Category Archives: School Life

Guest Post: Of John the Baptist and Theological Education


By Sam Sawyer, SJ

Editor’s Note: These are the notes used by Sam Sawyer, SJ for his homily at the mass he celebrated during orientation for the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

Without Christ, John the Baptist’s life and death become unintelligible. This is not necessarily a profound observation — all I’m really trying to point out is that calling John the greatest of those born of women, calling him a prophet, and calling him a martyr for truth and justice, all depend on reading his life through the prism of the incarnation, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. And indeed that is how we read John, as the precursor of Christ in life as in death, in proclamation of the coming kingdom and in martyr’s witness to its cost.

I would like to suggest two points of reflection for us today, about what we may learn for our own discipleship by reading our lives in light of John’s life, this life that is wholly interpreted by and unintelligible without Christ. The first point comes from the intersection of the gospel and current events; the second from the intersection of the first reading and our being here today at orientation for the STM.

At the intersection of the gospel and current events: I don’t know if I have ever really considered what the beheading of John the Baptist must have been like; I think the actual reality, for me, was often whitewashed by the word “martyrdom,” or by the fact that it was simply part of a larger narrative from which we quickly moved on. The past few weeks, however, have made that kind of ignorance of beheading at least temporarily impossible. We’ve all been exposed, if not to the images, then to the description of the images of James Foley being beheaded by ISIS terrorists. And while I don’t want to enter any debate about whether or not James Foley as a man of faith ought also to be considered a martyr, his death has made me take a second look at what we call the passion of John the Baptist. Put simply, this is not a noble death, either in its physical details or in its context. Foley was murdered by terrorists bent on hate whose ideology distorts and defaces their claim to faith in the God of Abraham. John the Baptist was murdered by a two-bit vassal king afraid of his own wife and enthralled with a dancing girl. Not a heroic death, not on its own. And even in the Gospels, it does not by itself achieve anything, except perhaps to show Jesus, in John’s last prophecy, what the proclamation of the kingdom would ultimately demand of him. This death can only be celebrated — as indeed we do celebrate it today and in this Mass — when it is incorporated and redeemed in the death and resurrection of Christ. And while John’s example, and Jesus’, call us to struggle for truth and justice in the world, they call us equally to a profound dependence on God. Truth and justice can be put to death by the powers of the world, and when they are, only God can raise them up again, which is the only way they can ever be fully realized.

Continue reading Guest Post: Of John the Baptist and Theological Education


An Open Letter, Part II: Our Writer Responds



Editor's Note: The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous because (s)he is currently employed at a Catholic High School.  His/her identity has been verified by CatholicHow.

Yesterday, a Facebook follower of Catholic How made this statement after reading the “Open Letter” to Catholic High School Principals and Presidents:

Really, I’d say that’s about the same as you’d hear from a public school teacher.

Our poster responded in the ComBox on his original post, but its thoughtfulness merited posting here.  So, without further ado:

I’d like to add a post script to the piece based on a comment that a reader left on Facebook. The reader points out that many of the problems that I have enumerated in the piece above can be found in our public schools. This is a true and noteworthy comment, and it deserves a response. My initial thoughts are threefold:

1) Public schools almost always pay a significantly higher salary than parochial schools and those operated by religious orders in the same region. If the frustrations are similar and the potential (financial) reward much greater in our public schools, then the Church is going to continue to lose young teachers who, after bolstering their resume for 3-5 years, will leave for greener pastures. Who can blame them? This is what’s currently happening in schools around the country, and it should be a red flag.

2) If I were a public school teacher, I would never dream of writing a letter like this because it would be pointless. The CST principle of subsidiarity is instructive here. One of the extraordinary things about working in a Catholic high school is that almost all decisions are made locally by the particular administrators of the particular school. This means that if a President or Principal wants to include faculty, staff and students in their decision-making processes, they can do so without running it by a distant school board or state legislature.

