Friday, December 30, 2016

"In 2017, I resolve to..."

Welcome back, and Happy New Year! 

So I don’t know if this applies to you, but according to many sources, the average American, gains 5-7 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. That undoubtedly explains why the top three New Year’s resolutions for 2017 are weight related: 

1. Diet or eat healthier (71%)

2. Exercise more (65%)

3. Lose weight (54%)

4. Save more and spend less--(32%)

5. Learn a new skill or hobby (26%)

6. Quit smoking (21%)

7. Read more (17%)

8. Find another job (16%)

9. Drink less alcohol (15%)

10. Spend more time with family and friends (13%)

I think the idea of a New Year’s resolution is excellent! The ability to assess ourselves and our weaknesses, and how we need to improve our lives, is a uniquely human one. Even the most advanced animals are not able to able to say “How can I be a better monkey?” And if you look at this top ten list a second time, you see a real desire to improve oneself—something which is surely a noble goal. 

Look carefully once more at this list. 

All are excellent goals—but it strikes me that they are all related to SELF-improvement, with the emphasis on self alone. I’d like to suggest one of the most noble of goals for all of us this 2017 is what can we do to help OTHERS.  I am eager to see our service club get cranked up this semester with Mr. Scimeca—-let’s do some great work for this community. We’ve been so blessed. And I am excited for pro-life March at the end of the month—let’s go and stand proudly for life and be a witness to others in this nation, and let’s also find practical, concrete ways we can help pregnant mothers, and support elderly and sick people.  

I imagine most of us received some pretty amazing Christmas presents on December 25. But when God made us, he did something pretty cool. He designed us to be HAPPIEST OF ALL when we are giving, not receiving. Let’s work in 2017 to make other people happy, to serve them—and the great thing about that, through this law of spiritual physics, we’ll be happier too. 

Let St. Michael become, borrowing the slogan for the United States Navy, a “ force for good” in the life of Baldwin County. 

May God bless all of you, and bless St. Michael in 2017. 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas, 2016!

And his name shall be called: Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God, the Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Tragedy, Ritual and Faith

Our Catholic community experienced a terrible tragedy this weekend, just one week before Christmas.  The ten year old son of a well-known and much loved family died in an ATV accident. He was a 4th grader at the local Catholic elementary school, a football player in the CYO program, and an altar boy in his church. The news of his death stopped us in our tracks.

Instinctively, the community responded by coming to the family’s home to express their grief and solidarity,  armed with food. By the second day, there was enough food for several battalions, and when I arrived, the family, completely in character, was already making plans to get the food to local soup kitchens. “Bringing food” is a natural response during times of tragedy--what does one really SAY, after all, that won’t sound empty and foolishly sentimental?

And what does one DO when one first sees the father and mother who have just lost their child? They answered that question for my wife and me, because when we visited, there they were, greeting visitors at their doorstep. Seeing us, they reached out and gave us a big group hug, which lasted several moments, as I mumbled something lame about our pain and sorrow for them. It didn’t matter what I said, however. It was the long hug, and their willingness to give and receive it, that spoke volumes.

There was a recent article in “First Things” by Peter Leithart called “Sincerity or Ritual,” which partly reviews an earlier book on the same subject (Ritual and Its Consequences, Oxford Press, 2008).  Leithart, quoting from the book, argues that ritual gives us a “common subjunctive.” The “subjunctive mood,” we might recall from our grammar days, is a verb form that expresses a wish or condition that is technically not true, such as “if I were you, I’d ____”. By creating a “common subjunctive,” the author means that ritual gives us the means to participate in what the ritual commemorates, as if we were truly "there." Further, it gives us a convention which indexes a shared world, that allows us to connect sacramentally to each other. Absent common rituals, social relationships must rely on a “never ending production of new signs of sincerity” as a way of communicating our connection and empathy. In a situation as horrific as the death of a child, we’d have to find really eloquent words to express how sincerely we grieve for them. I’ve been to funerals in other religious faiths without a sacramental tradition, where relatives and friends try and find these right words to say. For the most part, they utterly fail.

Two hours before the funeral mass, the pastor invited the community to pray the rosary together with the family, located in a room adjacent to the church itself. The room was meant for about 200 people, but there were easily over 400 crammed in, spilling into the hallways, all praying the “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Fathers” with great fervor, with the family in front, surrounded. Saying the rosary,  a particularly Catholic response to tragedy, is also a ritual, giving us the ability to “do something” together. Everyone who participated was moved.

