Sunday, December 01, 2013

Out of Darkness

Student assembly address:

Did you know there’s now a web site called

It features a giant “ticker” that tracks the number of people who’ve been killed or injured as the result of Black Friday, and underneath, there’s a link to particular news stories about these injuries. 

Here are a few stories from Black Friday from four days ago:

  • An 11 year old girl was sent to the hospital after being stampeded during an early morning opening of a Walmart store in Boston
  • A person was stabbed when two men got into an argument over a parking space outside another Walmart in Virginia.
  • Two men got into a fight inside Walmart in Rialto, California, and when a policeman tried to break it up, he was hurt and had to be rushed to the hospital.
  • An employee was injured in an Arkansas Walmart when customers got out of hand competing with each other to get the last few sales items.

(Apparently Walmarts are dangerous places to be on Black Friday.)

According to the ticker, there’ve been 7 people killed and 90 people injured on Black Friday since they started keeping statistics in 2006.

There’s something obviously perverse here. The very season we celebrate—the coming of the Prince of Peace--has become  cause for a “dog eat dog” competitiveness to see who can get the best prices on the most stuff, even to the point we hurt each other to get these things.

This week we begin the season of Advent, a period of four weeks when the Church asks us to prepare for the birth of Jesus at Christmas.  St. Paul, writing in his letter to the Romans, tells us bluntly:

Brothers and sisters:
You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.
For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed;
the night is advanced, the day is at hand.
Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light.  (Romans 13:11-13)

As we go about our lives these next four weeks—four very busy weeks of tests, papers, studying, exams, buying presents, playing sports, preparing for concerts, practicing---let us take St. Paul’s admonition seriously, to wake up from our spiritual slumber, to throw off the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light.

How do we do that this Advent? We look to serve each other, to place others' needs before ourselves. We go out of our way to build other people up, rather than tear them down, by finding ways to genuinely compliment them. We carve out of our day some time for prayer. We find ways to appreciate the people who are our friends and family, and forgive those who have hurt us. We ask God to help us. 

If we do these things, then Christmas for us will become something far more meaningful than the accumulation of presents. It will become an opportunity for us to draw closer to our families, closer to our friends, and closer to God.

O Come,  O Come, Emmanuel! 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Losing Our Moral Judgment

Student assembly address:

Nationally, marijuana use among teenagers is trending upward, with 22.9% of seniors in this country reporting they’ve smoked marijuana in the last month, according to 2012 data released by National Institute on Drug Abuse. That’s up from 18.5% five years earlier. It also means seniors are likelier to smoke marijuana than smoke a cigarette, as only 17.1 % of seniors say they’ve had a cigarette in the past month.  Alcohol usage nationally has declined slightly, with 28.1% of seniors reporting they’ve been drunk in the last month, down from 30.6% five years earlier.

Our sense here at JPII is that those national trends are reversed—that alcohol usage is on the rise, whereas marijuana usage, while still present, has declined.  Mr. McLaren reports he’s been informed of a rising number of events that occur in our families’ homes where drinking is a prominent feature.

So let’s talk about that for a moment.

When people drink heavily, otherwise sane and normal people do stupid, bad things. I’ve told this story before to a number of you, but my roommates in college at Notre Dame were good, smart and decent guys. One Thursday night in January, with the temperature near 10 degrees, a group of them went to the bars and got drunk. I was in the study hall on the ninth floor of my dorm, and I heard them when they came back, laughing loudly about something. About 5 minutes later, one of my roommates came in, looking sick, and said to me “You have to stop them.” “Stop them from what?” I said. “They have…. a cat. I can’t stomach it. “

So I walked out to the commons area, and what I witnessed almost made me throw up. They’d found a cat that was frozen to the sidewalk on the way back from the bars, took it back to the dorm, pinned it up on a bulletin board and were throwing darts at it.  Just as I walked in, one of my roommates jammed a pencil up one of the cat’s orifices, as everyone laughed, drunkenly. I took the cat down; they swore at me; one of them even tried to take a swing at me—a drunken swing, he missed—and I yelled at them to go to bed.  The next morning, after he sobered up, the roommate with the pencil came to find me and ask me what he had done, because it was fuzzy, and when I told him, he was absolutely disgusted with himself.  As I said, these were good guys. But they lost their sense of decency because they were drunk.

