Sunday, January 25, 2009

It isn't what we say

This is Mr. Weber's address to JPII students on Monday, January 26, 2009.

I was asked to speak on behalf of Catholic education yesterday at St. Henry's in west Nashville, and on my way home I must have passed 6 or 7 large churches as their Sunday services were going on. If the full parking lots are any indication, there are a lot Nashvillians who regard their faith as important.

And that reminded me of an article I recently read which said that 53% of Americans consider religion to be "very important" in their lives. This compares with 16% in Britain, 14% in France and 13% in Germany. So there are a lot of Americans, too, who regard their faith as important.

But here's a troubling trend: Despite this professed importance, we're increasingly inclined to regard our faith as irrelevant in terms of what our social policies should be, or in the shaping of our political views. In this manner of thinking, faith is best practiced in private--in church, perhaps, or in one's home, with one's family--but not in the rough and tumble world of business or politics. For many Americans, "faith" is a "churchy" thing that shouldn't "impose" its views on others about abortion, welfare reform or whether or not it is appropriate to go to war.

But the Scriptures flatly disagree! From the Old Testament prophets, to Jesus, to the testimony of the early Christian Church, the message is unequivocal: if our faith is to be authentic, it must compel us to build just relationships with others.

Consider the prophet Amos, preaching to Northern Israel some 2700 years ago. At that time, Israel's faith appeared to be flourishing, if one measured faith on the basis of Church attendance, the fervor of worship in the temple and the number of sacrificial offerings made. But the words of the Lord through Amos are damning:

"I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings, I will not accept them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; To the melody of your harps I will not listen. But if you would serve me, then let justice surge like the waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream." (Amos 5: 21-24)

Archeological evidence from Amos' day helps explain his vitriolic criticism: pauper's shacks have been found right next to lavish palaces, suggesting a deep economic divide in Israel, even despite the outward piety. Slavery and social injustice were rampant, and for Amos, claiming to be "religious" while practicing such injustice was the worst kind of hypocrisy. It is no coincidence that Martin Luther King Jr. often quoted this exact passage from Amos in an effort to challenge Christian believers, too many of whom had tacitly supported bigotry, to practice what they preached.

James, writing 700 years later in the New Testament, echoes the sentiments of Amos:

"If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them: "Go in peace, be warmed and filled" without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (James 2:15-17)

And of course, Jesus himself was clear on our social obligations in many places, perhaps most forcefully recounted in his vision of the last judgment:

"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.

Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?'

And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Matthew 25:31-44)

The consistent message of Scriptures is clear: one cannot claim to be Christian unless one understands that central to one's faith is the obligation to work for justice. Emphasizing "spirituality" or "religiosity" without a commitment to building a better world or supporting policies, institutions and practices that clothe the naked, feed the hungry or welcome the stranger is an empty, hollow faith at best, and hypocrisy at worst.

It isn't what we say that makes us Christian....

Monday, January 19, 2009

Top Ten Reasons to Choose Catholic Schools

(Or to keep your kids there!)

As we prepare for National Catholic Schools Week at the end of January, I have compiled a "Top Ten List" for choosing Catholic schools for our children based on my experience as a long time teacher, principal, president and headmaster of Catholic high schools--but perhaps even more importantly, from my perspective as father to 4 children raised in Catholic schools. (Where I have made smilar or related points before in my writings, I am including links, where it is likely I've discussed the issue in more depth).

10. Academics—Extensive research from 1965 to 1991 indicates that students from Catholic schools scored higher on virtually all outcome measurements than students from public schools, even when relevant demographic characteristics of the students were controlled, such as educational level of parents and family income (cf. “Catholic Schools Make a Difference: Twenty-five Years of Research”, NCEA, 1992)

9. Positive Effects on Minorities—The difference in outcomes are even more pronounced for minority students attending Catholic schools compared to private schools, according to Dr. William Sander, an economics professor at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois in his book, Catholic Schools: Private and Social Effects (Boston, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers, November 2000). “African-Americans and Hispanics have gained the most from Catholic schooling," wrote Sander. "They have substantially higher levels of educational attainment and academic achievement when they attended Catholic schools."

