Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Glad Tidings!

And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will." (Luke 2: 10-14)

As I complete my first semester as headmaster of JPII, I extend my wishes and prayers to all my friends and members of the JPII family. May Christ be reborn in all our hearts this Christmas season.

For those of you who missed the glorious Christmas concert by our choral program:

Ding Dong Merrily on High
I'll Be Home for Christmas
Do You Hear What I Hear?

Bravo, JPII Choir! Bravo, JJ! Merry Christmas to all.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Veritas



This is the headmaster's address to JPII students on Monday, December 8, 2008.

You are liars, cheats and thieves! Despite this fact, you believe you're persons of good character, which means you’re also hypocrits!

So says a recent national survey of teenagers, the results of which were made public last week.

The Josephson Institute, a Los Angeles-based ethics institute, surveyed 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools nationwide, both public and private. All students in the selected schools were given the survey in class; their anonymity was assured.

The key findings from the survey:

30% of teens acknowledged stealing from a store.

64% admitted cheating on a test in the last year.

36% said they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment in the last year.

42% admitted to lying to save money.

These numbers are probably on the low side: Over 25% of those taking the test admitted to lying about at one or more of the questions on the survey (which creates a kind of conundrum—are they lying about their lying or being truthful about their lying? I once saw a T-shirt on the front which said: The statement on the back of this shirt is true. On the back it said, “The statement on the front of this shirt is false”.)

Despite such responses, 93 percent of the students said they were satisfied with their personal ethics and character, and 77 percent said, "When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know."

These results have been the subject of heated discussions on talk shows and on Internet bulletin boards over the last several weeks. The general theme of these discussions has been “What does this say about America’s youth? What does this say about our future leaders?”

I suspect what this says about our future leaders is they’re going to look a lot like our current leaders. If we did the same survey on adults, and instead of the question on plagiarizing, asked adults how many had not declared 100% of their income on tax, I don’t think the results would be appreciably different. In Christian terms, we all sin—whether you’re 17 or 42 or 75. We are all tempted, and too often, give in to that temptation. We are all in need of forgiveness. We all are in need of a savior.

The far more disturbing statistic in this study is that despite the results, 93% are satisfied with their personal ethics and character. Again, I doubt that number is unique to teenagers, but reflects wider societal views. It is one thing stumble and fall. It’s another thing, having fallen, to imagine one is still walking upright.

If you’re a sports fan like I am, you’ve been bombarded with stories of athletes who’ve gotten themselves into ethical trouble: Plexico Burress of the NY Giants is the latest example—carrying around an illegal weapon that he shot himself with. OJ Simpson, former Heisman trophy-winning RB for USC and NFL Hall of Famer, was just sentenced to 9 years for armed robbery. Roger Clemens may have cheated by using illegal steroids throughout his career? Michael Vick was involved in an illegal gambling operation that involved fighting dogs. When you hear the pundits talk about these top line athletes, they’ll typically say things along the lines of “I can’t believe they are so stupid to jeopardize their careers with so much going for them.” So the analysis is it’s a failure of intelligence—they’re acting stupidly— rather than a moral failure—they’re acting sinfully.

Christianity’s wisdom is to remind us that we’re not just stupid—something that could be remedied with better schooling or more refinement —but that we’re flawed. As St. Paul says:

“The law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold into slavery of sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil that I hate. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” (Romans 7: 16, 23)


Advent is a time to grow closer to the Lord. The first step toward that is admitting our own sinfulness and not shying away from calling our sins for what they are. If we lie, cheat or steal, God will forgive us if we ask him to do so. Both Peter and Judas betrayed Jesus. The biggest difference is that Peter begged Jesus for forgiveness, whereas Judas was too proud to ask.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's About Time


This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII student body on Monday, December 1, 2008

In the early 1980’s, Domino’s Pizza was the first American corporation to deliver food directly to your house. They marketed themselves with the promise, “If we don’t deliver your pizza within 30 minutes of your order, you get the whole pizza free”. I had a good friend at Notre Dame who lived in the most remote dorm on campus, a good mile away from my dorm, and being poor college students, we would often synchronize our watches and order pizza at the exact same time from the local Domino’s pizza store. Since they did not allow cars on campus, it was physically impossible for the pizza delivery boy to get both pizzas to us within 30 minutes, and depending on which dorm he chose to deliver to first, one of us always got a free pizza—every time.

Since the early 1970’s, the food delivery service, and in fact, fast food service in general, has exploded in growth, from a 6 billion/year enterprise in 1970 to 110 billion by 2000. Whereas before, families (typically, the mother) would go to the grocery store to purchase the raw ingredients, then prepare the meal, then cook the meal in the oven, then serve, then sit down together as a family, today that is most uncommon—the typical American family eats out 4-5 times week, and on the other days, we nuke a ready made dinner in the microwave and serve it on the go. We even expect our fast food stores to be faster, adding drive-through windows, so we don’t have to get out of the car and stand in line, and yet, if you’re like me, if the drive through line isn’t moving fast enough after I order, I become impatient and leave before I get to the window.

We are, in fact, an impatient society. Instead of saving money for a big purchase, we buy on credit with money that we don’t have. The average family will add $1,000 to their credit card balances this Christmas, despite the fact that 12 million card-holders haven’t paid off their balances from last Christmas. The economic crisis we’re experiencing now is fueled largely by the fact that we have purchased houses that are more than we can afford, enticed by once ridiculously low variable interest rates which have now varied upward, making it impossible for many to make their monthly payments, causing them to forfeit their houses, leaving banks with many properties they cannot unload.

A society that seeks instant gratification is a society that has a problem with waiting. And yet, as we begin this first week of Advent, a time when we prepare for the coming of Christ, we are reminded that waiting is a good thing, a necessary thing.

We read an interesting reading this Sunday in church, from the prophet Isaiah. At the time Isaiah wrote, near the end of the Babylonian exile, the ancient faith of Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon was perilously close to being extinguished. In 586 B.C., the Babylonian king marched into Jerusalem, easily defeating the Israelite armies, and destroyed the Temple built by Solomon almost 400 years earlier—a terrible sacrilege. He then added to their horror by selling Jewish families into slavery, deliberately splitting families by sending mothers and fathers to different regions than their daughters and sons. They were now far away from the land 'flowing with milk and honey' promised to them during the exodus from Egypt, some 700 years earlier with Moses. The power of the Lord, revealed during the crossing of the Red Sea, the miracles in the desert, the battle of Jericho and all the great works of the Lord from the past seemed like children's fables. They were losing faith and losing hope. Into this desperate situation, Isaiah cries to God:

You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever.

Why then, do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?

Return for the sake of your servants! Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.
(Isaiah 63:16b-17)

In other words, come down, Lord and work your miracles of old, so that our enemies will be vanquished, our spirits will be rejuvenated and Israel can be restored. We are your people, doesn’t that matter to you? We’re tired of being trampled upon and we’re losing faith in you. Send us a savior. We cannot wait any longer.

This is the ancient cry of the Israelite people, and it is the cry of all Christians as we enter into this Advent season. Like the Israelites during the exile, our world is out of wack. Many of you heard about the Wal-mart employee who was trampled to death by 2000 shoppers who busted down the doors on the Friday after this Thanksgiving at 5 a.m. When the shoppers were told the store was closing because of the death, they were angry, claiming they had been there since late Thursday night in line, and when forced to leave, they lined up around the crime tape, impatiently waiting for the store to re-open. Our world is sick with greed, with self-centeredness, with excess. We are in need of someone to save us--mostly from ourselves.

And yet, like the Israelites, we must wait. From the time of Isaiah’s prophecies, the Jewish people had to wait over 500 years for their long hoped for Messiah, and he came in such an unexpected, unrecognizable form, that many of them did not realize their savior was among them.

During this Advent season, in which we symbolically re-enact this waiting of the Jewish people for the messiah to be born, may we use this time to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Messiah, so that we can better recognize his presence in all those we meet. May we use this time to seek forgiveness for those whom we’ve hurt and forgive those who have hurt us. Let us use this time to become a little less cynical, a little less judgmental, a little more patient, so that we can welcome Christ more fully together at Christmas.

This Advent, it’s about time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"Gratitude"


This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII student body on November 24, 2008, just before Thanksgiving.

