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)