Monday, November 27, 2017

Audacity, Generosity, Grace

Note: These are my remarks on behalf of our Annual Fund at the Fairhope Yacht Club,  October, 2017.

Good evening. I am grateful to all of you for your presence tonight.   Thank you to Jenny Kopf and Trin Ollinger for organizing the evening, to the Crookers for volunteering to be chairs of our Annual Fund this year, and to all of you, for attending.

I want to share with you a “before” and “after” memory—one from my first day as principal at St. Michael, about two years and four months ago,  and the other, from this morning.  

On my first day of employment, with the school to open in 13 months, I took out a piece of paper, put it on the blank desk before me, and stared at it for a while. What will be the defining traits for the school? We’d only be able to start the school once, and how we presented ourselves to others would have lasting ramifications.  I wrote down a few words, didn’t like them, crumpled up the paper, and started over. I wasted a lot of paper that morning. 

“Audacity,” I finally wrote. That stuck. 

From the beginning, I’ve wanted St. Michael to be audacious, to be bold in its goals—in what it expects of its teachers and students, in what it asks of its parents, and in what it believes is possible for itself.  I didn’t want us to be “conservative” or “safe,” following the template of what others had done, but to work with our community to build something truly new and uniquely “ours.”  I wanted an optimism and hope for excellence to pervade everything, borne out of our belief in the transforming power of God’s grace, active in our daily life together.  

So I remember a conversation early on with Gwen Byrd, discussing with her the need to hire the first teachers at salaries a bit beyond diocesan averages—crucial, I believed, if we were going to attract a first tier faculty to start the school. We were blessed with 225 applicants for 12 positions in that first year, and were able to really find some excellent teachers. I remember discussing the 8 period schedule, the key to a “renaissance” emphasis, giving kids the opportunity to take music, the arts, athletic P.E., foreign languages and honors classes, without having to choose one over the other.  A little later that first prep year, I met with the incoming sophomores about the “House” system, and asked them if they preferred it or a more “traditional” form of student government. Jacob Domning, summing up the sentiment of his classmates, said “We’re not sure we understand it— it’s a little weird, a little different, but we like it for that reason.” I loved that reasoning—it captured the “vibe” of what I hoped we could create at St. Michael. Let's be a little different! 

My second memory was from this morning, in this, our second year.  It was the beginning of our weekly school Mass, and I was a few moments late in arriving, walking in as the opening song was in mid-verse. The cafeteria was brimming full of students—it’s pretty clear that we’ll need to have Mass in the gym next year due to the school’s explosive growth.  The music was led by our band program, many of whom had never played an instrument before last year. The singing was led by a 5 girls who call themselves “Sixth period harmony,” and together, with our band, they sounded really good. There was a great spirit in the room—the students were even singing—well, many of them. 

My eyes swelled up some, thinking about my first day, that piece of paper, and now looking out across the roomful of students. The audacious vision of the school, once only an idea, is coming to fruition before our eyes! God has clearly blessed us. 

But we’re still building! For us to continue to think boldly about our future, to continue to dream big, we need to continue to rely on your generosity to us. Tuition alone doesn’t cover our costs, and in these early years particularly, it’s not even close. 

Most of you know of the “80-20” rule in fund-raising. It has proven true across capital campaigns, annual funds, regardless of charity. It says simply that “80% of your fund-raising must come from the top 20% of your donor base to be successful.” 

So I have good news and bad news! YOU are the 20%! Our annual fund goal this year is $200,000, which means we hope to raise almost 160,000 from our families with the greatest capacity to give. So with the audaciousness that marked our beginning, I am asking you to be very generous to us this year. Establishing  a consistent a culture of philanthropy will determine if we can continue the trajectory we’ve begun.  

Thanks for all you’ve done. Please continue to be a partner with us in this magnificent and exciting mission, and please continue to pray for God's grace to lead us. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Already and the Not Yet

This was my assembly address to students at St. Michael on Monday, October 30, 2o17

Can you feel it? Can you sense it? Can you see it all around you? 

Last week, I was at four student events that caused me to step back and take a big picture view:

The first was Monday night, with our football team defeating Chickasaw 21-14, evening our record to 3-3. To appreciate that accomplishment, you need to remember that football teams start 33 positions every game—11 on offense, 11 on defense and a minimum of 11 on special teams. As a result, it takes  longer to build a football program than the other sports, but Coach Phelps, the assistant coaches and our players have made amazing strides in 16 months. Congratulations, fellas! 

The second was our regular Wednesday mass. I was on a long phone call, so I walked down to the cafeteria midway through the opening song. I heard five girls harmonizing, which sounded beautiful as the sound made its way down the hallways. They call themselves “Sixth Period Harmony.” Even better, I heard the rest of the student body singing with them. Monsignor Martin was our celebrant, and it was a fantastic Mass. 

On Friday we had our pep rally to finish out the fall season and introduce the basketball teams. The students were in great spirits and the gym was loud! Walking back to my office afterwards, a new teacher told me “There’s great student spirit here.” Yes, there is. 

And on Saturday morning, I watched our first ever Robotics team compete in the Mitchell Center at the University of South Alabama in front of thousands of spectators. Our team did exceptionally well, reaching the semi-finals as one of the top 8 teams from among 33, and won awards for the best "rookie" team, the best software design, and best simulation (see pic above).  They did magnificently, and will likely do even better next year, now that they better understand how the competition works. Bravo to Mr. Hall, Mr. Bliss and our students! 

