First Teachers

Anyone who has heard me give a presentation to parents knows that I love to quote the prayer over the parents that happens at the end of a baptism in the Catholic Church. It’s the part where the priest or deacon tells mom and dad that, in addition to having to buy diapers and formula, books and blankets, tuition and car seats, they are the “first teachers in the ways of faith.” Okay, to be fair, the rest of that isn’t actually in the prayer, but I swear it is implied.

First teachers. That’s heady stuff. There is an implication there that mom and dad have a clue as to what they are doing in their own faith lives. “You cannot give what you do not have,” the wise man says. So if mom and dad haven’t read the catechism or learned their prayers, they may want to spend that first year reading up on the Good Book so they are prepared.

I thought about that first teacher stuff the other night when I took the children to the track behind their school for movie night. The littlest really wanted to go and once she promised the eldest she would not sing along to every song in “The Greatest Showman” (which was the movie of choice), we had a deal. We picked up some chicken and some drinks, packed the folding chairs in the van, and set off. Mom was flying back from a trip and Friday night is movie night anyway, so this might prove to be fun.

It was a circus.

Actually, it was a circus happening around a movie about a guy that starts a circus. There was as much chaos in front of the screen as there was on the screen. Some kids chose to play basketball instead of watching the movie. Others chose to run around and scream on the playground. One little group of girls – all with light-up sneakers – decided to chase each other in and around those who were actually watching the movie. When one of them hit the inflatable screen for the third time, I thought my second youngest would lose it.

“What is wrong with these people?” he asked.

“Their parents,” came the response from the eldest child.

No one was in charge. No one had control of the situation. As my children sat there watching the film, I began to wonder why they were so irritated. It wasn’t because they wanted to run around, it was because this was billed as a movie night for families and since we’ve had movie nights for years, they knew how this should go: start the movie, pause it for snacks and bathroom breaks, and otherwise sit quietly and laugh, cry, or fall asleep. But running around, tripping on the tie downs for the screen, and generally shrieking about was never on the agenda for my kids.

It turns out the movie was a backdrop. An excuse to get families together. We went expecting one thing and what happened was something else. That’s not a bad thing, but the realization didn’t help ease my irritation.

At one point, I remembered, as I was trying to pass out Oreos to those kids sitting around us behaving themselves, what Ron Rolheiser says about those times when screaming and yelling of children irritates us. He calls the unabashed outpouring of noise and merriment “joy” and says that it can irritate us because this joy gets in the way of our own misery.

“Was that true?” I wondered as I sat there in the cool fall night? “Was I miserable in some way? Was this joy around me irritating me because there was something inside me that needed to change.”

“No,” I finally concluded.

These parents should be watching their kids.

Being a first teacher is hard.

-pjd

Back to School

I wrote the entry below back in 2015 when I started my doctoral studies at La Salle University in Philadelphia. This morning at 9 am, my oral comprehensive exams will begin. The written part will follow. St. Joseph of Cupertino, pray for us.

July 2015

I spent last week in a classroom studying the French school of spirituality. I read more than I have in a very long time and I wrote nearly a hundred pages of notes I pray I will be able to read when I need them.

I met ten of the most amazing people – priests, doctors, women religious, Catholics and Protestants, mothers and fathers, millennial and baby boomers. Together we laughed more than I can remember laughing in a very long time such that by the end of the week the silliest things brought us to tears. These will be my partners in this adventure that, if we survive, will end with doctoral degrees. It was a retreat, an overwhelming amount of work, and a moment of grace all wrapped into a week I will not soon forget.

At the beginning of every session, Brother John, our instructor, would close the classroom door and announce, “Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.” These words from St. John Baptist de La Salle surprised me at first. It was such an easy phrase to hear and such a difficult phrase to live. As we heard the invitation to prayer twice a day and sat in the silence that followed, I began to wonder why it can be so hard for me to remember God’s presence in my life.

So I made a list.

Slowly but surely, I will begin to remove those things from my life that keep me from remembering God’s presence. For now, there are emails to answer, meetings to attend, and papers to write. Being away has its advantages but coming home brings a bumpy reentry to a reality that makes you long for being away again.