The funeral itself was powerful. The Archbishop was the principal celebrant, and that itself spoke to the tragedy. The pastor, a close friend of the family, gave an inspired sermon, challenging us to become part of a “Christmas miracle” and “turn this sorrow into love.” The incensing of the body at the end of the funeral, together with the words “Let us now take leave of our son…” was quite poignant, and at the end, just before the final blessing, the father came to the lectern, together with five male friends who stood beside him, and thanked everyone for their prayers and support, ending his remarks with “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” I sat in the pew, sobbing-- not tears of sadness, but in response to beauty: to the father’s exquisite testimony of faith in the middle of his profound sorrow, to the beauty of the funeral mass, to the presence of God, so evident there. I wasn’t alone-- there wasn’t a dry eye in the Church.

It is tempting for us who have been raised Catholic to think our faith is boring--the same thing over and over. Sometimes it takes tragedies to remind us of the great gift we share as people of faith, united by our sacraments, rituals and prayers.

May this family's overwhelming sorrow be replaced by overwhelming grace. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Waiting, 2016

Yesterday was the first Sunday of Advent. The word “advent” means “coming,” and of course, it’s a reference to the coming of Christ at Christmas. So over the next four weeks, we await the coming of Christ. 

We’re not very good at waiting. We want everything immediately! Think about it: The fast food industry has grown exponentially in the last twenty years because people want their food quickly, and don’t have the time or patience to cook it at home. We have fast food drive-through lines because it’s way too much work to park the car, walk several feet and stand in line to order. And even with drive-through lines, if you’re like me, you become impatient if the line is not moving quickly enough! The Internet now provides us with information instantaneously, which is fantastic on one level, but dangerous on another, as it’s too easy to send off an email when we’re angry at someone before we’ve given ourselves a chance to cool down and say things we regret later or post things on a blog that are hurtful to others. We have overnight printing, overnight mailing, instant food, microwave ovens—all things that allow us to get what we want now, without waiting. If we want something and can’t afford it, no need to wait and save for it—we have credit cards! The average American household has $16,048 in credit card debt in 2016, and the average # of credit card accounts per card user is 3.7.  Financial experts agree it’s the worst kind of debt, too, because the average interest rate is 12-18%, unlike owing money on a house, where one can get loans for as low as 4% right now. 

So it’s hard for us to wait for Christmas—we hardly wait for anything else. Retailers are already in the full court press mode, pushing us to get all our Christmas shopping done. I was in a local store in October, before Halloween, and they were already playing Christmas carols over their speakers! So in Church we’re singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” but everywhere we go we’re hearing “Joy to the World, the Lord has Come. “ 

I want to suggest two simple things we can all do that may help us step back from the helter-skelter world of the instant, the “now” that we all live in—two things that might help us better focus on the event we will celebrate on December 25 and thus help us have a better Advent.

The first is this: Nothing helps us tune into the true “reason for the season” better than helping other people. If you live near an elderly home, for example, the Christmas season is a very lonely time for many elderly, as they miss their spouses who have died, or perhaps their children who don’t visit them enough. You can be there for them. Organizations who work with the poor need lots of volunteers to serve meals, deliver presents, and work soup lines. You can be there to help. You know, it’s pretty common that we, too, can get depressed or start feeling blue at this time of year, and our tendency is to say to ourselves, “I need some time for myself”, some “me time” but that’s exactly backwards. The best way to get us out of our funk is to focus on the needs of others, to make others happy. This is a great time of year to do it. 

My second suggestion to get us ready for Christmas, to help us more fully appreciate this Advent season, is to spend about 10-15 minutes/day in prayer, asking God to lead you, bringing your worries before him, seeking him for guidance on decisions you must make about college, friends, personal situations. To pray doesn’t mean we must isolate ourselves and burn incense somewhere! Maybe it just means when we’re driving to school or home from school, we turn off the radio and cell phone and have a conversation with God and bring our worries before him. We don’t lean enough on God—but unless we lean, we cannot feel him pushing back, holding us up. And so we put all this pressure on ourselves to make good grades, go to the right schools, have the right relationships, instead of sharing those worries with God and asking him to help us.

If we go outside of ourselves to help others, if we pray and lean on God during these next few weeks, I think we’ll find this Advent season, this time of waiting, will help prepare us more fully for the most important event in human history. May we use this time well.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving, Students!

This is Mr. Weber's Thanksgiving Day message to the students of St. Michael on Monday, November 21, 2016

A few years ago, my brother sent me a list of “First World Problems,”--a series of quips that mock how lazy we’ve become as part of our wealthy culture. To give you a sense:

• My hand is too fat to shove into the Pringles container, so I am forced to tilt it.
• I forgot to bring my smartphone with me when I used the bathroom, so I was bored the entire time.
• I can’t hear the TV while I’m eating crunchy snacks.
• My laptop is low on battery, but the charger is over there.