Can you feel it? Can you sense it? Can you see it all around you? St. Michael is becoming powerful!  You are beginning to make your mark in the classroom, on the playing field, at academic competitions, in our community of faith here. Your light is beginning to shine, and it’s awesome to witness.

I came across this fantastic quote that encapsulates our school’s dream for you: 

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.' We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  

( Our Deepest Fear, by Marianne Williamson, from  A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles )

What happens when a lighted match is placed next to an unlighted match? The unlighted match catches fire. When we strive for excellence,  when we aim to be our best, we ignite the best in others. That’s what I see happening at St. Michael. Shine so others may shine around you! It’s going to be fun to watch what the future holds! 

I am proud of you. Go Cardinals! 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Striving to be Great



My talk to St. Michael students on October 17, 2017

“Great hearts and minds to do great things" we say on our brochures and web page.   But what do we mean by the word “great”?

Remember that story from Luke’s gospel? A young man, perhaps not much older than you, comes to Jesus and says “Good Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: Keep the Sabbath holy, Honor your parents, don’t lie, steal, murder.” “I’ve done these things since I was young,” he tells Jesus proudly. Jesus, eying him, says, “There is one thing further you must do: give all your possessions to the poor and come, follow me.” And the gospel says the young man walked away sad, for he was a wealthy man. 

My take on that story is the young man is basically a good guy. He’s following the commandments. But Jesus challenges him to go deeper than that—to be great. I think that may describe most of us: on the whole, we’re pretty good people. We’re not killing people, most of the time we’re not stealing, we don’t often take God’s name in vain, we’re not sleeping around. But God calls us beyond even those things. He desires us to be great. 

I read an interesting book a few years back by Jim Collins, called “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t”. He studied many companies on Wall Street, trying to figure out if there were common characteristics in companies that had out-performed the market by three times the general averages—the “great companies” —vs. those who had only done well, “the good”. One of his findings is very provocative: “Good,” he says, “ is the enemy of the great.” Listen to that again: “Good is the enemy of the great.”  What he means is that often the good companies were happy with their performance—“good” for them had become “good enough”, so they weren’t driven to seek more. Their vision in what they could be, what they could become, was limited, ordinary, and because of that—they remained  ordinary. 

I think that can be true of all of us: you as students, we as your teachers or school leaders. We often measure ourselves against others and say to ourselves, “Well, maybe I’m not studying as much as I should, but I’m doing a heck of a lot more that my friend in another school.” “Maybe I could be a better teacher, but I’m sure better than _______”. “Maybe I’m not the best principal, but I know I’m better than most”. That kind of thinking will guarantee that we’ll be at most, “better than average” students, teachers or principals, but we’ll never be great. We’ll never be the true difference makers in this world if being “good enough” is all we aspire to be. We’ll always be less than God dreams for us. 

One of the things I am proudest about St. Michael is we have one, simple, ambitious goal for you: we want you to be great. Look carefully at our mission statement: scholars, leaders and disciples of Jesus Christ--not just "students" but students who aim to be the best they can be; not just part of a group, but leaders, influencing others to be good; not just Christians, but disciples, true followers of Jesus. 

Dare to be great. That's not just a slogan: we think that through God's grace, you really can be great.   It’s why we want you be “renaissance students”—to strive to be good in many things: scholars, athletes, musicians, people of faith.  It’s why we give you the chance to earn 32 credits in high school. It’s why we ask you to take two years of foreign language and two years of the Arts—unique to area schools. It’s why your teachers push you to take Honors and A.P. classes, even if you’re not sure you can do it. It's why we don't have a lower, third academic level--it's college prep for everyone. It’s why we play sports, usually against much bigger schools, even if it means at times we get beat.  It’s why we emphasize the importance of a life of faith, Mass each week, theology classes that require work just like the other classes, and why we pray so frequently together. 

As we wind down the first quarter, don’t be like the young man who merely does the minimum. Challenge yourself to be more than that. God wants us to use all of our talents to the best of our abilities and he promises us that when we do so, we’ll thrive and be happy. Ask him to help you. He will. 


Onward and upward! 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Back to the Grind?