Being disgusted with oneself the morning after is a common theme of individuals who get drunk the night before.  Girls who are otherwise moral, good persons often lose their virginity—or even worse, become objects for multiple partners.  Men mistreat women in ways that they’d never do if they were sober, and because they’re decent guys, are eaten up with guilt about what they’ve done the next day.  It isn’t just an issue of not driving while drunk; it’s about losing all of our moral judgment, which opens us up to doing all sorts of horrible things to each other. Gang rapes in dorms are all too common in universities, even local ones, and drinking is usually part of the reason they occur.

Your character, your reputation, your good name—these are far more important than your GPA, your athletic or artistic accomplishments. All those things are fleeting and temporary, but who you are and what you’ve done stay with you.

One of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time is the Las Vegas commercial: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. “ It’s as if we can do whatever we want there, and then magically forget about it when we come back home to our regular lives. Except we can’t compartmentalize like that.  Location doesn’t matter, because we’re still the same person, whether we’re in Vegas, or in Nashville, or at home, or whether we’re drunk or sober. We carry that guilt, that burden with us.

Even so, God forgives. And when God forgives, he forgets—as if he takes a video of our lives and simply deletes forever those parts we ask him to forgive us for. If you’re carrying around some guilt, seek out Fr. McGowan for the sacrament of reconciliation, and unload that burden and seek God’s forgiveness. If you’re not Catholic, though Father can’t administer the sacrament to you, he is happy to listen to you.

God wants us to be happy, and to be free of emotional burdens. He wants to forgive us, but he respects our freedom. We have to ask for it. We have to seek him out. In the interim, let's do our best not to put ourselves in a position where we do harm to other people and harm to ourselves. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Honoring All Veterans

This Veteran's Day, we honor all those who have served their country in the protection of our freedoms. 

My uncle, Sam Coursen, was killed in the Korean War and awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously. Here is his citation:

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress  March 3, 1863 has awarded in the name of The Congress the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to

First Lieutenant Samuel S. Coursen, USA

for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy:

Lieutenant Coursen, Infantry, United States Army, Company C, 5th Calvary Regiment, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity  above and beyond the call of duty in action on 12 October 1950 near Kaesong,  Korea. While Company C was attacking Hill 174 under heavy enemy small arms  fire, his platoon received enemy fire from close range. The platoon returned  the fire and continued to advance. During this phase, one of his men moved  into a well-camouflaged emplacement, which was thought to be unoccupied, and  was wounded by enemy who were hidden within the emplacement. Seeing the  soldier in difficulty he rushed to the man's aid and, without regard for his  own personal safety, engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat in an effort to  protect his wounded comrade until he himself was killed. When his body was  recovered after the battle, seven enemy dead were found in the emplacement.  Several of the enemies' heads had been crushed as the result of Lieutenant  Coursen's violent struggle with his rifle. His aggressive and intrepid  actions saved the life of the wounded man, eliminated the main position of  the enemy roadblock and greatly inspired the men in his command. Lieutenant  Coursen's extraordinary heroism and intrepidity reflect the highest credit on himself and are in keeping with the honored traditions of the military service.

(signed) Harry Truman

For more information on Sam Coursen's life, go here.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Speak Up! Speak Out!

Student assembly address:

The Emperor’s New Clothes is a Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, first published in 1837. You remember the story:

Many years ago there lived an emperor who cared only about his clothes and about showing them off. One day he heard from two swindlers that they could make the finest suit of clothes from the most beautiful cloth. This cloth, they said, was magic: it was invisible to anyone who was either stupid or not fit for his position. 

Being a bit nervous about whether he himself would be able to see the cloth, the emperor first sent two of his trusted men to see it. Of course, neither would admit that they could not see the cloth and so they praised how beautiful it was.