8. The Principle of Subsidiarity—A basic tenet of Catholic social teaching is that matters ought to be handled at the lowest level possible. Thus dioceses delegate tremendous authority and responsibility to local principals and school boards, allowing them to establish policies and procedures which work on the local level. This, in turn, gives the school community a real sense of ownership for the school, with the ability to affect change where change is needed. This organizational principle also allows Catholic schools to keep costs down, as more monies go directly into instruction when compared to systems with a large central office bureaucracies (in a 1987 study, New York City Schools employed 6,000 central office workers, compared to a the Catholic diocesan school staff of 36, despite the fact Catholic schools served only ¼ less students).

7. Combating Religious Amnesia—We live in a world that has grown immune to a sense of wonder and God’s active presence in our lives. Catholic schools help children (and their parents!) develop a sacramental world view in which God’s love and guidance is both interpreted and invoked for the routine events of our lives. “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God” is not just an opening from a monk or an nun, but serves as the context for all Catholic schooling.

6. Catholic Religious Identity—Through common songs, prayers and liturgical practices learned in Catholic schools, students become united in a common vocabulary, memory and tradition that binds them to a community life.

5. Understanding our Intellectual Tradition—Beyond the common prayers, songs and vocabulary, students in Catholic high schools are given a glimpse into an impressive intellectual tradition as shaped by some of the greatest minds of our Western heritage. They begin to see Catholic theology as a whole cloth, rather than as a series of fragmented teachings or series of isolated propositions.

4. Service to Others— The more affluent we become, the less inclined we are to empathize with the needs of the less fortunate. Catholic schools give students myriad opportunities for service, helping students live out the gospel enjoinder that “Whatsoever you do to the least of them, you do unto me”.

2. Credible Christian Role Models—There are no doubt many teachers in public and private schools who are serious, authentic Christians. The problem is, they are not often able to make their faith explicit to their kids, nor show the direct connection between their faith, what they do and why. When teenage boys watch their coaches worship with them at school Masses, they sense that being Christian isn’t just a feminine thing (always their suspicion) in a way that trumps all preaching.

2. Development of a Catholic World View—No matter how well structured or how well taught a parish’s CCD program is, no matter how committed the teacher, for their students, the practice of the Catholic faith is still a “Sunday thing”, not integrated into their daily lives each day. By contrast, prayer and opportunities for worship should become so commonplace in Catholic schools (morning announcements, before games, before class, before tests, during weekly masses, etc.) that it becomes almost an “ordinary” thing—almost un-noticed by students, like breathing, with long lasting effect.

1. An Integrated Family Life--Catholic schools offer their families the chance for an integrated life—where school, the practice of faith, the extra-curricular life of our children, who their friends are, who OUR friends are, and the experiences we share together, can all become part of a whole, and not remain distinct, disconnected fragments that we must juggle. Given the centrifugal forces confronting our families, this integration is perhaps the greatest blessing of Catholic schools.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

An Integrated Family Life

Prior to moving to Hendersonville, we lived in Montgomery, AL and were members of St. Bede parish. All of my children attended St. Bede School. St Bede had 4 basketball teams at each age level in a Catholic school basketball league comprised of all the other schools and parishes in Montgomery, very similar to the CYO program here in Nashville. Typically in leagues like this, the coaches are pretty much the same group of men, who then move up each grade level as their children get older, so you get to know these guys pretty well and develop friendships with them. Four of those teams were from my parish school, and the coaches of those teams and I had a good time over the years teasing each other whose team had beaten whom, who had the overall best record between us, that kind of thing. Being from the same parish and school, our sons knew each other, our wives were friends, we worshiped together, it was a family affair.

One of those men had a son who was a very good athlete, so good that as the son approached 7th grade, one of the more affluent private schools in Montgomery began to talk to this man about placing his son in their school. Whereas the Catholic middle school and high school athletic program to which we were all headed might be rated a “B” in terms of wins-losses, this private school was an “A”, and as visions of college athletic scholarships danced in the father’s head, he decided to pull his son out of our Catholic school and place him in the private school.