On my way to Nashville from Montgomery to be interviewed for this job last spring, I stopped at a gas station to fill up. A late model car pulled up on the other side of the pump, and an old man got out of the car, looked at me with some embarrassment, and asked me for $10 for gas. I told him when I went in to pay, I’d put $10 down on his pump. Casting his eyes downward, he said with some feeling: “Gratitude”.

Since I had little else to do as I drove home, I thought quite a bit about this fellow for the rest of the trip. Judging from his car, his clothes and his diction, he didn’t appear to have a job, or a good one at least, and his language suggested he wasn’t very well educated. His sad eyes conveyed loneliness, and I wondered if he had a family, or was close to them if he did, and guessed he may not have been. Few things are more humiliating than asking for a handout, but he was out of gas and so he had to swallow his pride to ask a stranger. And yet, despite all that, I sensed his gratitude was real.

To be honest, his gratitude was unsettling to me, for it forced me to compare myself to him, and in so doing, made me wonder if I who had so much in comparison was as grateful as he with so little. I think this may be a common feeling some of you have had when you’ve worked with the under-privileged in your Christian Service Internship, or for the few of you who have done a week of mission work with the poor during your fall or spring breaks. These people have so much less than we have, but seem to have something we don’t—a real spirit of thankfulness and gratitude for the simple and important things.

As students at JPII, all of you are on some level, a “success”. One of the great temptations of success is to begin to think “It’s all me. It’s all my doing. I made the 30 on the ACT, I was accepted to an elite school, Aren’t I smart? Aren’t I wonderful? “

We lose the sense, when things are going well, that we are dependent on God. Facing hardships, like an undefeated team losing its first game, reminds us that are NOT in complete control, that we need to work harder, that there are things we need to pray for and be grateful for.

I don’t know what kind of year it’s been for you. I know for some of you, it’s been a hard year. Your parents may be having marital difficulties, or perhaps they had those difficulties years ago, and you’re trying to straddle two families now—a particularly difficult thing to do during the holidays. Some of you have lost close relatives—a mom or dad, a grandparent, an uncle or aunt you’re close to. Still others of you may be lonely, without good friends, uncertain of your place in school or at lunch.

Perhaps because you’ve experienced these things, you are better able to be grateful people now, for you understand better than the rest of us that we ARE dependent on the kindness of others to lift us and the providence of a God who loves us and wants only the best for us.

I have one suggestion for you as we head toward Thanksgiving. Take about 30 minutes to write someone close to you a letter, telling that person all the things you’re grateful for about that person. It could be your mom or dad (who would cherish that letter forever!). It could be an older or younger sister or brother. It could be your grandparents, or even a teacher you know has gone out of his or her way to help you.

Let me suggest that writing such a letter will do three things: First, it will make a huge difference to the person who receives your letter. Second, it will make YOU feel good to write it—in fact, it’s now been scientifically proven that small acts of gratitude, done frequently, lessen stress and improve one’s level of happiness. Finally, in expressing gratitude to someone else, we’ll be more open to being grateful to the One who gives us everything.

I hope all of you have a great Thanksgiving with your family. Remember:

“Gratitude!”

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Windows, not Mirrors

This is Mr. Weber's address to Our Lady of Lake CCD students on Wednesday, November 20, 2008.

I have something of a brainteaser for you.

There’s a true story of a corporation in Dallas that spent several 100 million dollars building a new corporate headquarters—a 50 story building featuring all the amenities. Besides giving their employees more room, the leaders of the corporation hoped that moving into this new building would improve corporate morale.

However, when the big day came for the employees to move in, they realized they had made a terrible mistake. Apparently, the elevator system they installed was too slow, such that all their employees began to complain. It got to the point after several weeks that the leadership began to think the new building was actually hurting morale, and were on the verge of ripping out the brand new elevator system to put in a faster one, which would have cost the company over 10 million dollars.

But before they made that decision, they decided to hire an industrial psychologist to study the problem. The psychologist came to the new building, rode up and down the elevators with employees several times, walked into corporate headquarters and made a suggestion that would only cost the company about $1,000. The company took his advice and from the moment they did, complaining almost completely stopped. The original elevator system is still in use today.

Q. What did the expert suggest?

A. Install mirrors inside the elevators. Once the mirrors were installed, the employees spent so much time primping and inspecting themselves, they forgot all about the slow elevators.

That’s a true story, but there is a kind of parable-like quality to it in terms of what it says about us. It is reminiscent, I believe, of the story of Narcissus from Greek and Roman mythology. You remember the story. Narcissus (Nar-SIS-us) became thirsty and went to drink from a stream. When he saw his reflection in the water, he fell in love with it, not knowing that it was himself. As he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to "run away" and he was heart broken. He grew thirstier but he wouldn't touch the water for fear of damaging his reflection, so he eventually died of thirst and self love, staring at his own reflection.

There is within us, I think, a certain amount “narcissism” –vanity and self-centeredness--that makes us unaware of our surroundings, and certainly unaware of the needs and struggle of others. The “mirror” becomes a kind of symbol of that, and perhaps even a symbol of our society today. We don’t need more mirrors. Instead, we need windows that help us look outside ourselves and see the needs of others.

My prayer is that the Christian Service internship is an opportunity for you to create windows in your life. May you see through those windows clearly and have the compassion and courage to act on what you see.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Go Make a Difference


This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII student body on November 11, 2008.

We sing a song at our school masses occasionally, called “Go Make a Difference”. The lyrics are very simple: “Go make a difference, you can make a difference. Go make a difference in this world”.
Well, if you lean to the slightly cynical, as I do from time to time, you’re thinking: In the face of massive poverty, war, starvation in some parts of the world, and the all pervasive influence of sin, can we REALLY make a difference, or is this just polly-annish Christian do-goodism?

A thought experiment:

According to the World Data Base, as on June of this year, the world’s population was 6,673,286,767 and growing at an annual rate of 1.17%.

Suppose, by some catastrophic world event that shattered the faith of everyone in the world except for you, that you ended up the world’s only Christian. Since you believe it’s very important--most important, in fact-- you try and convert people back to the Christian faith.

Suppose a modest estimate is that you bring back only 2 people into the faith each year, and that these new Christians bring back 2 new Christians each year. So after year there are 3 of you, after year two there are 9, after year 3 there are 27, etc.

How many years would it take before the entire world became Christian, at that rate?

Just 21 years—the whole world could be Christian in just one generation.

But that’s starting from just one. Though estimates vary, there are approximately 2 billion Christians in the world today, or just less than 1/3 of the world. If we took our faith seriously, what kind of difference could Christians make in this world?

You may have seen those very effective Liberty Mutual commercials on TV, in which a good deed, done in kindness, causes others to do good deeds through-out the day. We forget, I think, the power we each have to make a difference in our families, in our school, and in this community—simply by going out of our way to be kind to one another.

Go, make a difference.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Time for a Tune Up


This is Mr. Weber's address to the student body of JPII on Monday, November 2, 2008.

Tomorrow will mark our 60th day on roll, which means we're exactly 1/3 of the way through the year.

By now, you freshman know what JPII requires of you. Many of you sophomores are beginning to get your driver’s license—and if not you, a friend—opening up a whole new world without having to rely on parents to take you places. Juniors, you are knee deep in our academic program. With ACT tests to take in the spring and many of you beginning to receive advertisements from colleges, the prospect of finishing high school and making big decisions about colleges suddenly doesn’t feel like such a far off thing. Seniors, many of you are feeling torn, wanting to enjoy these last days of high school with all your friends, yet pressed to now apply to colleges and make important decisions about your future.

For those of you who drive, you know that one of the things you have to do is get your car tuned up frequently. Does it need an oil change? Are the spark-plugs still firing at the right rate? Are the tires wearing correctly? Does the steering need adjustment? Of course, we could pretend these things don’t matter. A foolish friend of mine growing up told me proudly that he NEVER checked under the hood of his car. Within 8 months of that pronouncement, he had burned out his engine because he had no engine oil. Had he spent 15 minutes and 25 bucks at any Jiffy Lube, he’d still have had a car, but instead, he was grounded.