The emperor then allowed himself to be dressed in the clothes for a procession through town, never admitting that he was too unfit and stupid to see what he was wearing. For he was afraid that the other people would think that he was stupid.

Of course, all the townspeople wildly praised the magnificent clothes of the emperor, afraid to admit that they could not see them, until a small child said:

"But he has nothing on"!

This was whispered from person to person until everyone in the crowd was shouting that the emperor had nothing on. The emperor, too, realized he had been duped by the swindlers, but marched on with his head held high. He became the laughing stock of everyone in the village.

There’s a lot of truth to this story, isn’t there? Because we are so concerned about what others think of us, we often go along with the crowd and pretend to believe, say or do things publicly that we don’t really believe privately.

It often takes the clear voice of one person—in this case, a child—to “break the ice,” and say plainly what everyone is really thinking. And here’s the interesting thing: Once someone has the courage to say the truth, it gives everybody else the ability to admit what they were privately thinking, but were afraid to say out loud. One courageous voice, it turns out, ends up making a lot of difference.

One of the temptations of getting older is to become conformists—to lose our individuality so as to be part of the crowd, part of the socially acceptable group. And so, whereas God created us with really unique talents and unique views, whereas he made us to be really interesting people, we slowly, inevitably become like everyone else. In other words, we slowly become boring.

That’s not what I want for you here at JPII. Be creative. Speak up. Propose new things.  Mina Adeeb didn’t like what one of our speakers at the Colloquium said a couple weeks ago, and so after the talk, he came up and argued with him. I thought that was awesome. Keeley Bryan felt badly for Jessica Myers, the 5th grade girl from St. Joseph who has a cancerous tumor, so she asked if she could raise money here to support here. Daniel Al Nimri wanted to do something to support the cause of Mr. Mila, whose son has Cystic Fibrosis, so he proposed a “No-Shave November.” Jordan Lee came in a bit later and said the girls wanted to also support Cystic Fibrosis and proposed Crazy Sock November.

That’s the kind of school I want at JPII. Maybe I can’t approve everything you want to do; sometimes, there’s so much going on here, I have to say “no” to protect our most important task—learning—but I like the fact you’re thinking creatively, individually, willing to shake things up some, willing to call things out.  Be respectful of others, and respectful of your teachers, but be yourself. It makes for an infinitely more interesting school.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Nine Others

Student assembly address:

The reading this Sunday at Church was about the ten lepers who were cured by Jesus, but only one person came back to say “thanks.” The other nine simply went about their lives. There’s a pretty strong challenge in there for you and I whom have been given so much. 

It’s easy, though, isn’t it, to take it for granted?

In the spring of 2008, I was hired by the Board to become headmaster of JPII.  Previous to that I was a principal in Montgomery, AL, about a five-hour drive from here. As part of the series of interviews, I had to come up here three different times, and after I was hired, the Board wanted me to come to two separate events to meet people. Spring is a busy time for schools, and I remember the fifth time as I was driving up, I had a hundred things going on at my old school, and I remember being stressed and irritated that I had to come yet again with the work piling up. Our house wasn’t sold yet, I hadn’t spent much time with my daughter who was a senior that year and going to college in the fall, and yes, I was feeling a little sorry for myself.

I stopped off to get some gas—I think it was in Franklin—when an old beat up looking man drove up to the gas pump in a beat up pick-up truck and said to me “Hey, fella, I’m out of money, could you spare ten bucks to help me with some gas?” Suspicious he was really out just to get money for alcohol, I said, “When I go in and pay, I’ll put ten dollars on your pump.”  So I did. When I came out, the man looked toward me, embarrassed, head down, and said “Gratitude.”

As I drove off, I began thinking about what the old guy said, “Gratitude,” and being a bit unnerved by it, almost like God was talking to me directly. Here you are, God was saying, with a wonderful wife, four great kids, just hired to be the leader of one of the best Catholic high schools in the country and you’re feeling sorry for myself? How about taking a step back and seeing the big picture? How about some gratitude?