As our sons grew up during the years of middle school and high school, the fraternity of fathers that dated back to when our sons played 2nd and 3rd grade basketball became stronger. We traveled to remote gyms together in names of towns in Alabama that I didn’t know existed, despite living my entire life in that state. Our families cheered together in the big wins, we mourned the losses, felt badly for each others' sons when they missed crucial free throws down the stretch, exalted in each others' sons when they hit the big shot. At Sunday morning mass after a big weekend game, we’d talk about the game, speculate about the next one, Sunday morning quarterback our coaches’ decisions---and there would be lots of laughter and smiles.

The dad who placed his kid in the private school remained a member of our parish. We’d see him each Sunday, make some pleasant small talk, congratulate him if we read in the paper that his son played a good game. It was very evident, however, that he was no longer a member of the same fraternity—not because he was being excluded, but because as a member of different community, we simply didn’t continue to share those common experiences together. I remember one particular football game in which his son’s team played our team in football, and I felt bad for him---on one side of the field were his church, his long time friends, the folks he had built common memories with—on the other side, his son’s team and his new acquaintances. The first few years we played, he didn’t know where to stand during the games, so he’d stand in the end zone, almost directly in the middle, until over time, his friendships began to evolve toward those of the private school and he began to sit in their bleachers.

I think one of the decisions we make when we choose a school for our child is NOT just whether it’s a good academic school, or whether it will teach the faith effectively, or whether it’s a good fit for our child. Those are all good questions, but they are not the only considerations. It’s also a question of who OUR friends will be, what community will WE live in, and whether or not there will a connection between our family’s life, our faith, our passions and our energies.

Let’s be honest. Given the hectic pace of our lives, about the only thing we’re going to leave the house for when we get home from work is to go see our kids do something—whether that be an athletic event, a piano recital, or some other performance. When our kids are young, we’re not headed out to the union meeting, or a night at the bars with the fellas, or a book-club, or a routine get-together with our best friends. Our lives, rather, revolve around our children, and the friendships we make and the experiences we have are directly tied to the events of their lives.

Catholic schools offer their families the chance for an integrated life—where school, the practice of faith, the extra-curricular life of our children, who are friends are, and the experiences we share together, can all become part of a whole, and not remain distinct, disconnected fragments that we must juggle. This is, perhaps, the greatest blessing that Catholic schools can provide Catholic families.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Renaissance" Men and Women

This is Mr. Weber's address to the JPII student body on Monday, January 12, 2009.

Our development office has initiated an advertising campaign that features several students of JPII. Next to their picture is a short list of the many activities they’re involved in, with the headline “Be More”, making the point that we have talented students and a comprehensive program that encourages you pursue these talents. Yes people know that Wesley Tate is a great football player, but how many outside of JPII know he also sings in the Advanced Men’s choir? Or that Leah, a first team all state soccer player, is also a clarinetist? Or that Will Maddux, an all state soccer player, is also an all state vocalist ?

We are committed here to the idea of “renaissance” men and women, students who are well rounded in many things—academics, athletics, the arts, their faith. As I get to know each of you better, I am discovering how true this is about you. It’s very impressive, when it comes time to compete for college entrance and scholarships, to have a resume which indicates a versatility of talents and interests. But even more importantly, it makes for a satisfying, interesting life!

Over the course of the year so far, I’ve been honoring those of you who have been recognized for academic achievements: Merit Finalists, for example, or those who have excelled in Chorus. Earlier last week, I asked the athletic program for a list of honors our athletes have received this year so far, and this morning, I wanted to focus on them:

• In Volleyball, Briana Hoover was named all region and all county, whereas Katie Collier was all county and Jessica Rogan made all county honorable mention. Ashley Hammer made 2nd team in volleyball in Sumner County.

• In football, Wesley Tate was name all mid-state, but more impressively, a member of the Tennessean’s “Dream Team” for all of Tennessee.

• In women’s soccer, Caitlin Carter, Anna Steele and Emily Ward were named all county honorable mention, Sarah Galvin and Leal Smith were named all county 2nd team, Paige Bachle was named all state and all county, and Rosie Mahoney were named first team all county. Leah Loven was named first team all mid-state, mid-state defensive MVP, all county and first team all state, whereas Cailin Harris was named all state by the TSWA, 2nd team mid-state and Sumner County Player of the Year (that’s 9 players from women’s soccer receiving some sort of recognition!). And let’s not forget Mr. McLaren, who was named mid-state girls’ coach of the year for D-II!