I’d like to suggest that 1/3 of the way through this year, it’s a good time to do a kind of personal “tune-up” to and make the necessary tweaks to reach peak operating condition. That begins with an honest self-assessment of your life. I have in mind four questions:

1) Are you getting enough sleep? Probably not. Experts say you should be getting a minimum of 8 hours/night and preferably 10. To get 8 hours, assuming you wake up somewhere around 6 a.m. for school, you’d have to be asleep by 10 p.m. each night to get 8 and by 8 p.m. to get 10. I suspect that’s not happening. A national survey found that 28% of teens fall sound asleep in class at least once/week (surely not at JPII, though).

Though we like to pretend we can operate with significantly less sleep—the truth is we’re less quick witted, less creative and probably less friendly. Take naps. Use the weekends to do some catching up. Get to bed early a couple times/week. Amazing how much better you feel at 6 a.m. when you went to bed at 10. You’ll notice it right away. Give your body a break.

2) Are you getting enougb exercise? According to the American Council on Exercise, it’s likely that 60% of you are not—that’s the national average. Experts recommend 45-60 minutes a day. It could be a run, a walk, a pick-up game. Whatever you love doing that makes it likely that you’ll keep doing it is what you should aim for. Aside from the obvious benefits of exercise: that it burns calories, keeps you looking good—I’d suggest that exercise is important at a school like JPII because it relieves stress.

3) Are you spending enough time studying? I once taught a fairly smart kid who’s life goal in high school was to do as little work as possible to make a C. He made a B in my class one quarter and was mad at himself for miscalculating and working too hard!

Now some of you may have minimalism down to a science—the least I can do to keep my grades in the OK range—but is that your life’s goal? Do you want the epitaph on your tombstone to say: “ He did just enough to get by?” Sometimes, we delude ourselves into thinking “Well, I’ll work harder once I get to college”. But the truth is, we are creatures of habit, and the habits we set for ourselves now become defining traits later.

Give yourself a chance to excel. Challenge yourself. You’ve probably heard the experts’ rule of thumb—they recommend ten minutes per grade level, so that 9th graders are doing 90 minutes/night, 10th graders 100, etc. At a place like JPII, if you’re not averaging somewhere around 2 hours of homework each night, you’re probably selling yourself short.

4) Are you spending enough time praying? We are not simply physical creatures. The problem is, in American culture today, we cram as much noise and as much busy-ness into our days as possible. When we’re alone in our cars, what is the first thing we do? Turn on the radio or call a friend on the cell phone. We are carrying around burdens and hurts, and our faith tells us we have a God who loves us and wants to lift these burdens from us, but we’re too busy to even give them to him. Look, I recommend 15 minutes of simply talking to God each day, reading a scripture verse, reflecting on it. If you know yourself and that seems unlikely, use the time in the car between school and home to tell God what’s worrying you and ask him for your help, thank God for the people who have brought joy to your life that day, and finish it with a few Our Fathers or Hail Mary’s. I think you’ll find that doing this will bring you a greater sense of centeredness and peace.

One final comment: People my age are apt to tell you “These teenage years are the best years of your life—you better enjoy them.” I remember when someone told me that when I was a teenager, I thought to myself “If these are the best years, then my life is really going to be terrible”. It’s a lie. These are some of the hardest years of your life. It gets better—way better. But take care of yourself in the meantime. Sleep more. Exercise more. Study hard. Pray. You’ll not only get through these tough years, you’ll feel proud of yourself along the way.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Looking Out for Each Other


This was an address to JPII students on October 27, 2008.

Our friends often see things more clearly about us than we can see for ourselves. We all know situations where a girl dates a guy who is "no good for her”, but she cannot see this herself, because she's too blinded in her affection for him. I once knew a fella who drank too much, and his friends knew it, but he was too proud to admit it and claimed he could stop whenever he felt like it—but he didn't feel like it. Or maybe we have a friend who is in an abusive relationship and we see quite clearly that it’s abusive, but he or she cannot see it, because he or she is too wrapped up in it.

We see these things and we care about our friends, but we often don’t know what to do about it. There’s a part of us that doesn’t want to interfere, that wants to respect the privacy of others, that recognizes at some level that we have to live our own lives, and that if our friends make mistakes, they will eventually have to pay for these mistakes on their own.

But too often, this line of thinking is a cop-out, a rationalization to avoid doing what is hard. We don’t want to tell our friends. We know that they’ll get defensive with us, maybe even angry, perhaps tell us to mind our own business. We worry that if we tell our friends the truth, it will hurt our friendship, maybe even end it, and we don’t want that.

Two quick stories:

A former colleague of mine was the best friend to a woman who was engaged to the man of her dreams: He was witty, successful, very polished and handsome. What she did not know was that he was unfaithful to her, even during the engagement. My colleague knew this, but couldn’t bring herself to tell her friend the truth, because she knew it would devastate her. So she kept what she knew to herself. What eventually happened was entirely predictable, though tragic: they got married, had a daughter, he committed adultery many times, they got divorced, he remarried, he cut off ties with his child, the wife was hurt very badly, and her child grew up a psychological mess, having felt abandoned by her father. My colleague tells me it was one of the biggest mistakes of her life not to tell her friend what she knew well before the marriage—she saved her from hurt during the engagement and instead guaranteed her far worse hurt for many years, not to mention the scars the daughter now carries.

The second story: Two girls I know grew up together as best friends, from kindergarten on up. They spent the night together often, went on family vacations together, and had pictures of each other all over their bed rooms. Since they were both smart, they took many of the same classes together, and helped each other excel in school. They were very close. However, in their junior year, one of them began to smoke marijuana. At first, it was just every now and then. But as she became a more regular user, her friendships began to change, and she began to change too, caring less about school. Though she had been a very moral person, when she was high, she was promiscuous, and had been in several compromising situations with guys, which made her feel terrible about herself the next day.

Her friend didn’t know what to do. She talked to her, and was instantly rebuffed. She wrote a letter, telling her that she loved her and was worried about her, that she would go with her to tell her parents and to get her help, but was told to back off and quit acting so “high and mighty”. Her friend’s life unraveled further. She began to use other drugs. Grades were awful-attitude was worse. As a last resort, not knowing what else to do, the friend met with the girls’ parents privately. She told them that their daughter was her best friend, but that she was destroying her life and she needed help. She told them everything she knew. Her parents suspected as much and had been reluctant to admit it , but could not avoid doing so once told by their daughter's best friend. They family did an intervention. The girl went into treatment.

Of course, the girl who used drugs was very resentful toward her friend for what she had done. For a year, she cut off contact entirely. But as she became well again, she slowly became her old self and started doing better in school. She graduated on time with her classmates. Eventually, slowly, the two friends reconciled. “I hated you for over a year”, she told her friend. “But it wasn’t really you. I knew you were right all along. I hated myself. Thank you for doing what you did. You loved me even more than you loved our friendship. Please forgive me.“

Let’s look out for each other. It’s easy to be a friend when it’s all good times and laughter. The real measure of our friendships is how courageous we are to tell each other the truth, even when the truth is hard. Let’s not wait for things to escalate or to get out of hand. We often know things about our friends long before people in authority do, and when it finally reaches that level, it’s often too far down the road to resolve well.

May you be blessed to have these kinds of friends. May you have the courage to be these kind of friends to each other.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dedication of Statue of Pope John Paul II


These are Mr. Weber's welcoming remarks regarding the dedication of the statue of Pope John Paul II on October 22, 2008

Good afternoon.

On behalf of our students and teachers, I'd like to welcome all of you to Pope John Paul II High School.

Where words fail, art often speaks, lifting our spirits and encouraging us to see beyond the limitations of our present lives. We hope that this sculpture of Pope John Paul II in his later years, kneeling in prayer, will remind our students, our families, our staff and all our visitors of our dependence on God and the need for his guidance in our lives.

As we dedicate this statue today, we thought it an appropriate time to step back and reflect for a moment on our founding. In 2002, as the result of extensive planning, fund-raising and just plain hard work, the diocese opened Pope John Paul II High School with 240 students. We have grown in meteoric fashion these last 7 years; we are now a school of 630 and are regarded as one of the finest schools in the Nashville area, proven by AP test results, ACT scores, college placements and the number of scholarships received. Last year’s graduating class received 12.6 million dollars in scholarship offers, an average of over 77,000 per graduate of the school.