Those quips are funny, partly because there’s an element of truth to them. We live in a culture of excess, where our values become skewed in pursuit of things, at the expense of our relationships with God and with others.  There’s no better evidence of this than what will happen around the United States on Friday of this week, the day after Thanksgiving—so called “Black Friday. Merchants tell us is the #1 shopping day of the year. 

It’s also a day where we lose our minds. 

There’s actually a web site called “” which tracks all the injuries and even deaths that occur on Black Friday around the United States. The site consists of a giant ticker which tracks all these casualties—the current number is 7 deaths and 98 injuries. And it tells the stories of each casualty. 

A few years back, on BlackFriday in a Los Angeles Walmart, a woman was arrested for pepper spraying 20 fellow customers so she could clear the path to be the first one to get to the Xbox consoles that were on sale. There was a story of a woman who was trampled by the crowd when the doors to the store opened at 12 midnight on Black Friday morning. And there was also a story of a man who had just come out from shopping at Walmart in California at 1:45 a.m. , and was accosted at gunpoint by another man in the parking lot, who demanded that he hand over everything he had just purchased. The man, protective of his new stuff that he had been up all night to purchase, refused. He was shot. He was in the hospital, in critical but stable condition. The story didn’t report whether he was able to keep his things.

We are beginning the holiday season this week with Thanksgiving this Thursday, and when we come back together on Monday of next week, we will have begun Advent, a time of preparation for Christmastime.  Let these two celebrations remind us of two things: 

First, we really do owe God our gratitude. If you compare what we have here in this school, in this area, in our families and friends—compare that to peoples living anywhere else in the world—we are so incredibly blessed. But do we thank God for that? You all know the story in the gospels of Jesus curing the ten lepers of leprosy, but only one comes back to thank Jesus, and he asks, where are the other nine? Are we part of the 90% that forgets to thank him? Do we take all that we have for granted? When you sit down with your family for dinner on Thanksgiving, look around that table and truly thank God for all he’s given us!

And let the excesses of Black Friday remind us this Advent, that the world is still in need of a savior. We are still sick. Yes, Jesus came and died for us almost 2000 years ago, and he is ever ready to forgive us and heal us. But we forget that we need him. Perhaps that’s the most serious danger about being in a first world country—it’s not even the excess or the laziness, but that we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, as independent, as NOT NEEDING a savior. People who have nothing rarely forget God. They pray to him for their next meal. They ask him to cure their daughter’s illness. They worry and pray about where they’re going to sleep when the winter comes. But too often, we believe our success is all about our talents, our brains, our good decisions, and we forget that all of the good things we enjoy are blessings from God, and that we still need him to be Lord of our families, Lord of our relationships, Lord of our school work and our business dealings and Lord of our decisions.

Recently, my computer at home had become very sluggish—irritatingly so. It’s been a while, so I spent some time this weekend defragmenting my hard drive, deleting old files, getting rid of some preferences that are clogging things up. It’s working much faster now.

As we prepare for Advent, let this be a time in our lives to do the same thing: to delete some of the things that are taking us away from God, to pray more, to study harder, to become more grateful for God’s gifts and more serious about our relationship with him. The psalmist prays for all of us when he says:

 “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then may we be saved.” (Psalm 80:3).

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

How Did We Elect Trump?

Flannery O’Connor, in her 1961 short story “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” tells the story of Julian, a recent college graduate, now living with his mother until he can find a job. Julian is miserable living with her, embarrassed by her racist and paternalistic attitude about blacks, typical of the institutional racism of the deep south. But in his mind, he had transcended his upbringing:

The irony was that in spite of her, he had turned out so well. In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts. Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother.

What becomes apparent is that Julian’s judgment of his mother is far harsher than the bigotry borne of his mother’s ignorance—that his “rising” as an educated man has made him the bigger bigot, unable to appreciate the sacrifices his mother made for him, incapable of forgiving her for the way she was raised. In the end, his vicious judgment kills her, as she dies from an apparent heart attack, prompted by his repudiation. Thus O’Connor’s title: That which rises must (again) converge--distancing oneself and judging from “on high” destroys the very people that we might otherwise help rise, too.

The day after Donald Trump won the presidential election, I read a number of articles revolving around these themes: “How could we have allowed this to happen? How could we have elected such a bigot? What does this say about us as Americans? A Facebook friend summarized this sentiment succinctly:

"The DNC didn’t underestimate Trump.They underestimated how uneducated, xenophobic, racist and misogynist rural America is. Idiocy has landed.”

