Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

July 6, 2015

Readings on the Complementary Nature of the Sacraments

There are numerous resources available online, primarily from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and writings of recent popes to help you not only facilitate your classroom discussion regarding the complementary nature of the sacraments, but also to contribute to your own knowledge about the sacramental life. Whether or not you teach a particular course on the Seven Sacraments, these readings can contribute to a foundational source essential for a curriculum with a Christological focus.

These following referenced sources can also be assigned to your students, either in their entirety, or in a validly excerpted fashion, depending on the scope of your course. At least one resource is listed for each sacrament. You are encouraged to seek more worthwhile resources that similarly portray the Seven Sacraments accurately and objectively.

The Sacraments in General

“The Seven Sacraments of the Church” from the CCC (Make sure to use the arrows at the bottom of the webpage to navigate within this section of the CCC in order to discover the coverage of each of the seven sacraments.)

“Sacraments and Sacramentals” by the USCCB

“Sacraments and Social Mission: Living the Gospel, Being Disciples” by the USCCB

“The Seven Sacraments” by Loyola Press

The Sacrament of Baptism

“Baptism: Incorporated into Christ's Body, Sent on Christ's Mission” by the USCCB

The Sacrament of Confirmation

“Confirmation: Strengthened by the Spirit, Called to Action” by the USCCB

The Mass and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist

“Order of Mass” by the USCCB

“Parts of the Mass” by the USCCB

“The Eucharistic Liturgy: Formed, Transformed, and Sent” by the USCCB

“Mass and Liturgy” by Loyola Press

“Eucharist and Social Mission: Body of Christ, Broken for the World” by the USCCB

Saint Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Letter Ecclesia Eucharistia: On the Eucharist and Its Relationship to the Church (2003)

Blessed Pope Paul VI's Encyclical Letter Mysterium Fidei: On the Holy Eucharist (1965)

The Sacrament of Penance / Reconciliation

“Penance and Reconciliation: Reconciled to Right Relationship, Called to Heal and Restore” by the USCCB

Saint Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (1984)

The Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

“Anointing of the Sick: Joined to Christ, Witnesses of Hope and Healing” by the USCCB

The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony

“Marriage: United in Love, Strengthened for Service” by the USCCB

Pastoral Letter “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan” by the USCCB

The Sacrament of Holy Orders 

“Holy Orders: Ordained to Serve, Gather, Transform, and Send” by the USCCB

Saint Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis: On the Formation of Priests in the Circumstances of the Present Day (1992)


June 29, 2015

Fortnight for Freedom

Independence Day, July 4, marks the end of the 2015 commemoration and remembrance of religious freedom in the United States along with current threats to religious freedom. Please note a summary of those threats at this link.

Also, as the Fortnight for Religious Freedom, is intended to be shared in your local diocese, please examine your local diocesan website for more information about events being sponsored in the coming week. (Note examples of events sponsored this week by the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.)

There are several resources on the USCCB website with information about this occasion. For one, note quotes by Pope Francis on religious freedom.

Make sure also to follow the call to prayer for all issues around religious liberty at this Facebook page.




June 23, 2015

Various Retreat Models for Catholic High Schools

As you probably know from your own personal retreat experiences, there are many different ways to “retreat” with teens who are participating in a Confirmation, youth ministry, or campus ministry retreat. However, depending on the group and circumstances, some models definitely work better than others do. Here are a few options:

Two-Day Overnight Retreat.

This is usually an ideal option for a group. A weekend allows time for the relationships among teens and adults to develop in a variety of experiences, including small-group sharing, recreation, and communal prayer. A weekend retreat may be a teen’s first chance to experience an informal celebration of the Sacraments of Penance and Eucharist. Many teens who return home from a weekend retreat name the celebrations of the sacraments as the highlights of their time away.

One-Night Retreat.  

Depending on how far you are from the retreat location, a one-night retreat can offer most of the same advantages of a weekend retreat. Yet, you may find that just when the group is coming together, it’s time for them to go home. For younger adolescents, however, one-night retreats are preferable.

One-Day Retreat.

These can be difficult, whether they are held on a missed school day or a Saturday. In either case, it is hard for the teens to put schoolwork or basketball practice out of their minds in such a short time. Rather than spending seven or eight hours together during a day, have the teens meet from about 4 pm to midnight. These “less used” hours make the retreat time more sacred. Just make sure the teens have a free day from school on the day after the retreat so that they can rest and recover.


Shorter retreats of about three to five hours can be successful for breaking out of the regular youth group-like routine. Schedule a mini-retreat during the time your group usually meets, albeit adding two or three hours of extending time. With this extra time, provide variation from what you usually do in a class or meeting. For example, add more time for personal and communal prayer. If you rarely include music in your prayer, do so on this occasion. If possible, incorporate a Mass into this mini-retreat as well.

June 15, 2015

CRS Resources for Pope Francis's Encyclical "Laudato Si"

In anticipation of the June 18 release of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si ("Be Praised" or "Praised Be") which focuses on environmental issues, please note information on several ways Catholic Relief Services is reaching out to address climate change issues around the world.

On CRS Cares for Creation you will find stories, photos, and case studies that highlight the many ways in which the Church is reaching out to help vulnerable communities adapt to the impacts of climate change. There are also have several prayers, reflections, and activities that help Catholics take action. This material is arranged by grade level with several strands written specifically for high school religion classes and youth ministry groups.



June 8, 2015

Vocation Awareness

What are some ways you can promote vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life with your students? Read through the list of ideas below. Choose at least one of the ideas. Add others of your own. Develop a plan to work with others to implement these ideas at your school (or parish).

1. Perpetual Adoration

Arrange for a schedule of continuous prayer for vocations before the Blessed Sacrament at a school chapel. Collect names of students willing to sign up for fifteen minute or half hour blocks of time. Make this a regular event.

2. Publicize Special Vocations

Highlight special events like National Vocation Awareness Week, World Day for Consecrated Life, or World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Also take note of special vents offered particularly in your own diocese. Volunteer to distribute flyers or other promotional materials to your students.

3. Witness Talk

Broach the topic of vocations to the priesthood or consecrated life in class or as part of a campus ministry session or retreat. Speak personally about how you have and are currently discerning your own vocational call. Arrange for a priest, seminarian, and/or a professed religious to speak about their own calling.

4. Seminary or Motherhouse Visit

Call a local seminary or motherhouse of a  nearby religious community and arrange for a field trip or for interested students to visit on their own to hear a presentation by the vocation directors, and perhaps the seminarians and novices themselves.

5. Website Links

Create a set of website links to vocation websites in your own diocese and beyond and place them in a place where students can easily access them. Assign them to write a reflection essay about any vocational stories they read about in one or more of the sites.


June 1, 2015

Rest, Renewal, and Revitalization for the Catholic School Educator

By Justin McClain

During the upcoming break in the academic year, plan to use part of the time to refresh yourself in the life-giving words and teachings of Christ! Pope Francis addressed the need for renewal in a recent talk to priests. Catholic school teachers can find affirmation in his message as well.