I think that’s a challenge for all of us. We’ve been given so many extraordinary things, beginning with our families, but extending to our friends, our teachers, our school, the fact that our families have a little money that allow us to enjoy good things--and yet, it’s so easy to start feeling sorry for ourselves. It’s so easy for that green-eyed monster, jealousy, to seep into how we see the world--jealous of people who are prettier, wealthier, more personable, more popular, even luckier, than us

Fr. Thomas said in Church yesterday there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who wake up every morning and said, “Good morning, God!” and those who say, “Good God, morning.” Let us be the kind of people who are grateful to be here at JPII, grateful to be a student here, to be a teacher here, to be on staff here, to be a principal here.  There are too many people that are “woe is me” mopers in this world,  and they suck joy out of all the people they associate with, almost like the dementors from Harry Potter. Let’s be the opposite!

Let us be people of gratitude who can say, as one person once prayed, “God, for all that has been in my life, thank you. For all that will be, yes!”

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kindness Matters

These are my remarks to students on Monday, September 30, during assembly.

Pope John Paul once said that a "society can be judged on how it treats its weakest members." 

That's not a bad way to measure the culture of a school, too. How kind are we as a school, particularly to the most vulnerable among us?

I knew a young man many years ago--for the sake of anonymity, let's call him Kevin-- a senior, who was really, really awkward. He had a very effeminate way of walking, which caused some people to whisper that he had gender issues. He was too often teased mercilessly, and because of his awkwardness, didn’t know how to respond appropriately,  so his responses just made his persecutors laugh at him even more. One day, as he was walking down the hall, some sophomore boys began tormenting him, knocking his books on the ground, laughing, and as he bent over to pick up the books, they slapped a “kick me” sign on his back and began running up and kicking him. A senior boy, an offensive lineman on the football team, came down the hallway and when he saw what was happening, he ripped the sign off Kevin's back, and then went to the the ringleader, pinned him up against the locker and said. “Kevin's a senior. He’s one of us. You mess with him, you mess with the whole senior class. You got that?” “Uh, yeah, we were just teasing”, the sophomore said, scared.  Then the football player helped Kevin pick up his books and walked down the hall with him to where a group of seniors had gathered.

I don’t know what happened to Kevin, or where he is now, but I am quite sure that he remembers that simple comment “He’s one of us,” with great gratitude.

To what extent do we stand up for the least among us? And if we come across someone being bullied by others, do we allow that to happen? Bullies, after all, need an audience. They need people to affirm what they’re doing by laughing with them. When people aren’t laughing, or when they sense disapproval from others, they usually quit.

All of us go through bouts of depression from time to time. We’re not sure why we’re depressed, but for whatever reason, we’re just down in the dumps. That’s normal. But the quickest way out of it isn’t to psycho-analyze ourselves or try to do something for ourselves. The quickest therapy is to go out of our way to do something nice for others—to give a random compliment, to befriend someone that needs a friend, to send a text and say something kind to someone that needs it. It’s the way God made us—we feel best about ourselves when we’re being kind to other people.

The excitement typical of the first month or so of the school year is over—and as the academic year progresses, it becomes stressful. When we’re stressed, we have a natural tendency to begin closing down to others, to circle the emotional wagons, to put ourselves first, to become selfish. I encourage you to do the opposite—simple kindness to others can reverse all of those trends, and make a huge difference in someone else’s day.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Fifty Years Later

Student assembly address:

There are a few seminal moments in our nation's history that everyone remembers until he or she dies. Your great grandparents certainly remember December 7, 1941, the date we were bombed by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor. Your grandparents likely will remember July 20, 1969, as the nation huddled around black and white TV's and watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, saying "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." They also remember November 22, 1963, the date that our 35th president, John Kennedy, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Your parents remember, and perhaps you remember, vaguely, September 11, 2001, the date five thousand Americans were killed when terrorists ran two planes into the Twin Towers of New York City, drawing us into a war that we're still fighting today. 

These events are etched into our corporate memory, partly because they shocked us, partly because of the power of what the event symbolized, partly because the event changed us as a country in some deep way. 

Last Wednesday, August 28, was the 50th anniversary of another event that is forever locked into our corporate memory: The civil rights march on Washington D.C., punctuated by one of the most famous talks in our nation's history, Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. I thought it appropriate, in place of my usual remarks at assembly, to honor this anniversary by listening to a portion of that speech this morning. As we know, Reverend King was assassinated less than five years later, on April 4, 1968. 

May we have the courage to live out the strength of our convictions and to stand against all forms of discrimination, wherever and whenever we may encounter it. 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Finding Your Groove (in a groove-less world)

Student assembly address:

I usually go to the 11 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of the Lake on Sunday—there were significantly fewer people there this week. If you live in Sumner County, you know why—Beech High School played Station Camp on ESPN2 beginning exactly at 11 a.m.

The natural order of things is that high school games are played on Friday, college football is played on Saturday, and pro-football is played on Sunday afternoon. There are a few exceptions to that—for the last 44 years, there’s been one NFL game on Monday night and some times there’s a high school, college or NFL game on Thursday night.  We’re playing Fr. Ryan on Thursday in October. ESPN has started airing some college games on Tuesday night, featuring two teams that the only people watching are the parents of the players. Never, ever, however, has there been high school football on Sunday morning. I understand a few area churches re-structured their entire Sunday schedules so that people could be at the game.

As I was coming home from Church, it occurred to me that we’re living in tough times. Times are “tough” not because we lack things, or lack things to do. Really, they’re tough for the exact opposite reason: we have too much, and there’s too much to do. Why is it, for example, that people feel compelled to text-message while they’re driving, even though they know it’s dangerous to do so? I think it’s because we live in such a culture of immediacy, and action, and noise, that we almost have an allergic reaction to silence, and if we sit down and drive somewhere without multi-tasking, we feel like we’re wasting time.

This crazy pace, this busy-ness, this unrelenting dash, creates imbalance in our lives. We can only juggle so many balls. We can only play on so many teams—some of you are playing one two teams right now, one for JPII, one for your club team. By Sunday night, having played in a tournament all weekend, you’re exhausted from a week of school and 4-5 games from the tournament, hardly in a position to do homework well or come to school alert and refreshed on Monday. Some of you are studying too much, giving yourself only a few hours of sleep each night—that’s an unsustainable pace. Some of you are near addicts with text-messaging and social media, spending hours and hours each day, constantly interrupted.

I’m the same way: I keep two email accounts active on this I-phone—a personal email account, and a school account, and when I see the red circle with the number on it, indicating I have that many emails, I feel compelled to open it. I also have three phone numbers feeding into this one phone.  So even when I am away from JPII, it feels like work is chasing me, as if I am always “on.”

Aside from saying “no” more often when people ask us to do things, I know of two remedies for being hyper-busy—just two. The first is exercise. If you’re an athlete in season, you get plenty of it. But if you’re not, and you have to wait 45 minutes for a bus, for example, why not run or walk a few laps around our track down there? Or why not do so before you drive home in your car? Take about 15-30 minutes each day, and you’ll feel the stress melting away.

The second is prayer. We have a wonderful chapel. If you have a tough situation you’re dealing with, or something is causing you worry, or if you just need to get out of the rat race for a few minutes, why not drop by the chapel and ask God to help you? Or if you can’t bring yourself to do that, turn off the radio and cell phone on your way home or way to work and bring those problems to God.

The big challenge for all of us in this ultra-busy, ultra-competitive, completely connected world is to find a groove for ourselves that allows us to keep our commitment to work, family, friends, school, faith in some sort of proper proportion. It used to be we could depend on social institutions to help us do that. We knew that when Friday came, we’d have the weekend to get away, without a phone call or email to suck us back in. When Sunday morning came, we could wake up a bit later and go to Church in the late morning without having to haggle with athletic schedules.

We can’t rely on the usual social structures anymore to help us find the right groove. We must make our own time to pray and to exercise and create that groove for ourselves.

God loves us. He wants us to be happy. But we’re not jellyfish that life happens to, floating wherever the waves take us. He wants us to be pro-active, to take charge of our lives, and to be very protective of our time and our commitments. Ask him for some help in doing so, get regular exercise, and I think this will be a great year for you.