How did we elect Trump? Like Julian, like my Facebook friend, we have been harshly judgmental of working class, rural Americans— “deplorables,” Clinton called them--and the deplorables decided to give the intellectual elites of our country, those of us with advanced degrees and sophisticated tastes, a giant middle finger.

Take North Carolina, an important swing state in this election, as but a simple example: Obama won North Carolina in 2008, lost by 2 points in 2012, and in this election, Trump doubled that margin, winning by almost 4 points. Why has North Carolina turned increasingly "red" ? It didn't help Hilary's cause that last spring, the U.S. Justice Department decided Carolinians needed mentoring about proper bathroom policies for transgenders, suing them for discrimination. Rock stars canceled concerts in North Carolina and NBA executives rescinded a contract to play an all-star game there. But the people North Carolina held fast, resentful of being treated like the village idiots.

This wasn’t an endorsement of Trump. I’m not sure it was even a rejection of Hillary on a personal level. It was, however, a complete rejection of the intellectual snobbery of the ruling class, of which Hillary and “establishment” Republicans were the power-brokers.

Everything that rises must converge. Future presidential candidates, take heed.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Lesser of Two Evils?

I just finished watching the second of two presidential "debates," during which both candidates hurled insults at each other. There were virtually no policy positions discussed.  Comedian Jim Gaffigan nailed it when he tweeted, "I feel like I am watching America's funeral." 

Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by our choice for president. Hillary Clinton is avowedly pro-abortion, has repeatedly lied to the American people (including families of those who died in Banghazi), has required massive contributions to the Clinton Foundation as a means for wealthy persons and foreign governments to have access to her while she was Secretary of State, and has violated numerous statutes in handling top secret information on her private server. Donald Trump is a loathsome human being, whose misogynist bragging about his sexual exploits, his shocking lack of interest in educating himself about international politics, even after he emerged as the Republican nominee, his bullying tactics of not paying subcontractors what he owes them, and his bilking of ordinary people through Trump University make him a repugnant option. 

If you’re truly IN FAVOR of one of these candidates, and not simply choosing a “lesser of two evils” candidate, I question how you can credibly dismiss these negatives, but this article is not for you. Rather, I wish to challenge the “lesser evil” (LE) argument for this year’s election and advocate for “none of the above.” 

Proponents of the LE argument say it’s a binary choice, and that not choosing for one is a vote for the other, or a meaningless gesture that shuns one’s responsibility to make the “hard choices” that our democracy sometimes requires. But this is illogical. It’s not a binary but a tertiary decision: choosing “none of the above” is a third option, and a significant one. There’s a big difference between giving someone a + 1 in their vote count, and giving both candidates, in effect, 1/2 a point. 

Second, I believe the LE argument is misapplied here, at least as understood in traditional ethics. “Consequentialism” measures the morality of an act purely on the basis of its results, independent of the “act” itself. Consequentialism believes “the ends (can) justify the means.” By contrast, a “deontological” ethic tries to measure the morality of the act based on the character of the “act” itself—is the act good or bad intrinsically? Traditional ethics, as best articulated by the Catholic moral tradition, is partly deontological, with a clear focus on the  “means”-- the act itself must be good (or at least, neutral), even while the intentions of the actor must also be good (seeking good results). The LE analysis only comes into play when we are trying to weigh the unintended bad consequences of a "good" decision, such as the decision to intervene in a foreign country to protect citizens against terrorists, even if such an act inspires more terrorists. We weigh the "evil" of allowing terrorism to trample upon human life vs. the unintended "lesser evil" of the resentment an intervention inspires, choosing to protect innocent life and tolerating the lesser evil. 

I believe this is a historic election in that the very act of voting for either candidate is in itself a “bad” act, prior to any speculation of results or how much harm they will cause. Mrs. Clinton’s support for abortion is so consistent, so virulent and so fundamental to her political identity that I believe an affirmative vote makes one complicit in this enterprise. A vote for Trump is a decision that elevates a misogynistic, pugilistic and unbalanced egomaniac to the most powerful position in the world—a clearly “bad” act in and of itself, apart from whatever damage he is certain to do. 

Choosing between them, then, is to choose “bad” in the hope that one will prove  “less bad” in the end. Were that choice literally our only option, I might concede its necessity, but it’s not the only option. We can choose not to choose—to say, without apology, that a vote for either is so antithetical to our values that we refuse to be complicit in their ascendency to this high office. 