The summer break can, and should, serve as an opportune occasion to seek 1) rest, 2) renewal, and 3) revitalization. This is true in terms of your mind, your body, and foremost, your soul. As such, here are a few scriptural passages to meditate on during the summer, in order to remain focused in a positive way on the promises of the new school year as of late August.

1. Rest

Jesus understands the need for rest. In the Gospels, Christ extended the divine “rest” that only he could offer, drawing us to seek him in order to find soulful relief from the weariness of the world. The school year is replete with busy schedules, numerous logistical demands, teenage drama, and numerous other concerns. Summer is the time to slow down, take a break, and rest!

For Reflection

  •  “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light." (Matthew 11:28-30)
  • The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” (Mark 6:30-31)

2. Renewal

Jesus has a way of renewing everything without changing anything. In other words, he remains the same as he has been since before time began: He is unchanging, just as God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are, with the Three Persons of the Trinity united as one God. While you will use the weeks during the summer to renew lesson plans, renew classroom policies, renew familiarity with content by attending professional development programs, and so forth, make sure that all renewal that takes place is in the vein of Christian renewal. Ensure that the preparations you are making done in the Lord’s name, are engagingly new, and inspirationally faithful and unchangingly refreshing. Attempt to imagine how new Christ’s teachings must have sounded to his first disciples when they began to follow him. Plan to present the Gospel to the students with this same newness, particularly in terms of charitably and accurately portraying the Church’s age-old moral teachings (e.g., Catholic social teaching), which are sometimes contrived as old-fashioned, but are actually beautifully and wisely designed by God for the ultimate benefit of humanity.

For Reflection

  • All were amazed and asked one another, "What is this? A new teaching with authority." (Mark 1:27)
  • "I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:34-35)
  • “May we learn what this new teaching is that you speak of?” (Acts 17:19)
  • So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
  • Be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth. (Ephesians 4:23-24)
  • You have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator. (Colossians 3: 9-10)
  • For this reason, he is the mediator of a new covenant. (Hebrews 9:15)
  • Blessed be the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. (1 Peter 1:3)
  • The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:5)

3. Revitalization

God is the author of your very life. He has given you free will because he wants your life to magnify him and to bring greater glory to the kingdom of God. Allow the Lord to breathe new life into any ministerial efforts, perhaps particularly in the midst of the end of a school year, when you may feel that you are suffering from burn-out, or that you are a shell of your formerly enlivened self.

For Reflection

  • “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17)
  • For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life. (John 3:16)
  • Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. (John 3:36)
  • (Specifically regarding the Eucharist, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies as “the source and summit of the Christian life” [CCC 1324], meditate on Jesus’ remarkable Bread of Life Discourse in John 6:22-59.)
  • Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
  • Jesus spoke to them again, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)
  • “I came so that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)
  • “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if dies, will live.” (John 11:25)
  • “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)

There are, of course, numerous relevant Old Testament passages that can be reflected upon as well, but the scope of this article was the New Testament, in order to emphasize Jesus’ fulfillment of the messianic prophecies as outlined in the Old Testament that allowed him to give us a newness of spiritual resolve. Hence, these are just a few of the multiple passages from within the New Testament that the Catholic school teacher can use for reflection in preparation for the next academic year and beyond.

This summer, in between the trips to the beach, other family outings, Independence Day barbecues, and other summer adventures, make sure that you (and your family) spend ample time with the Lord, in order to remember to rest, renew, and revitalize yourself by meditating on God’s goodness. In this manner, you can be an even more effective Catholic school educator in the next academic year, which will be here before you know it. In the meantime, happy summer and God bless you and your families with a restful vacation!

Mr. Justin McClain is a Theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland.


May 26, 2015

Unit on the Life of Blessed Óscar Romero

Ave Maria Press offers an excellent resource to help your students learn more about the life of Óscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was beatified on May 23.

Monseñor: The Last Journey of Óscar Romero, covering the time of Romero's installation as Archbishop of San Salvador in February, 1977 to his martyrdom on March 24, 1980, is an 88-minute documentary distributed by Ave Maria Press. The documentary, produced by the Kellogg Institute at the University of Notre Dame, will be delivered as a DVD and sell for $27.95.

In addition, Ave Maria Press offers a free 38-page Study Guide to accompany the film. The Study Guide facilitates a one-week mini-unit devoted to the study of Óscar Romero through viewing of the Romero film, student research, and discussion. The five-day plan involves an introduction to the life of Archbishop Romero (Monday), viewing the film and discussing its key topics (Tuesday-Thursday), and a synopsis of the material through the sharing of student reports and projects (Friday).

Oscar Romero Study Guide The Study Guide is delivered in an electronic format, designed in full color, and is suitable for printing. Student handouts with writing space to jot responses to particular questions are included. Several links to other print and film resources offering background and enrichment to the issue are also included.

This one-week mini-unit is a perfect way to incorporate a strand of social justice in virtually any course in your theology curriculum. A Study Guide listing of glossary terms and references to the Ave Maria Press textbook Foundations of Catholic Social Teaching: Living as a Disciple of Christ are provided.


May 19, 2015

Helping Teens Prepare for a Job Interview

As summer approaches, your students will be attempting to secure a job. Certainly, an interview will be part of the hiring process. Review these suggestions to help your students prepare for a job interview.

  1. Be knowledgeable about the company and the industry. Read the company website, reports, news articles, and any other literature about the company. Read about the company’s history, services or products, growth pattern, divisions and subsidiaries, size and competitors.
  2. Practice answering questions about yourself, your accomplishments, and your intended career objectives. Find out from other people what their job interviews were like. Be prepared to talk about your talents, experience, values, and goals. Focus on what you can bring to the job rather than what the job can do for you. Be able to state your weaknesses, too, along with your strengths.
  3. Prepare questions to ask your interviewer based on what you learned about the company.

As to the actual interview itself, keep the following points in mind:

  • Arrive a few minutes early.
  • Do not bring anyone with you.
  • Dress appropriately. Wear conservative clothing and little jewelry.
  • Appear well-groomed with a recent haircut, clipped nails, polished shoes, and pressed clothing.
  • Do not chew gum.
  • Bring a pen and notebook and use them.
  • Be courteous, friendly, and enthusiastic. Keep in mind the interviewer is looking for someone who can fit in well with the rest of the staff.
  • Maintain eye contact with the interviewer. Pay attention to your own body language. Sit naturally. Do not fold your arms.
  • Do not discuss salary unless the interviewer initiates the topic.
  • Put a positive spin on yourself. For example, if you are asked if you have a certain skill that you lack, reply, “No, but I am a quick learner.”
  • Before you leave, make sure to find out the next step. Will the interviewer contact you? When? Should you contact the interviewer? When?
  • Thank the interviewer. The next day, send a written thank-you note. This is a must.


Assign the students to complete a resume, that is, a written overview of their background, experience, and skills. A resume should include:

  1. Your name.
  2. Your mailing address.
  3. Your phone number.
  4. Your email address.
  5. An objective stating the kind of work you want to do.
  6. Your educational background.
  7. Your work experience beginning with the most recent job and/or volunteer experience.
  8. Your honors and activities.