This reentry will be easier, I know because all I have to do is to think about the laughter shared and friendships forged to recall the joy I found in going back to school.

This week, do what you can to call to mind the words of St. John Baptist de La Salle and remember that you are always, always, always in the holy presence of God. When you find yourself forgetting, add whatever it is that made you forget to your list.

Over time – and with help – we can transform those lists to holiness.

~pjd

Lessons

I remember the day that a little girl fell down a well and the world watched while she was rescued.

And the well got covered and the little girl grew up.

I remember when the Space Shuttle fell from the sky shortly after takeoff killing all the astronauts on board, including a school teacher who won a contest.

And the fleet was grounded for years while protocols were amended.

I remember when a group of miners was trapped underground and people all over the world held their collective breath until the very last one came to the surface.

And mining regulations changed.

I remember when evil hijacked the planes and the towers fell.

And we changed the way we check in and get screened at the airport, we went to war, and we hunted down the guilty party and made movies about the whole experience.

I remember when oil gushed beneath the Gulf of Mexico and people dove into the sea to escape the flames.

And the number of inspectors tripled, and audits of offshore oil rigs became more complicated.

I remember being in a classroom with junior high students watching on television as children in Littleton, CO ran from the building.

I remember Paducah, Tacoma, Knoxville, and the Amish children in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

I remember the night and weeks following Newtown and how we held each other and our children so much closer.

I remember people arguing about politics and guns and parenting and I remember politicians crying and celebrities offering thoughts and prayers.

But nothing changed.

So, now, seventeen more children and adults are dead, and the arguing has started all over again.

And parents everywhere wonder…

Will things be different this time?

~pjd

Morning Routine

There are some mornings when the children rise, speak pleasantly to each other, arrive to the kitchen with teeth brushed and uniforms on, eat their breakfast, and are waiting at the door when the bus arrives.

Today was not one of those mornings.

It was probably my fault because I prayed last night for the sleet and snow to delay the arrival of the day by a few hours. Mentally, I was prepared for that. Like most predictors of the future, the weather people were wrong and the wintry mix will not arrive until the morning commute. So the children rose and the yelling commenced. Child number four was making a noise that irritated child number three. Child number one was taking her time and child number two lives in her own time zone.

There were a few minutes when the cinnamon raisin toast was distributed and the stillness of the snow outside took over, but to be honest, that lasted about a minute and a half. Coincidentally, that is the time it takes for three children to chew two pieces of toast apiece.

The bus arrives five minutes early, as it does on days like today, and so the toast for child number one goes with her to the bus. Child number two has decided that now would be a good time to brush her teeth and I scream for the bus to wait as the mailman pulls up to deliver packages from the Santa that lives at Amazon. Neither sleet nor snow nor waiting buses will deter the mailman as he inches closer to the driveway blocked by the honking bus. Down the stairs bounds child number two, irritated at nothing and everything all at once.

Then, suddenly, the mayhem is over. As quick as the morning stillness was broken, there is peace in the house once again. We have passed the chaos off to the bus driver who will, in turn, pass it off to the teachers.

It is quiet. It is still. There is peace.

I sit in the living room, listening to the ticking of the grandfather clock, preparing for the day. Like every morning, I pray for the safety of the children and the sanity of the teachers.

And there, in the stillness of the morning, when all is calm, I find myself longing for the chaos.

It is an odd feeling to be irritated by something while you are in its midst and yet missing it once it has passed. In the stillness, I realize something I hadn’t before.

In the chaos, I find my joy.

May your week be filled will joyful chaos.

~pjd

Children Will Watch

Ace Number One came home with an infraction the other day. It’s essentially a piece of paper that outlines what she did wrong and one of her parents have to sign it. By the time I got home, the infraction was signed and the letter of apology to the teacher to whom the disrespect was aimed was written and ready for delivery.