3) We are not public schools, nor should we seek to become like them. If the only thing that distinguishes us from our public school counterparts are the crucifixes on our walls, then we have failed as both educators and as Christians. We’re called to something higher, and we should aspire to be not only equal to, but better than the nation’s top public schools. I believe that we can achieve this goal, but the solution entails creating a school culture that is distinctively Catholic, and not derivative of what appears in school boards throughout the United States.


An Open Letter from a Catholic High School Teacher


Editor's Note: The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous because (s)he is currently employed at a Catholic High School.  His/her identity has been verified by CatholicHow.

Having had a chance to read and reflect on the newest CARA report about the state of the Church in the United States, a recurring question emerges: how can the Church continue to reach out to, engage, and retain young people? As a young adult who works in Catholic ministry (in my case, high school education), this is a pressing issue not only because I happen to teach children, and because I care about the Church, but also because I have watched as a number of my peers choose to leave their ministry after only a few years. The question of “How do we stop it?” inevitably leads to the question of “Why does it happen?”

I suspect that many of the reasons why young women and men choose to stop working for parishes and Catholic schools can tell us something about why the Church at large is failing to capture the imagination of young people in this country. Here then, is my letter to the people in charge delivered, I hope, in the spirit of charity and honesty. I am an anonymous high school teacher, but the challenges that I speak of below are neither unique to one particular institution, nor exclusive to the teaching profession.


Dear President/Principal:

You correctly point out that young people are the future of the Church. You say that you don’t want to lose people like me, and I trust that you’re telling the truth. That said, there are a shockingly high number of teachers my age who have abandoned the profession altogether. Often, these are the very same dedicated, hard-working and talented teachers that you claim that you want to keep. So, for what it’s worth, here’s a bit of unsolicited advice from one of those young, dedicated, hard-working and (I think) talented teachers that you claim that you want to keep around:

  1. Please don’t be hypocritical. If you say that teachers and students are the most important aspect of the work that we undertake, don’t spend tens of thousands of dollars upgrading the stained glass windows in the chapel while diverting funds away from classroom maintenance and teacher salaries. Don’t evaluate me and my young colleagues differently than you do the veteran teachers down the hall while claiming that you’re being objective about the whole thing. Hypocrisy is a cardinal sin for my generation, and a hypocritical institution breeds resentment.
  2. Please don’t waste my time. Useless meetings, professional development seminars, and committees take up an ungodly amount of my day. This is time that I could otherwise be using to think of imaginative ways to bring the material to life in my classroom, or to volunteer to chaperone a service trip, or to give a talk on a Kairos retreat. Trust me, I want to do these things, but I only have so many hours in a week. I realize that sometimes these are unavoidable, but please try to minimize them whenever possible. When a significant chunk of my time and energy is spent dealing with a sprawling and pointless bureaucracy, my work suffers and I get frustrated.
  3. Please don’t ask me to take on responsibilities that you’re not asking everybody else to do. I’m young and I don’t have a family yet; therefore, I’m the first person that you ask to volunteer for every committee, to lead every retreat, to serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and to chaperone students at the Homecoming dance. Most of the time I do it, free of charge, because I love working with kids and sharing my experience of Christ with them. That’s a reward in and of itself; however, when I see my colleague—you know, the one who’s making twice what I am—beat the kids to the parking lot at 2:30, I start to wonder whether those late nights and weekends away from home are really worth it. So continue to ask me to volunteer, but please ask them to pitch in too. I don’t want special treatment, I want a consistent standard (see point #1).

Since I don’t want to dwell on the negative, here are three things that you can do to make me want to stay in Catholic ministry (even if it means taking a pay cut to do so): Continue reading An Open Letter from a Catholic High School Teacher

An Ambassador in Chains: The Danger of the Impostor Syndrome


Because so much of my life is centered around writing (I’m an English teacher, graduate student, blogger, etc.), it’s hard to ignore the different responses I have to my different writing milieus.

Writing with my students is easy; let’s face it – they just don’t know any better and there is something liberating about being in front of twenty people who generally believe you are the authority on whatever you’re talking about. We often conduct workshops in class in which we critique each other’s writing and offer suggestions for improvement. My writing is always featured heavily within the students’ as well and the sessions are usually enjoyable and often accompanied by food (which, to be honest, is probably the real source of their joy).