May 11, 2015

Growing to Maturity Activity Ideas

As the school year nears a conclusion, lead your students in a variety of activities and presentations that highlight their maturation and help them to imagine their futures. Here are three ideas:

1. Your Freshman Self (about 20 minutes)

Ask the students to bring photos of themselves from when they were freshmen (or photos from two years prior). Ask them to pass their old photos around the room as you lead a discussion in which they described their “freshmen selves” in the third person. For example, “He had a hard time making friends” or “She thought she knew everything.” Continue building on the discussion to encourage the students to describe how they are different now from when the photo was taken.

2. On the Spot: Imaging Life’s Vocations (about 15 minutes)

Make a set of flash cards with numbers on them to represent five-year age intervals beginning at age 25 and ending at age 80 (e.g., 25, 30, 35, etc.). Briefly present a summary of the term vocation in terms of a call to marriage, family life, consecrated life, or priesthood and career as a job that expresses one’s talents and creativity. Choose a random student to come to the front of the room to be “on the spot.” Ask him or her to pick from the flash cards and to describe the career and vocation he or she imagines when actually that age. Call on other students to repeat the exercise.

3. Large Group Presentation: Maturity (about 20 minutes)

Lead a discussion on the meaning of maturity and what maturity entails. Offer the following descriptions (write them on the board). Then ask the teens to add other descriptions of maturity to the list:

  • A mature person has the ability to give as well as to receive.
  • A mature person is empathetic; can perceive how another person is feeling.
  • A mature person can establish and keep relationships with others.
  • A mature person is comfortable with himself or herself.
  • A mature person is emotionally, spiritually, and physically fit.
  • A mature person is able to meet his or her needs in a healthy way.

May 5, 2015

Lessons on Pastoral Leadership from the Pastoral Letters

Prepare a lesson or part of a lesson that focuses on the theme of pastoral leadership and priesthood today, especially as it connects between teachings from the Pastoral Letters of the New Testament. Some qualities which make up a good priest are drawn from the Letter to Titus.


First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus are called “Pastoral Letters” because they were written by one pastor (shepherd) to two other pastors, Timothy and Titus. The differ from other New Testament letters—both those written by St. Paul and those attributed to him—in that they were addressed to individuals and give great advice on Church leadership. The Pastoral Letters assert that in order for one to be a priest or bishop, he must be a moral exemplar, other-centered, and be willing to undergo any kind of trial for the sake of the Gospel. First Timothy gives guidelines for those chosen to be bishops. Second Timothy describes the end of St. Paul’s ministry and is a reflection on his impending death. The Letter to Titus, the focus here, discusses the qualities necessary for being a good presbyter (priest).


1. Define pastor as “shepherd.” Ask the students to identify images from the Gospels of Christ acting as a shepherd. Ask: Why would “shepherd” be an appropriate name for a leader of the early Church? (Jesus used the metaphor of a shepherd and the flock to describe the relationship to the Apostles and the Apostles’ relationship to the faithful.)

2. Ask the students to write a brief reflection on a priest in their life who has had a positive influence on them. What qualities did that person possess that made him a good religious leader? Allow about five to seven minutes for writing. Then call on volunteers to share their reflections with the class.

3. Refer the students to Titus 1:5-9. Relate this description of presbyters to the student’s reflections and to an understanding of a priest’s mission and ministry today.


There are nine references from the Letter of Titus in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Write them on the board. Ask the students to work individually or with a partner to look up the references from Titus and from the Catechism and explain how each supports a particular teaching about priesthood.



Reference from Titus

Reference from the Catechism

Eligibility for Holy Orders


Titus 1:5-9

CCC, 1577

Instructions for the appointment of presbyters

Titus 1:5

CCC, 1590

Self-mastery and renewal


Titus 2:1-6

CCC, 2342



Titus 2:12

CCC, 1809

The return of Christ


Titus 2:13


CCC, 449, 1041, 1130, 1404, 2276, 2818

Christ’s work of Redemption


Titus 2:14

CCC, 802


Baptism as a requirement for God’s kingdom


Titus 3:5

CCC, 1215



Titus 3:6-7

CCC, 1817



April 24, 2015

Memory Game: Names, Titles, and Symbols of the Holy Spirit

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly outlines how the Holy Spirit is represented in names, titles, and symbols:

The proper name of the Holy Spirit

"Holy Spirit" is the proper name of the one whom we adore and glorify with the Father and Son. (691)

Titles of the Holy Spirit

Paragraphs 692-693 highlight many of the titles of the Holy Spirit including "Paraclete," the one used by Jesus.

Symbols of the Holy Spirit

Paragraphs 694-701 highlight the following symbols of the Holy Spirit: water, anointing, fire, cloud and light, the seal, the hand, the finger, and the dove.

Memory Game

Have the students work in pairs to study and remember some of the names, titles, and symbols of the Holy Spirit from these Catechism references. Have them create memory cards to help them remember the definitions. For each term/name, have them create two cards: one with the term, name, or symbol and the other with the definition. When they have finished making the cards, allow them to play a memory game with all the cards faced down on the desk. Students may turn over two cards per turn to match the term with its definition. If they make a match, they may keep the cards. The player with the most cards wins.


April 20, 2015

Eight Be-Attitudes for Teachers


As you enter the final home stretch of the semester, take some time to review these eight Be-Attitudes for teachers developed by Sr. Kieran Sayer, SSND.

1. Be Prepared

Study the Teacher Manual carefully. Think through lesson plans, outline them, and prepare your own note cards for teaching them. Visualize each part of the lesson in your mind, "seeing" it step by step. You should clearly understand the purpose and expected outcome.

2. Be Yourself

Make the material your own. Think about it; pray about it; if possible, talk about it with other adults. Use the ideas in the Teacher Manual creatively--add your own examples, substitute other activities, shorten or lengthen sections. The lessons should come across to the students as yours, not as the Manual's.

3. Be Organized

Have a definite plan of action for each part of the lesson. Be especially clear about giving directions for discussion exercises and activities. Have all the materials ready for quick distribution.

4. Be Flexible

Be ready to adjust your well-organized plan at a moment's notice. Some activities may last longer or shorter than expected; some won't fit the mood of the class period; some won't work well for your or your students. Always have more material planned than you think you will need. Keep your eye on the clock; if you're running short of time, shorten or drop something--but, please, not the opportunity to pray with your students.

5. Be Open

Listen to what your students have to say, and encourage them to listen to one another. Accept their feelings and ideas even if you don't agree with them. Be ready at times to challenge them (always respectfully) on ideas and positions that are inconsistent, erroneous, or unclear.

6. Be Firm

Do not allow the students to be disrespectful of you or one another. Maintain an orderly, controlled atmosphere even during fun times. Let the students know that you expect adult contact from them.

7. Be Happy

Enjoy your students. Enjoy their nonsense and exuberance as well as their thoughtfulness and serious sharing. Let them know that you like being with them.

8. Be-lieve

Believe that you are not in this business alone, that God and the Church play active roles in this process of transmitting and sharing faith. Believe that God is involved in the lives of your students, that the action of God's grace precedes, accompanies, and follows all your efforts. Believe that the faith is alive in your school, and that the entire student body and faculty are helping in some way to transmit that faith to your students.