• Ashley Powell was named Sumner County female cross country runner of the year and first team all metro, whereas Kirsten Perrey was named 2nd team all metro. Grace Lucas 1st team was first team all county, along with Ellen Pacsi, Alex Simpson and Kirsten Perry

• Our golf team did very well this year, qualifying for the state tournament, where they finished 5th. Tanner Taddeo: (All Mid State 3rd team and made the All County Team), Anthony Dowdy: (All County Team), Jordon Julow: (All County 2nd team) Blaze Dempsey: (All County 2nd Team)

• Our swim team was completely dominant in the Sumner County swimming championships, with emphasis on “completely”:

-Winning the 200 meter medley relay were Brittany Zobl, Ashley Powell, Kathryn George and Abbie Wood

-Winning the 200 boys’ freestyle was John Mainland, whereas the 200 girls’ freestyle winner was Abbie Wood

-The boys’ 200 individual medley winner was Alek Nochowitz, whereas Kathryn George won the 200 medley for the girls

-Conrad Claycomb won the boys’ 50 meter freestyle and Brittany Zobl won the girls’ 50 freestyle

-Adam Castellarin won the boys’ 100 butterfly, while Kathryn George won the girls’ 10butterfly

-Boys’ 100 meter freestyle was won by Conrad Claycomb

-Boys’ 500 meter freestyle was won by Alek Nochowitz, while Abbie Wood captured the girls’ 500 freestyle

-The boys’ 200 meter freestyle relay team of John Mainland, Samuel Geist, Will Vanderslice, Tanner Graham won, whereas the girls’ 200 meter freestyle team of Brittany Zobl, Ashley Powell, Kathryn George, Abbie Wood won.

-Adam Castellarin won the boys’ 100 backstroke, and Brittany Zobl won the 100 girls’ backstroke

-Ashley Powell won the 100 meter breaststroke

-Finally, the boys 400 meter freestyle team of Conrad Claycomb, Adam Castellarin, John Mainland, Alek Nochowic were champions.

• These individuals have qualified for the State Individual Bowling Competition: JP2 Boys – Matthew John Marshall; JP2 Girls – Hayley Pionk, Lauren Fowler, Natalie Beatty, Julie Pionk

• Our Cheerleaders won the Cheer Nation Competition at the Municipal Arena in Nashville in the fall

All in all, that’s a pretty impressive list of athletic achievements. It speaks well of your commitment, as well as your coach’s commitment, to excellence. Keep up the good work.

Students of JPII, aspire to be great in many things. Those who are well-rounded —academically, spiritually, athletically, culturally—are happy and successful adults. That’s what we aspire for you.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Authentic Freedom: To Be Ourselves

This is Mr. Weber's address to the student body of JPII on January 5, 2008.

I once knew a junior boy whose parents let him do whatever he wanted. He could come and go as he pleased—no curfews. If he did poorly academically, there were no punishments. His family was wealthy and he got pretty much whatever you wanted. As you might guess, this young man began to get into trouble--he began drinking too much, started smoking pot, his grades got worse and worse.

One time, after he had skipped school and we caught him, he told me in my office: “My friends think I have the perfect life—I can do anything I want, I get whatever I want and my parents don’t give me any flack. The funny thing is, I’d trade places with them in a second. I’d rather have parents that fuss at me, that get mad at me when I get bad grades, that make me study when I’m too lazy. Look at my life, Mr. Weber. It sucks. I am a terrible student. I’m going to have to go to a crappy college. I don’t have any real friends—just people that want to come over to my house so they can drink and not get in trouble.”

And then he looked at me with his watery eyes: “ This weekend, I didn’t come home on Friday night. Didn’t come home on Saturday. Finally showed up on Sunday afternoon. We’ve all got cell phones, but NOT ONCE did I get a phone call from Mom or Dad asking where I was or what I was doing. I’m not even sure they noticed I wasn’t home. They could care less”.

Compare this kid to most of you: Your parents are on you to do well, checking your grades frequently. You have curfews. You have responsibilities and duties around the house. You're active in the extra-curricular life of JPII—play a sport, involved in some clubs—all of which place demands on your time. In fact, you don't have much free time, but as a result of your hard work, you're doing well in school, and it looks like you'll be able to go to a good college, maybe even on scholarship. You're generally happy with where your life is going and you feel proud of what you've accomplished.