Writing as a graduate student is a little trickier. There’s a different voice, tone, purpose, strategy – the entire endgame is different. Confidence becomes an issue in graduate studies in a different way than it does in my life as a teacher. Am I even remotely close to a “right” idea? Have I researched enough? Have I read enough? Am I going to pass unnoticed through the boundary line of intellectual approval without being found out? It’s this fear of “being found out” that has plagued me through most of my academic career. Come to find out, many others feel the same way and it’s such a big deal that there’s even a Wikipedia page devoted to the “Impostor Syndrome” and the Chronicle of Higher Education featured a piece on the subject just last year. The implications of the Impostor Syndrome are, for me, not very far-reaching, at least in my academic experience, but I bring the issue to light to talk about another way in which the Impostor Syndrome does take hold in a far more dangerous way.

Continue reading An Ambassador in Chains: The Danger of the Impostor Syndrome

Are All Good Books Catholic Books?


By Claire Bordelon

I recently came across an intriguing book titled All Good Books are Catholic Books released by Cornell Press in 2013. A survey of the Catholic Church’s attitude toward the social, cultural, economic, and political developments of the twentieth-century, it makes some claims I’m not sure I agree with but are nonetheless thought-provoking. To that end, I began thinking about the books that feed spiritually, artistically, and every way in between. Below is the list of books that came to mind first – while they’re not necessarily based in Catholic theology (though some are), they certainly feed the Catholic soul. 

Consider this my Summer Reading List:

  1. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
    Published in 1945, Waugh’s Bideshead Revisited explores the personalities and stories of a flawed but intriguing Roman Catholic aristocratic family. Dealing with divine grace and its effects on various members of the story, Brideshead presents a colorful, varied, and rich discussion of the rejection and acceptance of faith and the movement between those two poles.
  2. The Woman of the Pharisees  – Francois Mauriac
    The Woman of the Pharisees–one of Mauriac’s most accomplished novels–is a penetrating evocation of the moral and religious values of a Bordeaux community. In Brigitte, we see how the ideals of love and companionship are stifled in the presence of a self-righteous woman whose austere religious principals lead her to interfere–disasterously–in the lives of others. One by one the unwitting victims fall prey to the bleakness of her “perfection.” A conscientious schoolteacher, a saintly priest, her husband and stepdaughter and an innocent schoolboy are all confronted with tragedy and upheaval. But the author’s extraordinary gift for psychological insight goes on to show how redeeeming features inevitably surface from disaster. The unfolding drama is seen through the discerning eye of a young Louis–Brigitte’s stepson–whose point of view is skillfully blended into the mature and understanding adult he later becomes.
  3. Leaper: The Misadventures of a Not-Necessairly-Super Hero – Geoffrey Wood
    A fun and fast read, Leaper chronicles the reluctant hero, James, who suddenly discovers (or maybe imagines?) hitherto unknown superpowers. What kind of good can James do with his abilities? What is “good”? Humorous and poignant, Geoffrey Wood asks these questions and more in his unexpected and vastly entertaining  debut novel.
  4. The Complete Father Brown Stories – G.K. Chesterton
    Fans of Agatha Christie, rejoice! The Father Brown mysteries combine a bit of Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells” with Chesterton’s eye for detail and rich prose in the quiet, witty, and genial character of Father Brown.
  5. The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
    A moving recounting of the affair and aftermath between Sarah Miles and narrator Maurice Bendrix, The End of the Affair is as unexpected as it is painfully beautiful. The intimacy of the narrative voice paired with the enigmatic movement of the plot follow Bendrix as he chronicles his journey from obsessive love to hatred for Sarah, her husband Henry, and finally to the God whom he is forced to recognize, even amid his darkness and confusion.As a side note, the last forty pages are some of the most heart-wrenching and beautifully written passages I’ve read in a long time.
  6. The Moviegoer – Walker Percy
    The Moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a young New Orleans stockbroker who surveys the world with the detached gaze of a Bourbon Street dandy even as he yearns for a spiritual redemption he cannot bring himself to believe in. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he occupies himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the “treasurable moments” absent from his real life. But one fateful Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on a hare-brained quest that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin Kate, and sends him reeling through the chaos of New Orleans’ French Quarter. Wry and wrenching, rich in irony and romance, The Moviegoer is a genuine American classic and must-read.
  7. Everything that Rises Must Converge – Flannery O’Connor
    Short stories make the perfect interlude for a rainy summer afternoon, and if you’re going to read them, you may as well start at the top. Everything that Rises Must Converge exemplifies O’Connor’s understanding of the beautiful and the grotesque, and once you’ve read a few of her stories, you’ll recognize her voice anywhere.
  8. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold – C.S. Lewis
    Lewis’ last novel retells the story of Cupid and Psyche through the eyes of Psyche’s sister, Orual. Persuading her sister to look upon the forbidden face of Cupid, Orual is left to plunge into a deep and illuminative contemplation of suffering and the human soul. The book is a creative vision of Lewis’ own philosophy and imagination – if you’ve read and admired other works by Lewis (especially Surprised by Joy), this is a must-read.
  9. The Chronicles of Narnia -C.S. Lewis
    The world-building powers of Lewis are at their finest in Chronicles of Narnia, which chronicle the world of Narnia from its first moments through its self-defining moments and troubles. Fantasy enthusiasts should be ashamed if they’ve not yet ventured into Narnia.
  10. How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization – Thomas E. Woods, Jr.
    For a break from fiction and a history lesson, take a look at this survey by Thomas Woods, which outlines the integral and defining role the Catholic Church has played in the development of Western Civilization.
  11. Space Trilogy – C.S. Lewis
    This is another must-read for fantasy and sci-fi fans. Lewis’ trilogy follows  Dr. Ransom, a Cambridge academic who is abducted and taken to the planet Malacandra and the various adventures and discoveries he makes not only about this new world, but also his own “Silent Planent.” Tinged with Lewis’ philosophical touches and brilliant manipulation of language and world-building, Space Trilogy will appeal to any looking for a different and engaging side to the Lewis they loved from Narnia.
  12. Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier
    Inman is a disillousioned Confederate soldier who has failed to die after being seriously wounded during the last days of the Civil War. Longing to be reunited with his beloved, Ada, Inman embarks on an odyssey through the ruined South he once new. This is a Hero’s Journey story for the Civil War buff, and represents a beautiful addition to the American canon.