April 14, 2015

God, Faith, Religion on Social Media

Lead a discussion or assign the following items for your students to work on individually or in small groups on the topic of how social media is used and can be used more effectively to evangelize and inspire others around the Gospel message.

Discuss or Write

1. Over the course of a day, about how many Scripture passages are posted on your social media feed?

2. How often do you read the Scripture that is posted?

3. How effective is social media as a forum for evangelization?

4. Copy and paste what you would consider an effective or inspiring social media post on God, faith, or religion? Tell why you find it so.

5. Read and summarize the article “Five Things Fulton Sheen Teaches Us about Social Media.”  (Read about Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen here.)

6. Write a one-paragraph social media post on faith that you believe would be effective or inspiring for your peer group. Also, summarize the post with a 140-character tweet.

April 6, 2015

Lessons on Religious Liberty for the Theology Classroom

By Justin McClain

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the watershed Vatican II declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis Humanae: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious, promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965. Within these last fifty years, there has been some notable progress, yet likewise significant setbacks, in terms of religious liberty both in the United States and throughout the world. This polemical topic is one that merits discussion in the high school theology classroom, provided that it is both appropriate to the intellectual preparedness of the students’ grade level and applicably relevant within the course’s curricular framework. This possibility of the discussion of specifics regarding religious freedom is particularly due to the numerous implications at the cross-curricular intersection of theology and social studies, not to mention other academic fields when available.

 In 2013, Janet Wigoff, chair of the Theology Department at Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford, Pennsylvania, developed the exceptionally noteworthy Religious Liberty and Catholicism in the United States: A Five-Day Mini-Unit (published by Ave Maria Press and available for free to teachers here as a PDF). In the couple of years since, there has been a heightened consideration of cases regarding religious liberty nationally, as we have seen in such scenarios as the situation surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, threats to religious freedom in the District of Columbia, and other areas of concern. Meanwhile, internationally, there has been a marked increase in the violent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in such areas as the Middle East, regions of the African continent, and parts of Asia.

High school theology teachers have ready access to plentiful resources for facilitating dialogue on matters related to religious liberty, whether from the perspective of the United States or the international community. However, it is vital to remember that proposed sources should be both objectively accurate and doctrinally sound, in order to ensure that students are provided with a fair portrayal of the breadth and significance of religious liberty. This latter point is particularly cogent since these students’ generation will one day have to defend true religious freedoms in the midst of the stark reality that, as Pope Francis affirmed at a June 2014 religious freedom conference (titled “International Religious Liberty and the Global Clash of Values”), “the persecution of Christians today is even more virulent than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.” Indeed, it is worthwhile to maintain insights into religious freedom in the face of both direct and indirect persecution, all the while juxtaposing such reflections with Christ’s words as they appear in John 15:20: “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” Ultimately, the Christian is called to evangelize in conjunction with the underpinnings of veritable religious liberty, in order to bring about a more peaceful society based on Jesus’ expectations as described in Matthew 5:14-16: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good dees and glorify your heavenly Father."

Please note the following resources that you can use to substantively enhance Liberty and Catholicism in the United States: A Five-Day Mini-Unit and the content of your lessons related to the key factors regarding rhetorical aspects of religious liberty in the third millennium.


Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs – Religious Freedom Project (provided by Georgetown University)

Cardinal Donald Wuerl Keynote Address – Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society (a YouTube video provided by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University, September 13, 2012)

Congress Urged to Act for Protection of Religious Freedom and Conscience Rights in the District of Columbia (provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, March 20, 2015)

Dignitatis Humanae: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious (promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965)

The Freedom to Bear Witness (an address by Archbishop William Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, November 15, 2014)

Indiana Bishops Respond to State Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a statement provided by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, April 1, 2015)

Issues and Action: Religious Liberty (provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Letters to President Obama and Congressional Leaders Concerning Religious Freedom Violations in the Middle East (provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, February 23, 2015)

Nigerian Bishops Visit Refugees in Cameroon Who Fled Boko Haram (provided by the Catholic Herald / Catholic News Service, March 24, 2015)

Persecution of Christians (provided by the Archdiocese of New York)

Pope Francis Addresses Religious Freedom Conference (provided by Vatican Radio, June 20, 2014)

Religious Freedom Under Assault (provided by the Archdiocese of Washington)

Silencing the Church’s Voice (by Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, March 2, 2015)


Mr. Justin McClain is a Theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland.

March 30, 2015

Guided Meditation: The Prayer in the Garden

We struggle to remain “awake” and alert at the time of Jesus’ agony. In that agony we discover our ability, because of God’s gift, to minister to the disciples and to Jesus. We then become empowered to minister to others in our lives. This meditation comes from Luke 22:39-46. Have your students find a comfortable place and close their eyes. Read the meditation. Pause slightly on each ellipse. Pause slightly longer on paragraph breaks. Total time: 11 minutes.

And we pray:

Almighty God in heaven …

There are times when our path seems confusing …

When the direction we take is uncertain … when the course we should choose is unclear …

We get confused because we’re not sure how things will work out …

Or what the future holds …

Or what we can do now to make things better later …

We try to trust in you …

We want to put our faith in you …

But what can be scary …. when we’re not certain of your will for us …

        when we’re unsure of what is best …

As we meditate … send us your Holy Spirit to guide us … to teach us …

That we might learn deeper trust …

Deeper faith …

That we might act with greater love …

Greater hope …


With your eyes still closed …

Take a slow deep breath …

Let it fill you …

And again …another breath …

Slowly and deeply …

A breath which makes you lighter and lighter …

When you feel weightless …

Exhale the air slowly … silently …

Letting the air propel you … back in time …

Far away in the distance …

To ancient Israel … to the time of Jesus Christ …

It’s early evening …

You find yourself on a high knoll …

Overlooking a valley that leads to the walled city of Jerusalem …

        ahead of you …

And in the bright moonlight you can make our the city’s silhouette …

With its towers … and angled stone buildings …

Squeezed together and protected by an enormous wall …

The night air is refreshing … a cool breeze gently twists and turns …

The sky is crowded with stars …while the moon casts long shadows …

But the city seems strangely quiet … eerie …

As if something important were about to happen …

Something that no one is prepared for …


From where you are on the knoll …

You can just make out a group of travelers …

Walking from Jerusalem …

In your direction on a dirt road …

You can see that they will soon come to a fork …

When they reach it they pause …

And one of the group motions the rest to follow him into a garden …

They move through the opening of the protective stone wall … through the

        gate and into the garden … lush and peaceful … private … secluded …


And you join them there … walking with them through the old cluster of

        Olive trees … trunks thick and twisted … rugged braches hanging low …

Most of the group sit under the outside edge of trees … huddled together …

        their cloaks pulled close to their chins … staying warm … getting comfortable …

The oldest of the group … Peter … points out a solitary figure over to

        one side … near a well …

Peter tells you how that man had been welcomed into Jerusalem with

        cheering … earlier in the week …

He had talked about the end being near … about how everything would

        change now … since he was coming into his kingdom …

Everyone thought he meant that he would lead a fight to get rid of the

        Romans … but he didn’t …and the mood of the people began to change …

They aren’t cheering anymore …and the man has many powerful enemies

        here in Jerusalem …

It’s getting confusing …


Then he talked about betrayal … the man said someone would

        betray him … one of his best friends …how could a friend betray

        another friend? …

Now we don’t know who to trust …

We got into an argument …we accused each other …

He tried  to bring us together for the Passover meal … but now we suspect

        each other …. we are angry …


Do you understand Peter? … Do you know what he is trying to say about

        being betrayed by friends?

