Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Weekend With Teens in Washington

It’s hard to be pessimistic about the future when you spend three days with 28,000+ teenagers as I did this weekend in Washington, D.C. for the "March for Life".

I had the opportunity to chaperone 65 of our students and 20 more or so from Our Lady of the Lake parish for the trip. Deacon Brian Edwards, chaplain of JPII, Melissa Vaughn, JPII's Christian Service Coordinator, and I boarded one bus, whereas Patti Defendall of OLOL and parent volunteers boarded another. We left at 7 a.m. on Saturday, arrived in D.C. around 10 p.m. at St. Martin’s parish and hit the ground running. Students led each other in the rosary on the bus trip up, attended Mass together at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Sunday morning, took a tour of the N.C.C.B. offices where we met two impressive women dedicated to the pro-life cause (see below), spent a couple of hours at a nearby Boys’ Club so as to shower (our only opportunity all weekend!), then attended a lively Youth Rally at a local high school, headlined by the performance of Tony Melendez, an internationally famous musician without any arms, who plays guitar with his feet (!). On Sunday we were out the door at 6 a.m. to get a seat at the Verizon Center, seated by 8 a.m., participated in another concert, then celebrated Mass, ate lunch in our seats after wards, marched first to the Mall and then joined with the larger group at the Washington Mall for the march to the Supreme Court. Despite cold, rainy weather, there were no fewer than 100,000 hearty souls participating in the march, full of cheer and enthusiasm. We ate dinner that evening at Union Station with thousands of others, then loaded the buses at 8 p.m. for the long trek home, arriving at 5 a.m. Yes, I was tired.

There were three highlights of the trip for me:

1) First, the youth Mass on Sunday morning. It’s a rare thing to pray with 3 cardinals, 14 bishops, 200+ priests and over 20,000 teenagers in a venue as large as the Verizon Center (see pic above). But even that venue was too small, as organizers had to simulcast the event to the DC Armory at another part of town to another 8,000 teenagers. The music was excellent, the sermon was powerful, the kids sang and responded enthusiastically. But for me, the most touching part was as each bishop in attendance was introduced, the kids from that diocese cheered wildly, proud of their bishop, proud of their diocese, proud of their Church.

2) Second, the visit with Dr. Therese Notare and Dr. Helen Alvare in the National Catholic Conference of Bishops' offices on Sunday afternoon. I will admit I was not looking forward to that tour (“What? Some offices?"), but when Alvare showed up by chance as a friend of Dr. Notare, I became instantly enthused. Dr. Alvare, now a professor of law at George Mason University, represented the pro-life movement in the Catholic Church for over a decade in the 1990’s, and as such was ubiquitous, appearing on CSPAN before congressional sub-committees, on Night Line, as a regular commentator for network news, as a participant in PBS debates and as a guest on Sunday morning talk shows. She was brilliant and persuasive in her role, as this six minute clip off Youtube from several years back indicates:
I was pleased that our girls, in particular, found this articulate, pro-life feminist so compelling a figure, and they flocked to talk with her after her general remarks to the group.

3) Finally, spending all that time with our students. Our kids were SPECTACULAR—full of joy, conviction, spirit and life. Yes, as they jabbered on throughout the night on the bus trip home I might have had less complimentary thoughts, but I’ve had a chance to rest up! During the march, our kids led cheers, danced, sang songs, challenged other groups to respond to their cheers and brought many smiles to passers-by. They exhibited state pride by singing “Rocky Top” (a few hundred times) but changed the lyrics to fit the occasion (“Rocky Top, You’ll Always Be--A Pro-Life State to Me”). I was able to tease with the guys as we slept on cafeteria floors at night about the various smells emanating from certain quarters (remember, only one bath all weekend), and joke with the girls about how lovely they looked stumbling out of the bus at 3 a.m. at the rest stops for bathroom breaks. Two junior girls with agile, active minds sat in the seats just behind the adults and kept us entertained for hours with tales of misadventure and their “what if?” imaginations.

How blessed I am to work with smart, committed, faithful kids at JPII! They’re going to make a big difference in this world one day. I caught a glimpse of that future beginning to unfold this weekend.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Cathedral Building

For Teachers

Despite an affinity for technology, I resisted the temptation to set up a Facebook account. I have a hard enough time keeping up with a cell phone, work phone, two voicemails and three email accounts and worried that Facebook would simply add to my “to do” list. But I relented recently, mostly because as I get older I am becoming more nostalgic, and wanted to find out what some of my old high school friends were up to. It’s been a while.

 Something unexpected happened within a few days of starting the account. Dozens of former students, now married and in their late twenties and mid-thirties, began to send me “friend” requests. “How are you doing, Mr. Weber?” (It’s hard for thirty-somethings, even, to address their former principal as “Faustin”). It’s been fun catching up with them, learning about their spouses and families, what professions they are now in—to see, really, how they’re doing now 10 or 20 years removed from high school. Since the last time I really knew them was in high school, it’s like I’ve shot twenty years into the future with them—a rare gift for an educator, since most of the time we are "prophets of a future not our own,” (Oscar Romero) and don't often get a chance to see the final results.

One young man, now in his mid 30’s, gave me particular pause. I remember him as a freshman. He was overweight, sulky, and unhappy with his life; if I recall correctly, his parents had recently divorced. Each day he would shuffle into my freshman English class, sit in the back and brood. But he had a bright mind, and with pushing and prodding from his teachers over the course of four years, he slowly became more willing to engage in class, more willing to risk relationships with his classmates, more comfortable in his own skin. Fast forward twenty years now. This young man is happily married, with two children, one of whom is now nearing middle school age. He has a good job that he seems to love, if his posts are any indication. He seems happy.

