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.

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