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)