Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Rediscovering our Catholic School Identity




Dear Theophilous,

The first week of May every year marks Catholic Education Week across Ontario. It’s a week to both celebrate and reflect on publicly funded Catholic Education throughout the province. It’s a time to celebrate where we have come from and where we are at, and it offers the unique opportunity to reflect on where we are going.

Having grown up in Ontario’s publicly funded Catholic system – I was in the first wave of students to be fully-funded through grade 13 (yes, I am that old), and now with over 20-years experience as a teacher in the same system, I’ve spent more time in Catholic Schools than anywhere else. With a changing perspective from student to teacher, I’ve witnessed our Catholic schools morph into quasi-public schools where it’s at least permissible to talk about God, if not encouraged.

I have to make the confession right up front… I came of age in the post-Vatican II era, where the spirit of Vatican II was alive and well in our Catholic school system (vestiges of which still linger in our corridors). That said, my Catholic adult self was formed during the St. John Paul II era, followed by Benedict XVI, along with the push-back that has come with the Francis effect. Needless to say, I’ve seen and participated in both extremes of the pendulum swing – for good and for bad.

Personally, I think it’s time we rediscover the Catholic identity of schools.

If we are not to be seen as simply public schools with a Cross (and not even a Crucifix) on the wall, where the curriculum, environment and ethos are no different from the school across the street; then we need to return to what makes Catholic schools distinct – essentially, what makes Catholic schools Catholic:

·      Sacraments
·      Prayer
·      Almsgiving
·      Church Teaching
·      Teacher Formation


Sacraments

The Catechism of the Catholic Church plainly states: The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself. (CCC 1324) As such, the Eucharist (and through it, Christ) needs to be the focus of Catholic education.

How can this be done? How can we make the Eucharist the centre of life in our Catholic schools? First we need to do a reality check – Catholic students, for the most part, do not attend Mass on Sunday. Over the years my own informal polling tells me that less than 25% of the students in front of me attend Mass on a regular basis. If we want the Eucharist to be the centre of life in our Catholic schools, then we need to show and teach our kids that it truly is the source and summit of our lives. With Mass usually happening monthly in our Catholic schools, students need to be taught and shown the sacredness of the liturgy. Mass can no longer be seen as Tiny Talent Time; a sing-a-long of songs that have no meaning to the season; a showcase for student musicians, artwork or social-justice initiatives. These are all great things and rightfully need to be celebrated; but they should never overshadow the greatness of the Eucharist.

As a quick addition to this, in the schools where the Eucharist is present in chapel Tabernacles, it should be honoured and venerated. Far too often the chapel is in a dusty corner of the school, even with the door locked, hiding Christ of the students. As if to add insult to injury, some chapels are being used as meeting or storage rooms. If Catholic education truly is to be Christ-centred, then we need to make sure Christ, in the Eucharist, is at the community’s centre.

From this Eucharistic foundation, love of the other sacraments will flow. The other sacrament that our students will come into contact with in our Catholic schools is the sacrament of Reconciliation. Traditionally offered during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent, this often forgotten yet beautiful sacrament needs to be properly explained and modeled for our students (i.e.: students should see their teachers partaking of the sacrament, not hear what they are confessing). As a sacrament, a conduit of God’s saving Grace, Reconciliation needs to be given the honour it deserves, and shouldn’t be taking place (as unfortunately happens) in a broom closet or storage room.


Prayer

As Christians, St. Paul calls on us to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thess 5:16-18). The idea that we should ‘pray without ceasing’ doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to be on our knees 24/7, but rather that prayer needs to be in integral part of our day and interwoven into everything that we do. For this very reason, at the top of the whiteboard at the front of my classroom I have written the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora – Prayer and Work. I have done this to remind my students of the two oars that are meant to propel us through life.

Our prayer life can, and must take on many different forms: personal and communal; formal and informal. There are all kinds of benefits to be had in having a vibrant prayer life that incorporates these different elements. Sadly, however, the vast majority of our students have never been taught how to pray beyond the rote recital of what I like to call The Big Three of the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be.