Sometimes our friends are really against us … when we think they are

        supporting us…

They can turn against us … as if all they really cared about was themselves …

And we become disappointed with their selfishness … their greed …

And become so very angry at how they ruined everything …. And we feel like

        we’ve lost all control …. And that we are at their mercy …

Has anything like that happened to you? …

Is there anything you would say to Peter? …

Anything you could do to comfort him, soothe his hurt feelings? …

Bring him peace …

Peace …


Another of the group … the one with reddish hair … Thomas tries to

        explain to you how that man had said that everything would change …

        now that he was leaving …

But he won’t take us with him … he is leaving us alone … with no way to

        find him …

Thomas tells you about how he has come to depend on this man …

How he learned to trust him …

How he made plans … knowing that he would be part of those plans …

And now he says that is leaving … soon he’ll be gone … and all our plans

        will be destroyed … all my dreams will vanish …


Do you understand Thomas? … Do you know what he is trying to say about

        the fear of having our friends leave? …

Our hopes fade like the morning mist … and vanish …

And we are left alone … empty … with dry tears and deep sadness … we

        want to sob … but we hurt too much … and are drained of all our

        strength …

And we become fearful about how we will continue without them …

        when nothing will ever be the same … and we know we will suffer terrible

        loneliness when they’re gone …

Has that ever happened to you? ….

Is there anything you would like to say to Thomas? …

Is there any way you could comfort him? …

Bring him peace …

Peace …


And then the youngest calls out for your attention … a very young

        teenager … John waves you over to him …

And he begins to tell you how he wanted to help the situation …

        because he had insights …and he knew what to do …

But nobody would listen …

Nobody would pay attention to him … they just ignored him … because he

        was the youngest … they thought he didn’t know anything … they took

        him for granted … even though he was the only one that

        really understood …

Nobody would give him credit or acknowledge him …

And John … with great frustration … suddenly crosses his arms over

        his chest …

As if closing himself off … as if protecting himself from more hurt …

        from being ignored …


Can you understand John? … Do you know what he is trying to say about

        being ignored or not having your opinions respected? …

Think about how you feel when people won’t accept your knowledge or

        experience … and you become very frustrated …

And they treat you as if you are insignificant …

Saying that you’ll know better when you get older …

And until then … they continue to treat you as if you were invisible …

Or maybe they pretend that they are listening or agreeing … but all they

        time … they’re just trying to pacify you … because they think they have

        the right answer in spite of you …

And you want to tell them how ignorant they are … but it wouldn’t matter …

        because they surely wouldn’t listen to that either …

Has anything like that ever happened to you? …

Is there anything you could say to John? …

Is there any way you could comfort him? …

And be at peace …

Peace …


As the group becomes drowsy … yawning … falling asleep … snoring …

You slowly walk over to the solitary man … who is at a distance …

        near the well …

As you quietly approach him from behind …

You notice that the heavy robe he wars is soaked with sweat …

        his hair is dripping … stringy and matted …

He rubs his hands together … twisting and turning them in his anxiety …

His breathing is erratic … alternately deep and shallow …

        breathing in gulps or sips …

You stand next to him …

He looks up with his bloodshot eyes … skin shining in the moonlight …

        his lip trembling … and he begins to shiver …

Tears have streaked his face …

And he tells you that he is scared …

Scared ….


Nothing has seemed to work out the way he wanted it …

His friends seem to have forgotten everything he said to them about

        the kingdom …

They fight and quarrel … argue over who is the greatest …

Money and possessions are more important than anything …

He had hoped to change people’s hearts … end fighting and cruelty …

        establish God’s justice … usher in God’s return to his world … this world …

And now … at the end … hoping to find healing love in the hearts of those

        around him … he instead finds overwhelming sin …

And he wonders if he has done something wrong … he fears he has

        failed miserably …

He’s afraid he is a disappointment to his heavenly Father …

And there is no time left to change things …

And he would rather have another chance … or more time …

But his only choice seems to be to pay the price for all the sin that remains …

        to suffer for those who still sin … to take that sin upon himself and

        destroy it by letting his own life be destroyed …

He has to die …


“If only there were another way,” he says …

“Some way other than suffering because of others …

Bearing all the pain that they have caused …

Suffering the refection even of those who claim to love me …

My friends abandon me when I need them most …

I don’t think that I am strong enough to endure all that” …


And Jesus begins to sob … his hands shaking, hiding his face …

        as if he were humiliated to have you see him at this

        difficult hour of his life …

You can hear him murmur that there is no other way … and that somehow

        he will just have to trust … to surrender to the Father … to trust that

        God the Father can make sense of whatever seems confusing …

Then he looks up … exhausted … bone weary … hand trembling …

He extends his hand to you … silently … waiting … hoping …

Is there anything you would like to say to the Lord? …

Is there anything you can do for him? …

Can you bring him peace? …

Peace …


Know that you’ll have to let go …

You’ll have to let Jesus continue on his own …

To fulfill the mystery of his earthly life as the Father has led him … alone …

But know that he continues on with the gift of your spirit …

        your caring and concern …

Know that you have an incredible ability to comfort others …

        to give people strength … because of what you have endured yourself …


Bring that gift of caring for others with you … and with stillness in your

        heart … return back here …

Leave the garden at the Mount of Olives …

And return here …

Knowing that you are not alone …

Knowing that you are with others …

Others with the same ability

Able to offer you the kind of caring and support that you need from them …

And be at peace …


When you are ready you may open your eyes …

But please don’t speak to anyone …

Or distract anyone from reflecting on the power they have to comfort

        people in their time of need …

In their time of need …

Their need for you.       


Originally published in Time With Jesus: Twenty Guided Meditations for Youth by Thomas F. Catucci.



March 24, 2015

Witness of Christian Martrys

As Holy Week approaches for 2015, the Passion of Christ is more present in our midst than ever. Around the world, Christians have been martyred in recent months, weeks, and days. Share several articles that detail news coverage of the events, prayers offered on the martyrs' behalf, and prayers for all persecuted Christians. After your students read each article, ask them to offer comment. If possible, have them write comments or prayers online directly below the article. If not possible, have them label their comments according to each article they have read and turn them in to you. Finally, have the students write their own prayers for these contemporary Christian martyrs and for peace in the world.

Here are a few recent articles to help you begin. Search other Catholic, Christian, and general news sites for other articles to further this activity.

