Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

October 28, 2008

All Saints Day: Holy Humor!


Your high school students may roll their eyes in disbelief, but many of the saints were really funny people. They didn’t find it hard to pray one minute and offer a one-liner the next. Their sense of humor, practical jokes and pranks offer a great lesson on what spirituality is all about. You might consider offering a mini-lesson on the humor-and-holiness connection for November 1, the Solemnity of All Saints Day.

The Funny Saints
Yes, there were plenty of saints who thought that laughing out loud was grounds for excommunication.St. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century bishop and Doctor of the Church, said, “Laughter does not seem to be a sin, but it leads to sin . . .” St. John, also called “the Golden-mouthed” for his great eloquence, was known for his stirring sermons but obviously not for his sense of humor. But John lived in an age still touched with Stoicism, a philosophy that found emotional expression frivolous or even harmful.

Nonetheless, almost every Christian century has produced holy men and women who found that a sense of humor was extremely helpful on the way to heaven. Maybe that’s because humor requires a special insight, a more relaxed philosophy of life. People with a great sense of humor have much more than a simple knack with witty words or a great repertoire of jokes. Funny people see the outrageous contrast between what we say and what we do. They can poke fun at hypocrisy—and themselves. They see beyond the little problems and annoyances that pester us on a daily basis. They see God chuckling at his crazy two-legged creatures.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153

In the twelfth century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Cistercians, liked to laugh at his overly serious monks. One day, when opening a new abbey near Foigny, France, the monks found a huge swarm of pesky flies filling the church that was about to be dedicated. Bernard watched his monks swatting, shooing, coaxing—all with no success. Finally, the head abbot fixed his eyes on the swarming flies and solemnly and loudly declared, “ I hereby excommunicate all of you.” Bernard’s monks laughed with him but found hundreds of dead flies all over the floor the next morning.

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)

St. Francis of Assisi had a soft and gentle sense of the funny and the ironic. He poked fun, first of all, at himself. He referred to himself as the “fool for Christ,” but insisted on calling all of God’s creatures, even animals, with great respect. That often made him the butt of many jokes in Assisi. Francis even preached to the birds and the fish, taking literally the Gospel’s command to share the Good News with every living creature. Francis knew that his “talking to the animals” would make people laugh. His humor had a point and a deeply rooted spirituality.

St. Thomas More (1477-1535)

St. Thomas More—Sir Thomas then—was a lawyer and the Lord Chancellor of England when his sense of humor began to get him into very hot water. He wrote a witty satire on the political and religious hypocrisies of his time. The book, “Utopia,” was well read in England and was not overlooked by King Henry VIII whom Thomas served. Later, however, Thomas, a Catholic and a family man, was forced to tell the king that he did not condone his divorce from Queen Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn. The king saw Thomas as a traitor and ordered his beheading. As the loyal and faithful saint was led to the block, his sense of humor had the final word. As he approached the platform where the executioner waited, he asked a few bystanders, “see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” The crowd laughed and then wept. Right before his death, as Thomas laid his head on the block, he moved his beard out of the way, advising the executioner, “My beard has done no harm.”

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)

The great Carmelite reformer and Doctor of the Church, St. Teresa of Avila had an irrepressible sense of humor. A mover and a shaker during her day, she was often in conflict with many of her fellow Carmelite sisters who hated the reforms and religious discipline she was instituting. At one convent where she was appointed superior, Teresa knew that her life could be in danger. The nuns there preferred their pampered life style, luxurious furnishings and fabulous meals. They hated her. Teresa heard that the sisters would not let her sit in the prioress’s chair—a symbol of her authority over them. On the first night she was there, Teresa secretly arranged to have a huge and heavy statue of the Blessed Virgin placed on the prioress’s chair. In the morning, she greeted her sisters with a mischievous smile and sat down right in front of the chair and . . . the Blessed Mother. It was a practical joke—but a joke with a message.

St. John Bosco (1815-1888)

In Turin, Italy, a young priest from a very poor background was a hero to the city’s hordes of homeless boys. St. John Bosco charmed them with his juggling act, with his magic tricks and acrobatics. As a boy, growing up without a father, John had learned circus skills to make more money for his impoverished mother and siblings. But Father John Bosco’s fellow priests thought he was unstable. He had to be. No one would seriously want to spend time with the “worthless” poor boys who had been abandoned and left to their own devices. Two of Father Bosco’s fellow priests planned to commit him to a local insane asylum. When Father John caught wind of their plot, he played along just long enough. When his fellow clerics stepped up into the carriage, expecting him to follow, he slammed the door, slapped the horses into motion and told the carriage driver—“Take them to the asylum! They’re expected.”


Blessed Pope John XXIII (1881-1963)

Not so many years ago, in the short reign of Pope John XXIII, a short, round and elderly man, the Church enjoyed one of its funniest holy men. John had an eye and ear for the funny. When asked early in his papacy, how many people worked in the Vatican, the pope quipped “About half of them . . . “ One day, as he arrived for an outdoor audience, he overheard two elderly women discussing his physique. Pope John became pope right after the long papacy of Pope Pius XII, a slender, aristocratic man born to a wealthy family. “My God, he is fat!” whispered one woman to her friend. The pope turned on his heels, faced the women with a smile and commented, “But, Madam, you must know that the conclave is not exactly a beauty contest!” Afflicted soon after with stomach cancer, the pope made light of his approaching death. “My bags are always packed,” he laughed.



