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 -, 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:

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:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Enter the Song

"Gather us in, the proud and the strong; Give us a heart so meek and so lowly, Give us the courage to enter the song."

-From the hymn, Gather Us In, by Marty Haugen

In my first summer of the Remick Leadership Program, I was coerced into being a cantor for the Responsorial Psalm at one of the weekday masses for RLP participants. I was sitting behind a Nashville Dominican, Sr. Anna Laura, at Mass and afterwards she turned around and said, “You have a beautiful voice. You should cantor sometime,” to which I replied,

“And you must be tone deaf, because I cannot sing.”

Sr. Anna Laura continued to urge me and I continued to resist. We went back and forth for some time. I thought her persistence had subsided after not hearing about it for the next few days, until she came to me and told me that I would be cantoring at the next RLP mass. After more back and forth, I finally conceded on only one condition: that she would do it with me.

Before Mass I was terrified. There are few things in my life that have made me more nervous. My heart was both pounding and racing. I felt dizzy. I have absolutely no recollection of the first reading. I’m not sure how I got up to the ambo. For all I know, Sr. Anna Laura dragged me up there. But once there, I took a deep breath, uttered a small prayer and, along with Sr. Anna Laura, I entered the song.

While I can’t say that I did well, I made it through the entire Responsorial Psalm and I lived to talk about it.

I had the courage to enter the song...and sing.

Much like Sr. Anna Laura did during my first summer of RLP, God has given all of us an invitation to sing through the ministry of Catholic education. He has scripted the notes. He has composed the score. And He has called us, despite any inadequacies that we may feel, to enter the song and to sing.

St. Paul urges the Ephesians (4:1-7) to:

“Live in a manner worthy of your call," a call to greatness together with others.

It’s not for us to second guess our abilities or to shrink from tasks we think may be above our capacity.

St. Paul encourages the Ephesians by reminding them that “grace was given to each of us
according to the measure of Christ's gift.”

Live in a manner worthy of your call. Live in a way that honors the God-sized visions that He has planted inside of your heart. Enter the song and sing and trust that grace has been given you according to the measure of Christ’s gift for your life.

Have you ever thought of your call - your ministry - your song within Catholic education as a gift?

That’s how Christ views it, because His gift to you will be your gift to the world and your gift back to Him.

Accept this gift and live in a manner worthy of it.

Enter the song, invite others to join you in the greatness for which you have been called, and sing.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Christian Education

Learning and formation occur through both immersion and repetition.

As a high school English teacher, I would use this approach to the various "language arts". Things like grammar, vocabulary, writing and reading comprehension were immersed in the context of our literary texts and students' own written work. Instead of having a separate vocabulary workbook, we used words from the stories we read as vocabulary words. Similarly, instead of performing grammar work in an isolated context, we would study grammatical constructs like semicolons in light of what we were reading or what students were writing. This integrated approach allowed students to see the interconnectedness of these concepts and skills. Their reading comprehension increased because they knew the meaning of complicated words. Their writing improved because they were able to get instruction on how to grammatically support their writing, instead of a fabricated and isolated sentence about Johnny throwing a ball. They saw that good readers re-read and that good writers re-write. They saw that their advancement in one of the language arts helped them advance in others. This, in turn, helped students to apply these concepts and skills across various contexts and even subjects.

They didn't just become better readers, or writers, or grammarians.

They became more effective communicators.
In his book, The Talent Code, author Daniel Coyle details the success of the Brazilian national soccer team. Coyle recounts the journey of Simon Clifford to Brazil in an attempt to discover the secret to the country's soccer success. Once there, Clifford uncovers the game futsal or futebol de salao - soccer in the room - and credits its fast pace, small yet heavy ball, and short-sided teams all as reasons that contribute to Brazil's dominance in soccer on the world's stage. This "deep practice" is immersive and repetitious. Players in futsal touch the ball more often than in traditional soccer - six times more per minute (Coyle, 27). Passing and ball handling, because of the size of both the field and the ball, become imperative skills in order to find success. These compressed characteristics of the game also demand improvisation; merely trapping, dribbling and kicking as you would on a broader field will result in more errors and turnovers. Instead, players must come up with tricks and tactics yet unseen in order to maintain control of the ball and the game.

In other words, futsal is soccer's baptism by fire. Immersion and repetition reign as king and queen.

The same is true of our spiritual life, too.

We can't just be faithful on Sundays or while at Mass or even just when it's convenient.

True faith cannot be compartmentalized; it naturally influences every aspect of our lives. In this way, the development of our faith will be most successful when it is integrated into all aspects of who we are.

Consider the following:

-You listen to music. Why not listen to Christian music? Some of it is really good:

-You read books. Why not read books about Christian themes? C.S. Lewis, GK Chesterton, any of the saints?!

-You listen to podcasts. Why not listen to podcasts about Christian topics? It just may be better than your Sunday homily:

-You watch TED Talks. Why not watch videos from Catholic speakers, too?

-You watch TV, but do you need to? Why not spend time with your wife, kids, parents, friends, in prayer? Really...

In other words, imagine the lift your spiritual life could receive if you started to integrate Christianity into all aspects of your life.

In the same way that your physical fitness would improve if you biked or walked to work, in the same way that your soccer or language arts skills would improve through immersion and repetition, our spiritual lives would receive an awakening if we started to allow faith to permeate all facets of our lives.

And as for Catholic schools, imagine if all parts of the school were infused with Christianity. The Congregation for Catholic Education states,
"Complete education necessarily includes a religious dimension. Religion is an effective contribution to the development of other aspects of a personality in the measure in which it is integrated into general education” (The Catholic School, #19).
The Congregation also declares,
"We need to think of Christian education as a movement or a growth process, directed toward an ideal goal which goes beyond the limitations of anything human. At the same time the process must be harmonious, so that Christian formation takes place within and in the course of human formation" (The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School, #98).
Imagine discipline policies that focused on formation instead of punishment.

Imagine athletic teams that focused on sportsmanship, teamwork and development of skills instead of winning.

Imagine teachers who understood that their subject and their delivery of it created an atmosphere in which students became smarter, better, and holier.

Imagine Catholic schools that focused on the Eucharist and bringing students, teachers and families into deeper communion with Christ and each other.

Imagine a Catholic school that has, as the Congregation writes in The Catholic School, "the courage to follow all the consequences of its (the Catholic school's) uniqueness" (#66).

We wouldn't just have better soccer players, or better writers, or higher test scores, or more students.

We would have World-Changers.

We would have Christians.

Coyle, D. (2009). The Talent Code: Greatness isn't born. It's grown. Here's how. New York, NY: Bantam Dell. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

That's the Point, 2

As a Catholic school principal, I would often approach all-school gatherings from the standpoint of what could potentially go wrong. Whether it was hosting an hour-long, all-school assembly in our social hall or trying to move our Middle School students out of the cafeteria during an emergency drill, I would try to anticipate all of the potential problems that could arise and then come up with strategies to either prevent them from happening or mitigate their effects should they occur.

For example, during all-school gatherings, I knew that any time we asked students to move we would run the risk of delay, injury and/or misbehavior. If I would play music, I knew that PreK would need help in getting settled back down. If I needed students to exit so as to get back to class quickly, I needed to give clear instructions and have a plan for doing so. If our ceiling-mounted projector wouldn't display the presentation, I had a portable one with me and available so that we could continue with our program somewhat uninterruptedly. 

In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg calls these potential pitfalls inflection points. These inflection points are the moments that would derail a presentation or result in a student getting pushed or tripped.

Duhigg recounts a study from Scotland in the 1990s, where researcher discovered that some patients who had undergone hip or knee replacement surgery would start to walk again twice as fast as others. The researcher uncovered that those quicker-to-walk patients wrote out detailed plans that focused heavily on what they would do when they encountered inflection points - moments of extreme pain or frustration that would cause them to want to quit or give up. From something as simple as taking the first step after getting up to mapping out every potential obstacle and its corresponding contingency plan, those patients who intentionally planned for setbacks were more likely to overcome them (p. 142 - 143).

Having a plan for painful inflection points is one of the ingredients that makes companies like Starbucks, the Container Store and Deloitte Consulting such shining business examples of success. Starbucks' LATTE method for dealing with an angry customer (Listen, Acknowledge, Take Action, Thank Them, Explain the Cause) and repetitively role-playing potentially stressful scenarios with employees, helps to ensure that Starbucks stays in, "the people business serving coffee" and not the other way around ("the coffee business serving people") (p . 145).

Excellence happens on purpose and as educators we must purposefully plan for those potential speed bumps, road blocks, detours and accidents - inflection points - that we may encounter and then script out how we will respond should one of these inflection points occur.

As educators, considering situations like angry parents, flopped lessons, unruly students, or a last-minute schedule change and having a specific plan of action for when these and other inflection points occur can help maintain professionalism, maximize instructional time, and enhance student learning. In this way, we are not planning for our lessons, assemblies or any other school activities to go poorly. Instead, we have a plan to get things back on track in the event that something does go wrong.

Having a plan and rehearsing it for automaticity can make it much more likely for it to be executed when inflection points arise. This can happen on the school (what would happen in a real fire that would block a potential exit path?), classroom (how do you respond to someone who is being mean to you or to others), and individual levels (for administrators, teachers and students).

If check-points help us to take stock of where we've been and ensure we continue to head where we intended, inflection points, when strategically anticipated and accounted for, will do little to keep us from reaching our destination.

It's yet another lesson in building self-awareness and how harnessing this ability to meta-cognitively navigate life can lead to great success.

Similarly, anticipating moments of weakness and temptation (exhaustion, stress, extreme emotion, boredom, contextual cues) and then having a plan for those inflection points can likewise keep us moving in a positive spiritual direction. If you're trying to lose weight, going to a fast food spot is a slippery - and not just because of the grease - slope. If you're hoping to remain disciplined in your prayer life using an app on your phone to pray may lead to distraction or a tug to wander to other apps or sites. Anticipating these inflection points and then having a plan to prevent or mitigate them - opting for a side salad instead of fries, turning off notifications while praying - can help ensure that our behaviors align with who we want to be.

St. Josemaria Escriva called the moment when you first wake up in the morning the heroic minute:
The heroic minute. It is the time fixed for getting up. Without hesitation: a supernatural reflection and... up! The heroic minute: here you have a mortification that strengthens your will and does no harm to your body (#206).
Too often we hit snooze, crawl back under the covers and push off the start of our day. This daily inflection point can cause us to miss workouts, arrive late to work, and potentially set off a chain reaction of cutting corners throughout the course of our entire day.

In this way, every inflection point carries with it a heroic moment - the moment where we can either allow the inflection point to make us cower under the covers of the challenge or rise up and conquer it.

Believe that you can do hard things and then get to work doing them.

Be purposeful.

Be prepared.

Be heroic.

Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Bigger, Better and More Boldly

My daughters Elizabeth (age 6) and Catherine (age 4), constantly create. Whether coloring blackline pictures, drawing freehand, cutting things out, glueing, taping, dancing or singing, they create incessantly.

At times, this creative spirit will inspire them to build - with blocks, Legos, cups, plastic containers, pillows, and just about anything else either my wife or I deem permissible. Prior to the mobility of their brother Gabriel (9 months), these structures would only crumble from a hastily placed object, over-ambitiousness in height or foundational stability, or a careless - albeit accidental - foot or elbow. Gabriel has brought an additional source of destruction.

Regardless of causality, though, their response to a tumbling tower has remained consistent:

“That’s okay, we can build it again bigger and better.”

Their zeal for creating inspires them to boldly dream of something bigger and better, and then get to work bringing this vision into the reality of our home.

The Congregation of Holy Cross embodies the same bold and unwavering zeal for their work within the Catholic Church, at the University of Notre Dame, and across our world. The words of Bl. Basil Moreau, the C.S.C.’s founder, “Zeal is the great desire to make God known, loved and served, and thus bring knowledge of salvation to others” animate the order and their ministry. Bl. Moreau continues:

I am convinced that Providence, which has in the past done everything necessary for the development and perfection of its work, will continue to bestow on us most abundant blessings. To ensure this, we must be animated by the spirit of zeal and generosity which so holy an undertaking requires.

It is this spirit of zeal that saw the Congregation grow rapidly from its inception in 1837. It is this spirit of zeal that allowed Bl. Moreau to weather the financial and organizational challenges that this exponential growth caused and respond:

Therefore, even should persecution redouble rather than diminish as is the case now, there would be no reason to fear God’s work. All the malice in the world and hell cannot change the will of the Lord, nullify his sovereign rights, render useless the work of his power, or make foolish the designs of his wisdom (Moreau, 452).

Similarly, upon hearing that the dome had burned to the ground in the spring of 1879, it is this spirit of zeal that emboldened Fr. Sorin, founder of the University of Notre Dame, to proclaim:

If it were ALL gone, I should not give up. The fire was my fault. I came here as a young man and founded a university which I named after the Mother of God. Now she had to burn it to the ground to show me that I dreamed too small a dream. Tomorrow we will begin again and build it bigger, and when it is built, we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.

As we begin this new academic year, let us dream dreams that are worthy of our Lord and His Mother, Notre Dame. Let us, despite any challenge we may encounter or any disaster that may level our work, shrug our shoulders and try again.  

Let us, with zeal, begin building (Nehemiah 2:18)!



And more boldly than ever before.

-Garwych, A., & Grove, K. (Eds.). (2008). The Cross, Our Only Hope: Daily Reflections in the Holy Cross Tradition. Consequences of growing up poor. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.

-Moreau, B. (2014). Basil Moreau Essential Writings: An introduction to the life and thought of the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Garwych, A., & Grove, K. (Eds.). Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press.

Friday, September 1, 2017

That's the Point

Our brains are constantly looking for patterns. Innately, our brains are programmed to solve-problems, make predictions and ultimately categorize and make sense of our world. Our brains will try to group information together to aid in speed and efficiency.

In this way, though, our brains are slackers - they look for ways to turn on autopilot and coast. In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg states, "Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our brains to ramp down more often" (p. 17 - 18).

Duhigg goes on to detail the story of MIT researchers in the 1990s who discovered that as rats became more familiar with a maze over time, their mental activity while navigating that maze decreased, writing, "As each rat learned how to navigate the maze, its mental activity decreased" (p. 15). Stored in the area of the brain called the basal ganglia, these patterns and habits allowed the rats to run faster and faster through the maze, while the rats' brains worked less and less.

Duhigg describes this process as chunking - when the "brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic response" (p. 17). This chunking is vital to the educational process. It's what allows emerging readers to blend fluently during decoding. It's what allows us to memorize math facts, historical events, scientific theories. It's how we perform tasks like writing with a pencil and paper, type on a computer, turn in papers - just about anything. Imagine how difficult every aspect of life would be if you performed any task as if it was the first time you were doing it!

While this chunking allows educators to scaffold skills and for students to move from basic to more complex concepts and activities, it also can lead to the formation of bad habits, careless errors, and an inability to successfully complete a procedure.

It's how your brian may not have noticed that the word brain was misspelled earlier in this sentence.
By Mohammadreza Farhadi Aref [CC BY-SA 4.0 ( or CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
As educators, we must consider that the brains of our students are looking for the moment to check-out. Stimulated at the beginning of class (what will we learn today, where is my homework, what is the bell-ringer activity I need to do) and at the end (finally - I get to move!, what's for homework, where am I going next?), throughout the course of a typical 45 or 50 minute class our students' brains will most likely settle into cruising altitude for about half of it.

Purposefully incorporating check-points that can offer moments of metacognition, stimulation, reflection and even re-direction and clarification can help to keep students' brains appropriately engaged and active. Whether this centers on classroom management procedures or instructional activities, intentionally including check-points can help to keep students' brains engaged, enhance their self-awareness and can help fight against the lethargy and errors that result from auto-pilot-syndrome.

This is not to say that every moment within a classroom needs to be amusement-park-engaging. In fact, it shouldn't be. But, it is to say that we must build students' capacities for work by offering to them frequent check-points that can help them to process, that can help scaffold complex tasks and concepts, and that can re-activate their brains for learning.

As a Catholic, creating habits of prayer and spiritual activity are essential in our walk of faith. However, we can become so set in our habits that we can start to automatize our faith. Mass becomes a Sunday stop on the way to other activities, the Rosary just a recitation of a script. Incorporating check-points can help to advance us on our spiritual journeys. Scheduling and taking a retreat, speaking with a spiritual advisor or trusted mentor, or just taking time to reflect on your faith-life and its overall health can keep you from falling into the habits of wandering aimlessly or remaining stagnant - despite some hearty activity - in your faith.
This is the difference, as described by Fr. Mike Schmitz, between training and working out. When we train we have an end goal (running a marathon, making the football team, dunking a basketball) with smaller, check-point goals (running 10 miles, gaining 20 pounds through diet and exercise, touching the net) that help propel us to the finish line.

When we workout, though, we often just go through the motions and endure to the end of the session to cross it off of a list. There is often no growth or progress. There's no need for a check-point, because there really isn't a destination.

In our classrooms and our lives, keep training.

Keep pushing.

Keep moving forward, but not without stopping to check that you and your students are on the right path.

Because getting to the destination, well, that's the point.

Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York, NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Teaching Peter

As the beginning of the school year gets underway, principals, students, teachers and parents are undoubtedly filled with the simultaneous and conflicting emotions of hope and dread, excitement and anxiety. The life of the new year wrestles with the pending death of summer vacation.

And, much like sports teams beginning their respective seasons undefeated, every school year begins afresh - ripe with the hope that this year will be the year. The year that every student succeeds, the year that my son reads at grade level, the year that my daughter makes lasting friends, the year that I stay out of trouble, get an A, make the team, earn highest honors, and become Student Council President.

For some, this newness will last well into the fall or even winter. No tardies. No missing homework assignments. No demerits or detentions or strikes or whatever punitive behavioral mark your school uses. No loss of patience. No less than stellar lessons. No "wing it" Wednesdays. No "I'm closing the door of my open door policy" Februarys.

For some it may even extend into the spring and all the way into the summer of 2018! These success stories, though, most often result with very little effort. These are the students who are successful in spite of their academic situations. Naturally intelligent and driven, these are the students that would succeed even if they were to teach themselves! These are the teachers whose favorite color is sunshine and who don't drink coffee - not because they don't like the taste but because "they don't need it"! These are the parents that seem to be able to work full time, run their own business, support a successful mommy-blog, volunteer at every event, coach sports that even their children don't play and always dress as if they just posed for GQ. These are the administrators - at Catholic schools at least - whose seats, budgets, endowments, test scores, student organizations and seemingly every other aspect of the school is full. They are early to every administrators' meeting and don't have to run back to their building upon the meetings' conclusion.

Seldom do these year-long success stories result from intense and sustained effort or after the inevitable failures, mix-ups, missteps and mistakes that usually spiral into habits of these negative outcomes. A winning streak is hard to maintain because it's fragile. A losing streak, though, is sticky because it's hopelessness it is so contagious and addictive. After a while, the mud doesn't seem so dirty or unpleasant. Wallowing is easier and somehow less painful than the effort involved in getting back up, brushing off the grime and trying again - especially because you may just end up falling back down.

As I reflect on the beginning of this school year (my first outside of a K-12 school in 16 years) and all of its promise of hope and fear of failure, I am struck by the example of Peter throughout the New Testament. In Peter we have the epitome of mess-ups. He continually finds himself putting his foot in his mouth, misinterpreting a sign or teaching, sinking into the water, and even worse: lying. In Peter, though, we also have the epitome of transformation. He was able to break through and overcome the stickiness of the losing streak and experience a remarkable turnaround. Simon to Peter. Betrayer to worthy of trust. Follower to leader. Ordinary to miracle-maker.

As I think of the Peters that we will encounter within our schools - the students who will make mistakes, the parents who will drop the ball, the teachers who will want to pitch tents to capitalize on the Transfiguration, the administrators who will act more like a sheep than a shepherd - I wonder what made the difference for him? I wonder how he was able to break out of the losing streak that had him pitted as a by-name-betrayer in the Creed. I wonder how, at the end of his time with his Teacher, he was able to stand successfully on the footsteps of the Church he helped to establish.

My response is simple: prayer and love.

Undoubtedly, Peter must have been the subject of at least one of Jesus's conversations with His Father. It brings me great comfort to imagine Jesus praying for one of His closest friends - praying and interceding on Peter's behalf. Jesus stated there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends - Jesus died for friends and foes alike - He most certainly would have prayed for His friends, too.

Jesus never stopped loving Peter. He never missed a chance to forgive him. He capitalized on the bright spots, reinforcing to Peter a job well done. Jesus continued to teach Peter, with love and about love, even after Peter's greatest fall. Jesus showed Peter his potential and then helped him reach it.

God is in the business of refurbishing broken things and making them new. He is versed at turning death into life, making last place feel like first, forging the greatest comeback of all time.

Educators must be in a similar business - taking broken things and making them new. Turning the death of ignorance into the life of knowledge. Changing the students who struggle the most into the greatest champions within our schools.

As we encounter Peter in our schools this year, let us approach him with the same love that Jesus approaches all of us - unconditional, intense, unwavering, relentless. Let us see the Peter in our midst with the same eyes that Jesus sees all of us - full of potential, made for greatness, built for holiness, destined for sainthood.

Let us pray for our Peters. Let us offer them 2nd, and 3rd and 49th chances. Let us offer to them the same transformational love that Jesus offers to us all.

Prayer + love = transformation. 

St. Peter, on the cusp of this new school year, pray for us - especially those of us most like you.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Hearts of Apostles

I believe that God speaks to us through the Mass.

In every Celebration of the Eucharist, there is some message being proclaimed to us. Might be in the Gospel. Might be in a song. Might be in a homily or Mass part or just a thought that comes to us in prayer. 

Of all of the Gospel readings that there could have been for your Graduation Mass, you had this one. For some reason God intended for you to hear it. But, I believe that God also intends for you to hear this message, too. 

Jesus tells of the trials we will face as His disciples:

"If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.
If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own;
but because you do not belong to the world,
and I have chosen you out of the world,
the world hates you.

Can somebody say, huh?

Some of you have just spent the past 10 years at a school whose mission says that it keeps with the tradition of inspiring "disciples of Christ".

Why? If we know that a result of following Christ is that we will have to bear our cross and travel up to our own Calvary, why on earth we would follow Him? 

In this, the liturgical season of Easter, we hear of the story of the first apostles. We hear of the miracles performed in Christ's name by Peter and Paul. We hear of miraculous escapes from prison. We hear about how thousands of people came into the faith as a result of the witness of the apostles. We hear about them being led by the Spirit to give their lives for their faith, in the same way that their Teacher, Jesus Christ, did.  

Those that witnessed the Resurrection lived lives so courageous, so on fire for this faith, that they would still be willing to call themselves Christians after seeing the end of the one called the Christ and knowing that it could be their end, too.   

As St. Julie Billiart states, 
There must be nothing little about us; we must have hearts of apostles.

Because even though Jesus warns us of the difficulty of a life devoted to Him, He also tells us that He came so that we may have joy and that this joy may be complete. He tells us that if we follow Him we can do the things that He did and even great things than those. 

And to me, that's the type of life I want to live. A life of passion, purpose and possibility. That's the type of life that's filled with adventure. 

It's the stuff of heroes

But, I know what you're thinking. You don't have the heart of an apostle. Those stories and that kind of faith is for someone else - not you. 

That you haven't been given the keys to the kingdom. 

Jesus hasn't blinded you by knocking you off of your horse. 

He hasn't changed your name. 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated, 
The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.

ICS Class of 2017, you were not made to walk gingerly through this life, passive and afraid, on the safety of the shore. You were made to walk tall with purposeful steps and push out into the deep waters and leave a footprint on this world that will echo through eternity. 

You were made for greatness, holiness, sainthood. You are a diamond - strong and pure - that is meant to reflect God's glory for all to see. 

Let there be nothing little about you. You do not honor our God by playing small. 

You were created on purpose for excellence. 

Jesus has given you the keys to the Kingdom. You're here, graduating from a Catholic elementary school. You have been given the opportunity to learn about Him and His teachings. You've been invited to His table. You were created in the same fashion as Peter - on purpose and for excellence. Jesus's plan for your lives is no less heroic than Peter or any of the saints. 

He is building His Church upon you. You are a Rock - solid and firm. 

Jesus has knocked you off of your horse. In some cases you've fallen far and hard. In others, the fall has been softer, more subtle, but not any less impactful. Jesus is molding you into a beautiful home. And, He's not just an interior decorator. He's knocking down walls. He's building 2nd, 3rd, and 14th floors. He's making you into something majestic. He's re-constructing you into a palace. And, friends, He plans to live there. 

He's building you into His Church. You are a Cathedral - beautiful and inspiring. 

Jesus has changed your name. He has chosen you. For those of you that have been confirmed, He has given you a new name. He has given you a purpose. He has placed upon your heart a passion. He has given you the hope of possibility. He has spoken to you. In some cases it's been a whisper, in other's Jesus has used a conversational tone. For a few, He's shouted! He's stirring into flame the spark that you received at baptism. He is kindling the embers within your heart until it is on fire for Him!

He's building you. You are His - His beloved child. 

Royal blood courses through your veins and is pumped by your heart - the heart of an apostle. 

Let there be nothing little about you. You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness. Greatness isn't mediocre and it doesn't come easily. But that's okay, because and you can and must do hard things. You are made from eternal stock. There is a depth and resolve to your Spirit. Grit your teeth, dig in your heels. Grab your hard hat and your lunch pail and get to work! Go! Run to do the work that God has set out before you and do it with everything that is within you. 

ICS Class of 2017, you were created on purpose for excellence. 

You have a part to play. 

He's called you by name. 

He's given you purpose. He's filled your heart with passion. He's given you the hope of possibility. 

And while Jesus tells us that the world will hate us because of our love for Him, He also tells us, "In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world."

You follow a God who has conquered sin and death. You believe in a Lord who offers unfailing life. You know that even though it may be Friday that Sunday's coming! 

ICS Class of 2017, follow in His footsteps so that, like the apostles and all of the holy men and women who have gone before you, you can leave your footprint on this world. Let there be nothing little about you. You were made for greatness. You have the hearts of apostles. 

*Graduation address to the ICS Class of 2017. Congratulations, Class of 2017!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Let us remember that the reason that we had yesterday off from school and work was to honor the heroic work carried out by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other courageous men and women to bring about equality and justice in our country. 

As such, let us be inspired by the work and words of this great man. As Fr. Stephan Brown, SVD,  proclaimed during a homily on January 15, 2017: "Let us be drum majors for justice. Let us be drum majors for peace. Let us be drum majors for righteousness." 

There is still good work to be done. Let us be the people to do it.
The following "Found Poem" is inspired by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Seared by the flames
Withering injustice
Crippled by manacles
Restricted by chains
A lonely island of poverty
A dark and desolate valley
Quicksands, sweltering summers, storms, winds - whirlwinds
A mountain of despair. 
Let us not wallow there
Up let us rise
to the sunlight path, the majestic height,
the palace of invigoration
shaking the foundations
Until that day
The day we cash the check
Drink from the cup
And satisfy our thirst. 
This long night of captivity will end
Doors will be opened
The discord, transformed
And the symphony of churches, 
    pointing their lofty spires heavenward,
        will once again ring out...