You’ve been given the keys to the Kingdom. 

You’re world-changers.

You’re saint-makers.

You’re Catholic school educators. 

Don’t forget it.

Friday, February 2, 2018

He was a Joy

David Zelenka was a joy.

My Uncle Dave had my mother sew a series of chef hats that he wore at his most recent place of employment. On one of them - and there was a vast assortment of patterns and colors - he had my mom embroider “I am a joy”. This was in response to a job review that he received and, rightly so, in which he took immense pride.

On anyone else, it would seem boastful or just out of place. Maybe even annoying. But, for Uncle Dave it fit. Simply, because he truly was a joy.

I’m sure that everyone in this room experienced it in some way, shape or form. Whether it was his contagious and incessant and often ill-timed laugh (Abbot Gary mentioned yesterday that Uncle Dave always got a good laugh out of witnessing someone falling, or getting mildly hurt - even if he was the cause of this pain like he was when he dropped a 45 pound weight on my foot), his playfulness especially around kids or dogs (my kids wore socks with frogs on them yesterday - on their own - as a way to honor their silly Uncle Frog), or his love for cooking and sharing food, each one of us could tell a story - many stories - of how Uncle Dave brought joy into our lives.

He was a joy.

He was the type of person that made you feel better after being with him. You always left an encounter with Uncle Dave feeling full.


To extend the Beatitudes, read during the Gospel from the funeral Mass:
Blessed are we who knew David Zelenka, for we were filled with joy.
Perhaps Uncle Dave’s greatest expression of joy came through food. He was a rare person who did what he loved – which was cook – and loved what he did. His passion was cooking and he used this ability as a mechanism to fill the bellies and hearts of others. Again, I’m sure that everyone in this room shared a meal with my Uncle Dave. Whether it was a 4th of July cookout that he and my Aunt Cheryl hosted, a trip into their home to Curly’s Diner or meeting at a local restaurant you walked away from one of those meals stuffed – not only with food but also with love.

You always left an encounter with Uncle Dave feeling full.

He was a joy.

And even though today we mourn our loss but celebrate his life, I think we’re supposed to walk away from even this encounter with Uncle Dave full.


Because what made a meal with Uncle Dave so special wasn’t necessarily the food - although the food was always good and it was always filling - it was his spirit. It was his ability to make conversation, to initiate and sustain laughter, to engage you – through food – with his love that filled you up.

As a community that believes in the hope of the resurrection and promise of eternal life, we, along with Uncle Dave, just gathered around a table – the Eucharistic table – through the celebration of this Mass. We just feasted on heavenly food – our daily bread – the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – and that should leave us – like an encounter with Uncle Dave – full. Joyful.

Jesus, during His Last Supper with His closest friends, told them to take and eat and drink and to do these things in memory of Him. I think every meal that I ever shared with Uncle Dave contained a similar invitation. Take and eat and drink and when you do those things remember that I love you. The Responsorial Psalm at Mass echoed this sentiment:
 All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.
Uncle Dave was a joy and let it be our joy that David Zelenka now sits at the heavenly banquet table of our Lord, where I’m sure that he is taking and eating the juiciest meats and drinking the choicest wines - On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines (Isaiah 25:6) - and spreading good conversation, belly aching laughter and an eternal supply of joy.

-In loving memory of David Zelenka (February 23, 1954 - January 27, 2018)

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Keep Moving. Be Strong. Focus on What's Ahead.

“With eyes of faith consider the greatness of your mission and the wonderful amount of good which you can accomplish.” 

-Bl. Basil Moreau, Christian Education

My daughter Elizabeth has been trying to ride a bike, with pedals and without training wheels, for about the past year. On a steady program of balance bikes since she was about 3, we spent copious amounts of time outside throughout the spring, summer and fall of this past year on a pedal bike trying to help her master the steering, balance, movement and stopping required to ride without the steady hand of myself or my wife.

There were moments. She would get a few pedal revolutions and a bit of coasting before she would either push off with a grounded foot or stop altogether.

