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.

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)