Teaching Strategies
1. Give a short history of the Solemnity of All Saints on November 1. Why does the Church celebrate its saints all together on this day? Ask students to share how this feast is celebrated in their own parishes or schools.

2. Divide up these short accounts of saints so that there is one saint story on a single sheet. Have students break into small groups of three or four. Distribute two or three of the stories to each group. Have the groups read and discuss the stories and the humor of that saint.

3. Call on the groups and ask: “How did these saints use humor—or practical jokes, etc.—to help people see things more clearly?” Which of these saints would they have liked to know?

4. Ask students if they know anyone living now who seems to be close to God who also has a good sense of humor. Are there also certain kinds of humor that hurt and divide?


Extra Credit Activity
1. Invite students interested in earning extra credit to research and share their own opinion about connections between humor and holiness. How is this feast celebrated in different Catholic parishes?

2. Challenge students to do additional research and write a two-page report on any of the saints discussed.

October 17, 2008

Parents of St. Thérèse One Step Closer to Sainthood


Mission Sunday, October 19, is the date of the beatification of the mother and father of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, one of the most popular saints of modern times. They are the first parents of a saint to be beatified and the first married couple to move down the road to sainthood as a couple.

Zelie and Louis Martin, the parents of Thérèse and eight other children, are undoubtedly particularly happy with events that brought them the title of “Blessed.” The events eternally connect them with a modern couple who are parents of a large family.

The necessary directive for the beatification of the Martins came last summer when Pope Benedict XVI authorized the promulgation of a 2003 healing of Pietro Schillero, now six years old. The healing was directly attributed to the intercession of the Martins. The boy was born with inoperable lung deformities in 2002 in Monza, Italy in the diocese of Milan.


Doctors had told the baby’s mother and father, parents of five other children, that their baby could not survive without pulmonary support. His chances for long-term survival were virtually non-existent. But, the Schillero’s pastor, a Carmelite priest, suggested that the Pietro’s parents pray a novena to Louis and Zelie Martin. The Martins would understand their agony, he told them. Louis and Zelie lost four children, three in infancy, one at five years old.

The Schilleros’ fellow parishioners joined them in prayer. On June 29, 2003, on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the baby’s condition showed dramatic and almost instantaneous improvement. Testing indicated the lungs were now unexplainably healed; the deformities had disappeared! Fourteen-month-old Pietro Schillero continued to improve and left the hospital in July, 2003. Miraculously, he went home to his overjoyed family, breathing on his own!

A happy, holy home—full of joy—was what Zelie and Louis Martin understood very well. Their beatification and expected canonization gives the world a good look at the way husbands and wives can live their lives with extraordinary virtue. The Martins believed that their vocation was raising a happy, holy family for God.

Although Zelie Guerin Martin, (1831-1877) and Louis Martin (1823-1894) were initially drawn to religious vocations, it was “love at first sight” for Zelie. She strolled past Louis one Spring day in 1858 on the bridge in Alencon. They met soon after that and married three months later. Zelie was twenty-seven; Louis was thirty-five. Louis was a master watch-maker, and Zelie, a lace-maker whose lace creations were in high demand.

The way that Zelie and Louis lived as a couple and as devoted parents amazed those who knew them well. Two months before she died, Thérèse herself wrote, “God gave me a father and mother more worthy of Heaven than of earth.“ Thérèse was only four when her forty-six-year-old mother died of breast cancer. But the saint’s memories of her mother were vivid and formative. The widowed Louis, left to raise five girls, aged four to seventeen, was devastated but continued to urge his children to listen for God’s voice.

Particularly during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, the Church has seen the enormous value in holding up married models of holiness. In 1994, the cause for canonization was launched on behalf of Zelie and Louis Martin. Proponents of their cause believe that the example of the Martins will resonate well with twenty-first century families.

This was a two-career couple who faced challenges much like those facing twenty-first century couples today—finding good child care; making a living, caring for aging parents; educating a special-needs child; forming their children in the faith; finding time to pray and staying active in their parish. Devout Catholics, Zelie and Louis saw Christ in the poor and worked for a just society.

Every day in Alencon, husband and wife attended the early morning “poor Mass,” a Mass for the town’s common laborers. The Martin children were taught their prayers and pious practices at a very early age. And above everything else, the five Martin girls learned the lessons of listening for God’s guidance. “God knows best,” Zelie often reminded her girls — Marie, Pauline, Celine, Leonie, and finally Thérèse.

Teaching Strategies

1. Summarize the story of Zelie and Louis Martin, the 2003 healing of Pietro Schillero and their recent beatification. Connect the story, of course, with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower whom students have likely heard and read about.

2. Poll students informally. What do they think are the most important things that they may one day want to teach their children? What are the best ways to teach values. Can students agree on “the most important spiritual lesson that children should learn from their families?”

3. Engage students in a brief debate on the value of spiritual “role models.” “Can saints from centuries past still serve as useful spiritual role models in our twenty-first century?” “Yes” or “No”?


Extra Credit Activities
1. Share this excellent website for the beatification of Zelie and Louis Martin and its related links to sites for St. Thérèse of Lisieux and the miraculous healing of Pietro Schillero. Challenge students to stretch their imaginations and write a three-to-five minute question and answer “interview” of the newly beatified couple for a local radio program. How would Zelie and Louis Martin deal with the challenges that families face today?

2. Invite students to produce short video documentaries that present interviews of parents sharing their views about raising holy children.

April 7, 2008

Fielding Questions About the Pope


When Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th pope of the Roman Catholic Church steps off the plane in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, April 15, thousands of Americans – Catholics and non-Catholics alike — will cheer. Cameras will be flashing. Television camera people will be elbowing and pushing to get the best footage.

For at least five days, the German-born pontiff will be front-page news in the U.S. He will celebrate his 81st birthday (on April 16) and the third anniversary of his election as pope (on April 18) during his first visit to the U.S. as pope.

Why is the pope’s visit such big news?

As most Americans know, the pope is a religious leader with great international and spiritual influence. Every pope is the Bishop of Rome and the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church until his death. Today, the worldwide Catholic population represents 17.2% of the world’s population. In the United States, there are 64.4 million Catholics. Catholics represent 22 % of the total U.S. population. That’s one in every five Americans.

During Pope Benedict’s visit, however, questions about the role of the pope may arise in many of your students. Their vision of the Catholic Church is typically limited to their own parish and perhaps their diocese. Even non-Catholic friends of your students may be asking your students, “Why do Catholics even need a pope?” “Shouldn’t Catholics elect their popes?” “Do Catholics have to obey everything the pope says?“” What does it mean when ” . . . .

When Jesus was about to die, he gave Peter a special role in his developing Church. Providing leadership for his Church was Christ’s greatest concern. Matthew’s tells how Jesus chose Peter in Mt 16:18-19. Catholic apologists say that this passage is the primary defense for the papacy and the continuing line of popes.

"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."


Other theologians point out that Peter was the first disciple called and the first one sent to preach the Good News about Jesus. It was Peter’s name that was always mentioned first in a listing or naming of the apostles. Peter was also the only apostle whose name was changed to complement his changed status. “Simon” became “Peter” a word that means “rock.”
And so, from about 33 C.E., there was a leader among Christ’s closest followers, a chief shepherd for his flock. Peter himself was executed on a cross in Rome about the year 64 C.E. Still remembering his betrayal of Jesus, he asked to be crucified upside down. He was not worthy, he said, to die in the same way as his Lord. In the first few Christian centuries, many of the early popes were martyred for their faith.

More information about why Catholics would rely on a pope is found in the text The Church: Our Story:

In order to answer this question, we must complete a circle and return to the first mark of the Church—its oneness. The pope is the “perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity of bishops and of the multitude of the faithful.” As Catholics we believe that without the pope the unity of the Church would be severely threatened by local churches and bishops addressing competing national and cultural issues. There have been many times in the history of the Church when such national issues did seem to compromise the unity and universal nature of the Church. In some of these instances, the personal, national ties of the reigning pope have contributed to the problem, yet the formal institution of the papacy has always stood for a unity which supersedes these ties. Even after the most troublesome periods of Church history, because of its institution by Christ, the papacy has always been maintained as an institution that is not subject to any one nation or culture, and as an institution that draws us into a unity which goes beyond national and cultural boundaries. As the successor of Saint Peter and head of the college of bishops, the pope is the pastor who watches over the whole Church and each of its members throughout the world.

Each diocese or “local church” is led by its own bishop who has also been established by the Holy Spirit. This bishop has the primary responsibility for interpreting and handing on the apostolic tradition within his own diocese and also for keeping his diocese united to the universal Church.21 Each bishop must adapt the Church’s teachings to the particular culture and particular needs of his own diocese. Yet when these necessary and lawful adaptations are made, it is important that the unity of the Church be maintained. The fidelity of each individual bishop, and of all of the bishops together, to the bishop of Rome (the pope) helps ensure that unity is not lost.

The role of the pope is not limited to the preservation of the Church’s unity. The pope also has the task of giving voice to the universal mission and vocation of the Church. The pope calls Catholics everywhere to remember their responsibility to all of God’s people and not just those in their immediate vicinity. The pope also calls Catholics everywhere to remember that there are certain Church teachings which cannot be adapted to suit the local culture. There are issues—such as the protection of the rights of the most defenseless—that are fundamental to the universal vocation of the Church; they must not be ignored or denied by any who wish to call themselves Catholic.

Study Questions
ß How is the Church faithful to its apostolic nature?
ß What historical circumstances led to the Church’s emphasis on apostolic succession?
ß What is the role of the pope?

Journal Assignment
ß Write a letter to your local bishop. Describe your faith in God and the Church. Tell him some of the plans you have for your life.

March 17, 2008

Stations of the Cross: Student Meditations


For centuries, Christians have imitated the last painful journey of Jesus, his “Way of the Cross”. It seemed to be a natural devotion for “followers of Jesus” to imagine themselves following his footsteps on the agonizing journey to Golgatha, the rocky hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and died.

Although the Stations of the Cross has diminished as a devotion in recent decades, it remains a Lenten practice that many people still find very meaningful and powerful. In 1991, this practice was given new life by Pope John Paul II. It is becoming more popular again. The pope revived the Biblical or Scriptural Stations of the Cross and suggested that the Church follow this set of stations since they are rooted in the four Gospels. Each year, the pope prays the stations in the Coliseum in Rome. In Jerusalem, thousands of Christians follow the original Stations or Way of the Cross through the Old City. The path Jesus followed is called “The Via Dolorosa” or the “Way of Sorrows.”

A different set of stations, the Traditional Stations or the Traditional Way of the Cross may be familiar to your students. It is these station scenes – and not the Biblical Stations scenes – that can be found in most churches and at outdoor stations.

The Traditional set depicts apocryphal scenes, events not described in any of the Gospels. Among these scenes are the three falls of Jesus, his encounter with a woman named Veronica, and his agonizing meeting with his mother Mary.

The Traditional Way of the Cross presents the following stations:

I. Jesus is condemned.
II. Jesus takes up his cross.
III. Jesus falls.
IV Jesus meets his mother.
V Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus.
VI. Veronica wipes Jesus’ face.
VII. Jesus falls again.
VIII. Jesus meets the weeping women.
IX. Jesus falls a third time.
X. Jesus is stripped.
XI. Jesus is crucified.
XII. Jesus dies.
XIII. Jesus is taken down from the. cross.
XIV Jesus is buried.



The Biblical Way of the Cross presents the following stations:

I. Jesus prays in the garden. (Luke 22:41-46)
II. Jesus is betrayed and arrested. (Mark 14: 43-46)
III. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin. (Matthew 26:62-66)
IV. Peter denies knowing Jesus. (Matthew 26: 69-75)
V. Jesus is condemned by Pilate. (Luke 23: 13-15, 23-24)
VI. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns. (Mark 15: 16-19)
VII. Jesus takes up his cross. (John 19:16b-17)
VIII. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus. (Luke 23:26)
IX. Jesus meets the weeping women. (Luke 23:27-31)
X. Jesus is crucified. ( Luke 23:33-38)
XI Jesus promises paradise to the crucified thief. (Luke 23:39-43)
XII. Jesus cares for his mother. (John 19:25-27)
XIII. Jesus dies. (Luke 23:44-47)
XIV. Jesus is buried. (Luke 23:55-56)


Consider involving students in the creation of their own Way of the Cross. Then, finish Holy Week with a prayer service for your own class with their own unique interpretation of an ancient devotion.

Lesson Plan
1. Give students a brief 15-minute summary of the history and evolution of this Lenten devotion. An excellent resource is the Vatican website.

2. Distribute copies of the Biblical Way of the Cross stations with the Scripture references. Hand out Bibles as well to all the students. Divide the class into seven groups. Assign two stations to each group. The groups should read the Scripture references for their stations and write short (50-to-80 word) meditations for each station. Encourage students to let their own “voices” as 21st-century American teens shape their meditations.

3. Collect the station meditations and have a small group of students editors combine them and add a brief introduction. Duplicate this Way of the Cross for all. Recruit a second small group to create a PowerPoint presentation of meditative art and music for your own class Biblical Way of the Cross prayer service.

March 13, 2008

On-Line Almsgiving?


Free rice sent when visitors play vocabulary game

Take five minutes online and feed the hungry . . .

Check this out and consider recommending a brand new website where your students can donate free rice to the hungry while playing an interesting and educational vocabulary game. The "Free Rice" site was created by John Breen, 50, a computer programmer with a heart for the world’s poor and hungry. Breen, who lives in Bloomington, Indiana launched the site in October, 2007, in collaboration with the United Nations and the UN’s World Food Program. Fortunately for Breen and the world’s poor, the website got immediate publicity from National Public Radio, the CBS Evening News and the BBC. Sponsors from all over the country plugged in quickly.

Visitors to freerice.com simply play a vocabulary game, selecting a simple definition for each word. For each correct answer, the site’s sponsors donate 10 grains of rice. To keep the game interesting, the words become increasingly challenging as the gamer plays . . . from easier words like “engage” to more challenging words like “flinders”, “glister” or “chelonian. ” In the first few months of the site’s existence, 16 billion grains of rice were donated.

An anti-hunger activist, Breen and others concerned about world hunger estimate that it would take $195 billion a year to provide enough food for survival for every person on the planet. An estimated 30,000,000 people die of hunger every year. While studying economics at Harvard, Breen discovered that international hunger presents a cruel paradox. In a world where so many die of hunger every day, there is actually plenty of food to go around.

Breen understands that the average well-fed and well-intentioned person just doesn’t know what to do about global hunger. The problem seems too big. People have trouble dealing with the gruesome pictures, the overwhelming statistics. So, Breen broke down the hunger issue. He came up with an ingenious way to give food, little by little – ten rice grains at a time. And it’s fun at the same time.

Helping everyone to see the need is part of the solution, anti-hunger activists say. Helping them see that they can do something is also vital.

In these last days of Lent, remind students that though Lent is quickly coming to an end, the Gospel mandate of Matthew 25 to help the poor never ends. We must feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, Jesus said. “What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.”

Lesson Plans
1. Share some current statistics about hunger in the U.S. and in the world. For example, according to Bread for the World:
• More than 854 million people in the world go hungry.
• In developing countries nearly 16 million children die every year from preventable and treatable causes. Sixty percent of these deaths are from hunger and malnutrition.
• In the United States, 11.7 million children live in households where people have to skip meals or eat less to make ends meet. That means one in ten households in the U.S. are living with hunger or are at risk of hunger.


2. Remind students that almsgiving or giving to the poor is one of the three pillars of Lent. But neither almsgiving nor prayer and fasting should be shelved until the next year, once Lent ends.

Extending the Lesson
1. If possible, use a laptop or classroom computer to display the Free Rice website (www.freerice.com) for students. Make the point that one person used his creativity and modern technology to create a whole new way to feed the hungry. Free Rice is almsgiving on-line, but the only cost to users is their time.

2. Invite students to breakdown into small brainstorming groups of three or four. Challenge each group to come up with at least two viable ways in which their school could help feed the hungry. [Note: Programs do not have to be sponsored websites like that developed by John Breen. Nor do programs need to be without cost to participants]. Save time for the groups to share their ideas. Vote on and adopt one for post-Lenten almsgiving.