There is a vast treasure trove of traditional prayers and devotions, that have unfortunately remained a mystery to the average once-a-week Catholic.

Since the Pontificate of St. John Paul II, the Rosary seems to be making a comeback in our Catholic schools. In many parishes there is a Rosary Apostolate that visits the local schools, teaching the Mysteries and walking the students through how to pray this great devotional prayer. I have also been blessed to have a guest introduce my students to the Living Rosary, a multi-sensory prayer that brings the intercession of our Blessed Mother to life.

Other great prayer traditions can also be added to these standards. Depending on the timing of class, I will teach my students the Angelus, a wonderful meditation on the Annunciation and Conception of Christ. Also, my prayer selection will vary depending on the Liturgical season, with great Advent or Lenten prayers that highlight the sacredness of those seasons. Finally, I will also teach my students the Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel to give them courage as they face the trepidations of the 21st Century.

These communal prayers are all great for the classroom, but our students also need to be taught how to deepen their prayer lives once they walk out our door. For this I have begun the practice of a combined Lectio Divina and Eucharistic Adoration in our school chapel. This has taken some formal teaching so that the kids understand how to formulate their own personal prayer in preparation for the Word of God, and even more work to teach them how to sit silently with Christ. If every you want to see a teenager twitch, force them to sit silently without their phone for even the shortest length of time. Starting off slowly, I will have them sit in silence before the Tabernacle for only 2 or 3 minutes, but by the end of the semester they will be up to 7 to 10 minutes. The students always tell me shutting the world off is the hardest thing they have ever done, but also the most personally rewarding – to the point where they ask me weekly if we’re going to the chapel.


Almsgiving

Catholic Social Teaching seems to be the hallmark of Catholic education, yet you will have noticed that I list it third.

Is Catholic Social Teaching important and in need of being an integral part of the Catholic school system? Yes – but only if done for the right reasons.

In staff meeting after staff meeting the question is always asked… What makes us different from the public school across the road? If the answer is solely based on how much the school has raised for charity or which social causes it promotes – then really the answer is not much. Our public school counterparts are equally good at raising funds for the cause and ensuring that the marginalized are supported and cared for. This is good humanitarianism.

The difference lies in why we do these things in a Catholic school. Our charity (derived from the Latin Caritas or love) is based on the inherent dignity possessed by each and every human because they are made in the image of God. It is this notion that we don’t do good simply for good’s sake, but that we do good for God’s sake, that needs to be the driving force behind the good works done in our Catholic schools.

Once our students come to understand that answering Christ’s call to help those in need is answering Christ himself, we spark a flame of love in their hearts that will hopefully burn for a lifetime.


Church Teaching

In the 21st Century, this is always the tough one. In many ways being Catholic in today’s society is much like it was in the time of Christ - very counter-cultural. It takes a brave soul to stand out in the crowd and profess a belief in Church teachings, founded on Christ’s words and actions, formed by over 2,000 years of Sacred Tradition.

It is too easy to gloss over or simply ignore the more demanding of Christ’s teaching in the face of everything students and teachers are bombarded with in mainstream media (trust me, I know this, as I’ve been guilty of it myself). Yet, if we truly love our students, we need to present them with the whole of Church teaching in its totality. This said, we do need to recognize the students that are in front of us, addressing issues that are relevant to their lives at this time.

When presenting Church teaching, we need to present it as just that – Church teaching, and not our personal opinion. Also, it is of great importance to ensure that God loves us so much that He has given us the gift of Free-Will, and that Church teaching needs to be used to form our conscience, and that the ultimate judgement of our/their souls lies with God and not their religion teacher.


Teacher Formation

None of what has been mentioned above can happen without proper teacher formation. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that this is the missing link which can cause the whole house of cards to fall down. Often the requisite basic religious education training that is needed to teach in Catholic schools is not much more than a rubber stamp, a hoop to jump through to get a job. Like everything else in today’s world, many young teachers are looking for an option that allows them to get what is needed with the least amount of effort (again, I re-iterate, this goes way beyond teacher formation).

Teachers cannot teach properly if they are uncomfortable with the course material. This is why over the past 22 years I have never darkened the door of the wood shop or a science lab – both myself and my principal know that the results would be disastrous, with a call to 9-1-1 being the best case scenario. Yet, year after year we have teachers from Kindergarten to Grade 12 who are asked to teach the faith with a very rudimentary knowledge of Church teachings. And, as if to add insult to injury, there are a number of non-practicing “Catholic” teachers charged with passing on the faith to our children. In my mind this is tantamount to asking someone who doesn’t speak French to teach French Immersion.


Having spent the better part of the past 40 years in the Catholic school system as both student and teacher, I know that it is far from perfect, but that there are also many bright lights shining in the darkness. It has been a couple of generations of publically funded Catholic education to get us to where we are today, and it will take a couple more for Catholic education to fully develop its identity.


Much like ourselves, our personal identity is constantly growing and changing, and so is that of Catholic schools. Much like developing our own personal Catholic identity, our Catholic school identity is not so much about where we are coming from, but where we are going to.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Why Jesus Had to Die



Dear Theophilous,

Like most of us who grew up going to a Catholic school, I could easily answer the question: Why did Christ die on the Cross? Like every child from preschool on, I would easily parrot back – To forgive our sins. It was an answer I knew by heart, but never really understood.

Until recently, when I read Venerable Fulton J. Sheen’s TheDivine Romance.

Originally published in 1930, Sheen’s work is timeless, and there are many ideas about the Church in Western Culture that one would think were prophetic, as they seem to address the trials She is currently going through in the early Twenty-First Century. Although thought provoking and worthy of much discussion, this will have to wait for another day.

As we approached Holy Week, what really struck my heart was how Sheen explained why it had to be Christ, and only Christ who could pay the debt of humanity’s sins on the Cross. Venerable Sheen based his explanation on the two-fold notion of a sin’s gravity being based on the one sinned against, while the honour of the repayment must be tied to the one make the atonement.

Let me explain…


Sin’s Weight

Any insult is offensive, but the severity of the insult lies with the one who is insulted. Let’s take the insult of pie-ing someone in the face for example. If I were to pie my boss in the face, I may get a few days off without pay, or possibly even fired. If I were to pie the mayor in the face, I may spend a night in jail and receive a fine. If a Member of Parliament (or Congressman) were my target, the jail time and fine would probably be a bit higher, while if it were the Prime Minister (or President), I could expect to cool my heels in a jail cell for a longer stretch, and when I got out, I’d spend a few years working to pay back whatever fine the judge found fitting.

The point to all this is to understand that the penalty for an offence is directly linked to the one offended (a student once paid a 25-cents to pie me in the face, and they were heralded as a hero of the student body). If the penalty for the offence of pie-ing someone in the face grows according to their importance in society, how much greater when the one offended through sin is God.


The Honour of Atonement

The more distinguished the title one bears, the loftier the honour their gift can bestow. Traditionally, one will receive recognition from public dignitaries for achieving special milestones; for example a 50th Wedding Anniversary or a 100th Birthday. A certificate from the mayor may be framed and then lost in a drawer. The form letter from the Member of Parliament (or Congressman) could take pride of place on the mantle. A personally signed note from the Prime Minister (or President) will most likely hang proudly on the wall. The most cherished of all (at least in our home) would be a letter of Apostolic Blessing from the Holy Father in the Vatican.

The higher in stature the one giving the gift, the greater honour the gift bestows on the one receiving it. If we would give such pride of place to the gifts given to us by human dignitaries, how much greater is the gift given by our infinite God through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ?


Sin is offensive! Since sin offends God, and our God is infinite; then logically one realizes that gravity of sin’s weight is also infinite. If the weight of our sin is infinite, then it will require the honour of an infinite sacrifice to make atonement for this sin.

Out of pity for His creation, out of His love for humanity, God in His great mercy offered His Son to come down from heaven and pay the infinite price to forgive our infinite sinfulness. No one but the Messiah could make this payment; the price is too great. It is through Christ’s great sacrifice on the Cross and through His resurrection, that the death of sin could be conquered and the doors opened to eternal life in heaven.