1. A Testimony Which Cries Out

2. Two church bombings in Pakistan; Pope, bishops lament persecution of Christians

3. Names of 21 Christian Martyrs

4. Pope Francis Offers Mass for 21 Christian Martyrs

5. Palm Sunday Prayer to Remember Christian Martyrs

6. United States Catholic Bishops Call for Prayer Amidst Persecution and Violence Against Christians

7. Address by Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.







March 18, 2015

Catholic Colleges in March Madness 2015

It’s time once again to look at “March Madness”—the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments—through the lens of its Catholic college participants! Take some time to examine this year’s list of Catholic college teams that made the tournament and examine some possible assignments and activities suggested below to connect your students to these colleges and their Catholic mission and roots. Use the comment section below this post to add any other ideas you may have to combine this this current event with a classroom lesson.

First, here is a list of this year’s teams, ranked in order of their seedings:

Men’s Tournament

1. Villanova

2. Gonzaga                                                                                 

3. Notre Dame

4. Georgetown

5. Providence


7. St. John’s


Women’s Tournament

1. Notre Dame

2.  DePaul

     Seton Hall

4. Gonzaga

5. Dayton

6. St. Francis (Brooklyn)


Some Assignments and Activities Connected to the Tournament

  • Read about the recent formation of a new “Catholic conference.” 
  • Search the school websites of this year’s Catholic participants and read about the history, founder, and mission of each. Ask them to note how the school market’s its Catholic identity.
  • Collect a collage of images of the school’s religious sites (statues, chapel sanctuary, etc.).
  • Write a report about the college’s chapel. Include the liturgical schedule.
  • Look up each school’s current schedule. Name the school’s main “Catholic rival” on the schedule. Explain something of the history of the rivalry.
  • Name the founding religious order of each school.

Please suggest and share any other ideas to make this current event something that can enhance your theology classes during this madness of March!



March 5, 2015

Teacher-led Discussions on Two March Saints: St. Patrick (March 17) and St. Joseph (March 19)

By Justin McClain

The liturgical calendar for March features the feast days of two inspirational heroes: St. Patrick (March 17) and St. Joseph (March 19). These two holy men essentially lived for Christ and, pursuant to their respective spiritual gifts, had an especially heroic devotion to the Lord. There are various opportunities to bring knowledge of these saints into your classroom, particularly in terms of using what we know about their lives as a means of facilitating student discussions on their commitment to Christ.

Some objective and subjective questions that you could pose to your students in order to guide their reflection on St. Patrick and St. Joseph follow. Also listed below are some web resources that feature opportunities for students to gain even more introductory information on these two unique saints.



Reflection Questions for St. Patrick

  • In what ways did St. Patrick show courage throughout his life? Be specific.
  • How did St. Patrick persevere, even in the midst of his enslavement and leading up to his evangelization of Ireland? In what ways do you think St. Patrick faced discouragement, and how did he endure in his dedication to Christ?
  • How did St. Patrick explain the Holy Trinity using the example of a shamrock?
  • What role did St. Patrick play in invigorating the Catholic faith beyond the shores of Ireland, i.e., in mainland Europe?
  • What are other ways in which a devotion to St. Patrick can lead us to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and his Gospel?


Reflection Questions for St. Joseph

  • St. Joseph is often referred to as the “Silent St.,” due to the reality that we have no words of his within the Gospels, let alone elsewhere in scripture. How did St. Joseph’s silence underscore his humility as he served as Jesus’ foster-father?
  • How was Joseph a devoted husband to Mary and a devoted foster-father to Jesus?
  • Read about St. André Bessette, C.S.C., and his own devotion to St. Joseph, such as on the website for the aptly-named St. Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal (in Québec). Why do you think that such humble saints as St. André promoted St. Joseph as a figure who can likewise draw us closer to Jesus?
  • What are other ways in which a devotion to St. Joseph can lead us to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and his Gospel?

In addition, have students read the references to St. Joseph within the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. They can use a free and reliable online Catholic concordance, such as the Cross Reference, to look up Joseph’s appearances in the Gospels. Then, have them write a topical reflection on such considerations as Joseph’s ultimate faith in the child Jesus and his deep devotion to protecting Jesus and Mary.


More Web Resources Regarding St. Patrick

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia – “St. Patrick”

Catholic Online – “St. Patrick”

Catholic News Agency – “St. Patrick of Ireland”

EWTN – “St. Patrick, Bishop, Confessor, Apostle of Ireland, A.D. 464”

St. Patrick Centre (Northern Ireland) – “St. Patrick’s Legacy / St. Patrick’s World (Historical and Cultural Backdrop)”


More Web Resources Regarding St. Joseph:

New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia – “St. Joseph”

Catholic Education Resource Center – “St. Joseph” by Fr. William Saunders

Catholic Education Resource Center – “The Man Mary Loved” (an interview with Fr. Roland Gauthier, C.S.C., courtesy of the National Catholic Register, March 18-24, 2001):

Congregation of Holy Cross – Spirituality – St. Joseph

EWTN – Novena to St. Joseph


February 25, 2015

Four Ways for Your Students to Survive and Thrive in Lent

By Justin McClain


The academic third quarter, for both students and teachers alike, tends to have the notorious distinction of being one of the most challenging, both mentally and academically, of the four quarters of the school year. With half of the school year behind us, both mental energy and physical energy can be at a minimum.

It is an interesting situation that, in Catholic high schools, the mental trial that comprises the third academic quarter and the spiritual desert that comprises the Lenten season have some semblance of overlap. In fact, no matter to what extent the third quarter intersects with Lent each school year, a few realities are reliably present: the Christmas break was long ago, the Easter break is not necessarily very close, the summer vacation is too distant to fathom, and end-of-the-year projects and final examinations have yet to be conquered. Depending on your geographic location, you might even be dealing with extreme cold, winter precipitation and otherwise overcast conditions. Essentially, this can be a quite miserable time of year in various regards. One could discern that the third quarter is an acceptable metaphor for adolescence: you have to survive it in order to know just how much of a feat it actually was.

At my school, Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, which is sponsored by the Congregation of Holy Cross, founded by Blessed Father Basil Moreau, CSC, part of our charism is one that is fortunately also shared by numerous Catholic schools: forming both the minds and the hearts of our students. Therefore, efforts aimed at supporting our students’ mental sharpness while mired in the third quarter would be a bleak prospect if we did not likewise attend to the welfare of their hearts simultaneously, if not ultimately. My suggestion to you is that you do the same. Pay attention to your students’ spiritual wellbeing, in the midst of their academic concerns during this chronological intersection of the third quarter and Lent.

Here are four supportive steps to ensure that both you and your students not only mentally survive, but of more ultimate import, spiritually thrive. The first three steps (pray, fast and give) are traditional Catholic Lenten practices that have their origin in Matthew 6:1-18. The fourth step, sacrifice, is likewise an important Lenten practice and theme.

1. Pray

Typically, my theology students, in the midst of the third quarter, are tempted to have a certain malaise in terms of our practice of praying together at the beginning of each class session. Students seem lethargic, jaded and/or disenchanted with the totality of their academic expectations at this point in the school year. I have discovered that taking a moment to remind them of the importance of prayer is vital. Be sure to remind your own students that Jesus prayed to his Father constantly throughout the Gospels, especially in the most difficult moments: “Then [Jesus] told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). Jesus prayed all of the time, but especially when he was facing the trials of his imperative life. Lent is a good opportunity to remind your students that prayer gives them the strength that they need to persevere and grow closer to the Lord in the midst of their academic pursuits. 

2. Fast

Fasting is one of the most humbling experiences that anyone can undertake. Our very human nature leads us to not want to fast, but to feast when the opportunity arises. It is not surprising that the Latin term “festa/festus,” the origin of such English terms as “feast,” “festal” and “festive,” exhibits that the concepts of feast and celebration are directly correlated. It is our instinct to look forward to celebrating occasions, but fasting—for teachers and students alike—provides us with a reminder of several realities of life: among the key ones, that we depend entirely on God, that suffering is a necessary part of our earthly existence, and that we must undergo a trial prior to receiving our reward. When we are physically weary, as can occur within the third quarter, denying ourselves food may seem counter-intuitive, but it is a spiritually refreshing way to reorient our focus on the Kingdom of God. Such a reorientation allows for an enduring invigoration of our resolve as we march through the third quarter, underscored by the significance of Lent.

3. Give

The world does not say to give; the world says to take, to collect, to receive, to want, to have more. Christ’s message is precisely the opposite: “Give, and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will, in return, be measured out to you” (Luke 6:38). When you encourage your students to seek opportunities to give, whether via their time, talent, treasure, or any combination thereof, you are in turn providing them with an opportunity to better comprehend what is expected of them. This charitable expectation, based on the Lord’s assertion in Luke 6:38, is similarly reflected in a well-known excerpt from the Prayer of Saint Francis: “It is in giving that we receive.” Inspiring your students to give of themselves, through numerous capacities, will thus allow them to realize that it is in their gratuitous generosity of spirit that they will ultimately find the energy to labor for the redemptive edification of both themselves and their peers.

4. Sacrifice

The etymology of the English word “sacrifice” is that it comes from the Latin for “to make holy.” It is through the sanctification of our lives, inspired by the perfectly ministerial example of Jesus Christ, that we are able to solidify the combined goals of our prayer, fasting and almsgiving in such an avenue that we better value the Lord’s prime sacrifice for us. It is vitally necessary to guide your students to reflect on the supreme sacrifice that Jesus made for them through his Passion and Crucifixion, underscored by reminding them of the connotation of the memorial sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist. In the setting of the classroom, this guidance could come in the form of lesson plans that provide meditation focused on the Paschal Mystery, e.g., leading students through the recitation of the Stations of the Cross, or perhaps having them write a reflective journal narrative detailing the day-by-day inner torment that Jesus’ eleven remaining Apostles may have experienced throughout that first Triduum and prior to the first Easter. Such endeavors will encourage your students to more fully appreciate what they have received from God’s gift of himself through Jesus’ selfless sacrifice. Invite your students to look for ways in their lives in which they can imitate Jesus’ affirmation to God the Father: “He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30). Fundamentally, leading students to delve into opening themselves to the wellspring of love that Jesus extended to us through his sacrificial offer of Salvation is critical to allowing them to more effectively tap into their spiritual vigor as they expectantly advance through the desert of Lent in tempered preparation for the eventual celebration of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter. To ponder briefly the message of our Holy Father Pope Francis, from within his homily for Ash Wednesday this year, the Lenten season is “a time in which we try to unite ourselves more closely to the Lord Jesus Christ, to share the mystery of his Passion and Resurrection.”

May God bless you and your students during the remainder of your Lent, as we all seek additional opportunities to prayfastgive and otherwise sacrifice. This endeavor involves having your students sharpen their minds for the academic tasks that are on the horizon for the remainder of the school year, in order to inspire them to use their intellects for the greater glory of God. Likewise, and most monumentally, make sure to help your students understand that it is through drawing ever closer to the Lord Jesus Christ and his supremely holy will that they can expect the devotional vim for their souls to flourish through the Lord’s abundant grace, during Lent (along with the third quarter) and beyond.

February 19, 2015

Advantages of Using Writings from the Episcopate with Our Students

Mr. Justin McClain, a Theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, shares the importance of using primary source materials—particularly the writings of the popes and bishops—with your students. As he mentions in this article, doing so, encourages a religious literacy that furthers the Church’s efforts at a New Evangelization.


By Justin McClain

I recently had a brief conversation with a colleague, Jan Steeger, at Bishop McNamara High School (Forestville). Jan, an experienced biology teacher and faithful Catholic, is a member of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Caring for Creation Committee. Jan and I discussed how we were looking forward to reading Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the moral implications of ecology, in terms of respecting the earth as a gift for us to use, although with great caution. After our conversation, as I continued to reflect on a variety of writings from the episcopate on numerous other topics, I came to satisfactorily appreciate the breadth, extent, and availability of the writings of our bishops (including, of course, our popes), throughout the millennia. This is perhaps emblematic of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries in particular, in accordance with our Catholic bishops’ steadfast reiteration of graciously enduring dogmatic and doctrinal elements whose predication has justifiably prevailed through multiple trials and tribulations.

For the Catholic, the Lord’s words in Jeremiah 1:5 should gladden the heart when we ponder the blessing of our bishops: “I will appoint for you shepherds after my own heart, who will shepherd you wisely and prudently” (cf. Ezekiel 34:23; John 21:15). We should likewise be inspired when we meditate on Jesus’ proclamation to Peter in Matthew 16:18: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (cf. John 1:42). The God-fearing duties of our Catholic bishops are multi-faceted, and include such roles as priest, pastor (i.e., “shepherd”) and teacher. Hence, for the last nearly two-thousand years since Christ’s earthly ministry, our bishops’ ordained priestly role, in conjunction with their pastoral role, has underscored their authoritative teaching role. Therefore, it is worthwhile to share Christ’s teachings, as propounded by our bishops, with broader humanity. By extension, we as theology teachers are called to impart Christ’s teachings on all of our theology students with a truly charitable pedagogical trajectory. (This dynamic coincides with the New Evangelization, which I will remark on later.)

A few years ago, when our principal at BMHS, Dr. Robert Van der Waag, was a colleague within our Department of Theology, he gave me some valuable advice that I have prudently implemented within my own theology courses in the years since. Dr. Van der Waag, who happens to hold a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Duquesne University, and has taught courses in the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, encouraged me to ensure that I not merely describe a theological principle outlined in a primary source, but that I actually delve into the material by having my students read the primary source itself, when available (a point that I will imminently address). In the case of magisterial documents, there is hardly a shortage of relevant sources to access. Our BMHS Department of Theology chair, Adam Greer, has since likewise suggested that, when having the students read such scholarly content, I should be sure to peruse the writings with them in the classroom, on at least an introductory basis, whether in the writing’s entirety for shorter documents or in segments for the denser ones. There are various possibilities inherent to using magisterial writings in the theology classroom. As one example of myriad, when exploring the Church’s Gospel-laden teachings on service to the poor and otherwise vulnerable, a teacher could simply mention and describe the Church’s seven themes of Catholic social teaching, but it would enhance the lesson significantly to actually guide the students in reading through Pope Leo XIII’s watershed encyclical Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor (1891).

