Monday, February 28, 2011

A Crucifix in Every Classroom Does Not a Catholic School Make

Prior to getting a tattoo of a cross on his arm, my brother told me that he wanted one because he wanted to be marked as God's own. In the same way that currency belongs to the country whose image it bears, my brother wanted all to know that he belonged to God. A bit much for me and my pristine skin, but I appreciated the zeal with which my brother approached this evangelizing body art. To my brother's credit, marking his body with a symbol of his faith in Jesus Christ was much more than a decision made in haste; he is one of the most faith-filled and Christ-like people I know.

But not all people are as consistent on both the outside and inside. Take a wedding ring that means little more than a commitment made until bored with you I become, or a cross/crucifix around the neck of an actress whose body of work exposes more of her body than it does her work. In these cases, the outward representations of something sacred masks an underlying contradiction. The wedding ring doesn't make you married; a cross around your neck doesn't make you a Christian. A tattoo on your arm is only skin deep.

Images and symbols, though, can remind us of something beyond ourselves and inspire us to fulfill commitments and remain loyal to a person or belief. W.W.J.D. bracelets populated the arms of high school and college classmates of mine. A few years ago, Livestrong arm bands had to be removed by Bishop McLaughlin football players I coached prior to games. In either case, the message on the strip was supposed to remind its wearer of a commitment to Jesus (What would Jesus do?) or a healthy lifestyle/finding a cure for cancer.

The bracelet doesn't lead you from temptation; the arm band doesn't keep you from smoking.

In the same way, merely including the term Catholic along with the name of a school does not mean that a particular institution of learning espouses the teachings of the Catholic Church. Merely putting a crucifix in every classroom doesn't guarantee that teachers will take the time to pray before class, before lunch, before a test, after a rough day, or to include an intention for a sick family member.

Earlier in February (and yes, I am frantically trying to complete this blog so that I actually have more than one entry in February!), Catholic Schools across the country participated in "Catholic Schools Week" (CSW) a week long celebration of all that is good about Catholic Education in our country. Typically, however, many of the CSW activities included in many schools have little to do with Catholicity, education or Catholic Education. And while I completely appreciate the need to break away from our routine as educators and offer some "non-traditional" days to students, I do not feel that a week during which we are supposed to highlight all that is good about Catholic Education is a good time for the school community to stop doing those things that make us who we are-- offering a quality, academically rigorous education firmly rooted in the foundations of the Catholic Church.

By no means do I feel that ICS cornered the market on Catholic Schools Week activities. Likewise, I do not believe that ICS always lives up to its Catholic title. The faculty, staff, students and parents of Incarnation, though, truly celebrated the best parts of the home of the Irish: Catholic Identity, Academic Excellence, School Spirit, Service, and Community (ICS Catholic Schools Week). We didn't wear pajamas. 8th Graders didn't give candy to, er...I mean "teach" younger classes. Learning still occurred. We participated in the Celebration of the Eucharist and a school wide prayer service. Over 300 bagged lunches were made for local food banks (Student Giving Projects).

Basically, we did exactly what we do every week-- just better. We were more focused on our mission: inspiring life-long learners, challenging each individual to develop spiritually and striving to serve each other and the community. We were more intertwined and closer as a school family. We highlighted achievements. We honored our past. We were, quite simply, our best selves.

A Catholic School, in order to be Catholic, also needs to do more than have a subjectively successful Catholic Schools Week. But, if a crucifix on a wall, or around our necks, or even tattooed on our arms can help to remind us of a life that should be lived in accordance with the meaning behind that symbol, maybe a Catholic Schools Week that truly celebrates a school's Catholicity can help to inspire that school to become even more Catholic.

Maybe a Catholic school becoming even more Catholic can truly prepare its students for the future and teach them that faith must be lived, regardless of any fashion accessories, paintings or wall hangings.

Or even any blogs titled, "Catholic Education."

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Appealing to Thirst

The following is a transcript of my talk given this past weekend at Incarnation Catholic Church Masses to communicate information about the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Annual Pastoral Appeal (

As an educator, I consider the Beatitudes to be similar to an assignment description we’d give to students for a big project. Or, they are like a rubric by which we’ll be graded for our life’s work. Put in non-academic terms, think of the Beatitudes as a job description, an evaluation tool, recipe, instructions, or game plan for what God expects of us because of His gift of Salvation.