What did she do? Well, she repeated bad behavior. Walking her charges down the hall, the first-grade teacher told her students, “Be careful, children, the seventh graders have no respect for first graders.” Child number one took issue with this and, upon turning the corner, muttered to a friend, “It sounds like she doesn’t have a lot of respect for seventh graders.”

She would have gotten away with the remark had the first-grade teacher not been standing right behind her.

The infraction was well-deserved and the child was well rebuked. She knows better than to talk about another person like that. But, still, the whole event got me thinking. It reminded me of a conversation with my dad when I joked that no one listened to me at home. “Children don’t listen,” he said. “They watch.”

My children yell because I yell. They eat ice cream and chocolate and read books and love electronics because their mother and I enjoy all these things. They are short with each other and mean to each other and leave their clothes on the floor because, well, you get the idea.

But they also sing and share and pray because we do. They know I love the Rosary and have an affinity for Our Lady and they know that Maureen and I bless them each night not out of habit, but out of a commitment to love them and do our best to be their “first teachers in the ways of faith.” They know that the religious symbols in our home are not for show. They are silent homilies that give witness to all that our lives are rooted upon.

The teacher in the hall was inappropriate. So was the child in front of her. Children listen. Children watch.

Lord, give my children good witnesses. And let the witnessing begin with me.

~pjd

Institutional Failure

One of the hardest working groups of people in the church today is the men and women who serve as directors or coordinators of religious education. Some of my closest friends serve in these roles, so the conversation I had the other day with a DRE unnerved me. Usually, I am quick to defend, but somewhere deep inside, her story irritated me.

I was at a meeting, listening to complaints, suggestions, and the like. One expressed concern that the idea of reimagining faith formation was overwhelming because she was, after all, the only one doing anything in her parish. (More on that at another time.) At the end of the meeting, a DRE came up to me and said, “You are not going to believe this,” as she relayed a story of a mom bringing her son in for an interview for Confirmation. (More on that at another time.) The DRE asked the child to name the seven Sacraments. The young man could not. The DRE was flummoxed. The mom demanded the Sacrament. The DRE wondered aloud to me about her predicament. “How can I say that this child is ready when he cannot answer the simplest question?”

I do not think she liked my answer. If a child gets to the ninth grade and cannot name the seven Sacraments – especially after nine years of religious education – he or she is the victim of institutional failure. His parents have failed him. His religious education program has failed him. His catechists have failed him. And yes, this holy woman standing before me telling her story has failed him. Every person responsible for his faith formation – including himself – has fallen short.

The reality is this: we have to rethink the way we prepare parents when their infants are baptized so they understand their role as first teachers. Then we need to give them to tools to accomplish this. Moving backward, you could even make the argument that we have to rethink how we prepare couples for marriage so they know the responsibility that lies ahead. We have to rethink early childhood education so something actually happens between Baptism and First Reconciliation and First Communion. We need to rethink comprehensive ministry to, with, and for young people. We need to rethink Confirmation prep and stop calling it the graduation it becomes because that’s what we keep calling it. If we want young people to stay involved in the parish, why not provide a place for them from a very early age so the parish community is an extension of the family, not a sacramental marketplace where we check in once in a while.

I could go on and so could many of you. Directors and coordinators of religious education have a really, really tough job. Parents often abdicate young people’s faith formation to these men and women, some of whom are prepared for the challenge while others are not. This happens, in part, because mom and dad do not have the skills to talk about their faith. But it also happens because we have become a society of letting someone else take care of the hard stuff.

If you have children, take responsibility for your children’s faith formation. Talk to them. Read with them. Study with them. Ask them about the presence of God in their lives.

If you are a catechist, coordinator or director of religious education, put the textbook down and have a conversation with your students. Find out what they know and what they believe. See if God is real to them or if they are just going through the motions.

It takes a village to raise a child but only if the villagers work together.

Shortly after being elected, Pope Francis said, essentially, that the Church is a love story, not an institution. That gives me hope.

Because love never fails.

Open House

Schools host open houses around this time of year and, for many, it is simply a chance to boost enrollment. For the one we visited yesterday, it was much more.

