Sunday, August 24, 2008


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)


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.