First, my thanks to everyone who made homecoming week enjoyable last week—to Maddie and our House Council for organizing fun dress down days, to our cheerleaders for our pep rally, for our football team, for a very competitive game in our first ever varsity game, to Coach Knapstein for all the preparations for the week,  to Mrs. Andrews and all those who helped plan, set up and clean up after the dance. All in all, it was a very good week.
So here we are on Monday, the beginning of the week AFTER homecoming--“back to the grind” we may be tempted to think. But I’m reminded of the story of two bricklayers in medieval France who worked alongside each other. One bricklayer was a miserable cuss, always complaining about how boring and mind-numbingly dull his job was, “brick after brick, day after day, the same dang thing.” The second brick layer was the opposite. He was cheerful as he worked, smiling, often whistling happy tunes. After watching  him for several months, the foreman became curious, so he asked the second brick layer why he was so happy all the time. The brick layer looked up, a little surprised, stepped back from his work, pointed at the structure they were building, and said: "I'm doing a great thing,” he said, “I am part of building a cathedral!"
I think as we face the routine parts of our lives—for you, the classwork, the homework, the writing of papers, maybe the drudgery of athletic practice in the hot, humid afternoons of coastal Alabama—we’re often tempted to see things from the perspective of the first brick layer: the same thing, over and over. It’s easy for us to lose the big picture. But it’s worth remembering that you, too, are building cathedrals. No, not the literally building. But yes, the cathedrals of your lives, places where God resides, sanctuaries. If you work hard, you will one day succeed in college, you will become a good husband or wife, a good father or mother, a person of faith, a disciple of Jesus Christ. And if we take that big picture view, like the second bricklayer, I think it will help us be grateful for our work here, for this school, for our teachers, for our friends, for the challenges that stretch us to become better students, better friends, better sons and daughters. 
So my prayer for you is that God gives you grit and vision: grit to work through the "grind," but vision to see this is all part of  "the process," as Coach Saban likes to emphasize, the process by which God is creating you to be the person he wants you to be, which will ultimately lead you to a happy, fulfilling life. 
The first quarter ends in 18 days. Work hard! 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Becoming a "Scholar"

St. Michael’s mission statement says we want to form “scholars, leaders and disciples of Jesus Christ. “ This morning I want to talk about what it means to be a “scholar.” 

Let me begin by saying what it doesn’t mean. We don’t expect all of you to attend Harvard, Notre Dame or Vanderbilt when you graduate. We also don’t expect all of you to make all A’s, and if you fall short of that, that you’re a slacker! Though some of you are capable of these things—and we want to push you to strive for them— our mission isn’t so narrow as to serve only the intellectually “elite.”  In fact, I would argue it’s much grander than that!  We believe the chemistry and interplay of students with different aptitudes and socio-economic backgrounds give us  our authenticity, our liveliness, and perhaps even, our “flair.”  It makes St. Michael interesting! 

No, what we mean by “scholar,” is that you DO YOUR BEST. Whatever your station in life, whatever talents God has given you, whatever your strengths and weaknesses, we are all called to do our best. I want to reflect on how we can do that. 

There’s an interesting video floating around the internet of a Naval officer addressing cadets at their graduation, talking about ways they can “change the world.” He begins with this practical suggestion: Make your bed each morning! (Moms would like this guy). He says that when we begin the day completing a small task, it will give us momentum to complete larger tasks through out the day, starting our day on a positive trajectory. And if it turns out to be a miserable day, when we get home, our bed will be neatly made, beckoning us to get a good night’s sleep, so that we can have a better day tomorrow. 

If we want to be scholars, let’s begin by making our beds. The truth is, we’re emotionally influenced by our environment, and if our rooms are wrecks, our lives often reflect this chaos. But “scholars” take ownership of the small things, which gives them momentum for bigger things. 

You’ve heard me speak often about the importance of attendance in school. But I want to qualify that a bit this morning. It’s not enough to be physically present. We must bring our best selves to class: alert, and ready to learn. Practically, that begins with getting enough sleep the night before. Doctors recommend 8 hours for teenagers, and if you try to cheat your body with less than that, it’ll steal back that time by making you sluggish and apathetic. So if you’re waking up at 6 a.m. and not getting to bed by 10'ish, you’re not bringing your best self to class. Chances are you’re not engaged. You’re not taking very good notes, you’re not making connections, you’re not asking questions. Yes, teachers have an obligation to develop interesting lessons. But sometimes slogging through a unit in Math class is simply hard work, and it's up to you to slog through it. Bring your best self to class each day. 

“Scholars” ask questions in class. When I was younger, I taught in a school without air  conditioning. In the afternoon classes, after lunch, it was miserably hot, with our backs sticking to the back of our chairs like velcro, and it was very easy to drift off into sleep. But I remember there was one junior girl who fought through it by peppering me with questions through out class. “Mr. Weber, is this kind of like…?”  “Mr. Weber, could you re-explain what you just said? I didn’t understand you.” "Mr. Weber, don't you think...?" This girl wasn’t the smartest student in the class. But she was the best scholar! Ask questions. Teachers love them, by the way. 

“Scholars” become passionate about ideas! Do you want to know what makes me smile? It’s students getting into arguments in class which spill out into the hallways afterwards, debating ideas! That’s a sign of "turned on" minds! But too often we are the opposite, consumed with trivial matters.  My granddaughter is two, and she’s just discovered her belly button, and she seems fascinated with it. That describes segments of our culture: we are “navel gazers." Let’s get passionate about big ideas! The merits and demerits of democracy! The implications of a  world that is 4.5 billion years old, one planet in a galaxy of millions of stars, in a universe with billions of galaxies! Issues of social justice concerning refugees, unborn children, and the criminally accused! Scholars thirst to understand, and they get excited about ideas. Let’s be a school that is electrified with argument and debate! 

Scholars don’t work in isolation. Teachers will tell you the best way to learn new material is to tutor and mentor others. If you can explain it to someone else, you’ll understand it and remember it at a much higher level. I highly recommend study sessions together, and I am more than willing to accommodate after school sessions in classrooms, led by students, for that purpose. It’s also more fun that way!