My main advice throughout this process was simple: moving forward helps you to stay balanced, be strong with your arms, and keep your head up so that your eyes focus just a bit out in front of you.

Keep moving, be strong, keep your head up, and look at where you’re going.

Movement will help you stay balanced. While the other pieces of advice made sense, this one is counterintuitive. It seems that going slowly would provide more safety. However, this actually makes riding that much harder, if not impossible. As part of a faculty retreat, I had teachers try to ride a bike as slowly as possible the length of our basketball court without putting down a foot. No one was able to do it. Going slowly inhibited their ability to move forward.

Vision is the movement which can help us stay balanced and continuing to move forward. It can help propel us into the future by focusing not on what something currently is, but rather by unleashing the hope of what something can become.

You can’t ride a bike by just sitting on it. You have to start moving. You have to begin and believe that you will keep moving. You must have vision. You must have faith. You must have hope.

Hope has immense power. Imagine trying to learn how to ride a bike without the hope that one day you will be able to ride it? Without the vision and hope of actually being able to ride, you wouldn’t even try. Howard Hendricks, a long-time professor at the Dallas Theological Seminary, stated, “Discouragement is the anesthetic the devil uses on a person before he reaches in and carves out his heart.”

Hope, on the other hand, sustains and fuels the vision of what something, or someone can become. It is the power of “yet” in growth mindset theory. It is the belief that students can improve and learn anything through deliberate practice. It is the trust that formative discipline can create disciples. It is the conviction that there is no progress without struggle; death must proceed the Resurrection.

As a principal I had the blessing of working closely with a student who struggled both academically and behaviorally. In severe danger of either failing as an 8th grader and/or facing expulsion before the end of the year, I began working with this student on a daily basis. At one point, after about two weeks of making progress toward academic proficiency and behavioral stability, the student looked at me and with a seriousness I hadn’t witnessed before and asked, “Do you really think this will work? Do you really think I can do this?”

To which I responded, “Of course I do. You just need to keep moving forward. Be strong and keep focusing on what you can become.”

Hope is the fuel that propels vision.

It is the necessary ingredient to passing 8th grade.

It is the way that we can, on Christmas morning after months of wobbles and falls, successfully ride a bike.

It is the movement that can enable us to accomplish the God-sized dreams He has planted inside of our hearts.

Keep hoping.

Keep dreaming.

Keep moving and be strong, with your head up and eyes focused on what lies ahead.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

We Are in a Fight

We are in a fight.

There’s a powerful moment in the first book of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, when Frodo meets Aragorn (at this point known as Strider) for the first time. This is after Frodo puts the One Ring on for the first time, vanishes, and draws the attention of the Ringwraiths. Strider grabs Frodo and takes him into closed quarters.

Strider asks Frodo, “Are you frightened?”

Frodo responds, “Yes.”

Strider continues, “Not nearly frightened enough. I know what hunts you.”

Up until this point in the story, Frodo doesn’t quite understand the magnitude of the Ring or the danger involved in carrying it. While he definitely senses his task to take the Ring to Rivendell is important, this is the first moment that his journey changes. His quest takes on new urgency, his travels become more treacherous. Carrying the Ring will be a battle.

We are in a fight.

Up until the early 1900s, Notre Dame’s athletic teams were known as the Catholics, Rovers or Ramblers.

The origin behind Notre Dame’s current nickname, the Fighting Irish, is debatable. Some claim that it came from irate opposing fans, others that it was part of a player’s halftime pep talk, while a few credit a newspaper reporter with coining the title.