  13.  The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton
    In a fantasy London, police hero Gregory Syme cannot reveal fellow poet Lucian Gregory is an anarchist. Elected undercover into the Central European Council of anarchists, Syme must avoid discovery and save the world from bombings by anarchists named after the days of the week.  Buckle up for a different Chesterton than the one you thought you knew – The Man Who Was Thursday requires and then rewards immersion into this fantastic and hyper-realistic world.
  14. My Life with the Saints – James Martin
    If you’re not usually keen on the lives of the Saints, Martin’s episodic narrative of his various encounters with the saints offers a spiritual memoir that reminds the sleepy Catholic of his friendship with the saints and the rich and vibrant lives we can share with them.
  15. Left to Tell – Immaculee Ilibagiza
    I read this book in one sitting. Equal parts horrified and inspired, I couldn’t stop myself from turning page after page of Immaculee Ilibagiza’s harrowing story of the 91 days she spent hiding in a bathroom during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.
  16. The Road – Cormac McCarthy
    If you’re looking for a light, inspiring read, this is not it. The Road follows a father-son pair through a post-apocalyptic America in which a pistol, a cart of scavenged food, and each other are the only defense they have against not only the barren landscape but also the lawless bands that stalk the deserted roads. The stark language mirrors the setting and offers an excellent introduction to readers looking for a taste of some excellent dystopian fiction.
  17. The  Diary of a Country Priest – George Bernanos
    In this classic Catholic novel, Bernanos movingly recounts the life of a young French country priest who grows to understand his provincial parish while learning spiritual humility himself.
  18. Letters to a Young Catholic – George Weigel
    Another non-fiction interlude in this list, Letters to a Young Catholic is George Weigel’s tour of the Catholic World and helps us understand how Catholicism fosters what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of being.” Taking the reader by the hand, Weigel embarks on a journey to Catholic landmarks as diverse as Chartres Cathedral and St. Mary’s Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Not just for the young!
  19. The Poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins – G.M. Hopkins
    G.M. Hopkins is an excellent introduction for those disinclined to like poetry. Accessible and meditative, take these to prayer, read one in the morning, or read them all in one fell swoop. You won’t regret it.
  20. Death Comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
     In 1851 Father Jean Marie Latour comes as the Apostolic Vicar to New Mexico. What he finds is a vast territory of red hills and tortuous arroyos, American by law but Mexican and Indian in custom and belief. Latour spreads his faith in the only way he knows–gently, although he must contend with an unforgiving landscape, derelict and sometimes openly rebellious priests, and his own loneliness. One of these events Cather gives us an indelible vision of life unfolding in a place where time itself seems suspended.
  21. East of Eden – John Steinbeck
    I tried to limit myself to a single Steinbeck on this list, so I picked my favorite. Grapes of Wrath is always the popular choice, but forgive me, East of Eden is, as they say, where it’s at.Set in the rich farmland of California’s Salinas Valley, this sprawling and often brutal novel follows the intertwined destinies of two families—the Trasks and the Hamiltons—whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel. Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence
  22. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
    I told my students once that if they hadn’t read this book, they were only living a half-life. They disagreed, but I still stand firm. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is both incomprehensibly sophisticated and completely engaging. Chronicling the journey of the One Ring via the Ringbearer, Frodo, Tolkien’s story is best advertised in the words of the writer himself:”The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work. Unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
  23. The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
    Ditto above.
  24. Wise Blood – Flannery O’Connor
    It is a story of Hazel Motes, a twenty-two-year-old caught in an unending struggle against his innate, desperate faith. He falls under the spell of a “blind” street preacher named Asa Hawks and his degenerate fifteen-year-old daughter, Lily Sabbath. In an ironic, malicious gesture of his own non-faith, and to prove himself a greater cynic than Hawkes, Hazel Motes founds The Church of God Without Christ, but is still thwarted in his efforts to lose God. He meets Enoch Emery, a young man with “wise blood,” who leads him to a mummified holy child, and whose crazy maneuvers are a manifestation of Hazel’s existential struggles. This tale of redemption, retribution, false prophets, blindness, blindings, and wisdoms gives us one of the most riveting characters in twentieth-century American fiction.
  25. Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky
    Beginning in Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation in 1940. Suite Française tells the remarkable story of men and women thrown together in circumstances beyond their control. As Parisians flee the city, human folly surfaces in every imaginable way: a wealthy mother searches for sweets in a town without food; a couple is terrified at the thought of losing their jobs, even as their world begins to fall apart. Moving on to a provincial village now occupied by German soldiers, the locals must learn to coexist with the enemy—in their town, their homes, even in their hearts.