Do these things, Jesus tells us, and our reward will be great in Heaven. He doesn’t say that we’ll get a rebate in the mail, or that we’ll earn fame, fortune and the esteem of our friends and colleagues. He says that we’ll be rewarded, greatly, in Heaven. Be poor in spirit, mourn, be humble, hunger and thirst for righteousness, be merciful, be a peacemaker, allow yourself to endure persecution and insult and every kind of evil for the sake of justice, and we will be rewarded in Heaven!

And while this entire set of teachings carries get importance, there is one word that strikes a chord within my very soul and poignantly paints the picture of just how passionately we should work toward living out the Beatitudes: thirst. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be satisfied. In their verb
forms, both hunger and thirst translate word for word from ( “to have a strong desire.” But, and this is the former English teacher coming out in me, if we look at the noun forms of these words, hunger: “a compelling need or desire for food”, and thirst: “the sensation of dryness in the mouth and throat caused by the need for liquid” we notice that hunger can be a desire or craving for Doritos or chocolate or a Whopper even though we just ate, while thirst comes on much more quickly and is a much more basic necessity. So long as we have liquid, we can live for almost 8 weeks without food; however, we can
survive without water for 3 – 5 days at most, especially depending on the weather conditions.

So when Matthew uses the word “thirst” in how we should strive for righteousness, it conjures up the essential need for liquid innate in each of us and informs us that our pursuit of righteousness or any of the tenants of the Beatitudes should be as vital in our day to day lives as our need for water. If the Beatitudes make up the assignment description or rubric or job description than we should be inspired to not just be content with being a good father or an on-time employee or a once a week churchgoer or a recycler but that we should thirst for righteousness everywhere. We should be peacemakers everywhere we go. We should constantly show mercy. Not just on Sundays (or Saturdays) not just during the hour we’re here at church but always. This thirst for righteousness should inspire us, just like real thirst might
send you out to the water fountain, to get out of our pews, to go outside of our
church and home and school and place of employment into the world to make it a
better place. It takes only a few hours without liquid for our mouths to become parched, do we feel the same emptiness after a few hours of not carrying out the Beatitudes?

The Jesuits have a word for this constant striving, for this continual stirring within us to serve God, “Magis,” which means, simply, “more”. They identified it as a spirit that says aim high, even higher than you even think is possible and then work and pray like mad to get it accomplished. It’s a philosophy that says if you’re doing good works, do more. If you’re helping the poor, do what you can to help more. If you’re going to church or praying, go and pray more. Constantly strive for more, but not for
things or possession, but for ways to bring about God’s Kingdom here on Earth.

In our diocese this spirit of thirsting for more or “Magis” is made manifest through the funds generated by the Annual Pastoral Appeal. Thanks to monies collected last year in this appeal across the diocese, 1 million dollars went to Catholic Charities, $300,000 went to Pinellas Hope, $60,000 paid for a bus that doctors and other medical professionals use to go into migrant camps and offer free medical services, 2.3 million dollars paid for the education of a record 33 seminarians’ from our diocese, and close to 1 million dollars when to Catholic Schools across the diocese for not only tuition assistance but also to help subsidize the schools owned and operated by our diocese. The poor are lifted up, the mourning are supported, peace is made,
justice sought after and found—God’s Kingdom is more firmly established because
of the good work accomplished through the ministries and programs Annual Pastoral Appeal funds.

You’ll hear more about this Appeal over the next three weeks, and I’ll leave it to the next three speakers to talk to you about our particular numbers here at Incarnation and making pledges and asking for money. My purpose today was to make you thirsty. To make you realize that you were already thirsty. To make you understand that your cup has room for more it in it and that the small sips of righteousness you’ve been drinking aren’t quenching your thirst for it. To get you to see that you’re thirsty for more.

My purpose today is to plant a thirsty seed that will hopefully get watered the next few weeks and grow and blossom into something beautiful and fruitful.

I pray that if you’ve never given to the appeal that this year you’ll give something; that if you’ve given in the past, you’ll consider giving even more; that if you’ve never prayed for the success of the appeal and the ministries supported by its funds, that this year, even if its just today, that you’ll pray.

In a few moments, through our Celebrant, God will turn our gifts of bread and wine into His Body and Blood. He can do that. He can turn water into wine. He can feed 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. He can give sight to the blind. He can make the lame walk. He can make the deaf hear. He can raise the dead.

He can live after dying.

If He can do all of these things, certainly He can take our humble offerings during this year’s appeal and with them do abundantly more, “Magis” than all we could ask or imagine. With just a little more from each one of us, He could, through us and through our diocese, perform miracles.

Thirsty, anyone?