Regardless of the exact origin, the association between being Catholic and Irish was laden with negative stereotypes, bigotry and oppression. Fr. Charles Carey, a Holy Cross priest, eloquently spoke about the history of our University’s mascot in a religious bulletin on the eve of St. Patrick’s day in 1953, writing:
“Fighting Irish! It’s more than a name; more than a people. It is the Faith! In narrow, little New England, it began as a slur -- a term of opprobrium. But we took it up and made of it a badge of honor -- a symbol of fidelity and courage to everyone who suffers from discrimination; to everyone who has an uphill fight for the elemental decencies, and the basic Christian principles woven into the texture of our nation. Preserving this tradition, and this meaning of Irish at Notre Dame does honor to everyone of us.”
Fr. Carey, C.S.C. continues,
“Tomorrow you can take this one lesson from the Irish: they were never so poor in all their wanderings and sufferings that they bartered their Faith for the comforts of this life. They had little to take with them wherever they went; but the Faith was always the most precious of their paltry possessions. Their spirit has made it easier for you to practice your Faith here in America today. May the Fighting Irish always be with us!”
Even our University’s current mascot, the Leprechaun, was modeled after racist cartoons that depicted Irish and Catholics as apes.

Like the Holy Cross of Jesus, the nickname of Our Lady’s University and the iteration of its mascot are transformed symbols of pride, unity and hope. What were intended to be messages of inferiority and oppression now at the University of Notre Dame stand for an unwavering spirit - a fight - to make God known, loved and served.  
Our University gained respect and national notoriety through the athletic efforts of the Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne and Moose Krause, but also academically through the work of Frs. Zahm and Newland, and the legendary progress achieved by the late former President of the University, Fr. Ted Hesburgh. Infused with the spirit of Fr. Edward Sorin, the University of Notre Dame truly is a force for good in our world today.

We are the Fighting Irish and we are in a fight.

As Catholic educators, those holy men and women that came before us and built the foundation for Catholic education in our world faced bitter hatred, violence, unjust laws and oppression all aimed at removing Catholic schools from our country. The pioneers in Catholic education in America had to fight to preserve our faith and maintain the existence of Catholic schools. Catholic immigrants in America wanted to ensure that the education offered by common or public schools upheld Church teaching and when it didn’t bishops, priests, religious sisters and parents fought for the right to establish schools that would pass on the Catholic faith to their children.

As such, Bishops mandated that all Churches have Catholic schools and that all Catholic families send their children there. The Church vehemently encouraged heroic support from parents and parishioners as schools were built, curriculum was designed, and the tenets of Catholic education were developed.

Some battles have lingered into our current times almost two centuries later. Others were fought for and won, allowing us to enjoy some rights and freedoms as Catholic educators that our forerunners did not.

Make no mistake: our ancestors in Catholic education were in a fight and this fight continues today.

May we, the Fighting Irish, embody the zeal of our University’s founder and may this spirit - this fight - enliven our hearts and elevate our minds for the work set out before us.

We are fighting to make God known, loved and served.

We are fighting to educate children and young people through the inspiration of our Catholic faith.

We are fighting to get our students to and through college.

We are fighting to get our students into heaven.  

We are fighting to change the world.

We are the Fighting Irish.


Sunday, January 21, 2018

From Humble Beginnings...

In the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. “It is the smallest of all the seeds,” Jesus teaches, “yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the ‘birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches’” (Matthew 13:31-32).

A mustard seed, something small, can take root and grow and bloom into something much, much larger.

From humble beginnings...

The Log Chapel at the University of Notre Dame is a recreation of the first building planted here at Our Lady’s University. 175 years ago, Fr. Sorin and a group of his companions had the zeal, vision and hunger to turn their work - this University - into
“one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country.”
The University started as a trade school. Its first students were orphans who were trained as apprentices to help assist manual laborers in the area.

Fr. Sorin and other members of the Congregation of the Holy Cross endured a fair amount of hardship. Cruel winters. Impossible deadlines. Fires that decimated their work. A scarcity of workers and support.

Yet, Fr. Sorin was able to see the large bush in the small seed. He possessed absolute faith in his work, utter dependence on the Eucharist, and unwavering trust in the protection of Mary. During a particularly discouraging period of the first winter here, Fr. Sorin found hope in the light of the sanctuary lamp. He even states, “They tell us we won’t be able to afford to keep it burning. But we have a little olive oil and it will burn while it lasts...We can see it through the woods and it lights the humble home where our Master dwells. We tell each other that we are not alone, that Jesus Christ lives among us. It gives us courage.”