Comment below with book suggestions – what are your must-reads?


Holy (Week) Thoughts: Walking with the Lord

Holy Week for Barb

I went for a long walk yesterday around the campus of Boston College, and I could not go anywhere without seeing all the visiting high school students on their college visits. It is, after all, Holy Week, which means for most: April Break!! And yet I couldn’t help thinking that these young students were walking a path not unlike that of Jesus. They too are looking into the unknown that awaits them in college. They can see the end result, much as Jesus did, but the journey in between will be wrought with challenges, joys, insecurities, triumphs, and failures.

I am especially attuned to their angst as I am currently working with students on the graduate level who are trying to decide between BC and other schools for their theological and ministerial studies. At the end of the day, discernment always comes down to trust. Can a student trust that they will get the education they need? Does a student trust that they will get the communal and spiritual support they need to succeed? Will the student trust that a school is the best fit for them? Only trust will get them to take the leap of faith and dive in.

Continue reading Holy (Week) Thoughts: Walking with the Lord

Breaking the Routine

“Let the holy ones of the divine beings declare great the King of glory who declares holy in His holiness all His holy ones!” (4Q403 1 i 30–47)

This reconstructed phrase from the seventh song of the fragmentary composition, the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, a liturgical text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, calls on the highest angels to praise God in the high heavens, to declare Him (the heavenly King) great as He declares holy (in His abundant holiness) all His angels (the holy ones). While some of the verbs are corrections of misspelled words (the Hebrew necessitates these emendations to give the line sense), the meaning of the text which we arrive at is a very good approximation of the actual line.

Continue reading Breaking the Routine

“Do You Still Not Understand?”


In yesterday’s Gospel, Christ, in what I imagine to be the same frustrated tone I use with my students when they ask, yet again, if they have to answer a question in a complete sentence, asks “Do you not understand?” I imagine him throwing up his hands at his disciples’ ignorance as he offers proof of God’s constant fidelity: the multiplication of the loaves and fish, which is added to the multiple miracles he’s already accomplished. The main point of this section of the Gospel is to remind us, yet again, that God is ever-faithful and that, in those moments that require the most trust, we must look on the ways that God has already provided for us as a source of a faith that moves us forward to confront the ever-available challenges of day-to-day life.

Continue reading “Do You Still Not Understand?”

He Prayed, Worked, and Went to Heaven: A Remembrance of Dan Harrington, SJ

Author’s Note: A great priest and scholar went to God yesterday. There are two pieces remembering his story at length, that you can read here and here. I wanted to post about what I learned seeing him at work as a teacher and a scholar over my years at the STM


My spiritual director recently needed to preach the funeral of a monk: he shared with my a copy of his homily, and at its conclusion, a quote from John Henry Newman caught my eye.  I chased it and down and found it in full:

To the monks, heaven was next door; he formed no plans, had no cares; the ravens of his father Benedict were ever at his side. He went forth in his youth to his work and to his labor until the evening of life; if he lived a day longer, he did a day’s work more; whether he lived many days or few, he labored on to the end of them. He had no wish to see further in advance of his journey than where he was to make his next stage. He plowed and sowed, he prayed, he meditated, he studied, he wrote, he taught, and then he died and went to heaven.

John Henry Newman,  Historical Sketches

Every single day that I happened to be in the study bubble on the second floor in the STM’s academic building, I’d see Dan walking into his office – and out of his office.  He always had with him a bag full of books.  He always walked with purpose.  Into the office.  Out of the office.

As his illness progressed, he walked a bit slower, and left the office a bit earlier.  But he always had that bag of books, he always walked with a purpose.  He never failed to offer comment about the Red Sox when asked.

Into the office.  Out of the office.

Augustine has this beautiful line in one of his sermons, something to the effect that the Word of God though not always heard, is never silent. 

On Wednesday evening at his funeral and whenever I pick up one of his books, I’ll thank God for Dan Harrington’s vocation: making sure the Word of God was heard just a little bit more clearly each day.  

Not a monk, but a Jesuit: he walked, he wrote, he lectured, he answered, he graded, he cheered, he encouraged.  And now he’s gone to heaven.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Lumen et Vita Conference

This coming Saturday, Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry will host its Lumen et Vita Conference: “The Gospel and Contemporary Culture.”

Presenters include, in the 11:15 Session:

Room 243

Matt Janeczko, OFM Cap: “John Courtney Murray and Abortion: Rethinking Contemporary Paradigms.” Respondent: Chelsea Piper

Craig Ford: “Metanoia and the Missionary Aesthetic of Joy: How Pope Francis Won the Heart of the LGBT Mainstream in America.” Respondent: Elyse Raby

(Yes, that’s me! Also a note, Craig Ford is a heck of a smart guy too – a lot smarter than me.)

Here is the full schedule: