Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Top Ten Reasons To Choose Catholic Schools

Happy National Catholic Schools Week! As we celebrate the achievements of our Catholic schools here in Nashville and across the nation, I thought you might be interested in my “Top Ten Reasons to Choose Catholic Schools” (or keep your kids there!): 

10. Academics—Extensive research over the last three decades indicates that students from Catholic schools score very well compared to students in other systems, even when relevant demographic characteristics of the students are controlled, such as educational level of parents and family income. Students in our diocese score consistently higher, by a wide margin, than the national averages.

9. Positive Effects on Minorities—The differences 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."

Organizational Structure: A basic tenet of Catholic social teaching is that things ought to be handled at the lowest level possible, known as the “principle of subsidiarity.” Thus dioceses delegate tremendous authority and responsibility to local principals and school boards, allowing them to establish policies and procedures that work for each school. 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 principle also allows Catholic schools to keep costs down, as more monies go directly into instruction when compared to systems with large central office bureaucracies. 

7. Combatting 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 are interpreted and invoked for the routine events of our lives. “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God” serves as the context for all Catholic schooling. 

6. 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. 

5. 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”. 

4.  Credible Role Models: Though there are extraordinary Christians who teach and work in other school systems, they are not allowed 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, for example, they sense that being Christian isn’t just a feminine thing (always their suspicion) in a way that trumps all preaching. 

3. Development of a Catholic World View—The Catholic faith is not designed to be a “Sunday thing” but a way of life.  Prayer and opportunities for worship are so commonplace in Catholic schools (morning announcements, before games, before class, before tests, during weekly masses, etc.) that they become “natural,” almost unnoticed, like breathing.

2. 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 a great blessing. 

1. Catholic Religious Identity and Long Term Practice of Faith—Through common songs, prayers and liturgical practices learned in Catholic schools, students become united in a common vocabulary, memory and tradition that bind them to a community life. In a recent study, “millennials” who attend Catholic elementary school or high school are almost seven and eight times more likely, respectively, to attend Sunday Mass each week than those who attend neither. (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Georgetown University, June 2014).

Please help us celebrate Catholic Schools Week by praying for our students, teachers, pastors and principals, that we may remain faithful to our fundamental calling to lead students to Christ. If you’re a parent of young children, please consider us for your child! If you’re already a parent in our school, be an ambassador—what you say to your friends and co-workers means much more than what we say about ourselves in promotional materials! And if your children are grown or you don’t have kids, consider giving the gift of a Catholic education to a grandchild, family member, neighbor or friend by assisting his or her family with tuition. You will make, literally, an eternal difference in that child’s life!

Happy Catholic Schools Week, everyone!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Claim it!

Address to students

In my previous school, if you were late, you had to come to my office and sign in, write why you were late next to your name and explain it to me if I happened to be standing there. The excuses were pretty entertaining.  Apparently, they don’t make very good alarm clocks in this country, because “my alarm clock didn’t work” was a favorite excuse. “Traffic,” of course, was up there, and if I didn’t know differently, the cars our students drove must have been real clunkers because “my car wouldn’t start” was frequently cited. Older brothers often blamed their sisters: “Mr. Weber, my sister takes forever to get ready for school; I have no idea what she’s doing in the bathroom for so long.”  And there’s not much loyalty to mom either: “My mother didn’t wake me up in time,” or even, “I’d have been here on time if Mom drove faster.” I once had a kid swear he got three flat tires on his way to school, each at different points along the way.

You’ll notice a common theme in all of these excuses: “It’s not my fault.” It’s pretty rare for someone to come in late and say, “I just got started too late today,” or “ I woke up too late,” or  “I’d knew I’d be late, but I was hungry and stopped off for some fast food on my way in to school.”

It’s not just true of your generation—it’s true for adults as well. Take for example, a seemingly straightforward statement: “I didn’t have time to do it.”  If we were being more honest with ourselves, what we should REALLY say is “It wasn’t a priority.” Proof of that is that if someone offered us ten thousand dollars to get whatever it was done, we’d drop everything else and do it. But they didn’t, and so we judged other things in our lives as more important that getting this one thing done.

In one form or the other, it's common to hear those in schools say: “Yes, we know our schools are bad, but you get what you pay for,” and the “public doesn’t support our schools”, so  “Our hands are tied. “ Do you see how neatly that passes the blame to someone else—in this case, the taxpayers?

It’s easy, too, to play the victim by passing blame up the ladder in an organizational structure. A coach, or a teacher, or a lieutenant in the military, or a person in a middle management position might be apt to blame their bosses, or the anonymous “administration” or the “man upstairs” for their lack of success at whatever his or her job is.

The problem is whenever we pass blame to someone else or something else, we surrender a little piece of ourselves to them, giving up our own authority and power to fix it ourselves, making us weaker.  We tell our bosses we are unable to tackle our own problems and in effect, ask them to fix our problems for us. 

People who work in drug or alcohol treatment centers understand this.  The first step in the twelve-step program to overcome addiction is the most difficult, these professionals say. That step is for the addict to say, clearly, without blaming anyone else, “My name is ____ and I am an addict." "I am ___ and I am an alcoholic.” If an alcoholic can say that, admitting they don't have the power to control their drinking, then he or she is on the path to recovery. But they have to claim it. Own it.  Admit it to themselves and to others. It’s the step many alcoholics can never take.

Some of you may know that I’ve been speaking to a number of students and their parents about poor performance in the first semester, outlining what has to happen this semester, attending tutorials, doing homework, etc. At the beginning of those meetings, I usually ask the student “What happened?” Again, it’s very tempting for the student to blame the school, the subject matter ("it's too hard"),  the teacher, or someone else. But in one of those meetings, the young man looked me right in the eye and said “Mr. Weber, I just didn’t work very hard. I didn’t turn stuff in. It wasn’t the teacher, or the school, and it wasn’t that the work was too hard. It was me. “ I was very impressed by this fella, and my guess is, he's going to be OK this semester. 

God didn’t make us perfect—we’re going to screw up from time to time. That’s a given. But what’s not a given—what distinguishes the mature person from the immature--is how we handle our screw-ups. When we do something wrong or poorly, let’s man up and say  “I am sorry; I made a mistake.”  That’s our best chance for not making the same mistake again. And the truth is, people will respect us more for the fact we’re owning our own problems and not expecting them to solve them for us. 

May we all have the courage to claim what is ours!

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Pope Francis' Advice for New Year's Resolutions

Pope Francis has the following suggestions for our New Year's Resolutions in 2015--they're good challenges for all of us! 
  1. Take care of your spiritual life, your relationship with God, because this is the backbone of everything we do and everything we are.
  2. Take care of your family life, giving your children and loved ones not just money, but most of all your time, attention and love.
  3. Take care of your relationships with others, transforming your faith into life and your words into good works, especially on behalf of the needy.
  4. Be careful how you speak, purify your tongue of offensive words, vulgarity and worldly decadence.
  5. Heal wounds of the heart with the oil of forgiveness, forgiving those who have hurt us and medicating the wounds we have caused others.
  6. Look after your work, doing it with enthusiasm, humility, competence, passion and with a spirit that knows how to thank the Lord.
  7. Be careful of envy, lust, hatred and negative feelings that devour our interior peace and transform us into destroyed and destructive people.
  8. Watch out for anger that can lead to vengeance; for laziness that leads to existential euthanasia; for pointing the finger at others, which leads to pride; and for complaining continually, which leads to desperation.
  9. Take care of brothers and sisters who are weaker … the elderly, the sick, the hungry, the homeless and strangers, because we will be judged on this.
May God gives us the grace, courage and persistence to do these things!

The Birds Will Lose Their Wonder...

This is my first address with JPII students to begin the 2015 year. 
Twitter has analyzed tweets between Dec. 25 and New Year’s Eve to see which words are most associated with New Year’s resolutions. At the top of the list, unsurprisingly, was “work out.” Here are the top 10 based on a ranking of English-language tweets:

1.    Work out
2.    Be happy
3.    Lose weight
4.    Stop smoking
5.    Unplug
6.    Be the best (at…)
7.    Drink less
8.    Love myself
9.    Work harder
10.  Don’t mess things up (or cruder words to that effect).

I’d like to focus on #5, “unplug.” I visited my family over Christmas in Mobile, AL, my hometown. At one point after dinner, we were all watching a football game: Me, three nephews, my brother-in-law—except that none of us was watching the football game; we were doing things with our mobile devices. So we were all “visiting,” but we were completely unaware of what the other person was doing.

I have a family member who majored in computer science and got a very good job with an international company that specialized in creating and supporting corporate computer networks. He did well in that company, and was increasingly given more responsibility, more employees, and more clients, for which he was handsomely compensated. The problem was the company’s clients were all over the world, in completely different time zones, which meant he was always on call, whether that be at 9 a.m. or midnight, or 4 in the morning. It didn’t matter if he were with his family on Saturday, or sleeping in the middle of the night—if there were a problem with the company’s computer network in South Africa, or Thailand, or Germany, or Seattle Washington—he had to take the call and direct his staff how to fix it. It was such a miserable life for him, that despite having risen to the top of the ladder and having obtained a fabulous salary, he quit the job entirely, and he’s now working for far less than he once made, but is much happier for it.

It’s not good to be always "on call.” We need time alone, we need time to think, we need time to study, we need distance from our friends, even distance from girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses. We used to be able to talk about the “charm” of distance in a relationship, and that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” No more. Before the age of cell phones, if your home phone rang and you thought it was someone you really didn’t want to talk to, you could pretend not to be home and leave it unanswered, but with our phones always on our person now and the ID of the person broadcasted with each incoming call, the caller knows we’re rejecting him or her if we don’t answer.

I am reminded of the 1925 “Scopes-Monkey” trial that happened right here in Tennessee. John Scopes, a high school teacher, was accused of violating a Tennessee law that made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. It became a very prominent case nationally when Clarence Darrow, a well-known defense attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union, came down south to represent Scopes, and William Jennings Bryan, a three-time presidential candidate, volunteered to represent the prosecution. Thirty years later, in 1955, a play was written about the trial called “Inherit the Wind” (by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, which incidentally was created as a way to satirize the then contemporary McCarthy trials). The play features very eloquent courtroom dialog between Darrow and Bryan as they debate creationism vs. evolution. Darrow, supporting evolution and Scope’s right to teach it, had this to say:

Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it!  Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, 'All right, you can have a telephone but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.'

I am not a Luddite—I happen to love technology, and I am as guilty as any of you in spending too much time “plugged in”. What we can do on line, the information we can access, the connections we can make, the ability to keep up with friends and relatives—it’s wonderful. But progress does come at a price, and we have to recognize that. As we begin 2015 together, let’s vow to be a little more present to each other, a little less inclined to immediately respond to every ding or ping of a message sent to us, a little more willing to unplug our devices, at least for some period of time each day. Our greatest gift from God is not the latest and greatest technology in our pockets, but the people we’re with, right in front of us.