Scholars at St. Michael bring their anxiety to God. Striving to be the best students we can be often brings with it a certain amount of stress. We care about our grades! We care about our performance on tests! But the wonderful gift about being believing Christians is we don’t have to carry that burden alone—God invites us to share it with him. Collette Murphy is starting a morning prayer service in our chapel three days/week with Mrs. Smith. It’ll be a student led group—that’s an awesome way to ask God to help us have a good day and to do our best. 


May God give you the courage, the energy, and the desire to become scholars! It’s one of St. Michael’s greatest hopes for each of you!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Through the narrow portal

I want to thank all those students who spoke at Masses this weekend on behalf of the Guardian Angel project. It’s a generous act to dress in your school uniform, sit with your principal or school leader, stand in front of everyone and represent your school, so thank you!

Much more important than what I said or the adult said, was your willingness to stand in front of the Church and speak of your pride in the school. That’s what people were looking at. It’s what they’ll remember about this weekend. 

In fact, many people judge St. Michael on the basis of a single experience they have of you. That’s usually a good thing—you represent yourselves well. Because we’re a new school we spend a lot of time and money on advertising—news articles, ads, videos, bill boards, printing costs—but their experience of you matters much more. Our success so far as a school, the reason we’re growing so quickly, is that you represented us so well last year. You are the most important ambassadors of the school. 

You have a lot of power, you really do! Remember that. You have the power to do tremendous good for this institution, but you also have the power to do tremendous harm. I am proud of you because I get to see the whole panoramic view of who you are, how you relate to each other, how you handle yourselves around your teachers. But people that don’t know the school, if they have a bad experience of you, they are quick to judge the school on the basic of a single snapshot. Using an analogy, we may know the “yearbook’s” worth of pictures that tells the broad tale, but they may only have a single picture. Yet they’ll judge us quickly on the basis of that narrow portal. 

We sink or swim together. Remember that tonight as we cheer for our football team, or our volleyball team this weekend, or cross country team. Be loud, be crazy, be proud—but don’t ever put down or ridicule the other team or its players. We don’t boo the other school, but cheer proudly for our own. Putting down another school is not who we are, nor who we want to be. 


To me, the greatest compliment of a student body is, after winning or losing the game, the other school says, “They played hard, they fought hard, and their student body is a class act.  Let that be what they say about us tonight. Let that be our reputation throughout Baldwin County!

Friday, August 18, 2017

My Message to New Students: "I hope you'll fail often here."

Fake news? No. Those were my exact words this morning during new student orientation. But listen, please, for the context of my remarks. 

I recently observed an endearing moment while on a walk in my neighborhood:  A young boy, perhaps 5 years old, was learning to ride a bike, with his mom and dad helping him. The boy would sit on the bike, with anticipation and a little fear in his face, and his father would gently push him forward and let go. Within seconds, the front wheels would begin to wobble, and the boy would crash. But he would hop up, run the bike back to his father and say,  ‘Again, Daddy.’ The father gently pushed, the bike would wobble, then, wobble some more, and crash.  ‘Again Daddy.’ I watched this happen at least five times as I walked passed this young family, and when I rounded the block ten minutes later, they were still at it. But then a break-through moment occurred: For 20 glorious seconds, he rode the bike without crashing, shouting with electric joy, ‘I’m doing it! I’m doing it!’ as his parents cheered and clapped for him. 

This was a wonderful moment in a young boy’s life. But what was fascinating to me was the boy’s relentless desire to succeed, even though he kept crashing. Some where along the way as we grow up, we stop taking risks. We “play it safe” for fear of failure.  We don’t want to be laughed at, we don’t want to be ostracized for being wrong, we are fearful of rejection. 

I hope St. Michael will be a place that’s the opposite of that—where you will have the courage to risk failure. I hope you’ll try out for a team, even if you get cut or don’t play much. I hope you’ll run for student government, even if you’re not elected. I hope you’ll ask a girl out, even if she says no, or that if you’re a girl, you’ll say yes, even if “he’s not your type.” I hope you’ll volunteer an answer in class, even if it’s wrong. Ladies, studies show that beginning in middle school, you too often take a back seat to the boys in class, unwilling to challenge their ideas or declare your independent thoughts. I hope you’ll do the opposite at St. Michael—that you’ll speak out, even if it means you’ll have to tell a boy he’s wrong.

I want you to fail often because that means you’re trying new things, taking risks, exploring new possibilities often. The electric joy we feel, like this boy learning to ride a bike for the first time, comes in achieving things we work hard for.  It’s what makes life such a fantastic adventure!


As you begin your time at St. Michael, pray that God will give you the courage to try new things. Pray that he will give you the courage to fail!  

Thursday, August 03, 2017

What We Believe: Founding Principles of Catholic High Schools

August marks the beginning of a new school year, and it's also a time we think about first principles. Here's my take on the foundational principles of a Catholic high, excerpted from our faculty handbook at St. Michael Catholic High School:

Students are “children of God” and “temples of the Holy Spirit,” which should fill us with optimism in who they are and what they are capable of achieving. Our culture is extraordinarily pessimistic about youth, telling them they're incapable of virtue ("safe sex"), incapable of scholarship (inflated grades) or handling the idea that some are more athletically talented (so everyone gets a trophy). And the worst part about this messaging is they begin to believe these things about themselves. We must be the opposite, challenging students to yearn for more. Our aim is to form great hearts and minds so that students will do great things for others! As such, we should ask our students to “stretch,” even while providing the practical and emotional support to do so. 