February 29, 2008

March 3 Is Feast of Millionaire Saint, Katharine Drexel

A quarter of a billion dollars – $250,000,000,000!!


That’s the estimated modern value of the inheritance left to Elizabeth, Catherine and Louise Drexel when their father died in Philadelphia in 1885. It’s the kind of fortune that many people still dream about and play the lottery to win.

But within ten years, the middle daughter – Sr. Mary Katharine (Catherine or “Kate” Drexel) was in the process of spending it all on the care and education of American blacks and Native Americans. One of her sisters had died and the other supported Catherine completely. In 1884, the year before her father died, Kate had been horrified when she saw the sickening poverty and hopelessness of Native Americans on reservations in the Northwest. The U.S. government had brutally violated treaty agreements with virtually every Indian tribe. In 1889, Kate Drexel shocked Philadelphia when she entered the convent, and promised to give her fortune away.

“Sister Katharine” soon founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament at Bensalem, Pennsylvania. This new order was to serve needy and uneducated Blacks and Native Americans. Her sisters began to build and open schools and hospitals for these minorities all around the country. Even in the beginning, however, not all Americans liked Mother Katharine’s goals. The Civil Rights movement was still decades away. As her order’s new motherhouse was being built in Pennsylvania, a stick of dynamite was left nearby as a warning. In 1913, the Georgia Legislature tried to pass a law that would have prohibited white teachers from teaching black students. And in 1915, when Mother Katharine open Xavier Preparatory School in New Orleans for young Blacks, every window was smashed. Today, Xavier Prep Academy educates girls in grades seven through twelve. In all, Mother Katharine and her sisters founded sixty-five schools, churches and centers in twenty-one states. In 1925, a four-year college program was added to Xavier Prep, and Xavier University was begun. It is the only Catholic institution of higher learning in the Western Hemisphere that was historically founded for Blacks.


If Mother Drexel lavished her fortune on others, she spent almost nothing on herself. She used pencils until they were nubs. She wrote return correspondence on the blank side of the letters she received. She even sewed her broken shoelaces back together. Day after day, the woman raised in a wealthy mansion with dozens of servants remained self-effacing, patient, and good-humored. When she suffered a devastating heart attack in 1935, all her schools and missions worried. They loved this generous “mother” and prayed for her survival. But those at Mother Katharine’s schools and missions also knew that their
funding would end when she died. Her father had set up a trust that directed that if his daughters died without heirs, the remaining Drexel money would be donated to a variety of religious orders and charities. There was no way to change the trust. When Mother Katharine died, her schools and hospitals would have to find new sources of funding. Miraculously, she lived to the age of ninety-six, dying in 1955.

Mother Katharine was canonized as a saint in Rome in 2000 in the midst of many of her wildly cheering religious sisters, and hundreds of Black and Indian Americans who’d been blessed by her almost unimaginable generosity and service.

Lesson Plans
1. Briefly retell the story of Saint Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) her life as an heiress, her vocation and tremendous contribution to the education of minorities. Emphasize that St. Katharine, whose feast is celebrated on March 3, was canonized in 2000. She is only the second native-born American woman to become a saint. The first was St. Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) who was canonized in 1975.
2. Ask students if they can think of other great saints or humanitarians who – like St. Katharine Drexel – literally gave away everything they had. (Students may suggest the names of such people as Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, etc).
3. Recruit one student to read the Gospel account about the rich young man — Mark 10:17-27. St. Katharine Drexel may have interpreted this Gospel in a dramatic and personal way. Divide the class into small groups. Ask students to discuss ways in which they could personally become more generous, and find inspiration in the life and example of fellow American Catholic, St. Katharine Drexel.

Extending the Lesson
1.Invite students to do independent research on modern and well-known philanthropists such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Oprah Winfrey. How and why have these individuals chosen to give to others?
2.Direct students to the Katharine Drexl mission center website or the Vatican website that each provide additional background information about St. Katharine Drexel and her ministry.

February 8, 2008

February 11 Marks 150th Lourdes Anniversary



“All My Children” Actress Stars
in Newly Released Films on Lourdes


Many teens and adults alike will tune out the upcoming barrage of Catholic media reports about Lourdes, France where a poor and sickly 14-year-old girl reportedly received eighteen apparitions from the Blessed Virgin Mary during the cold, wet spring of 1858. The first apparition occurred on February 11, 1858, a date now recognized worldwide as the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and a worldwide day of prayer for the sick.

Though Lourdes has launched a year–long jubilee (December 8, 2007–December 8, 2008) that will draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims including Pope Benedict XVI, interest in Marian shrines and devotions is not usually on the radar screen for many younger Catholics. Most have heard little about them and the devotions they have inspired. Catholics are not required to believe in apparitions. But “approved” apparitions like Lourdes echo the Gospel and reawaken faith. They draw people into prayer. About five million pilgrims visit Lourdes each year.


Many of your students will immediately recognize Emmy winner and All My Children actress Sidney Penny as Bernadette in two excellent films about Lourdes. Though older and highly acclaimed films, they have only recently been released to the American market. In Bernadette, made in 1987, a youthful Sidney portrayed the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous struggling to convince her family and community that “a lady in white” really did come to speak and pray with her. In The Passion of Bernadette, a sequel released in 1989, she portrayed Bernadette as a self-effacing young nun faced with deteriorating health and the cynical doubts of her religious superior.

Penny’s reflections about playing Bernadette and these two full-length features present an excellent way to tell the Lourdes story and explore its lessons in a teen-friendly way.