An advantage of using writings from the episcopate is their reliable fidelity to the Magisterium, given that they are imbued with a sanctified equilibrium of moral clarity and pastoral charity. This is perhaps especially true in terms of the bishops’ proclamation of the Church’s teachings on particularly sensitive moral issues that are often at odds with broader society’s canon of equivocation, whether concerning God’s plan for human sexuality in light of the sacredly complementary nature of Holy Matrimony, the innately precious value of all human life from the unborn child to the terminally infirm, the precariously detrimental underpinnings of armed international conflict, and so forth. Admittedly, while many magisterial documents, such as papal encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, or even some pastoral letters, may be perceived as intellectually impermeable by adolescents, as I stressed previously, subjecting them to deeper rhetorical analysis, as guided by the theology teacher in the classroom, can supportively enhance the academic rigor of any high school theology course.

Speaking of academic rigor vis-à-vis its associated concept of literacy, not only do we celebrate higher literacy across the globe than in former epochs of history, but our modern world, in the milieu of the “digital/information age,” further typified by globalization, is more connected, and by extension, more objectively (although not necessarily subjectively) informed, than at any other point in history. Between social media, online news outlets, digitized primary sources, and numerous other means of producing, diffusing and sharing various types of information, we have a vast assortment of ways to both retrieve and process an array of informational content. There are many positive factors implicit in this increased amount of resources, including efficiency, availability and productivity; thus, the utilization of documents from the episcopate is furthered by their broad ease of access. Hence, another advantage to using writings from the episcopate is that they are widely available, with key magisterial documents of various eras readily present on such locations as the websites for the Vatican, the Holy See’s publicly-oriented archived texts, or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Along with bishops’ documents that are magisterial per se, there are also books on various topics that bishops and popes have written, thereby contributing significantly to Catholic scholarship and theological discourse. Depending on the scope of your theology course, you might even want to have your students read these books, perhaps as a book report, within the context of an adjudicated book group presentation, or via another format of assessment. These recommendations should prove helpful as an aid as we continue the work of the New Evangelization. For example, when looking for a literary framework from which to discuss the Church’s teachings on marriage, you might read and share excerpts from Karol Wojtyła/St. John Paul II’s book Love and Responsibility (1960). When searching for means of explaining the Church’s teachings on how immigrants are our treasured brethren, you could read and share Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez’s book Immigration and the Next America: Renewing the Soul of Our Nation (2013). You might even find certain series that correspond to the particular liturgical season. For example, you might consider covering Pope Benedict XVI’s installment of Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives during the Advent and Christmas seasons, his installment of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration during Ordinary Time, and his installment of Jesus of Nazareth: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection during Lent and Easter. Of course, if you are looking to learn more about the New Evangelization itself, you might read and share Archdiocese of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s book New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today (2013). In addition to books, many dioceses also feature the homilies or personal blog entries of their respective bishops, such as the various homilies of Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, or blog posts of Cardinal Wuerl. Such are the advantageous factors when considering methods of undertaking the New Evangelization during the era of digitization.

Further referencing the New Evangelization, in the midst of considering the use of writings from the bishops in the classroom, along with this dynamic state of technological affairs that has revolutionized the communication industry, we find ourselves, as theology teachers, attempting to live out the tenants of the New Evangelization. After all, the New Evangelization has provided us with a renewed opportunity to reengage the world, and Pope Francis reminded us in Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) that “the New Evangelization is a summons addressed to all” (Evangelii Gaudium 14), which echoes the yearning of Lumen Gentium, yet another great magisterial document (this time, from the Second Vatican Council), for a “universal call to holiness in the Church” (Lumen Gentium 39-44). The message of Jesus Christ is, forevermore, refreshing and renewing: “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). An appropriate way for us theology teachers to engage with others in this New Evangelization is through ensuring that we are likewise informed ourselves in matters of faith and morals. As alluded to previously, with so much information being transmitted through cyberspace, the airwaves, digital media and other means, it can be a daunting challenge to sift through all of this opaqueness of erudition in order to ultimately encounter reputable sources. Fortunately, with the deposit of faith, comprising sacred scripture and sacred tradition, we have a wellspring of content that can simultaneously be spiritually enriching as we foster our personal relationship with Jesus Christ and effective in providing theological education of a qualitatively advanced academic fiber to assist our students as they strive to dialogue with society regarding the Church’s teachings and contributions to the public square. Assuredly, the most authoritative sources for the faithful will remain the Bible with Church-approved commentaries, along with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When choosing other sources, due care should be taken to select reading material that is doctrinally sound, and the writings of the bishops are dependably so.


To reiterate my former assertion, regarding our embrace of our role in spreading the Gospel, we theology teachers ought to recall that preparing our students for their hopefully eventual entry into respectful dialogue with society beyond the walls of a Catholic school community involves being responsibly formed ourselves, which we can undertake based on a thorough, consistent and dedicated review of the panoply of theologically sound and easily accessible readings, many of which, e.g., approved versions of the Bible and Catechism, are readily available online. Below is an alphabetical sampling of various writings (from among a multitude), whether in the setting of a papal document, pastoral letter, book, or otherwise, that you could consider having your students read, whether in whole or in part, in your courses. They should all benefit your students, and could likewise contribute to your own spiritual enrichment as a theology teacher as we continue the labor of the New Evangelization, inspired by the commitment of our bishops, who are imitating the Good Shepherd himself (cf. John 10:1-21), Jesus Christ the Lord. This endeavor should draw both our students and us ever closer to Jesus, inspired by his call in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves: For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”


A Brief Sampling of Suggesting Readings

  • The Catholic Way: Faith for Living Today by Bishop (now Cardinal) Donald Wuerl (2001)
  • The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace) by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (1983)
  • Deus Caritas Est (“God Is Love”) by Pope Benedict XVI (2006)
  • Divino Afflante Spiritu: Promotion of Biblical Studies by Pope Pius XII (1943)
  • Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) by Pope Francis (2013)
  • Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) by St.John Paul II (1995)
  • Faith that Transforms Us: Reflections on the Creed by Cardinal Donald Wuerl (2013)
  • Familiaris Consortio: On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World by St. John Paul II (1981)
  • Fides et Ratio: On the Relationship between Faith and Reason by St. John Paul II (1998)
  • The Historicity of the Gospels by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1964)
  • The Holy Eucharist by Cardinal Francis Arinze (2001)
  • Humanae Vitae (“Human Life”) by Bl. Paul VI (1968)
  • The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church by the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1993)
  • Life of Christ by Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1977)
  • Love and Responsibility by St. John Paul II (1960)
  • Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (2009)
  • The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood by Pope Benedict XVI (1960)
  • Meeting Other Believers: The Risks and Rewards of Interreligious Dialogue by Cardinal Francis Arinze (1997)
  • New Evangelization: Passing on the Catholic Faith Today by Cardinal Donald Wuerl (2013)
  • Providentissimus Deus: On the Study of Sacred Scripture by Pope Leo XIII (1893)
  • Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life by Archbishop Charles Chaput (2008)
  • Rerum Novarum: On Capital and Labor by Pope Leo XIII (1891)
  • Seek First the Kingdom: Challenging the Culture by Living Our Faith by Cardinal Donald Wuerl (2012)

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