We dedicate this statue today "In gratitude for all those who made this school possible.” As the new headmaster, I want to thank many people for our success:

First, thank you to our bishop and superintendent, Bishop Choby and Dr. Williams, for having the vision, energy and courage to build this school,

To our Board, past and present, who have established wise policies within which the school has thrived;

To our faculty, past and present, including my predecessor, Hans Broekmann, whose dedication and professionalism have given this school such a sterling reputation in such a short period of time.

To our many donors, without whose generosity this school would never have gone beyond a dream and whose continued support make this dream available for families with lesser means;

And to our students and young alumni, for whom this school was built. Through your efforts and example, you have embraced the vision of our founders. May you continue to earn their sacrifices by working to become the people God has destined you to be-- people of “fides et sapientia” , the words engraved into the pillars of this school, people of "faith and wisdom".

In my first address to students this year, I shared with them the words of the man whose sculpture we dedicate today. At World Youth Day, Pope John Paul urged the hundreds of thousands of youth in attendance:

"Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch."

I can think of no words that better express our aspirations for our students. Be it the rigor of the classroom, the careful attentiveness required by the arts, or the challenge of athletic competition, we want our students to strive to be excellent in all their endeavors, so that with the confidence that comes through achievement, they may indeed be willing to risk lives of great depth and commitment of service to their Church and community.

As we dedicate this statue today, may it be an occasion of joy and pride for all that we have become. May it also be an occasion to challenge ourselves to be faithful to our original mission: to be an extraordinary school doing an extraordinary thing: preparing students to be "strong in mind, body, character and spirit for lives of learning and service to the gospel”.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Homecoming, Specks and Planks


This is Mr. Weber's address to the students of JPII on Monday, October 13, 2008

Welcome to home coming week!

As you know, homecoming is a time for us to celebrate as a school and invite our alumni to “come back home” to their “alma mater” (in Latin, “nourishing mother”). We hope to see a lot of those alums for our game on Friday night, especially.

As we think aboout homecoming this week, we are reminded of the most famous story of homecoming in Scripture, Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. You remember the story: a father has two sons, one of whom is responsible and hard working, the younger son who lives frivolously. This second son asks the father for his share of the inheritance, moves away, becomes a player, and wastes all his money on women and wine, until he is penniless and hungry—so hungry, in fact, that he even desires to eat the garbage that pigs eat. Coming to his senses, he decides to go back to his home and live as a servant to his family, realizing his family’s servants live better than he. But the father sees him coming down the road, runs out to meet his ne’er do well son, hugs and kisses him and tells his servants to kill their best calf—there is going to be a huge party. Jesus tells us through this parable about God’s great mercy and love for us, and that he’ll forgive us for whatever we do wrong if have the courage to return to him.

But there's more to the story, and I will translate the rest of the parable loosely. The older brother is having none of it. I think most of us can relate to this brother. While his lazy little brother is out there drinking and carousing, he’s back at the farm, milking the cows, acting responsibly. And now his brother, having blown half of the family’s money, has the audacity to re-appear, hat in hand. But even worse, his soft-hearted father, instead of being rightfully indignant and angry, welcomes him back to the family unconditionally, and even throws him a party. Outrageous! Unfair!

“Son, the father asks, “What’s the matter?” “I can’t believe you’re just taking him back, like nothing’s happened”, the son says. “I’ve been working hard all this time and you don’t even give me a scrawny goat to share with my friends, but you’ve killed our best cow and are throwing a huge party for that loser brother of mine.” “Son”, the father says, “you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. But it is fitting to celebrate. Your brother was dead, and now he’s alive. He was lost, but is found”.

The parable ends there. We never find out what the older brother decided to do, but if I were guessing, he didn’t come around too quickly. I can’t imagine he went to that party. You see, one of the great lessons of this parable is that God is much more forgiving and merciful with us than we are to each other. We LIKE it when someone gets what’s coming to him.

A few years back, my friend was driving down the interstate and a car passed him like he was standing still—it must have been going 120 miles/hour. At first he was shaken, but then he got angry and pulled out his cell phone, dialed 911, and reported this lunatic to the police, travelling south on I-65 at such and such mile-marker. The dispatch operator said she’d report it to the troopers up the road. He hung up the phone, smiling, looking forward to seeing this idiot pulled over ahead. Sure enough, about 20 miles further on down, my friend saw the blue lights flashing ahead and thought triumphantly—yes, jerk, you’ve been nailed—until he got up to the site and found out there had been a terrible wreck, which didn’t make him feel quite as good. But, he rationalized, maybe that will scare him to death, hope he’s OK, and he forgot about it. The next day, the wreck was in the newspaper. Turns out the driver was a 22 year old and his wife was pregnant, and her water had broken, and in panic, he was driving her to the hospital. He was killed in the wreck, she was badly banged up, but they did an emergency C-section and saved the baby.

My friend felt like a heel. He was so quick to judge, so quick to want justice, like all of us. Fortunately, God judges us more kindly that we do each other. Let us, this week, as we celebrate homecoming together, try to act a little more like God and a little less like ourselves. Maybe it will help keep us from seeing that speck in our classmates’ eye and recognize the plank that is too often in our own.

Enjoy homecoming this week. Seniors, this will be the one of the firsts in a series of lasts for you…your last high school homecoming. Even as we have fun together and dress in all these funny outfits, let’s not forget that we’re in school, and we still have work to do.

Go Knights!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Choosing High Schools: An Insider Perspective


This article was written for publication in the Register, the official newspaper for the diocese of Nashville.

The Tennessean recently ran a story chronicling a kind of "arms race" between 3 private schools in Nashville to out-spend each other building extraordinary high school athletic facilities. Not coincidentally, they each have excellent football teams.

Though having a winning team is fun, in our more sober moments, we know that it pales in importance to teaching, learning and passing on the faith to our children. Yet because so many schools hire professional advertising firms to select just the right images and statistics to sell the school, it’s often easier to pick out a good team than a good school—we need only read the sports pages!

How do we sift our way through the slick ads and the hype to pick the right academic program for our children? Having spent the last 20 years as a high school "head", I'd like to offer a series of "insider" questions that may help.

High schools brag about their "Merit" or "Commended" scholars as a way of conveying an "elite" academic program. We all do it, because we're regarded with suspicion if we don't, but it doesn't tell you much. Merit scholars are chosen by performance on the PSAT test, which measures reading comprehension and math reasoning abilities based on simple algebra and geometry. It's an "ability" test--how well a student uses basic knowledge to solve unique problems--rather than one that measures "achievement"--how well a student has met the goals of an advanced curriculum. A much better measure of a school's top program are A.P. test results, which track how well students do in advanced subject areas like Physics and Calculus and thus reflect the quality of teaching and learning. Even merit finalists can't get 4's and 5's on A.P. Calculus exams unless Calculus is well taught! If you're a parent of a gifted student, you'll want to ask: How many A.P. classes are offered? How many A.P. classes do the best students take over their career? Which classes score the highest? The lowest? How many students were honored as "AP Scholars", "AP Scholars with Honors", "AP Scholars with Distinction" and "National AP Scholars" by the College Board last year? Since some schools urge only their best A.P. students to actually take the tests, thus inflating their "passing" percentages (3+), ask instead 'What percent of students enrolled in A.P. courses, pass the exam'?

Ask, too, about ACT results. ACT scores are more telling than SAT scores because in the south, only the top students typically take the SAT tests, inflating school averages, whereas almost everybody takes the ACT. But ACT data can also be misused. Because some high schools educate students with varying abilities, comparing their average ACT score with a school that excludes weaker students is invalid. Instead, ask ‘What is the average ACT score for the top quartile and top decile of students?’ as a way of comparing apples to apples. And if I am a parent of a child who struggles, I'd like to know the average ACT scores of the bottom two quartiles. Would my child be able to attend a state university with those scores?

Core requirements (4 years of English, Science, etc.) will be roughly similar, but ask about the number of foreign language and fine arts requirements (more is better). Also, into how many “ability tracks" does a school tier its student body? Though some educators will disagree with me, less is better--ideally, an honors track and a general track for all but those with severe learning disabilities. More tiers mean that schools place their weaker students in remedial classes which often become dreary, self-fulfilling prophecies, asking too little. Let them reach! If their grades suffer a bit, that's OK, because colleges value ACT results more so than grades--grades have become too inflated and vary too much between schools to compare students reliably. It's better for our children to stretch with lesser grades and higher ACT's than to cruise without challenge! The key is: Does the school provide the extra aid necessary to help a weaker student stretch? Are teachers available before or after school to tutor students? Often the difference between students isn't what they can learn, but how quickly they can learn it. Giving less able students a legitimate French II course, if learned at a slower pace, with extra help, is much better than never requiring them to take French II.