Bernadette tells the Lourdes story so well that it is shown each day (in English or French) to pilgrims from all over the world. Penny got the lead after more than 400 young French actresses tried out for the role. Jean Delannoy, one of France’s leading directors, saw something uniquely spiritual in the demeanor and face of the young American, Protestant fifteen-year-old. The film was shot on location in Lourdes in southern France.

“I knew nothing about Bernadette Soubirous before I received the script,” Sidney Penny said years after the film was made. “As I began to learn more about her, I discovered that she was just like so many teenagers - awkward, challenged in her studies, and trying to bear up under the pressures of her family and then later, the pressure the world put on her. I was moved by her honesty and humility and what touched me spiritually was the simple thought that there is a message for each of us, if only we keep our ears open to hear it.”

In fact, messages that Bernadette heard in the visions from the Virgin were for the whole world. In visits to the girl in the rock grotto, she said she wanted people to pray—especially the Rosary—and do penance for sins. Mary also asked that a church be built there, promising that many would find healing in waters from a new spring. Mary had Bernadette dig a small hole with her bare hands until a gurgling trickle of water bubbled up. Overnight, the trickle turned into a gushing stream, producing 14,500 gallons of water a day in modern times. Thousands of cures have been reported at Lourdes but less than one hundred have been declared “inexplicable” by the Lourdes Medical Bureau. In 1862, the local bishop approved the Lourdes apparitions as “worthy of belief.” This judgment authorized devotion and pilgrimages to Lourdes.

Understandably, Sidney Penny was asked to portray an older Bernadette in the 1989 sequel, The Passion of Bernadette. This film tells the story of the little saint’s difficult life and failing health in a convent at Nevers, France. Filming the life of Sister Marie-Bernade in the convent where she lived more than a century ago was a wonderful and inspiring experience, Sidney recalled.

Bernadette’s uncorrupted body lay in state inside a glass coffin in the convent church sanctuary. “Seeing her,” the actress recalled, “was very moving; [she was] so tiny and fragile. It was probably the only time an actor has ever come face to face with the historical figure they were portraying.” Portraying Bernadette, who died at thirty-five and was canonized on December 8, 1933, was inspiring, full of humbling surprises.

One day, when Penny was in costume, wearing a habit like the one Bernadette wore, she met some German pilgrims near the chapel. “The sisters always speak of her [Bernadette] in the present tense,” Sidney explained. “The pilgrims were really absorbed. So when they saw me there, I think they were truly confused and sort of enraptured—and a couple of them, fell on their knees in front of me and asked me to touch their rosaries. And it was so strange because I knew exactly what Bernadette had gone through! I was like, whoa! I can’t bless your rosary. No, you don’t understand. I’m an actress; I’m from California! It was pretty wild!”

Actress Sidney Penny believes that the success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has helped the American film industry realize that the people need films that—as she put it—“fuel their souls as well as entertain.” The story of Bernadette has much to tell people today, she believes.


Lesson Plans

1. Use Catholic Encyclopedia or similar internet sources on Lourdes and Bernadette to summarize the message of the Lourdes apparitions.

2. Make sure that students understand that the Church does not require belief in such events even when apparitions are declared “worthy of belief.” Nonetheless, recent popes have all visited and prayed at Lourdes and other places of approved apparitions, especially Guadalupe and Fatima.

3. Show previewed segments of the film Bernadette and open discussion of the film and Bernadette’s claims. This film and The Passion of Bernadette can be ordered through Ignatius Press. Be aware that some viewers have criticized the portrayal of Bernadette as disrespectful and argumentative. Criticism has also been made of the fact that neither the director (Jean Delannoy) nor Bernadette (Sidney Penny) are Catholics. Query students. Do they agree with either of these criticisms?

4. Invite students to share further about places of prayer. Where do they like to pray? Would they want to visit a shrine like Lourdes? Could it be easier to pray where many other people are praying?

5. Provide students with other Lourdes links.
• The interview with actress Sidney Penny about her role in Bernadette
• The interview with Sidney Penny about The Passion of Bernadette. These links are to the Ignatius Press website but the interviews are also available elsewhere on the web.
• A website featuring information about American celebrations of the Lourdes jubilee.

February 4, 2008

Ash Wednesday “Kicks off” Lent

Just three days after “Super Bowl Sunday,” on February 6, the Christian world tunes in for another kind of “kick-off.” Ash Wednesday “kicks off” Lent, the forty-day season that prepares us for Easter. If you are thinking that Lent seems awfully early this year, you’re right. February 6 is the earliest date for Ash Wednesday since the middle of the nineteenth century. Easter—unlike Christmas and most other religious feasts—is a “moveable feast.” This year, Easter is March 23. But in 2007, it was April 8. Next year, in 2009, Western Christians will celebrate Easter on April 12.

Our Long History with Lent

What the Church asks of Catholics during Lent today is very different than what was asked of Catholics long ago. From the seventh century on, Catholics were to abstain from some foods during Lent. No meat, no dairy products and no eggs! The word “Lent” was Anglo-Saxon in origin and meant “springtime.” These forty days limiting the food people were eating had some seasonal logic as well. During the spring, sheep, cattle and fowl were giving birth or hatching their young. Slaughtering livestock in the Spring was particularly wasteful. Also, grain, dried vegetables and fruits from the previous year’s harvest were running out. So, it made sense that thick soups, vegetable dishes, fish and breads made without eggs or milk were on the Lenten menu—day in, day out.