Our faith is the lens through which all else is focused. The “Catholic” emphasis of the school is much more than religion classes. Rather, faith is the unifying principle that brings synthesis to the fragments of a busy teenager’s life, giving it purpose, direction and meaning. We will have weekly Mass on Wednesdays, an explicit witness to our school’s self-identity.  But if we build the culture here correctly, the Catholic ethos of the school will be so implicit, so natural, that in many ways it will often be un-noticed by our faculty and staff, almost like the oxygen we breath each day. Even so, where appropriate, we should be willing to make explicit what may often be felt implicitly.

Parents are the primary educators. Our job, as teachers, is to assist parents in their primary role. To do so, we must communicate well with each other, both in formal and informal settings, and in both directions. We should work very hard to develop a sense of “we” with parents and learn their first names—not simply “Johnny’s father.”  We should trust parents, and ask them to trust us. In an increasingly divided, distrustful society, this takes work on both sides!

We believe in a “Renaissance vision” of the human person and believe that teenagers thrive when they are asked to develop all facets of their personality—spiritual, academic, athletic, and artistic.  Accordingly, we are a “both-and” school, committed to building a culture that discourages students from becoming “specialists”: scholars, but not musicians, musicians, but not athletes, etc. High school should be a time when many doors are opened for students and they are invited to walk through those doors and experience new things. The time for choosing a profession and shutting doors is later. We want scholar-athletes! Scholar-musicians! Warrior poets! Scholar saints! We must flexible with each other as teachers, coaches and music directors to minimize their conflicting commitments so as to promote this vision! 

Order is essential for a school, and rules and lines of authority are essential. However, our normal day to day interactions with students and with each other should be human ones, governed by relationships. For sure, where those relationships are not respected, rules and authority should be invoked to insist on order. But these are exceptions, not the principal way we interrelate with each other. 

“Order” does not equal “uniformity.” Within the broad outlines of our policies and procedures, teenagers need breathing room, and we should allow room when we can.  The saying attributed to Augustine is appropriate: “In essential matters, unity. In non-essential matters, liberty. In all things, charity.” We want to build a school where students are treated as individuals, not as part of a template, and where they can find their unique “voice”, even while they also learn to accept their responsibilities and obligations as part of a community. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bishop David Choby, Pastor

I was nervous when I first met him. It was the spring of 2008, the last leg in the hiring process to become headmaster of Pope John Paul II High School in Nashville.  I was pretty sure my Iphone had given me bad GPS directions, as it landed me in a neighborhood somewhere in Hendersonville, TN, eighteen miles north of the Chancery.  I came to a cul-de-sac, and I sat there in my car, staring at a two story home, uncertain. I decided to ring the doorbell. An older man answered the door, wearing casual clothes. I remember stammering. “I am probably in the wrong place.” “Probably not,” he said with a smile. “Are you  Faustin?” “Yes, are you Bishop Choby?” “I am”, he said warmly. “Welcome to my home. Want some coffee?”

The interview was nothing like I expected. He never asked me about my philosophy of Catholic education, how I intended to run the school, the kind of teachers I might hire. Instead, he wanted to know about my wife and kids. He asked me what would make the move from Montgomery, Al difficult, and I told him that my wife’s parents, who lived there, were sick. He was very interested in them (and I remember three months later, when he first met my wife, he immediately asked her how they were doing.) I did most of the talking.  At the end of our meeting, he stood up, gave me his cell phone number and said, “If you need anything, call me. Welcome to Nashville.”

Whatever anxiety I had about leaving my previous school of 23 years and moving to Nashville vanished that morning.

Because he was so accessible, and because he moved to a house literally in front of the high school, I came to know Bishop Choby well during my seven year tenure as headmaster of the school. He was a guy’s guy--he never liked talking about his physical health which had begun to fail him--and he’d quickly dismiss any concern directed to that end. He was a true southern gentleman, raised in Nashville, which meant he spoke VERY slowly, but that belied an agile mind, and he was careful with what he said and didn’t say, cognizant that he was bishop. He saw humor in things, and with a twinkle in his eye and a modest smile, could tell an excellent story. Even so, though he was always the most important person in the room, you got the sense he didn’t think that way about himself, evidencing a true Christian humility, listening well to what others had to say, and in so doing, challenging through his example those of us who (like me) talk too much.

When my wife’s father died in 2010,  Bishop Choby called me on my cell phone and asked if he could talk to her. He told her he was sorry for her loss, and consoled her, saying he’d pray for her and her family.  I remember her family was stunned when she told them that was the Bishop of Nashville she was just on the phone with,  and that he was praying for them. He did the same thing when her mother died in 2011, and then again with me, when my father passed in 2014. Perhaps for those who have grown accustomed to his leadership as bishop, these kind of outreaches do not seem as remarkable as they truly are, but such was his “style” and the constancy of his pastoral care.