I also disagree that “none of the above” is a meaningless gesture or abdication of responsibility. Here’s why: There is no way to distinguish between your “LE” vote and the those who truly favor the candidate, but rest assured, the winning candidate will use the vote total as a “mandate” to push his or her agenda as forcefully as possible as president. But if you believe both candidates are so repugnant that your real reason for voting for one is to vote AGAINST the other, then you should want the winner to have as little mandate as possible. Could either claim to have a mandate if 10 million fewer voters chose “none of the above”? I doubt it.

That wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Perhaps the next four years will be an opportunity for Congress to truly regain its footing as an equal partner in the “separation of powers” as envisioned by our Founding Fathers. The executive and judicial functions have increasingly usurped the legislative function in our federal government, and a president with historically low support could embolden senators and representatives to begin to reclaim what they’ve abdicated. 

Given who will be our next president, let’s hope so. 

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Case for Catholic High Schools

Where should we place our children for high school? 

Clearly, the question of academics will be an important part of our analysis, and my experiences with Catholic schools is generally very positive in this regard. Yet each Catholic school is different.  How well we teach Math, English, History and Science depends on the school. 

For the purposes of this article, I want to bracket the discussion of academic programs and focus instead on three philosophical and practical reasons to send your children to a Catholic high school.

An Integrated Faith Life

During Advent and Lent, our school hosts a Reconciliation services for our students. We start with a common prayer service in the gym, then invite kids for individual confessions with any of the 6-8 priests who help us, each placed in a different classroom. If students don’t want to go to confession, they stay in the gym. Typically about 75% of our students stand in line to go to confession, meaning each line is  8-10 students deep, which gives them a chance to examine their conscience and think about what they want to confess. 

That’s a pretty common practice in Catholic high schools. But you’d almost have to be non-Catholic to appreciate how weird this is: Teenagers, publicly admitting their own sinfulness to their peers, standing in line to confess their darkest secrets to a man they don’t know, raised in a culture that isn’t even sure there is such a thing as sin! But here’s what’s important: It never occurs to them it’s weird.  It’s simply normal. It’s what we do. 

Yes, Catholic schools have theology classes and public and secular private schools don’t. But I believe the most important distinction is that the practice of faith becomes so interwoven into the daily life of a Catholic school student that it becomes natural and normal, and even, at times, unnoticed, like breathing. Prayer before school, prayer at assemblies, before ball games, and in locker-rooms, become routine. Masses are frequent, service opportunities abound, and prayers for those in need are common. Slowly, inexorably, the Catholic faith becomes the lens through which a teenager understands his or her life— in an integrated, genuine way. 

No matter how faithful we are as parents in raising our children in the faith, no matter how frequently our children attend parish formation programs, no matter how exciting or gifted our parish's teachers,  faith formation becomes a "family" or "parish" thing, not part of their life as a teenager or student somewhere else. 

A Moral Tradition and Framework

The local newspaper recently published brief biographies of the valedictorians from area high schools and included snippets from their valedictory addresses, and it was interesting to compare them.  The differences were not a matter of accomplishments—they were all impressive kids—but one of context and world-view. By way of illustration, the valedictorian of the local Catholic high school, said “It will always great to be a yellow-jacket (the school mascot), but it’s even greater to be a saint.” In contrast, one young lady from a local private school, arguably the most academically accomplished of all those listed, said “Whatever your definition of success is—go for it!” 

I believe one of the most important reasons to send our children to Catholic schools is that they’ll be raised in a community that has inherited a moral tradition which is a “given”—an important thing in a culture that is increasingly hostile to the notion of a “teleos,” or to a Tradition, or any other coherent proclamation of “Truth.” In Catholic schools, we not only want to prepare children for college, we want them to become virtuous, and even more boldly, to become disciples.  We can talk more confidently about “right and wrong,” “should and should not,” and what God may be asking them to do. 

Surprisingly, one of the great benefits of the “given-ness” of this tradition is the freedom it gives us to speak plainly and honestly with each other, without quibbling over minutiae. G.K. Chesterton once said the problem with rejecting the “big laws” is not that we get liberty, or even anarchy. It’s that we get the small laws. I believe one of the great burdens of working in a public school today is the crushing level of intrusive policies, detailed scripting and documentation we demand of its teachers and administrators, required by lawyers to defend the school against those who disagree with their decisions. 

Local Influence and Control

People might assume, because of the visible hierarchy of the Church, Pope Francis and the bishops, that the Catholic Church is a “top down” institution, with all decision making authority centralized by the hierarchy and disseminated to the local Churches and schools. But in fact, the Church practices the “principle of subsidiarity”, which says that things are best handled at the most local level possible. 