This is why on Good Friday I weep, knowing that Jesus paid the price for the debt that I incurred.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Keeping Holy Week Holy




Dear Theophilous,

It seems like only yesterday we were surprised by the fact that, yet again, Lent had snuck up on us, and we weren’t ready to make our Lenten sacrifice. Ash Wednesday was upon us, we hadn’t given Lent any thought, and we were left scrambling to decide what to sacrifice. We all know that nothing good comes when that happens, we fall back on the old standbys (chocolate, chips, …), which seem doomed to fail from the start – just like last Lent.

Here we are, 5 weeks later, and now Holy Week has snuck up on us. The holiest time of the year. Yet, if we have prepared for Holy Week the same way we have prepared for Lent (as in, not at all), then we can expect to get the same out of our Holy Week… nothing at all.

Like any major event in our lives – we need to plan ahead.

Since Holy Week is only a few days away, I thought to share a couple of ideas on how to make Holy Week a time of prayerful preparation for the great feast of Easter.


Easter Feast

Not only is Easter the greatest feast of the liturgical year, it is also a time for family and friends to get together to celebrate. Everyone loves a grand feast surrounded by loved ones, with laughter and merriment as the sound track, and the egg hunt as the opening act. A day of this magnitude requires lots of planning and preparation – get as much done beforehand as possible. Having everything ready to go before Holy Wee begins will not only allow you to relax and enjoy the great feast, but it will also allow you to concentrate on the totality of Easter from Passion to Resurrection.

There is no possible way to meditate on the great gift of the Eucharist at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday if one is scurrying around town for last minute items before all the stores shut down for the weekend. You will not be able to ponder on the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross if your mind is mulling over Sunday’s menu. Finally, if there is any Sunday you should linger on your knees in thanksgiving and wonderment at the God’s greatness instead of rushing home to get the ham in the oven, it’s Easter Sunday.


Penitential Preparation

As Catholics, we are called to avail ourselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a year. Normally, it is strongly encouraged to make a good Confession during the season of Lent. Many parishes will organize an evening penitential service, with a liturgy of the word, followed by Confession, where the pastors of neighbouring parishes will come to help out (and I’m sure the favour is returned). Annually the Archdiocese of Toronto will have a Day of Confession, where parish priests will spend the majority of the day in the Confessional, negating the excuse that regularly scheduled Reconciliation doesn’t fit into your routine.

If for whatever reason you haven’t made it to Confession this lent (like myself), make plans to get there this weekend – times are usually posted on your parish website.


Prayer Plan

Life is busy enough without throwing a major holiday into the mix. I find that if I don’t have a plan for a daily prayer routine, I’ll find myself dropping exhausted into bed without having once stopped to talk with our Lord. If we really want to take away some spiritual nourishment this Holy Week, then it’s time to step it up a notch.

A few ideas of how to supplement your prayer life during Holy Week might include:

Ø  Praying the Sorrowful Mysteries daily
Ø  Daily meditation on the Stations of the Cross (or just a few each day)
Ø  Praying the Divine Mercy chaplet at 3pm daily

The idea is to focus on Christ’s sacrifice for us so as to make the magnitude of His Passion and Resurrection that much more powerful.


Family Support

Our faith is a family affair, and it’s our responsibility to get our spouses, children, parents, brothers & sisters, etc. to heaven. With this in mind, we need to keep them in the loop of our Holy Week plans. First and foremost, this is to encourage them to grow closer to Christ through a deeper meditation on his Passion and Resurrection. Of equal importance, is to communicate these plans to those closest to you who will be affected by them so that they can be respectful of your own preparation for Good Friday and Easter. There are enough distractions going on in the preparations for the greatest feast of the year, they don’t need to be complicated by any petty disputes that arise from miscommunications and misunderstandings.


The seven days between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday are meant to be a flurry of spiritual activity and not dedicated to a worldly business. It is a time to prepare our souls for the magnitude of Christ’s Passion, and not simply our homes for the multitudes who will come for dinner. By being ready for Holy Week, we will be able to properly meditate upon the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice and His triumph over death.


May you and your family have a prayerful and prayer-filled Holy Week that truly merits its name.