Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Junior Ring Ceremony, 2011

Note: These are Mr. Weber's remarks to the junior class, on the occasion of the junior ring ceremony at JPII on April 27, 2011.

12 days.

Twelve days of classes until Senior Walk, May 13, the last day of class for seniors, the last time they will walk the hallways as students of JPII. Though our rightful attention will be on them--and there will be hugs and photographs and tears--something else is happening that is less noticed. From that moment on, this class, the junior class of Pope John Paul II High School, the class of 2012, will take on the mantel as leaders of the JPII student body.

Junior ring ceremonies are not principally about getting jewelry. They are really rites of passage ceremonies, a formal calling out of the junior class to become the kind of leaders that good schools must have. No matter how talented the teachers, no matter how wise the administrators or the Dean of Students, no matter how well written the school policies, schools are only good in so far as the students of that school help build a culture that supports those teachers, the administration and the policies of the school. And whether or not a student body is willing to build such a culture depends on the senior class. IF the seniors buy in, the rest of the school follows. If not, it’s going to be an unpleasant year for everybody.

I am not talking about some sort of slavish obedience. We want students who are willing to politely question, express their disagreements, even push the envelope a bit. That’s why I am using the word “culture.” When there is a culture of mutual respect, pleasantness, trust, then we can have our disagreements from time to time and that’s OK, because both sides appreciate and respect the perspective of the other side. A good culture is built through hundreds of small decisions of people trying to do the right thing, many of which are unnoticed and seem insignificant. A year or so ago, Liberty Mutual ran a very effective advertising campaign that showed one person doing something nice for another person, who then helped someone else, who then helped someone else. Generosity of spirit spreads quickly, even when the recipient of the generosity doesn’t understand its original source. I liken it to a still lake that suddenly begins to have waves. We don’t know what caused the waves because we can’t see it, but somewhere in that lake, someone made a splash. Goodness, kindness, and selflessness have ripple effects in a school that spread in multiple directions, across grade levels, in the classrooms, on ball teams, in the hallways.

That’s why I am excited about you juniors, about to become seniors. We came into this school together—I, the new headmaster here, you, new high school students--and I've had the opportunity to watch you grow as a class. Though you’ve always been the smallest class in the school, you are an impressive group—excellent students, yes, but even more importantly, good people and good leaders. After listening to all the arguments pro and con about moving back to the mixed grade level houses for next year, I decided that it was the right thing to do—and you want to know the major reason why? Because I figured that if I can put this class with younger students in houses and advisory groups, you can have a profoundly positive effect on them. If we keep you locked into the grade level houses we have now, we don’t give you enough exposure to the underclassmen and rob you of the chance to be their leaders.

I hope you will accept this responsibility with pride in your class and pride in your school. The rings you will receive are a symbol of your willingness to do so. But whether or not you’ve purchased rings, all students will be receiving a Bible as a gift from the school, a symbol of our prayers for you as you head into your senior year. In addition, each of these bibles has a personal inscription written by one of your teachers to lend their prayers and support for you as you face decisions about colleges, majors, roommates and all that you will have to decide next year.

Your parents, your teachers, and JPII are proud of the young men and young women you are becoming. Accept now the responsibility of building a culture that is supportive of your classmates and the mission of JPII. Commit yourself to the proposition JPII will be a better school because of you, because of what you want JPII to become and your willingness to lead the student body toward this aim.

In the gym of our school, across one of the walls behind the bleachers, is a quote from Scripture, Psalm 86: “Teach me your ways, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.” As your life accelerates into senior year, ask God to teach you and guide you, so that you may walk in his truth. If you do so, God will bless you and give you a profound peace and joy, even in the extreme busy-ness of your last year of high school. Strive to stay close to the Lord, and he will stay close to you.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What More?

This is Mr. Weber's Easter message to the students of JPII.

The greatest sermon I’ve ever heard was when I was 15 years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a guest priest who spoke at our Church the week before Easter, and he told us about the story of his best friend growing up.

He and his friend met in kindergarten, attended the same elementary school all the way through, then went to the same high school. They spent so much time together they were practically brothers, often spending the night at the other one’s house. He loved going to his friends’ house because he was from a large, Italian Catholic family, and his mother was an excellent cook who was always giving him food. As fate would have it, they were both drafted into the Vietnam War together and ended up in the same unit. The priest said that one night, they were on guard duty in a foxhole out on the front lines—just the two of them. It was a crystal clear night, starry, with no sound whatsoever, and he remembers his friend had pulled out a candy bar to eat, when suddenly, someone threw a live grenade into the foxhole, seemingly from no-where. They both hesitated, stunned. Then his friend, reacting more quickly, gave him a quick smile, handed him the candy bar, and threw himself on the grenade. His friend was blown apart and died instantly, but he was saved.

The priest said he was devastated for the loss of his best friend, and after the funeral, he spent a lot of time with the boys’ mother, mourning with her. He felt guilty that his friend had done what he had not done—why, he asked himself, had he not thought more quickly? Guilt turned to self-pity over the next several weeks. “Why him?” he asked the boys’ mother, over and over. “Why didn’t I do what he did?” “Do you think it was just instinct on his part?” “Do you think he did it out of love or was it just an automatic reaction?” “Do you think he really loved me?” The Italian mother, who herself had been grieving the loss of her son, could bear this no more. “You're asking me if he loved you? JESUS CHRIST, MAN, WHAT MORE COULD HE HAVE DONE FOR YOU?”

And the priest, as he told us this story, stopped, backed away from the lectern and said softly: “Jesus Christ—man, what more could he have done for you?” I was electrified, as if I had just heard the gospel for the very first time in my life. What more could Jesus have done for us?

As you know, this is the beginning of Holy Week, when we celebrate the passion and resurrection of Jesus. One of the real problems for us is that the story is too familiar. More than anything else, the passion and resurrection of Jesus is a love story—as John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No matter what we’ve done, not matter what our sins, God loves us, and if we ask him, he will forgive us. He reminds us this Easter, that no matter how hard the cross we bear, that our final destiny is not the cross but the resurrection—that God’s love prevails, in the end.

The death and resurrection of Christ is the single-most important event in human history. I encourage you to attend your church’s services this week to remember and celebrate what God has done for us.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Two Governors

I’ve personally attended only two lectures by governors in my life. The second time was this week, when Governor Haslam of Tennessee came to JPII as part of our “Distinguished Lecturer” series. The first time was in 1984, as a senior at Notre Dame, when I attended a lecture by Governor Cuomo of New York. Coincidentally, both talks were about the same topic: How should one’s Christian faith inform one’s political leadership? They gave strikingly different answers to that question.

Cuomo’s speech centered on abortion and was hailed in the press as an example of enlightened tolerance. As a Catholic, he said he fully respected the authority of the bishops that abortion was wrong. He would uphold that view, he said, for his wife and children. But as governor of a state that was predominantly pro-abortion, he did not believe it was proper to impose his religious belief upon his constituency. In a pluralistic society, one cannot govern by one’s faith, lest others’ freedoms be infringed upon in the name of his religious belief. This “personally opposed but cannot impose” position became the foundational position of a generation of politicians since that time.

Haslam, a Presbyterian, reasoned differently, drawing on the ideas of Pope John Paul II. Freedom, as the pope understood it, must be linked to the truth, or else it ends up being a pretense for tyranny, as the stronger person asserts his “freedom” over the rights of the weaker party. The pope was an unapologetic defender of the truth, known for directly challenging the assumptions of socialism and the excesses of capitalism with great vigor.

Did that make him boorish and judgmental, as we often regard people who claim to know “truth”? No, said Haslam. In fact, he was recognized as a model of Christian civility, admired by even those who disagreed with him. That was possible because John Paul II understood his Christian faith as a “gift, not a club.” Instead of using the truth of one’s faith to club people over the head, as we are often tempted to do, we should speak the truth while manifesting the gifts of our faith, namely, temperance, forgiveness, patience and kindness, to name a few. Haslam said that Christian politicians should never waiver from the convictions of their faith but must live out that faith in a manner that is charitable and befitting of their Christian vocation.

It is ironic that between the two governors, one Catholic, the other Presbyterian, the Presbyterian makes the more “Catholic” argument. Democracy in the Catholic tradition is a means and not the end, as Cuomo assumes. The end is the “common good,” whereby human dignity is protected and thrives. All laws must serve that common good. Exalting the notion of individual freedom to the extent that we cannot “impose” a value system on someone, even when that person uses his freedom to trample on the freedom of others, is self-contradicting. Further, it strips us of the ability to make any laws premised on a moral assumption. If we believe rape is wrong, can we not “impose” laws which punish rapists? Thieves? Murderers? Or should we merely be "personally opposed" to these things?

Thomas More, in Robert Bolt’s famous play “Man for All Seasons, ” confronts the same issue that both governors addressed. Though he is opposed in conscience to the divorce and remarriage of King Henry VIII, should he assent to the divorce out of loyalty to the king and in the interest of the peace and unity of England? More is unequivocal:

“I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

The vetting of candidates during an election cycle serves an important public purpose: Candidates should make known their moral positions, and where they are evasive, we should pin them down. In my view, once elected, we should then expect them to govern according to the convictions of their conscience and their faith. If we don't approve of what that turns out to mean, we vote them out of office in the next election cycle.