He rarely substituted his judgment for those whom he hired in Church ministry, allowing the various ministries within the diocese to run as their leadership saw fit.  He trusted Therese Williams, my boss as superintendent of Catholic schools, Bill Whelan, the CFO of the archdiocese, and perhaps most of all, his pastors at the local parishes.  He trusted me as headmaster, and my colleagues at Father Ryan, Jim McIntyre and Paul Davis. Allowing the diocese to be run as independent institutions occasionally led to messiness and some inefficiencies, but I think he made the deliberate choice to live with some of that because he honored the principle of subsidiarity and had faith in his people. I certainly felt his faith in me as leader of Pope John Paul II High School and reveled in the freedom he gave us to create a unique, interesting, and in the end, excellent Catholic school.

We are tempted today to measure leadership purely by the number of programs someone starts, or by efficiency measures, or by quantifiable results. Bishop Choby was not that kind of a leader, and though he never said so to me directly, I am pretty sure he abhorred any notion of a “business template” as a measure of Church ministry. Instead, he was first and foremost a priest and a pastor, which meant he cared about people and relationships before anything else, and gave himself to others, one person at a time.


The diocese of Nashville lost a good bishop and a really good man on June 3. But I suspect many would say, as I do, that they lost a very good friend as well. May God reward him generously for a life well lived.

Monday, May 29, 2017

"The Zeal to Spread the Sacred Fire"

Note: These are my reflections as part of our faculty prayer upon the completion of our first year as a high school.  

This is a portrait of Michael Portier, the first bishop of Mobile.  He is one of the three reasons Archbishop Rodi chose the name “Michael” in the creation of St. Michael Catholic High School. I am guessing the picture reflects Portier in his later years, as he is a bit heavier than was probable given the demands of his early life as bishop. 

He was born in 1795 in France, and came to the United States to become a priest in 1817. He was ordained at the age of 25, made “Vicar Apostolic” of Florida and Alabama at 32, and named bishop of Alabama and Florida at the age of 34. Our diocese began with him as our first bishop in 1829. To put that in perspective, Florida and Alabama are now 9 different dioceses. In the beginning he was the only priest of the entire 2 state area, and had three primary Catholic communities to care for in Mobile, Pensacola and St. Augustine. 

By the telling of Oscar H. Lipscomb, then Ph.D. candidate in history and later himself the archbishop of Mobile,  early travel back and forth between the three towns was quite difficult. The trip to St. Augustine required both sailing and hiking, a two week journey from Mobile. Mosquitos were a constant nemesis—Lipscomb recounts a letter in which Portier complains that “one could scarcely open one’s mouth without swallowing them” — and when he slept on the trail he had to wrap himself so tightly that only his nose protruded from his clothing, making it dreadfully uncomfortable with the heat and humidity, prompting Portier to write “the heat was bothersome, but of the two evils, one must choose the lesser.”  He relied heavily on the hospitality of non-Catholics during these trips, often lodging in their homes on the trail. Long before the anti-Catholicism of the Know-Nothings and the KKK in the middle 1800’s, Portier was of an ecumenical mindset: "Respecting sincerity of belief wherever he found it,” Lipscomb writes,  “he did not hesitate to praise the outstanding qualities that faiths other than his own engendered in his hardy hosts.”  (The Administration of Michael Portier, Oscar H. Lipscomb, 1963)

Early during his tenure, Portier went back to France to recruit priests to help him in his work, and brought back five, the most famous of whom was Fr. Loras, whom Portier appointed as the first president of Spring Hill College in 1830 and who later became bishop of Dubuque, Iowa.  Times were tough --there was very little money.  Yellow fever epidemics were common. In fact, the site for Spring Hill College was chosen because of its elevation, in hope to avoid the mosquito driven sicknesses so common in marshy, coastal waters. Bishop Portier worked hard. When he started Spring Hill College, a newspaper reported that “the good bishop, with axe in hand, was always in the lead”. 

He was blessed with good health during most of his ministry.  When he was made bishop, 
reflecting on his unworthiness to be called “successor to the apostles,” he  quipped that his “health was his only apostolic quality.” He lived simply in a two room wooden house in Mobile, and the first “cathedral” was a small church that was 20 feet wide and 50 feet deep. But through his faith, hard work and the blessings of grace, the Church in this area slowly grew, and in 1837 he commissioned the building a new Cathedral, which was finished in 1850 and named “Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.” That basic Cathedral, with some improvements, still exists today.  Bishop Portier lived until he was 63, dying in 1859. He was bishop of Mobile for thirty years, 1829-1859.

As the first principal of the high school named in his honor, I was particularly moved by his pledge to God during his ordination. Prostrate on the floor as part of the ceremony, Portier recounts that “I made a promise to God of strict fidelity, of devotion to his glory until death, and of constant zeal to spread everywhere the sacred fire. “

The notion of our faith as a “sacred fire,” I think, is a very compelling one. In Scripture, fire has always been an indication of God’s mighty, intimate presence—the burning bush of Moses, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the Red Sea, the tongues of fire that came upon the apostles at Pentecost. And I think it’s a very good image for us, too, in understanding the work we are doing at St. Michael. We are continuing the work of Bishop Poitier, continuing the work of the apostles and our Church, spreading the sacred fire. We are making God present and active in the life of our students and our families. 