If I were meeting with the administration, I'd ask them about innovative programs and new initiatives as a quick window into their creativity and energy. Ask them what their weakest curricular areas are, how these are diagnosed and what they're doing to address the them. All schools have weaknesses if they're honest; what you want to know is how pro-active a school is about diagnosing and remedying. Ask principals about their long term goals for the school. Be wary of the language of powerlessness too common in education today, such as "We'd do more if we had more money", or "our hands are tied by..." etc. I'd ask if I could observe hallways at the end of a school day to gauge how well students and teachers interact with each other and to get a feel for the milieu of the school (often disguised in school brochures). While there, ask a few random students what they like and dislike about the school. They don’t read the school brochures, and you're likely to get some unfiltered, honest answers!

National research has shown that children who attend Catholic high schools for 3+ years are half as likely to convert to another faith as adults, almost half as likely to drop all religious affiliation, are likelier to have a prayer life as adults, are likelier to identify themselves as "highly committed Catholics" and are likelier to regard their faith as "among the most important parts of their lives" (Gautier, 2005). Those statistics ought to matter to us as Catholic parents! However, what is true nationally may not be borne out by any particular Catholic school. How often does it celebrate Mass together? How pervasive is prayer? What are the credentials of the religion teachers? How seriously does the school treat religion as an academic subject? What are the school's service requirements, if any? How prominent are religious symbols and Scripture in the school? These are the things that make a long term difference.

I hope I've been helpful.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

One day, may we be one


This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII students on September 29, 2008.

So Jesus came to visit Hendersonville, TN. The Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce was eager to show their honored guest around town, especially emphasizing with him all the different churches and denominations in Hendersonville established to praise and worship him. They pointed out Methodist churches, Baptist churches, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Pentecostal, Church of Christ and even a Catholic high school named after a pope.

At the end of the tour, the Chamber of Commerce said proudly: “See Jesus, how much Hendersonville loves you”. “Yes”, Jesus said sadly. “But see how much you hate one other.”

The division of the Christian church into its many denominations is one of the scandals of our faith. In John’s gospel, just before Jesus was arrested, he prayed for his apostles and all those who would later claim to be believers:

“I pray that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you-- that they may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21)

And yet, nearly 2000 years later, we remain divided.

There are, for sure, many things –in fact, the most important things—that we as Christians proclaim together. We affirm together our love and faith in Jesus Christ. We both proclaim our need for an active and obedient faith. We affirm our dependence on the grace of God and our common need for God’s forgiveness and love. We stand together, humbly, as his children and as brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Yet though we go to class together, study together, pray together, laugh together, cheer on our teams as a united community, pick each other up when we’re down, when it comes to communion time at Mass, we’re reminded that we are NOT fully united in our faith. And that should make us all feel very sad.

The temptation is to gloss over our differences as if they don’t matter. Couldn't we pretend to believe the same thing about communion, in the interest of unity?

When I was a young principal, we had an exchange student who came to us for his senior year. He wanted the experience of being in an American school, even though he knew he couldn’t graduate at the end of the year, because he didn’t have enough credits, and he was going back for one more year of high school anyway. He had a GREAT year with us, everyone liked him, he played soccer as I recall, and was part of our student body in every way. However, as the end of the year approached and as the senior class began to start focusing on graduation, he began to feel left out, since he wasn’t graduating. His host parents called me and asked if he could participate in graduation ceremonies just to feel included—wear the gown, put on the tassel, go up and get the diploma, even if it were simply a blank piece of paper”. I felt badly for him, so I let him do it.

It was a mistake, and the person who most felt that mistake was the young man himself.

In 8 months, when you seniors put on the cap and gown and walk down the aisle at graduation to the music of “Pomp and Circumstance” , you will be surprised at how emotionally affected you are by it all. That’s because the graduation pageantry says one very powerful thing to everyone there: you made it. You know you made it and you’re rightfully proud of that, and the cap/gown/diploma is a public testimony to this basic truth.

As much as I wanted this exchange student to feel included, putting him in a position where he was play-acting something that wasn’t true made him feel false and empty.

When we celebrate the Last Supper together, the Catholic Church believes a remarkable thing occurs: the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Not a symbolic body and blood, but the actual thing. Many Christian faiths have communion services that re-enact the Last Supper and pass out communion, but no other Christian faith to my knowledge believes that the bread transubstantiates to the actual body of Christ.

Before the communion minister gives out communion, he says “Body of Christ”, translated, “This is Christ himself, in my hands, which I now give to you.” We are asked to say “Amen”, which means “Yes, I agree with that”. If someone doesn’t believe that and came up and said that he did, it would be at best an empty gesture, with no meaning. It would feel false even if our motivations were sincere.

We don’t solve genuine differences between us by pretending we don’t have those differences. Instead, we state those differences clearly, try to understand clearly, debate those ideas respectfully, and seek to find ways to reconcile. We still have much work to do.

Which brings us back to our Masses at JP II.

The Catholic Church does not say, as we have been wrongly led to believe in the media, that non-Catholics are not Christian or that non-Catholics are lower class Christians. Rather, the Catholic church says we are separated and in a strained relationship. Pope Benedict, like John Paul II before him, is committed to bettering the relationship between Catholics and other Christians—something that is called “ecumenism”. Here at JP II, we bear the name of a great leader in ecumenism, and I really believe this school lives out that vision in an admirable way.

I hope, I pray there will be a day when we can come to Mass together as a completely united school community and share communion together, without divisions. Until that time, I hope the many of you who are not Catholic here will, in fact, come forward at communion to receive a blessing.

I know that feels a bit awkward for you. I was watching Mr. Diamond last week during mass. After getting to know him better at frosh retreat, watching him whoop it up, dive through hoops and act crazy, or coordinating our Loughlin scholars program, or acting as the Veritas advisor, or as asst. Dean of Students, or simply interacting with you in the hallways, it’s hard to imagine a more connected faculty member to the life of this school. You could almost call him “Mr. JP II”. Yet Mr. Diamond is Methodist ; in fact, his wife is a Methodist minister. Because of this, he is not able to fully participate in our communion service. Yet week after week I watch him come down the aisle, arms folded, and pray for a blessing—in this case, a blessing from the communion minister, a student at JPII.

Let me suggest that Mr. Diamond’s simple gesture, coming forward and being prayed over by a student here, is an ELOQUENT PRAYER for the unity of our Church, that one day, we will not be broken…that one day, as Jesus prayed, “we may all be one”.

Let me encourage the rest of you who are not Catholic to follow his lead. I know many of you already do. You’re not coming forward because you’re told to, or supposed to, or because in some way you’re less worthy than Catholics to receive full communion. You’re coming forward to pray as the Lord did, that one day, may we be one. That day has not arrived, and we have work to do.

In the mean time, speaking to all those of you who are not Catholic on behalf of those of us who are, thank you for your Christian witness to us. JP II is a better school because you’re here.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Good and Faithful Servant


On Friday, JPII learned that Carol Cassidy, its National Arts Honor Society advisor, died of injuries received from an accident earlier that week. This is Mr. Weber's address to students on Monday, September 15, 2008.

On my third day as new headmaster in June, a woman whom I did not know asked me for permission to paint the walls of our fine arts complex. It was an impressive presentation; she had sketches for each wall. “No”, I said as politely as I could. “I did that once at my old school. Painted walls look good for about a month, then they begin to smear and smudge, and they become hard to paint over.”

About three weeks later, the same woman scheduled another appointment. “I’d like to get my art students to paint the windows of this school”, she said. I looked through her sketches. “No”, I said as kindly as I could, but feeling a bit guilty for saying no a second time. “Painted windows only look good from one side of the windows, and like the walls, it’s difficult to remove. I am sorry.”

Two weeks ago, undeterred, she met with me again. “Mr. Weber, there is transparent vinyl that can be laid over windows and painted upon. Please let my students use them to decorate the windows, and when you get tired of it, we can simply remove the vinyl”. As she had met all my objections, it was impossible for me to say no. “OK”, I said, "but let’s limit this to the glass windows between the cafeteria and the fine arts hallway”. “Thank you”, she said, and as she left my office, I smiled to myself with admiration, and wondered what this plucky woman would bring me next.