One of the themes of my remarks to our faculty this year is that we are “building cathedrals.” It reflects back to the story of two medieval bricklayers, one of whom is miserable, doing the “same damn thing over and over,” the other of whom seems to truly to enjoy his work. When the second is asked why he enjoys what his co-worker detests, he says simply that he is “building a cathedral.” Teaching—I guess any profession--is a lot like bricklaying: there’s a tedious side to it, and if we lose sight of our larger purpose, it can wear us down.

But building cathedrals takes a long time! Generations of cathedral builders didn't get to see the fruit of their labor: It took 182 years, for example, to build the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris (see above). The greatest gift for an educator, then, is to get a glimpse of the role they played in the life of their students many years later.

Here’s a poem entitled, appropriately enough, “Cathedral Builders” by the Welsh poet John Ormand:

They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God, 
with winch and pulley hoisted hewn rock into heaven,
inhabited the sky with hammers, 
defied gravity, deified stone, 
took up God's house to meet him, 
and came down to their suppers and small beer, every night slept, 
lay with their smelly wives, 
quarreled and cuffed the children, 
lied, spat, sang, were happy, or unhappy, 
and every day took to the ladders again, 
impeded the rights of way of another summer's swallows, 
grew greyer, shakier, became less inclined to fix a neighbor's roof of a fine evening, 
saw naves sprout arches, clerestories soar, cursed the loud fancy glaziers for their luck, 
somehow escaped the plague, got rheumatism, 
decided it was time to give it up, to leave the spire to others, 
stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the consecration, 
envied the fat bishop his warm boots, 
cocked a squint eye aloft, and said, 
"I bloody did that." 

Perhaps there’s a kid in our classes right now that is really difficult to work with. We can’t break through. My prayer is that we will persist in our efforts, so that one day, when we see this young man or woman twenty years from now, happily married, perhaps, or gainfully employed, we can say to ourselves, with supreme pride and satisfaction, “I bloody did that.”

On the Chase

In Western Christianity, the symbol of the Holy Spirit is a dove. Doves are quiet, gentle creatures; we even use the expression “gentle as a dove.” I believe our image of God and the Holy Spirit working in our lives is shaped by that image—a gentle force that quietly coos at us.

But in Celtic Christianity, the symbol of the Holy Spirit is not a dove but a wild goose—unpredictable, untamed, free. A wild goose doesn’t coo, it honks. It seems to have its own mind, which may or may not agree with our own.

The Christian journey is not walk down a well worn path; rather, we’re on a wild goose chase! In the vernacular, that expression means we’re chasing after something which is elusive. But in terms of faith, it means we don’t know the twists and turns of our life and cannot predict where a relationship with God will lead us, but if we give our lives over to him, our lives will indeed become an adventure: full of love, disappointment, hope, sorrow and mystery.

There’s part of us, the part that likes to plan things, that wants to know what the future holds for us 20 years out, but in the words of John Dunne, CSC, that would be the “deadly clear path” which would rob our lives of adventure, wonder, awe. Instead, we are like cars driving down a windy road at night, with the headlights only illuminating a patch of darkness before us. The only way to see beyond that patch is to keep driving forward. That’s the excitement of life, the thrill, the journey--no telling where the goose may lead us.

Come Holy Spirit.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

With Arms Wide Open

Ann Carell likes to tell the story when she and her husband Monroe were fortunate enough to have a private meeting with Pope John Paul II in the mid 1990's. "He was such a charismatic, holy man," Ann recalls, "that you could almost feel what the apostles must have felt." So moved by their encounter, they met with Bishop Kmiec when they returned to Nashville and told him of their intention to give the diocese a large gift, provided whatever came of the gift would bear John Paul II's name. "How about a high school?" the bishop asked. Thus was born Pope John Paul II High School, which opened in 2002.

This made for a relatively unusual situation: long before pencil hit paper in the design of the school building, everyone knew the name of the school. And that knowledge partly inspired the design. The front courtyard of the school building was created to be reminiscent of St. Peter's square in Rome, with its colonnades in an open circle, extending from St. Peter's cathedral. The great Italian Renaissance sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed the square, and his intent was to symbolize "the maternal arms of the Church" reaching out to the world and embracing those within.

I think this is a beautiful and appropriate image for Pope John Paul II High School and I am delighted that our architecture speaks to one of our defining philosophies. Over the last ten years, we have indeed endeavored to "reach out" to the broader middle Tennessee area. While always first a Catholic school, approximately 40% of our student body is not Catholic, and we have found this makes for a rich and fertile inter-religious dialogue. Because we aspire to be more than a little school from Hendersonville, we send buses to pick up students across the middle Tennessee region, ranging from Lebanon, to Clarksville and even to Bowling Green, KY. At last look, we have students from ten different counties attending JPII.

This "outwardness" has also inspired many other features of the school: Our Christian Service Initiative, in which students are asked to give forty hours of community service each year to those who are less fortunate, the curriculum itself, which requires three years of a foreign language so as to help students learn and appreciate other cultures, and our two international exchange programs with St. Edmund's in England and St. Meinrad's in Muenster, Germany, both of which help students develop friendships with peers in other countries but also forge global perspectives that are impossible to achieve if rooted only to a single time and place.

JPII has thrived as a school because it has shunned what is sometimes the case about Catholic and private schools: that they are clannish, almost tribal in their instinct. While themes like "tradition," "family," and "legacy" can be powerful anchors that link a school to its past, they can also be stultifying, insulating forces that narrow a school's vision, limit its possibilities and thereby undercut its scope of influence.

May JPII always be true to the architecture of its own building by encouraging its leaders, its teachers and its students to reach beyond itself.