Yes, there is a hierarchy that articulates and defends the deposit of faith. Yes, there is a “Cathechism” and “Canon Law” that spells out our teachings and codifies our practices. Yes, there are Catholic school central offices and superintendents. It’s instructive to realize, however, that Catholic school central offices are typically staffed by 80% to 90% less people than their public school central office counterparts. That’s because in Catholic thinking, “policies” are defined in broad parameters, within which the local schools have true freedom to innovate and to address the unique needs of their families. That’s why each Catholic school typically has its own board or advisory council: to establish local policies and procedures. 

I didn’t appreciate this difference personally until I was asked to be an accreditation consultant for one of the largest public schools in the state, a high school with over 2,000 students. The principal was a very good, smart guy, yet the scope of his decision making authority was severely curtailed. I remember asking him how much discretionary spending authority he had in his budget. He smiled ruefully, then said “Let me show you.” He then walked me down to the cafeteria, pointed to the coke machines, and said “Whatever profit they generate.”

By contrast, together with our local advisory council, I create the budget, establish tuitions and set salaries for each year,  and then send these to approval by the bishop. I then administer that budget, approving or not approving all spending requests, in accordance with the budget and what I believe is good for the school. If parents have a good idea how to make the school better, they share that idea with me and if it’s a policy issue, I discuss with the advisory council. If we think it’s a good idea, we implement it. 

Why does this matter? Good Catholic schools are responsive to parental or family concerns. They can be, because authority is vested with local leadership, and they have to be, since families can go elsewhere if their ideas are not taken seriously. In contrast, it’s difficult to create a sense of ownership with families if all decision making authority resides somewhere else. 

Equally destructive, if we strip local teachers and principals of the ability to act in entrepreneurial, creative ways, we undercut a lot of the impetus and enthusiasm for innovation that gives energy and a positive vibe to a school. We replace it too often with the language of powerlessness: “My hands or tied,” or “I would if they’d give us more money,” or “downtown would never approve that,” creating a culture that is pessimistic toward positive change.” And "a school culture,” the saying goes, “eats new strategies for breakfast.” 

Final Thoughts

Catholic schools aren’t perfect. The three Catholic high schools I’ve been in charge of in my career have stumbled from time to time, endured set-backs because I’ve hired poorly, or on occasion, have not been as vibrant a Catholic community as they should have been. Occasionally their principal makes bone-headed decisions!  Despite these setbacks, my four 20-something year old children have been greatly blessed by their Catholic high school education, having subsequently attended (or are now attending) excellent universities, with good jobs (so far), and the oldest two (so far!) in faithful, strong marriages. 

Catholic schools help young men and women become leaders, steeped in a moral tradition, informed by an active faith.  I am convinced they are our best chance of creating the kind of confident young men and women we need to build a more human, more fraternal world. 

Support Catholic schools, by sending them your children and grandchildren. Support them through your generosity. It could make literally an eternal difference in the life of your children or someone else's children!

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What Our Tradition Teaches Us

Tradition means giving a vote to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 4, Ethics of Elfland)

I am often reminded of this brilliant quote when I get into arguments regarding Church liturgy, which usually develop along "conservative" vs. "progressive" lines. I've been in hundreds of these kind of discussions as principal of a Catholic high school, often revolving around music: should drums be allowed in Church, or should we limit ourselves to organ? Contemporary songs or Latin chant? Journey Songs or St. Joseph Hymnal?

The problem with the "either-or" of these debates is the tradition of our Church, properly understood, usually argues for "both-and." The "vote of our ancestors" crosses over two thousands years of practice, embracing different cultures, different epochs, and with peoples facing different challenges. Our present squabbles are merely blips.

For example, when it was first introduced, many Churchmen believed that the organ was inappropriate for Church liturgy. St. Augustine of Hippo (354 A.D.), arguing against the use of any musical instruments during Mass, said "The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.” St. Thomas Aquinas, almost 900 years later, said: "Our church does not use musical instruments, as harps and psalteries, to praise God withal, that she may not seem to Judaize.” (Thomas Aquinas, Bingham’s Antiquities, Vol. 3). This is the same Church that said, after another 900 years, that "The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, since it is its traditional instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lift up men's minds to God and higher things." (Musica Sacra #62).