From humble beginnings…

As educators within Catholic Schools, our story, too, has humble beginnings. Countless men and women, priests and nuns, parents and students dedicated their entire lives - like Fr. Sorin - to the establishment and building up of Catholic schools within our country. And yet, despite hardship, despite oppression, despite financial challenges, despite humble beginnings, our Catholic schools continue to be one of the most powerful means for doing good in this country and in our world.

In 1977 the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Catholic Education, in a document titled, The Catholic School, affirms the importance of Catholic schools:
It is when the Catholic school adds its weight, consciously and overtly, to the liberating power of grace, that it becomes the Christian leaven in the world (#84).
Leaven, like a mustard seed, is small. Like a mustard seed that grows into something much bigger, leaven - or yeast - is the quickening agent, the animating ingredient in bread that makes it rise.

I hope this metaphor offers you encouragement and inspiration to know that your work within Catholic education is the leaven that is causing hope to rise up in our world.

I hope that you understand that your work within Catholic education is building up the Kingdom of God. I hope that you understand your work within Catholic education is erasing ignorance, reversing poverty, and inspiring the hearts and minds of others.

I hope you know you are affecting eternity.  

I hope you know that you are literally changing the world.

And while you’re too humble to believe that this is true, be humble enough to believe that with the liberating power of grace something amazing can come from humble beginnings.



Friday, December 15, 2017

Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School

I was blessed to be invited by Dr. Timothy Ulh, Superintendent of Schools in the Diocese of Montana, to be a guest blogger for his podcast, Catholic School Matters, where he has been unpacking Church documents on Catholic education over the past few weeks. This post is in response   to his podcast on:

In his latest podcast, Dr. Uhl and John Galvan, Director of Schools from the Diocese of San Diego, address three areas of The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School: Guidelines for Reflection and Renewal for ongoing consideration:
  1. The need for Catholic schools to respond to the dangers children face
  2. The importance of establishing a vibrant Catholic identity within the school
  3. The responsibility of teachers to be authentic witnesses of Jesus Christ
1.  This document opens with a call to action. The opening paragraphs speak of the trials faced by children and how Catholic schools must heroically respond to their needs. The Congregation recognizes that young people find themselves in “radical instability” (#10) and “in an environment devoid of truly human relationships; as a result they suffer from loneliness and a lack of affection” (#11). Written almost 30 years ago, the urgent need for Catholic schools to offer to students "something of value in their lives" (#13) has both lingered and intensified. Our kids need what Catholic schools offer.

2. Given this urgent need, there is grave importance to establish an unabashedly Catholic climate within the school so that
"From the first moment that a student sets foot in a Catholic school, he or she ought to have the impression of entering a new environment, one illumined by the light of faith, and having its own unique characteristics" (#25). 
This Catholic school climate “must create favorable conditions for a formation process” and includes: “persons, space, time, relationships, teaching, study and various other activities” (#24). The Congregation covers each of these facets of the Catholic climate with a heavy emphasis on the role of the teacher in creating this atmosphere, stating, “Prime responsibility for creating this unique Christian school climate rests with the teachers, as individuals and as a community” (#26).

3. The Congregation, in highlighting the importance of teachers within Catholic schools, echo the words of Bl. Pope Paul VI in 1975, when he proclaimed:
Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses. 
Bl. Pope Paul VI installing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as a Cardinal in 1977.
By brak - https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:P6_ratzinger.jpg, Public Domain,
The responsibility of teachers to establish and uphold this Catholic culture and to be authentic witnesses of Christian discipleship "includes such things as affection, tact, understanding, serenity of spirit, a balanced judgment, patience in listening to others and prudence in the way they respond and, finally, availability for personal meetings and conversations with the students" (#96). The teachers within our Catholic schools must make Jesus incarnate in every interaction, relationship, and moment.

Dr. Uhl and Mr. Galvan highlight the quote-worthiness of many passages within this document from the Vatican's Congregation for Catholic Education while also recognizing that it merely reinforces and extends concepts and ideas from documents that preceded it.

Nonetheless, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School centers itself on ensuring that Catholic schools maintain, harness and ultimately unleash the qualities and characteristics that make our schools, along with grace, instruments that can and will change our world.

For the Guest Blog page at Dr. Uhl's site, visit this link: https://tduhl.wordpress.com/2017/12/15/guest-blog-michael-zelenka-from-notre-dame/

Monday, December 4, 2017

Enter the Dance

My kids love to dance. You put a song on that has a good beat and all three of my kids will start to bop and sway and before long my house turns into a dance party. My daughters, who are 7 and 5, are showcasing their moves, my son, who is 1, is moving his head, even my wife and I are dancing. And the best part is that the room is filled with smiles, laughter and joy.

Now, a disclaimer: no one in my family has formal training in dance. And, at least in my case, I’m not sure that you can actually qualify what I do at these family dance parties as dancing. So, the joy is not a by-product of dancing prowess. It is not because we’ve executed some move perfectly or nailed the choreography. 

But none of that matters. We dance. 

This is the difference between a dance party and a dance audition. 

At a dance party everyone is invited. All are welcome. There are no qualifications or prerequisites. There’s no admissions test. Show up and enter the dance. 

Dance auditions, however, involve judgement. Most likely the invitation to audition is the result of a dancing pedigree or resume listing out one’s experience. Even if the auditions are open to all, the criteria to enter the dance are limited to those with the abilities, with certain gifts and talents that are conducive to dancing. Lack the necessary qualifications and you are sent home, you are turned away, you are left out of the dance. 

I think our Catholic schools need to stop acting like dance auditions and start functioning as dance parties.

The word catholic means “universal” and this is one of the four marks of our Church - one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Our schools need to represent our universal Church and live out this universality. Our Church doors are open to all, but oftentimes our schools are limited to those with enough money and enough skill - think dance audition - to uphold our high academic standards. We set the limits and despite an open invitation, some are turned away. 

In the 19th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel account people are bringing their children to Jesus so that He might lay hands on them and bless them. To the disciples and others in Jesus’ time this was scandalous. Children were beneath everyone but especially someone of Jesus’ importance. Matthew recounts that the disciples rebuke the people bringing their children to Jesus, to which Jesus responds, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Let the little children come to me. Notice that Jesus isn’t asking for their Math or ELA scores. He’s not interested in their lexile number. The invitation is open to all and all of the children brought to Jesus receive His grace. Enrollment actually has moral implications. As Catholic schools, we must ensure we have the resources to meet the needs of the students we accept. No matter how noble our reasoning, if we don’t have the resources to support the students entrusted to our care their potential failure is on us. This isn’t an excuse or rationale to help perpetuate Catholic school elitism. Instead, it is an imperative to have educators within our schools who can meet the needs of students with exceptionalities. If we are to let the little children come to Jesus, we must ensure that we have the appropriate mechanisms in place to guarantee that all students can and will learn. We must fulfill this important need - families and students require and deserve it. 

Let the little children come to me. 

And do not prevent them. We must courageously live out these words of Jesus. We must enable our schools to “let the little children come to” Jesus. We must heroically allow our Catholic schools to cast a wider net and increase the number of people on the dance floor. Catholic schools must make incarnate Jesus’ words. We must remove barriers. We must provide access. We must ensure that nothing stands between students with exceptionalities and their learning. 

So, the next time you’re feeling discouraged or overwhelmed or thinking about just how hard this work really is, I encourage you to dance. Dance and know that our work in Catholic education is about a dance party, not a dance audition. Dance in the joy that you are following the command of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Dance and remember that you, like your students, aren’t invited because you’re qualified. But rather, we are qualified because we are invited. 

Let the little children come to me. And do not prevent them. 

The music’s playing. The floor is wide open. It’s time to enter the dance.

This was a part of a reflection for the Program for Inclusive Education within the Alliance for Catholic Education at the University of Notre Dame: https://vimeo.com/240057745