So which of the two, the junior boy who could do whatever he wanted or you, the typical JPII student, at the deepest level, is MORE FREE?

We tend to understand freedom at a very superficial level in our American society: as the license to do whatever we wish, provided it doesn’t infringe on the freedoms of others. It is freedom FROM rules. Rules are viewed as obstacles that inhibit our autonomy. As John Locke argues, we submit to these rules as part of the “social contract” only because we believe they are necessary to maximize our individual freedoms in the long run.

But we find, like the junior boy, that doing whatever we want doesn’t leave us very free after all –in fact, the reality is that if we live simply to fulfill our most immediate desires, unfettered by commitments to what’s right and what’s wrong, we end up enslaved—and certainly unhappy.

There is an older and deeper understanding of happiness dating back to Aristotle that argues the “good life” isn’t one that hinges on autonomy, but on moral virtue. If we conform to the moral law, and regard those laws as guidelines or prerequisites for living, we are able to fulfill our natural destiny—free to become the people we were intended.

The moral law is like a fence that gives us parameters within which we can operate. Understood correctly, this fence makes our freedom possible rather than inhibits it. When my children were young toddlers, we lived in a house with a full fenced back yard. They loved playing in that back yard, secure from strangers, exploring all its outer limits, playing hide and seek, acting goofy, being them selves. A few years later we moved to a house with a bigger back yard but no fence. In theory, there was more room to play, but without a fence, my children didn’t feel secure, didn’t feel safe from the neighbors, didn’t know where our property ended and our neighbors began, so they played it safe staying huddled around the back porch.

Moral laws allow us to become more fully ourselves.

Without such fences, we live with uncertainty and confusion about how far our liberties extend or how quickly they interfere with the liberties of others. Rather than resolve this uncertainty, our tendency is to figuratively huddle at the back porch, or literally, to retreat to our homes, isolating our families from the neighborhoods and the communities in which we live.

In fact, if you were to fly over affluent neighborhoods 30 years ago and did so today, you’d notice two striking differences. First, you’d see swimming pools with most of the houses, instead of neighborhood community pools from yesteryear. Second, you’d notice many more privacy fences. These 2 developments make sense: If we can’t agree on a moral code or a set of obligations that binds us, then we’ll inevitably fragment ourselves into ever smaller enclaves to live out our private visions of truth.

One of the great things about being part of a school community here at JPII is we do live within a community with a clear mission, with a clear moral code, clearly written guidelines about what is right and what is wrong.

Let me give you an example: Veritas. If you’ve been following the thread of my argument, Veritas, like all moral codes, is designed to bring out the best in you, to challenge you to live authentically and truthfully. But from the beginning, Veritas was meant to be a student honor code—not something that was imposed purely from the top down, run merely by the teachers or school admin. It won’t work if that’s all there is to it. That’s why there is a Veritas Council composed of students and why those of you accused of a Veritas violation can make your case to this Council. That’s why students are asked to sign their own names, saying they’ve not cheated. It’s very different than other schools, in which all cases of academic dishonesty are 100% handled by the administration.

For Veritas to work here, there has to be student ownership. There are three levels to that. First, it means, most fundamentally, that you have to live by it yourself—by doing your own work, by citing sources if you pull off quotes from the internet, by not getting answers from others on a test, by making sure your signature of Veritas means what it says. Second, it means you won’t help your classmates cheat. And finally—and this is more difficult—it means if there is cheating which is wide-spread or frequent, you’re willing to take some steps to correct it. I’m not asking you necessarily to name the people cheating—but alerting the teacher or admin that cheating is occurring. You can do that very easily, anonymously, by going to our web page and sending something to us via feedback. The teacher will be alerted, which may then prevent it from happening again.

Cheating hurts everyone. Even if a teacher doesn’t base a grade on a curve, when kids cheat, grades become inflated, and most teachers will compensate for inflated grades on one test by giving a more difficult test the next time through.

So on this first day or the 2nd semester, this first day of school in 2009, this time of year where it is common for us to make resolutions to improve ourselves, I challenge you to live morally, to live honestly, to live authentically. When we do that, we become truly free to be the kind of people God intended us to be, free to be ourselves—and therein lies our happiness.