So let FIRE be our focus of this morning's prayer service—that this fire, first of all, burns deeply in us, so that we may share this fire authentically and zealously with our students. May God continue to bless St. Michael Catholic High School as we begin deliberations for our second year. And may it --may He through us--ignite a wildfire throughout all of Baldwin County! 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An Extraordinary Year


Starting St. Michael Catholic High School with the Catholic community of Baldwin County has been one of the great privileges of my life. I've had occasion to reflect on who we are together in the various talks I've given as we wind down our inaugural year. Here are a few excerpts:

It’s especially poignant to remind ourselves, on this occasion, that we are deeply indebted to those who have gone before us. We are partly who our parents are, who are partly who their parents are, as each generation passes its legacy to the next generation. But what a joy, what a privilege it is, to be on both the giving and receiving end of this! My wife and I are new grandparents. Our two oldest children each have a daughter—one 20 months, and the other 16 months—and for the first time, we understand the beauty of the prayer “May you live to see your children’s children!” (Psalm 128). Diane and I consider both little girls one of God’s greatest blessings to us! (Grandparents’ Breakfast, May 15, 2017).

—-

Like everything else we’ve done this year, we’ve not been able to fall back on a template of “what we’ve always done” to create our awards ceremony this morning. That’s both a liberating, good thing, because it frees us to be creative--but it’s also a very challenging thing—and I would even argue a dangerous thing— if we’re careless. It’s in our rituals that we create who we are. Regardless of what we SAY about ourselves, if we are not thoughtful about what we honor, we may end up communicating something very different.

Our mission for St. Michael, created by our advisory council and approved by the Archbishop in the fall, is elegant in its simplicity:

“St. Michael Catholic High School, a college preparatory school of the Archdiocese of Mobile, aspires for its students to become scholars, leaders and disciples of Jesus Christ. “

“Scholars, leaders and disciples of Jesus Christ.” That’s what we want every student to become, and those are the three traits in our students we wish to honor this morning
 (from our Awards Ceremony, May 17, 2016).

——-
It often takes several generations to clearly understand the impact our ancestors still have on our families. My grandfather was a university professor, as was my father. I am a high school principal, and my son is an assistant principal of an elementary school. We are four generations of educators. Dr. Blanchard, to whom we dedicate our biology lab, was a medical doctor. It will be interesting to see if his granddaughter Cameron follows in his footsteps—she clearly has the genes and the work ethic to become one if she chooses. But even if she chooses otherwise, she is blessed and indebted, as we are all blessed and indebted, for what she has received. (Upon dedication of our biology lab, May 15, 2017)

——
One peculiarity of America today is we're always looking ahead, trying to solve the next problem. We rarely look backwards and appreciate how far we’ve come. I want you to go back to the very first day of St. Michael Catholic High School, August 17, 2016. Freshman, you walked into high school for the first time, not knowing what to expect, a little fearful, a little stressed. It wasn’t just the building that was brand new—you were, too! But you’re different now. You know what you’re capable of, know what your weaknesses are, you are now more comfortable in your own skin. In just two weeks, there will be a new freshman class, and you’ll no longer be the youngest here. Sophomores, you had an idea of what high school was like, but worried whether St. Michael would be a “real” high school, fearing it would be some lame imitation. But you’ve changed, too. This is now your home. And with your new driver’s license, the world is opening up to you, and college doesn’t feel like such a remote, distant idea. This is an exciting time in your life!

My prayer for all of you this summer is that you will be safe. But it’s much deeper than that. There are only two things that really matter: Your relationships with each other and your relationship with God. I pray that both relationships will grow deeper and fuller—therein lies your true happiness.

This will be my last “talk” with you this year. Thanks for the amazing year it’s been—you guys are truly the co-founders of the school, our first students. Let’s come back next year and build on what we’ve started! May God bless you!
(Last student assembly talk, May 15, 2017)

Monday, April 24, 2017

We Need a Few More Optimists

Like you, I did a lot of traveling over Easter break.

They call it “rubbernecking.” That’s what we instinctually do when we’re driving in a car and pass by an accident. We strain our necks trying to peer out and catch sight of the victims of the crash.

I think we see many analogous versions of rubbernecking all around us. What is the attraction of so many of the “reality shows” that are on TV today? Why does the Jerry Springer show get good ratings? I went on line to see the story line of some recent Springer episodes: “Lipstick Lesbians,” “I Slept with your Brother’s Boyfriend,” “Your Husband Knocked Me Up,” and “Out of Control Catfights.” Why do we watch these shows? Why do we care about the lives of pathetic people living wrecked lives? Psychologists say it’s partly because we enjoy feeling superior to others. When we watch “humilitainment,” as one person called it, we feel better about ourselves at the expense of someone else.

The problem is when there’s a car accident, and when drivers-by rubberneck, the police will tell you that there are often more wrecks, as people aren’t paying attention to where they are driving.

And there’s a parable in there somewhere, I think. When we become fascinated by the misery of others, when we focus on what is wrong about someone else’s life, it’s easy to lose sight of where we are going. And when we are swamped by the wreckage of other people’s lives, when we become accustomed to what is twisted and sad, it’s too easy for us to define deviancy down, too easy to set low bars for ourselves about what is right and good.

In contrast, Scripture tells us that “ whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (Phillipians 4:8)

I will be honest with you. I find that verse challenging. I have a tendency to go right to the negative. My kids will tell you if we’re watching TV, I often make cutting remarks about people, disputing the claims they’re making, ridiculing their motives. I need-all of us, I think, need—to be in the presence of optimists, people that see the good in others despite their flaws, people who help us focus on what is beautiful and not what is ugly.