This was Carol Cassidy at her best: committed to her art honor society students and finding them meaningful projects to do, committed to making Pope John Paul II High School look beautiful, committed to JPII’s administration—even the new guy— and committed to the faculty and staff.

And suddenly, inexplicably, she is gone.

Since we received news of the accident and I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Ms. Cassidy’s sisters, friends and colleagues, I’ve learned a lot more about her. I learned that when JPII was merely a pile of dirt with a trailer out front, and before there were any faculty, that she and Mr. Broekman were a team: while he brought guests and prospective parents to sell them on the dream, Ms. Cassidy worked behind the scenes as hostess, preparing receptions, decorating tables, making people feel welcomed.

I’ve learned that before Ms. Cassidy had an aneurism which side-lined her to a less hectic life 18 years ago, she was a high level hotel efficiency expert, and traveled extensively around this country and Europe, hotel to hotel, and that she enjoyed this jet-set life, which accounts for why she never married. Though her original home was on the east coast, she came to Nashville to work with the Opryland hotel, and because she was Catholic and was active at Our Lady of the Lake, after the aneurism, she decided to dedicate herself to help get JPII started.

In times of grief and loss like now, it is part of our Christian tradition to find consolation and understanding through Scripture. I call to mind two verses in particular.

The first is “Stay awake!” says Jesus, “For you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matthew 25:13).

It was a day like any other day at JPII when we received news that Mrs. Cassidy had been airlifted to Vanderbilt hospital. No one could have anticipated this; we don’t think of such things. One of the great temptations of being a teenager is to dismiss death as something that happens to old people. “I’ve got lots of time”, you may tell yourself, “to get my life together”.

Maybe, but maybe not. In the same junior class trip that I mentioned already about the bully getting on the bus without enough seats, there was a classmate named Pat who was not allowed to go on the trip for reasons of discipline. He was “crazy” we used to call him, but of course, we knew the truth was deeper: he had a drinking problem. On the third day of the trip, we got news that Pat had been drinking and driven into a tree at 110 miles per hour. He was killed instantly. His girlfriend, on the trip with us, was inconsolable. We canceled the trip instantly and came home—imagine a 600 mile bus trip full of juniors without anyone saying a word to each other, with the silence broken only by the occasional sniffles and muffled crying of his girlfriend in the back of the bus. I am sure that God had mercy on Pat, but all of my classmates and I were thinking the same thing: we should have seen that coming, why weren’t we courageous enough to step up and get him help?

We know neither the day nor the hour. If it’s true, as you may be apt to say of older people, that they live in the past, it is also true that when we’re young we live too often in the future, as if we have all the time in the world to get things right with our lives and with God. Let us use occasions like Ms. Cassidy’s sudden passing to remind us, young and old, that our goal should be to live now, appreciative of all that God has blessed us with, willing to examine our lives and challenge ourselves and our classmates to be the people God has called us to be.

The second Scripture verse reflects both our Christian faith and recalls the circumstances of Ms. Cassidy’s life. When Ms. Cassidy had her aneurism 18 years ago, it forced her to give up an exciting life that she very much enjoyed. Rather than mope or feel sorry for herself, she redirected her life to helping students and staff here at JPII.

One day, may we all hear the words of Jesus that our faith tells us Ms. Cassidy heard on Friday, the day she passed:

Well done, good and faithful servant… Come now and enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:23)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Inheriting the earth


This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on Monday, September 8, 2008.

On September 11 this Thursday, we commemorate the 7th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on America, both at the Twin Towers in NYC and at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Just over 3,000 innocent people were killed in those attacks, making it the worst attack on America in our history (The bombing of Pearl Harbor killed just over 2350).

Since that terrible day on 9/11, we have fought two wars: the first in Afghanistan, which was run by the Taliban government that gave safe harbor to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the organization and person responsible for the attacks, and the second in Iraq, believed to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda. Since those two wars began, an additional 957 American lives have been lost in Afghanistan and 4,155 American lives lost in Iraq. It is impossible to know how many Afghani or Iraqi lives have also been lost in these wars, but conservative estimates place the number at 10 times as many as Americans' If that number is true, that would be roughly 40,000 Iraqis and 10,000 Afghanis (cf. http://icasualties.org/oif/).

It is common when we come together as Christians to pray for “peace in the middle East” and a “safe return for our soldiers”. Given the ravages and horrors of war, these are important prayers, but I suspect, if you’re like me, you feel a bit helpless and maybe even hopeless in these prayers, as if we were the dingy beauty contestant who says her #1 goal if selected to be Miss Universe is to bring “peace to the world”. Good luck on that, we think sarcastically. After all, how can any one person, whether that person be Miss Universe, or any of us sitting in this auditorium here this morning, have any real effect on bringing peace to this world?

I have two thoughts on the matter.

The first is, we can begin by becoming peace-makers here at JPII, in our daily lives together. Through-out our lives, people will say things about us that are unfair, borne from pettiness or jealousy, perhaps, or maybe just out of meanness. When they say these things, we feel often justified in lashing back, aimed at inflicting equal damage, trying to get even, an “eye for an eye”. But as Tevye says in the play Fiddler on the Roof, an “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and soon the whole world is both blind and toothless”. Jesus says it even more pointedly, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other cheek, and if someone takes your coat, give him your shirt as well” (Matthew 5:39-40).

What the heck is Jesus talking about? Surely he doesn’t mean to be taken literally?

In my junior year of high school, I witnessed someone who took Jesus’ teaching literally, and it was fascinating to watch. My class was going on a long field trip, we had chartered a bus, and as I remember it, there were exactly 45 seats on the bus and 46 students in the class. The last person to board the bus was a fella named Gerry, who was also the largest human being in our school, played right tackle on the football team and was known to be a bully. When he realized he didn’t have a seat, he walked up to a fella named Tim, who was slightly effeminate, and said, “Tim, you’re in my seat. Get up”. Those of us in the bus thought to ourselves, “Gerry, you’re a jerk”, but also, “Tim, you better move.”

Tim said instead, “This isn’t your seat”. “Get up”, Jerry said threateningly, “or I am going to remove you”. “This is my seat, Jerry, and you know it”. With that, Gerry picked Tim up as if he were picking up a rag doll and threw him across the aisle and sat down. Tim picked himself up, a little banged up, and walked back to Gerry and said, “Get out of my seat”. Gerry stood up and said, “Get out of my face, Tim, or I am going to hurt you.” Tim, a little shaky, replied, “You’re in my seat”. Gerry then took Tim and threw him violently across two rows of seats and sat down. This time, Tim was really hurt. With tears in his eyes, he limped back to his seat and told Gerry, “You’re stronger than I am, but you’re in my seat”. Never once did Tim try to swing back at Gerry, never once did he stoop to Gerry’s level, but he wasn’t backing down either. And no matter how big a bully someone is, it’s very hard to hit someone 3 times when each time, he isn't swinging back. Gerry looked around the bus, and there were 44 classmates looking steely eyed at him as if to say “you better not do it again, Gerry”. So Gerry stood up, cursed at Tim to save face, and then walked to the back of the bus and sat in the aisle. From that moment forward, we all looked at Tim a lot differently.

When Jesus says “turn the other cheek”, he doesn’t mean put your tail between your legs and allow yourself to be trampled on. That’s cowardice, not Christian virtue. He expects us to have the courage to stand up to injustice—for others, and for ourselves—when that courage is required. But he challenges us not to think first about ourselves, but about challenging the heart of the one doing the injustice. Had Tim ever swung back, Gerry would have certainly won the fight, but also, felt justified in remaining the bully that he had always been. Because Tim refused to back down but also refused to fight, Gerry’s attitude was directly challenged. He had to think, “What’s wrong with me that I am hitting someone who refuses to hit back?”

I believe the insight of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was they understood that to be peace-makers, to change people’s hearts, they had to be willing to take a blow. They were NOT going to live by “an eye for an eye”, they were not going to resort to violence, but they were going to challenge injustice. And when the nation saw video of peaceful protestors being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, or watched children in Birmingham sprayed with fire hoses, or read about children being bombed in a Birmingham church, or about defenseless Freedom Riders beaten up by thugs in a Montgomery bus stop, it said to itself “Surely, a nation committed to justice for all cannot permit such thuggery”. Laws, and eventually hearts, were changed.