I am not arguing that the Church is inconsistent--it is a living, breathing thing that grows and evolves. But I am arguing we should be wary of any absolutist claims about what is or is not "most appropriate" or the "best" liturgical form. Our history will not allow it. The ideas of today or any other single period in our Church are just as provisional and transient as those from other eras. There has been no "perfect" or "pristine" period of Church liturgy that trumps all contemporary versions.

The most "orthodox" stance, then, is to be open to the broad tradition of the Church, as it appears in its many forms. In my role as principal of a Catholic school, I want our students to be familiar with the great hymns of our Church, but also with some of the best contemporary liturgical music. Our school liturgies should include "high masses," full of incense and bells, but they should also include intimate "lower" masses that call our students, in their own vernacular, to a closer relationship with the Lord. Latin? Yes! English? Yes! Marian devotions? Yep. Social justice teachings? You bet. 

The beautiful, sometimes strange and eccentric traditions and celebrations make our faith much more interesting to teenagers.  I believe our schools and parishes should embrace these beautiful and many-splendored practices, praying that they will resonate within, according to each person's sensibilities and needs.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Baldwin County and the Common Good

I am the principal of St. Michael Catholic High School, a 9-12 school that will open in Fairhope this coming August. We’ll begin with just ninth and tenth grades and will add a grade each year thereafter. I attended Catholic schools growing up, as have my children, and I've worked my entire adult life in Catholic education. We’ve never been part of the public school system. 

So this may be a surprise: I urge Baldwin County citizens to vote in favor of the 4 mill tax renewal for public schools during the March 1 primaries. 

We live in a competitive world, and the tendency is to see things through that lens. That’s especially true for our schools, be they public, private or Catholic. We care so passionately for our own school that our first instinct is to think that if something is good for someone else’s school, it’s bad for ours. 

To the contrary, I believe we thrive as a community when we can offer a variety of healthy educational options to our families. When parents decide where to live, having options for their children makes our county all the more attractive —be they strong public schools, vibrant Catholic schools, or excellent independent schools.

Why DO so many families move across the bay to live here, after all? Why do retirees move down from the north and set up home here when they could move anywhere else in this country? For sure, one reason is that it's beautiful here: the temperate climate, the Bay, the Gulf, the pecan groves, the grasslands and farmlands—living here amidst such stunning beauty stirs the soul. But the other reasons are, quite simply, we have good schools and less crime, resulting in a better quality of life. Even from a purely self-interested viewpoint, we would be short-sighted not to want our schools to thrive. Whatever little money we might save from the tax renewal would be more than offset by our county becoming less desirable, diminishing our property values over time. 

A “mill” is one tenth of a cent, or .001. For a $200,000 home, the average cost of a home in Baldwin County, the four mill renewal tax would amount to an $800 increase in our annual house payments, or $66/month. It’s worth reiterating, lest we quickly forget, that this vote is indeed a renewal of the four mill tax we used to pay prior to the vote last year, when we not only rejected an INCREASE in the mill rate, but also rejected the four mills we HAD ALREADY BEEN paying. The vote on March 1 isn’t an “additional” tax—it merely restores what we once supported.  

Yes, our country is in the “Just-Say-No” mood. What better explains our presidential politics right now?  This vote, however, is not for a new federal tax to be rammed down our throats or a new entitlement program that will saddle our country with even greater debt. This is a vote for the common good of Baldwin County. This is a vote for our children, and our neighbor’s children.

Please join with me in voting YES, proudly, to support our schools on March 1.

Faustin Weber

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Coaching Adolescent Girls: Insider Insights

Note: Julie Rollins, former athletic director of JPII and women’s basketball coach and Mike McLaren, JPII’s Dean of Students and women’s soccer coach, were interviewed for this article. Both have extensive experience coaching girls. Coach Rollins has coached girls’ basketball in central Tennessee for over 30 years, compiling over 500 wins, whereas Mr. McLaren’s teams are strong every year. His 2005 team went undefeated and was named the #1 team in the country by USA Today. Each was asked: How is coaching girls different from coaching guys? Here’s a composite of what they said:

It's no surprise to those who have coached both men and women, but what works well for one doesn't necessarily work well for the other. Still, it's a mistake to think that girls don't want to be pushed hard to get better--they do! They must simply be pushed differently.

Men are by nature more individualistic, women more team oriented. Since relationships are more important for women, girls need to know that the coach likes, trusts and respects them. If they believe that, they will work hard for that coach. Boys need ultimatums and goals to drive them; they are more externally driven and care less about relationships and more about respect. Conversely, they must respect their coaches’ knowledge and skill and have some element of “fear” of their coach (in the same way a boy might “fear” his father), whereas girls must buy into the coaches’ philosophy and know that the coach cares for them.