We spent Sunday afternoon at the first of what I imagine will be many visits to high schools. The oldest is in seventh grade and we are thinking about life beyond middle school. The other schools we might visit have a high bar to reach after yesterday’s outing. I use the word, “might” because halfway through the tour, Ace Number One exclaims, “I will die if I don’t go here.”

Well, if it is a matter of life and death, the choice seems clear.

The young people giving the tour were kind and gentle, struggling somewhere between being high school freshmen and seniors and still trying to stick to the script. What struck me about the young women is that they were not giving tours of their school as much as they were showing us around their home. This is where they spend forty-plus hours a week. This is where they discover who they are. This is where they are fed – academically and spiritually. The only time our student guide faltered was in her explanation of the chapel. I shuddered as she struggled with her explanation of the liturgy, going to Mass, and the language around all that happens in this holy place until I reminded myself that she had no idea whether the audience was Catholic or not. This room, too, was a part of her home, but she did not want to assume everyone else had a room just like it in their middle schools. Still, her enthusiasm for getting to go to Mass, spending time with our Lord in Eucharistic Adoration, and having the opportunity to spend time in prayer was clearly meaningful to her. I wondered if my own explanation to a group of strangers would be any better.

Every classroom was filled with teachers, outlining the curriculum and reminding us that we could ask anything. I felt bad that I was unprepared to pepper the teachers with questions, though I imagine that might get old as the hundreds of parents pour through the halls. I discovered that I had traveled to Italy with one teacher 17 years ago and that another one I knew from a party across the street from our house. Small state. Small town.

Walking around with my two oldest, I was fascinated by the things that made them anxious (the gym) and what made them excited (the art room, the science room), and even what made them giddy (the menu of clubs). The showcase of work of the students betrayed the depth and breadth of the studies happening in the rooms we visited. From the science experiments happening all around us to the incredible artwork of Biblical Illumination, you would expect to see in a museum. As a dad who has not quite grasped that his eldest will be in high school in a few short years – or how we will pay for it – I was glad to see the variety of opportunities that await.

We wrapped up the tour in the cafeteria, where we found the rest of the family and homemade goodies covered the tables. Nothing calms the nerves like fresh chocolate chip cookies and punch.

As we walked to the car there was no need to ask what anyone thought. It was a gorgeous day on a gorgeous campus with faith-filled people and a spirit that echoed excellence and holiness. There was no question that this was a special place where young women are taught to advocate for themselves. As we crossed the yard through the falling leaves and tried to find the car, I wondered what people would think if my family hosted an open house. Would they encounter the person of Christ or a busy host? Would they feel welcomed or rushed? Would they see Jesus as the center of who we are or would we miss the mark?

This week, I will use the example of Sunday’s visit to welcome people to my own journey of faith. I will tell stories of encounter and work hard to be the face of Christ to others. I will bake chocolate chip cookies with the children and share them with others (the cookies, not the children).

May your week be blessed.

Distracted

Last week was spent in Orlando at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders, but more on that another time. Needless to say, sometimes when I travel and get stuck in a hotel for days on end, I lose track of days and this trip was no different. I spent the first few days at the annual meeting of the Leadership Roundtable and the following four or five days with other delegates from the Diocese of Bridgeport at the Convocation. It was Tuesday before I realized Five Minutes on Monday never went out.

This week would have been another forgotten week, were it not for the handy reminder I put in my phone last Tuesday.

Yesterday, I drove from our home in Connecticut to La Salle University in Philadelphia. The trip is supposed to take about three hours, but was extended when some clown didn’t realize the signs along the Merritt Parkway indicating the low clearance were supposed to be taken seriously and sheered off the top of his box truck, sending someone’s belongings all along the highway. What a mess. The distraction of the traffic gave me more time to sit in silence in the car. More time to pray. More time to think. More time to sing along or listen to podcasts.

For the next few days I will continue my doctoral studies at La Salle. Four friends will wrap up their coursework and take their oral comprehensives this week. We started together and, all things being equal, I would be taking my comps too. But life gets in the way and, like with many things in my life, I am behind. Maybe next year.