Fortunately, to be a peace-maker at JPII doesn’t usually mean to stand up to fire hoses and beatings. But it does mean, I think, to forgive.

Girls, on this matter of forgiveness, I may be talking to you even more so than the guys. When guys do bad things to each other, they tend to challenge each other, fight, and then move on. You women have a tendency to HOLD ON to your grievances.

At my old school, we probably had no more than 3 fights a year, but on one particularly bad day, we had two fights, one between boys in senior homeroom, and one between 2 sophomore girls at lunch. Here’s how the boys’ fight started. They were sitting in HR, and one guy was day dreaming, but he was looking right at another senior. The other senior said “Quit looking at me”. The daydreamer, who wasn’t thinking at all about this other guy, didn’t like the guy’s tone, so he then looked DEAD AT HIM. Both boys stood up, then the whole ritual of the chest bumping played out, then some some swings, then tussling over desks. Well, they knew they were in trouble, but by the time they had walked down the hallway to my office, they had already made up and were laughing about how stupid that fight was. I agreed with them. Pretty stupid. I suspended them.

Later that day, the two sophomore girls were brought to my office. I took them one at a time into my office and asked “How did this start?” Each of them—I am not exaggerating—said “Mr. Weber, this all started in seventh grade” and then proceeded to tell me of every slight between them over the last 3 years, chronologically. I had to cut them both off in mid-story somewhere around what happened in 8th grade and ask them, “What happened TODAY that caused you to fight?”

Girls, you must forgive each other. If we’re going to take seriously the words of Jesus, if we want to be worthy of being Christians, literally, followers of Christ, we must forgive each other and be peace-makers. It may not change foreign policy, it may not affect our war in Iraq, but it makes a difference in the here and now, and we can have profound effect on this portion of the world.

Here’s my second thought, very simply. In our readings this Sunday at Church, Jesus says to us:

“Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:19-20)

God wants us to pray for peace, and as people who trust in God’s mercy and promises, we believe that prayer makes a difference.

So on this occasion of the 7th anniversary of this horrible attack, let us have the courage to live out the words of Jesus in our daily lives, forgiving each other, becoming peace-makers in our families and around our school. Let us also pray for the safety of those fighting wars in foreign lands, that they may return home soon and that there will one day, soon, be peace abroad.

“Blessed are the peace-makers”, Jesus said, “for they shall inherit the earth”. (Matthew 5: 5)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Words


Note: This is Mr. Weber's address to the JP II student body on August 25, 2008

We had grown up together as neighborhood friends—her parents were good friends with my parents---and so we had occasion to spend a lot of time as kids, swimming in their pool, running around the yard, riding bikes in the neighborhood. By high school, she had become quite beautiful, but she was painfully shy around boys—so shy that she came across as aloof, and even to others, as “stuck-up”. I knew it wasn't true--it was just shyness.

Sometime in the middle of my freshman year, as I was walking between classes, some of my friends were talking about her. “I tried talking to her” one said, “and she wouldn’t give me the time of day”. “Yeah, what’s wrong with her?” the other one said. “She never acts interested us guys." “Probably gay”, said a third. (Lots of laughter.) Wanting to fit in, I said, “Yeah, I know her family pretty well. She might just be gay”. (Lots more laughter.) I knew it was wrong, of course, but I was eager to draw a laugh.

The rumor started to spread around the school that she was gay. She heard the rumor—and even worse, that I had said it about her. She called me weeping and asked if I had said that. “I didn’t mean it” I said feebly. “I know it’s not true, I was just trying to be funny. I am sorry”. I could hear her weeping bitterly on the other side as she hung up the phone on me.

Weak. Truth is, I had been a coward.

We were never close friends after that. I had ruined a long friendship in a matter of 4 seconds, 11 words. “Yeah-I-know-her-pretty-well. She-might-just-be-gay”. 11 words. Once I had said them, there was no taking them back. You cannot unspill milk…the damage was done. I still regret what I did today, even though it was 30 years ago.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We learn this little jingle when we’re kids, but it’s a lie. A HUGE LIE. A broken bone heals in a matter of months, but the hurt and the injury we can do with our tongues can cut right through someone’s heart. Words have the power to shatter, to devastate.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that words can also be powerful in building people up. Encouraging someone who’s having a bad day, complimenting a class mate for something he did that few noticed, or just being kind can have equally lasting effect. As clearly as I remember my own cowardly remark as a freshman, I remember a cheerleader –perhaps the most popular girl in the class—laughing at something I said and saying to me, “You’re really funny”. I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone at that time, but that remark made a great difference to me.

With great power comes great responsibility. Yes, I know that’s Spiderman. But we all do have great power—the power to tear down, or the power to build up, and with that power comes a great responsibility.

I have always said that the measure of a great student body is the way they talk to each other and about each other. Let it be said about JPII students that you are courageous enough not to talk behind your class mates’ backs and generous enough to build each other up.

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage others." (2 Corinthians 1:3,4)

Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Whatsoever You Do


Note: This is Mr. Weber's address to the JP II student body on August 18, 2008.

As I was finding out about JP II late last winter, trying to decide if I wanted to move my family here and take this job, one of the things that stood out to me about you was the Christian Service Internship program. Last year, you gave 26,000 hours of service to the poor and the disadvantaged of the Nashville area. That is extraordinary, and you should be proud of the good you’ve done.

There is a temptation, I suppose, to regard your 40 hour service requirement much like you would regard a major paper or test—a necessary evil you must complete, a means to an end, something you must cross off the to do list. I would understand that, partly, because all of us race from project to project, task to task, and we are, in fact, a society that values efficiency.

But as you begin to work with Mr. Fernandez to decide what your service will be this year, or if you’ve already decided and are starting your hours, I’d like to suggest a very simple alternative way of thinking about what you’re doing.

A quick story: In my younger years, I played the guitar. There was a very small, very old nun in Montgomery who visited the prisons in the Montgomery area. Out of the blue one afternoon in early December, she called me in desperation and said that the Christmas program in the prison was that evening and her guitar player was sick, so she needed me to play the guitar that night and lead the men in Christmas carols. I am ashamed to admit that my first instinct was to try and find a way to say I couldn’t make it. Leading prisoners in singing religious music was not on my top ten list of things I aspired to do, but sister had caught me so off guard that I couldn’t make up an excuse fast enough, so I said yes. Little old nuns can be very persistent.

We went to the prison. I had never been to a prison before. We walked through approximately 4 security doors, into a cafeteria filled with men, sitting in chairs, waiting for us to get there in the front. This wasn’t a prison for light-weight criminals. This was a maximum security prison—in the crowd were thieves, rapists, and murderers. I was so uneasy I could barely play. Sister welcomed them, then motioned for me to play “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. I began playing, expecting an anemic response—these were, after all, men. Men don’t sing. These were, after all, convicted felons. Convicted felons don’t sing.

I was completely wrong. Every single man in that cafeteria sang loudly, with smiles on their faces, as if they really meant it, as if they really believed Christ were coming and they wanted to welcome him. At one point in the program, I was so moved by their response, my eyes started to well up. It was one of the single greatest religious moments in my life, even today.

As sister and I drove home that evening and I was thinking about their response, I began to have nagging doubts as to their sincerity. I said to sister—“You’ve been working in prisons for a long time, sister, do you think their response tonight was sincere? Were they just going through the motions to look good, to try and convince the guards they were changed men, to make a stronger argument to the parole board?

Sister pulled the car over to the side of the road, turned and looked at me with fire in her eyes and said something I’ll never forget:

That’s not our concern! We have one simple thing to do, and that is to BE JESUS to those men. Be Jesus, and let the Lord worry about everything else.

As you begin your Christian service this year—in whatever venue you find yourself in—I want you to take to heart the words of this little old nun—for those brief hours you are involved in service, put everything else aside and simply be Jesus to the persons to whom you are ministering. God will take care of everything else.

Then the Son of Man will say to those on his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me no drink. I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me. Then they will answer “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and not minister to you?”

Then he will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you do for the least of these, you do unto me”. (Matthew 25:41-46)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Be it done unto me...