Fasting regulations dictated the amount of food that people were permitted to consume. Portions were to be much smaller. Meal preparations were to be much simpler. It was also common for people of all ages to “give up” or “fast” from sweets, special treats, or entertainments they were fond of. Lent, made people lean, hungry, and sometimes cranky. By the end of Lent, Christians everywhere could hardly wait for the Easter celebration and feasting that broke the fast.

The “Three Pillars of Lent”

During Lent, the Church asks Catholics to really focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving. These three practices are called the “Three Pillars of Lent.” It is these three practices that Jesus highlights in the Gospel passage the Church selected for proclamation on Ash Wednesday (Mt 6:1-6;16-18). In Lent, the Church hopes that Catholics will find spiritual nourishment in the Gospel, in prayer, in the Mass, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and in charitable works and outreach.

Today, Catholics are freed from the rigid dietary regulations of the past.

But, we are not freed from the observance of Lent. The Church asks all

Catholics to take Lent seriously and that’s not always easy. Many people view Lenten observances as a silly “blast from the past.” They make jokes about giving up candy, ice cream, Starbucks, or “Gossip Girls,” implying that there’s much greater merit in doing “something positive,” such as helping an elderly neighbor, cooking a meal for a shut-in, babysitting for free or simply sharing jokes and friendship.

Emphasize with your students that Lent is all of this and then some. However, traditional Lenten practices should certainly be presented as positive, relevant, and effective tools for spiritual growth. “Giving up” a favorite food or recreation for six weeks does take some strength of character and certainly won’t harm anyone’s health. If it’s done, however, it should be done, as Jesus advises, “in secret” and without seeking approval and praise.

Lenten Regulations

The “Three Pillars of Lent” are general Lenten practices advocated by the Church. There are specific regulations, as well. Let your students know what these regulations are:
• Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
• Catholics 14 years old and older must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.
• Fasting as explained by the U.S. bishops means partaking of only one full meal. Some food (not equaling another full meal) is permitted at breakfast and around midday or in the evening—depending on when a person chooses to eat the main or full meal.
• Abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat.

Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten Request

In this year’s Ash Wednesday letter to the Church, the pope asks Catholics to pay particular attention to almsgiving. Pope Benedict XVI referred to the Gospel, saying that we are really not the owners, but the administrators of our possessions. We are to act as stewards of what we have on behalf of those in need around the world.

Plan to spend some time discussing these principles about ownership vs. stewardship with your students. Catholic social teaching really does confront modern American materialism, and the all-too-common response from that “poor people are just lazy.” Many people will also resist appeals for almsgiving with the response, “I work hard for what I get. What’s mine is mine!”

The Cross of Ashes

Parishes all across the country know that Ash Wednesday—like Christmas and Easter—will draw surprisingly large crowds. Even inactive Catholics want that cross of ashes on their foreheads. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return,” the minister of ashes declares as sooty crosses are traced across our foreheads. A second formula reminds recipients of ashes: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Remind your students that these ashes are burned palms from the previous Palm Sunday that have been blessed. The sprinkling or tracing of ashes isn’t just a “Catholic thing.” All through the Old Testament, Israel’s prophets called for repentance, symbolized by the wearing of rough sackcloth, and by the pouring of ashes over a penitent’s head. In the early history of the Church, these or similar customs were followed by those seeking reconciliation with the Church after serious sin. Near the end of the eleventh century, Pope Urban II mandated the imposition of ashes for all Catholics on Ash Wednesday.

Lenten Lesson Plans
1. Briefly summarize major points about Ash Wednesday and Lent as you see fit. Much of the background material could be presented in brief presentations during the first week or two of Lent.

2. Poll students about how they plan to observe Lent. Ask them to offer practical suggestions for each other. Encourage real – but sustainable – commitments.

3. Divide the class into three groups and distribute copies of the Ash Wednesday Gospel Mt 6:1-6, 16-18. Assign one group to read what Jesus advises about prayer, another to focus on alms-giving and the third on what Jesus says about fasting. Allow ten to fifteen minutes for discussion. Call on the groups to tell how these Gospel messages can be applied to the way Catholic teens observe Lent.


Applying the Lesson

1. Assign a small core of students to investigate local outreach programs. When they report back, have the class vote for a Lenten project to help the hungry, homeless or lonely. In the spirit of Matthew’s Gospel, caution students to serve “in secret.”
2. Recruit a local speaker (parent/ teacher/ community leader) to talk about personal prayer and what a difference it has made to his or her life and work.

October 19, 2007

What Can We Do About the Teen Code of Silence?


Recently, a handwritten note was dropped on a stairway at my daughter’s Catholic high school. Not a really big deal when you consider that almost 700 students bounce through the school corridors every day. But this note—recovered by one of the cleaning staff—was a death threat. It was aimed at six of the school's high profile African American students in a student body that’s proud of its 16% minority enrollment.

The school administration acted fast. Threatened students and their parents were called in. The students agreed not to come to school the next day. The police were notified and a thorough investigation began. Two weeks later, after front-page coverage in the local newspaper, everyone in town knows about the note dropped on the stairway at our high school. But the writer of the note has not been identified. Many questions remain:

• Who wrote the note?
• Was the note dropped accidentally or on purpose?
• Was this a serious threat born of sick, racial hatred?
• Or was this just a really stupid adolescent prank?


For school administrators, teachers and law enforcement authorities, there’s another big question:

• Aren’t there any students at this school who saw or heard something about this hate note?