As I caught up with friends last night, we chatted about the many distractions that keep our lives and our studies from staying on track. Many of us are delayed in the program because of births and deaths or new jobs and family crisis. One has cancer. Another lost a job. One classmate is a Protestant Minister and just began new ministry with a new congregation. Distractions abound.

I am reminded from this morning’s Gospel reading that sometimes there is great beauty in the distractions. Were it not for the distraction of the woman touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak, she would not have been healed and Jesus would have arrived at the house of the official before the professional mourners. The distractions are the ministry.

My goal this week is to write a 25-page paper on the Catholic Intellectual Tradition and its implications for faith formation in the United States. Between 21 hours of classroom instruction and conversation back in June and a dozen or so articles and books, my biggest hope is to write the paper in such a way that it’s not just a collection of quotes. If I work quickly, I will submit my paper Wednesday morning, go see family in Philadelphia, and head home.

Unless, of course, I get distracted.

V+J

The other night, Maureen and I attended a dinner where the emcee asked the audience to name the last five actors who won an Oscar, or the last five Heisman Trophy winners, or the last five winners of the Nobel Prize. The room was quiet. Then he asked us to remember the names of five teachers who made a difference in our lives. Nodding heads all around.

I thought of that challenge as we headed to Maryland yesterday to attend the roast beef dinner at the children’s former school. True, it is a long way to drive to take the family out to dinner, but well worth it when we saw how their friends reacted at seeing them for the first time since June.

The Oblate Sisters of St. Francis de Sales (and the food they cook) was enough of a reason to drive the four hours or so for the event. These remarkable women understand that a teacher cannot give what he or she does not have and their ability to “Live Jesus” always overwhelms me. Seeing the children interact with them, catching the Sisters up on their new school and new friends and new home, was a joy-filled sight.

We were planning to head back to Connecticut last night but since we have family in Philadelphia, we are taking the day to see Aunt Barbara. Plus, we are hoping the children’s former dentist might be able to fit child number two into his schedule, as she took a tumble down the stairs this weekend and chipped her front (adult) tooth. Never a dull moment.

Then it’s back up Interstate 95 to donate more money to the toll collectors ($1200+ since February) and finally home to the Nutmeg state.

As we drive, we will finish homework and wrap up the second Harry Potter audiobook. We will talk about last night and our former teachers and friends from another school. Most importantly, we will pray for the good Sisters, who continue to feed us – physically and spiritually – with their kindness and friendship.

May you be as blessed with such teachers in your life.

 

 

A Prayer for the First Week of School

Master and Teacher,

Bless the students who will have trouble settling down this week, whose minds are still at the beach or at grandma’s swimming pool, or the amusement park or soccer camp.

Bless those who sit nervously in class: those who are new in school and those who never read anything over the summer and know a test is coming.

Bless those who will struggle, those who will succeed, and those who get lost in the crowd.

Bless the new friendships that will begin on day one and bless those cherished friendships that will be renewed.

Bless them all with compassion, that they may root for the underdog, celebrate those who accomplish much, and pray fervently for each other.

Bless them with an environment free from bullying, needless competition, and petty jealousy.

Help them, Lord, to fall in love with learning.

Bless the parents of these students, their first teachers in the ways of faith. Give them patience when the homework takes too long, give them courage to understand that their children are not perfect, and give them the courage to discipline with love. May they abdicate less and partner more.

We beg you, Lord, to bring these children safely home at the end of the day, the week, or the semester. Keep them free from violence – at home and at school – on the bus and on the streets – and guide them home to the waiting arms of those who loved them first.

Finally, Lord, we pray in the thanksgiving for the men and women who have already been hard at work straightening desks, taping names to cubbies, painting lockers, planning classes cleaning rooms, decorating bulletin boards, hanging posters, and studying test scores. Bless these servants with peace, patience, persistence, and your Spirit, that they may be Your presence to our young people, Your hands, and Your voice.

We make this prayer through Christ our Lord: teacher, servant, and source of all hope.

Amen.