This was Mr. Weber's second address to the JPII student body, given on August 11, 2008.

He was our school’s best athlete two years ago--our starting tailback in football and point guard in basketball. He was a guy’s guy—tough, gritty, not prone to emotion. The occasion was senior night in basketball, where we introduce players with their parents, and they walk out to half court together. His mother had a stroke a week earlier, and probably shouldn’t have been there but she wasn’t about to be at home when her son was playing his last home game.

When they called out her name, her son came from across the floor to get her in the bleachers, because she could hardly walk. He helped her, gently, come down from the bleachers and walked SLOWLY with her to half-court. The tenderness by which he treated his mother was a direct contrast to the way he presented himself to others, and all the students noticed it. There were even some tears welling up in the crowd.

But it was, after all, his mom. Mothers are special. Just look at any college football game when the TV cameras roam the sidelines. Whenever they do a close-up of a player, it’s not “Hey Dad” or “Hey Coach” from high school, but “Hey Mom” or “Hey Mom, love you”.

All of this helps us understand why Catholics seem to talk about Mary so much. This week, on Friday, we’ll be celebrating the Assumption, the belief that Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul. Why all this fuss about Mary? We call Mary “first among the saints” for a simple reason: she was Jesus’ mom, and that puts her in a privileged place in our faith, just as Moms are held in a privileged place in our families and in our society.

And why do Catholics pay so much attention to dead people, even if that dead person was Jesus’ mom? For the same reason that we have pictures of our relatives in our homes and in our offices—so that we can be inspired by their example and can be reminded that we are called to live as they lived. There’s a picture of my grandfather in my office. My wife teases me because it’s much bigger than the picture of her. But there’s a reason he’s so prominently displayed. It wasn’t because he was a professor of orthodontics at the University of TN, or chair of that department for 37 years, or that he won 2 international awards in his field that only one other person in his profession has done. It was because every Friday, for 37 years, he went out to lunch with his graduate students, thus building a personal relationship with them. His picture reminds me of the kind of leader I want to be for JPII—not just a head of school, but one that gets to know the students personally—it’s the reason I teach a class and have done so for the 20 years I’ve been either president or principal.

We celebrate the saints, and this week, Mary, as first among the saints, because they remind us that a Christian life is not only possible, but it’s been done already. And that ought to inspire us to believe we can live that kind of life, too.

In 1954 track’s greatest record was broken. It was such a tremendous human achievement that it didn’t just make the sports headlines; it made front page headlines all over the world. It was thought to have been humanly impossible—that if someone pushed himself that hard, his lungs would collapse. (Does anyone know what it was?) Roger Bannister, an English long distance runner, broke the 4 minute mile. It had never been done before, was thought to be impossible, and as a result, no-one ever did it. But that same summer, the world record had been broken 3 more times, and within 3 years, over 16 different runners had broken that barrier. Today the world record is 3 minutes, 43 seconds, a full 17 seconds off that once unthinkable barrier.

What happened? It’s pretty clear: Once folks saw that a 4 minute mile was possible, it empowered others to run that barrier, too.

All that happened to Mary in her life was the result of a simple prayer. When the angel Gabriel announced she was to bear a son who shall become Emmanuel, savior, she said only “Be it done unto me according to your word”. Let that simple prayer, and her faithfulness to that prayer, be an inspiration to all of us to live according to his word, his will. What she has done, we can also do. May we have the courage to say yes as she did. Amen.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Welcome, Students of JPII !


Note: This is Mr. Weber's first address to the students of Pope John Paul II Catholic High School, on the occasion of their first day of school.

Welcome back to all of you who were students here last year, and once again, welcome to our many new students. I trust the upperclassmen will make our many new students feel welcome and I see that our senior class has taken some initiative to give a special welcome to our freshmen already.

For those of you who don’t remember who I am or who never met me, I am Mr. Weber, the new headmaster of JPII. My family and I come here from Montgomery, Al, where I was a former teacher, principal and president of Montgomery Catholic Preparatory for 23 years. I am excited to be here.

Since I had nothing to do with the school until now, I can tell people very honestly what I think of it without sounding too self-serving. I mean this seriously when I say you are blessed to be part of an outstanding school. I’ve been in education all my adult life and can say with some authority that this school ranks as one of the best schools in the southeast and among the best Catholic schools in the country. I hope, in as much as familiarity does at times breed contempt, that in your more honest moments, when you’re not feeling stressed, that you appreciate what a great school this is.

The facilities are excellent—this is a beautiful campus. The teachers here are at the very top of their profession—they’re well educated, they’re committed to their subject areas, but most of all they’re committed to you and helping you do well. The administration—Mrs. Phillips, Coach Rollins, Mr. Weaver, Mrs. Brown and Mr. McClaren—is second to none.

Coaches often say that their teams are only as good as their athletes—and stealing that line--a school is only as good as its students. I’ve had the chance to meet many of you already. I’ve seen your test scores. I received your AP test results this summer, which were incredible. I’ve read about the state hockey and bowling championships last year, read about all the other teams and your successes and struggles, I’ve listened to the CD of last year’s Spring Choral concert, and I look forward to attending MANY games, concerts and performances this year. The truth of the matter is this: This school is excellent because you are excellent. On the whole, you work hard, you practice hard, you play hard, and it all shows in your many achievements.

I challenge you to continue in this pursuit of excellence.

I’d like to point you to a quote from the person for whom this school is named, Pope John Paul II, as we begin this new school year.

"Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch."

If you remember when you were a child and swimming in the pool, your parents always told you that you had to stay in the shallow end. The “deep end” was the forbidden zone, the part of the pool that was over your head. The shallow end was the “safe” side.

I think what John Paul II is telling us in this quote—telling you as you begin this year—is don’t play it safe. Take some risks. Join clubs and teams that you’ve not joined before, shoot for the better grade in your classes, deepen your relationship with God, make new friends, push yourself out of your comfort zone—move out to the deep end.

When my youngest son Daniel was 6, he was invited to his first pool party. It was during the winter, but it was an indoor pool, and he was so excited he pestered his mother each day for a week if it were the day of the party. Finally, the day came, and I told my wife I’d drop him off at the party on my way to a formal banquet—suit and tie. When Daniel arrived at the party, he quickly took off his shirt, shoes and coat and jumped for joy into the deep end of the pool…the only problem was, he didn’t know how to swim and he started to drown. The life guard was on the shallow end with the little kids, far away, so alarmed, I jumped in, suit, tie and all and pulled him to the edge.

Though I don’t recommend drowning yourself, I do think as we get older, one of the things that happens to us is we become overly cautious, not risking anything.

There are really two ways of going through life—jumping in and learning how to swim, or playing it safe at the shallow end, watching the others swim. It’s easier on the shallow end…you can make fun of the people who bust it off the diving board or look goofy learning to swim-- just like it’s easier to sit in the bleachers and be critical of athletes on the field, who compete on behalf of their school, even if that means they sometimes lose. As you begin this school year, don’t be one of those people playing it safe on the shallow end or in the bleachers—JUMP INTO the deep, GET IN the game.

This quote from John Paul also harkens back to the biblical story of the apostles who had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. You remember the story….as they were coming back, frustrated and tired, Jesus appears on the shore and tells them to head back out to the deep and throw their nets to the other side of the boat. “We’ve been fishing all night” they grumble back at him. “We’ve didn’t catch anything”. “Just head back out and throw your nets to the other side of the boat”, Jesus tells them. (I am translating loosely). I wish I were in the boat listening to the apostles’ sarcastic muttering as they turned their boat around and headed back to the deep—“Oh YEAH, the other side…that’ll do the trick…if only we had put an X on the lake where we last threw down our nets, then we could throw our nets to the other side and catch something. Why didn’t we think of that? ”. But despite their skepticism, they grudgingly did what Jesus said…they trusted him. And when they let down their nets, they caught more fish than they could handle, and brought a boat load back to the shore.

The Lord promises us if we are willing to trust him, if we are willing to risk moving to the deep end and to throwing down our nets—if we get involved, join clubs, try out for teams, become more committed to God, work on making new friends—if we shun mediocrity and not play it safe—he will bless us.

So as we begin this school year, my challenge to you is to jump into the deep end!

May all of you have an incredible year and may God bless each of you.