Girls are more natural team players, who in their desire to include everyone may pass the ball too much rather than taking the open shot. Occasionally girls will have to be encouraged to be more “selfish” when they play. Boys, usually the opposite!

Team bonding is therefore very important for women. Drills which emphasis team success will generally be more successful than drills that highlight individual achievement. Setting up drills where one teammate wins and the other loses tends to motivate boys but de-motivate girls because it will emphasize hierarchy of skill and undercut team chemistry and bonding.

The standard “I speak, you listen” doesn’t work well with older girls, especially. They’ll need to discuss things. Girls are less likely to put aside tiffs with teammates that may have occurred during the school day or on weekends. Team huddles to work through differences are important for high school girls, often apart from the coach, led by the older girls. So while a successful female coach retains control, he or she will want to be more flexible in allowing feedback and processing.

Praising a boy in the locker-room for a stellar game is usually well received by that boy and the team. Praising a single girl for a stellar game may cause her teammates to resent her; furthermore, the girl who is praised may not like it because it puts her at odds with her teammates!

Boys tend to over-estimate their abilities, whereas women underestimate them. Men are apt to blame failure on others (coach, team-mate, referee), whereas women quickly blame themselves. Coach Anson Dorrance, who has coached both the men’s and women’s’ soccer teams at the University of North Carolina, put it this way: If a coach is critical with the team in the locker room after a poor game, on a guy’s team, each boy is thinking “Yeah, what happened to you guys? I played great but you guys really let us down”, whereas on the girl’s team, each girl is likely blaming herself for the loss, including the girl on the bench who didn’t think she cheered loudly enough.

Annulments in the Catholic Church, Some Reflections

People misunderstand annulments, I believe, because they misunderstand the role of the Church in the sacrament of marriage. In Catholic theology, unlike the other sacraments in which God’s actions through the priest “make” the sacrament happen (Eucharist, Reconciliation, etc), in the sacrament of marriage, the priest is not the agent so much as the witness to what happens: the sacrament itself occurs between the husband, wife and God. The Church doesn’t “confer” marriage, then, but instead stands as a witness to the vows between husband and wife, offering with those present prayer and support for this couple in their vocation. Just as it does not “confer” on the front end, therefore, it does not have the authority to “de-confer” on the back end. The Church cannot take away what it never gave. 

Why then, is the Church involved with annulments? Precisely in its role as witness to the marriage. A marriage is only a marriage if during the time of vows, the bride and groom were truly able to “consent” to the covenant, free and unencumbered by external or internal impediments. Using a silly example to make the point, if the bride were pregnant and the bride’s father sat in the front pew during the marriage ceremony,  brooding, armed with a gun to make sure the groom “made it right,” it would be reasonable to question whether the groom was ‘freely consenting’ to the marriage. Those present at the ceremony, observing the gun, could certainly verify such doubt!

Similarly, in the annulment process, one or both of the parties asks the Church, as witness to the original vows, to go back and investigate if there was something that impaired their ability to freely consent to each other—even if it appeared the couple made those vows freely. No, it wouldn’t likely be as simple as someone with a gun held to his head! But what if the husband were  physically abused as a child? What if a slightly overweight young lady, full of  self-loathing, were desperate to “lock down” a relationship with any one who showed her kindness? What if, in the case of an unfaithful husband, there existed a prior pattern in his life of his inability to sustain a commitment to anything (jobs, relationships, schooling, etc)? Might there be reason to believe that in these cases, there wasn't completely free consent?

Of course. And if asked to investigate these marriages as part of the annulment process, the Church would likely find grounds to declare them “null.” But notice this important distinction! The Church isn’t creating something “new” in this declaration, or “ending” what once “was.” Rather, it is simply recognizing what is already true, and has been true from the beginning: these couples were unable, given their impediments, to freely consent to each other. They may have been sincere. They may have been deeply in love. But they didn’t have the true inner freedom to make a life-long vow. 

It’s a self evident truth today that many marriages unravel, creating enormous hurt and loneliness. The annulment process is the Church’s attempt to uphold the sanctity of marriage, as per the couple’s vow to each other to be faithful, even in sickness and health, good times and bad”,  while at the same time, to recognize the broken-ness in some lives that may make such a promise impossible to make. A woman would not be able to receive an  annulment simply because her husband was an adulterer—this is a clear example of a  “bad time” they vowed to work through—but the pastoral instinct and realism of the Church allows it to consider whether the defect in character that accounts for his infidelity might indeed have pre-dated his vows to her,  opening up the possibility for an annulment, and for this woman, a chance to start over.