Our world needs a few more optimists. I think that’s true of high schools, too, especially at this time of year as we become stressed about A.P exams, final exams, failing, or making a team. When we’re too busy or tired, it’s easy to become cranky, self-centered, mean-spirited, ugly with each other. Let’s work to be the opposite. Let’s go out of way to compliment, to thank, to congratulate, to become people that dwell on what's honorable, pure or excellent in others.

I'll be praying for you these next couple of weeks. The year is almost over. Work hard.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

He is Alive!

Happy Easter, 2017!

Growing up in our house, music was always an important way we celebrated Easter. My father would wake us up with "He is alive!" from the album "Celebrate Life," and for the rest of the day, the music would be blaring an eclectic mix of music both contemporary and ancient, reminding us of the joy of Christ's resurrection. Both as a way of remembering Dad and celebrating Easter, I've compiled a list of some of his favorites for Easter--and truth be told, some of my favorites as well.

 So here's what we woke up to every Easter morning as kids:

 

This next glorious hymn, "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling", written by Charles Wesley in 1747, makes me choke up every time we sing the last stanza in Church.

The last verse reads: "Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be. Let us see Thy great salvation, Perfectly restored in Thee; Changed from glory into glory, Till in heaven we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise."

 

When I was younger, I played in a contemporary Christian music group called "Canticle". This version of "He is Alive" by Don Francisco was one we played frequently during Easter time:

 

Rather simply play the near entirety of Handel's Messiah, here's two pieces that are "must listen to" pieces every Easter:

First, "The Trumpet Shall Sound," beginning with the magnificent proclamation "Behold, I shall tell you a mystery!"



And of course, the Hallelujah Chorus:



If we don't sing "Jesus Christ has Risen Today!" at Mass every Sunday during the Easter season, I feel cheated:

 

And finally, this beautiful song, recorded at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on the Mobile Bay as part of the "Vigil Project." The song is called "I Have Seen the Lord."


He is risen up again! 

Monday, March 13, 2017

Calling us home!

This is my talk to students on the second Monday of Lent, St. Michael Catholic High School, March 13, 2017

“The measure by which you measure will be measured out for you.” (Luke 6:38)


This is from the gospel reading today.

I wonder if we realize what we’re praying for each time we recite the “Our Father” : “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. “ What are we asking God to do? To forgive us to the extent that we forgive others! To treat us exactly the same. Ouch. I wonder if we really want God to do that.

There’s a story of an older man who dies and meets St. Peter at the pearly gates of heaven. St. Peter has the man’s resume in front of him, and he’s looking it over. “To get in”, Peter tells the man, you have to have accumulated 1000 points over the course of your life. State your case” “OK,”  the man thinks, “I’ve been pretty good, I think I can reach that standard,” so he says to Peter, “Well, I’ve been a faithful husband to my wife for over 50 years.”  “Excellent, “ says St. Peter. “That’s one point.” The man gulps--one point? “Uh, I’ve been a good father to my children, provided for them well, raised them in the faith.”  “Yes you have,” Peter says, “I can see that here in your resume. Another point. “ Panicked now, the man says “I’ve been a faithful Catholic all my life. I’ve kept the Sunday obligation, tithed to my church, supported the Church in its various ministries.”  Peter says, “Yes, you’ve been quite admirable in this regard. Another point. “ “Three points?” the man says in utter despair. “A good husband, good father, faithful Catholic, and all I have is 3 lousy points? It's impossible to get in, then, unless God decides to let us pass."  As soon as he says this, the pearly gates swing open wide. “997 points,” St. Peter says. “Welcome, good and faithful servant.”

God is merciful. God forgives. Fortunately, the dominant image of God the Father from the New Testament  is not one of a judge who metes out justice, giving us what we deserve, but the Father who stands on his porch, waiting for his prodigal son to return home, and upon seeing him, runs to greet him and then throws a big party for him!

But most of us, I believe, have a different view of things. It’s like our lives are a cosmic see-saw, with good on one side and bad on the other. If we die, the see-saw better be weighted down on the good side, in which case we’re going to heaven. If it’s weighted on the bad side, we’re going to hell. It’s as if God is a giant Santa Claus, “making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.”

But this is actually a heresy--it’s called Pelagianism--because it suggests that we ourselves are responsible for our salvation--that we can “earn” it by being good. We can’t. Only God’s grace can save us. Only God’s mercy can save us.

But that is very good news, because God is merciful. No matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, God forgives us. Whatever sins weigh us down, if we ask God for forgiveness, he forgives us completely. Completely! He doesn’t just drag it to the trash can of our computer drive, where it can be retrieved if we open up our trash. It’s erased, and gone for-ever. FOR--EV--ER (for those of you who have seen Sandlot).

So that’s the good news of Lent. It's very good news! Maybe you've done something you're not proud of. Sin shames us, eating a way a bit of our self-respect, each and every time we do it. But God stands on the porch, scanning the horizons like a hopeful Father,  hoping that you will return to him. He's ready to run down the driveway to welcome us home. 

May God give all of us the grace this Lent to journey back to him.