Adults who work with teens know they’re up against a brick wall in cases like this. Catholic school teens seem to be no different. That brick wall is the unspoken “Teen Code of Silence.” Teens really don’t want to “rat” on one another—no matter what. They close ranks. They stick with the code.

Often, their silence is understandable. There could be reprisals if one teen tells on another, and word gets around. Young people are also terrified by the social ostracism that could come with being identified as a “snitch” or a “tattle tale.” Added to that, high school students also believe that they should mind their own business. “I don’t bother anyone else. They don’t bother me” seems to be a key part of the teen code.


How Do You See This Issue? How Do You Handle It?

1. Has your school faced issues like the one described above?
2. When have you experienced this “Code of Silence” among your students?
3. How can teachers and administrators help teens balance this wide-spread “don’t rat” policy with concern for truth, justice and the welfare of those who can hurt others or themselves.

For further information on this issue, see how schools and school districts in
Starkville, Mississippi, Boston, and Silver Springs, Maryland have handled the problem.

If you have any valuable ideas, please feel free to share them in the comment section below.

July 17, 2007

“Thou Shall Not Drive Like a Road Hog!”


When students roll back into school parking lots in a few weeks, some will have heard of the new “Ten Commandments” for drivers.

On June 19, the Vatican ‘s Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers released a 59-page document about driving with Christian values. It’s called Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road.

Say what?” a few pundits immediately snickered. “We thought the Church was only worried about what goes on in the bedroom. Now, the pope wants to sit in the back seat and monitor our driving?”

But even teen drivers would agree that the Vatican might have a point. After even a few years of driving, teens often see road rage, horrifying accidents caused by carelessness, and plenty of bad manners behind the wheel, “Cars tend to bring out the ‘primitive’ side of human beings, thereby producing rather unpleasant results,” the document said, stating its case for a look at behavior on the road. In fact, driving is really a life issue explained the cardinal who heads the pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers. “We know that as a consequence of transgressions and negligence, 1.2 million people each year die on the roads,” said Cardinal Renato Martino. The Vatican felt it necessary to address the pastoral needs of motorists, he added, because driving has become such a big part of contemporary life.

So, the “Ten Commandments for Drivers” should be a pretty good place to jumpstart informal class discussions about everyday morality. But get ready for some students who insist that Stop and Yield signs are commonly ignored by everybody, and that nobody really expects drivers to obey the speed limits.

Get some moral mileage from these brand new guidelines for life in the fast lane.

The Ten Commandments for Drivers
  1. You shall not kill.
  2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.
  3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.
  4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.
  5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.
  6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.
  7. Support the families of accident victims.
  8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.
  9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.
  10. Feel responsible toward others.
Suggested Mini-lesson Teaching Strategies *
  1. Summarize accounts about the release of this unusual Vatican document about driving — Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road. Sample students for reactions to the Church’s suggestion that the way people drive IS a moral issue. Do they agree? Disagree? Want to think about it further? If students don’t raise the issue themselves, discuss the “logic” of moral principles applied to everyday situations.
  2. Provide copies of The Ten Commandments for Drivers. Have students break down into small groups to review and discuss the commandments. Have one student in each group record group responses to the following questions/activities. 1. Which commandment seems to be most needed (most violated now)? 2. For them personally, which commandment will be the most difficult to “drive ”with? 3. Were they surprised to see “You shall not kill” which is actually the fifth commandment listed first? Why or why not? 4. Can they visualize Commandment 8 at work? What good things might result from bringing together “guilty motorists” and their victims (or the families of the victims)? 5. List ten or more values or virtues that all Ten Commandments promote.
  3. Creative Learning: As a class, discuss and then plan three strategies for publicizing and promoting The Ten Commandments for Drivers among student drivers, and in the community as a whole. (Suggest commandment posters, cartoons for display in the cafeteria, posted “Did you know?” fact sheets about traffic injuries and deaths, public service style public address announcements made in school, letters to the school paper or local newspaper, etc.)
* Especially appropriate as alternative 30-minute mini-lessons for teachers using Ave texts, Catholic Social Teaching: Learning & Living Justice or
Your Life in Christ: Foundations of Catholic Morality.

June 19, 2007

Book Ideas for Summer Reading

With most schools now closing for the summer, the lives of many teachers move in a different direction. For many, it's time to sloooooow down a bit!
Once you've had your vegging "fix," you might want to catch up on some reading—for recreation and spiritual renewal. It's a great part of many teachers' summer routine. It's relaxing; it's rewarding; it's recharging.

But, where to start? Here's three places to look:

1. The Catholic Summer Reading Program List

Check out this great, eclectic list of 64 Catholic books from a variety of publishers at the Aquinas and More Catholic Goods. This list is also featured on Amy Welborn's website, Open Book.

There are plenty of ways to launch your summer reading here. Featured in this inviting and diverse list are classic Catholic novels, biographies, books on apologetics, theology, philosophy, architecture as well as books on faith in the family, Islam, the Sign of the Cross, the Crusades and much more.

2. Lessons for Teachers from the Saints

A brand new book for teachers about saints titled My Best Teachers Were Saints: What Every Educator Can Learn from the Heroes of the Church by Susan Swetnam has just been released by Loyola Press. The author draws on the lives of fifty-two saints to offer teachers approaches for dealing with classroom conflicts, disgruntled colleagues, disconnected parents, and more. A new twist on the rich resources to be found in the stories of the saints.

3. Considering Hospitality and Forgiveness

Two new and attractive little books from Ave Maria Press are also easy reading but serious explorations of topics that demand the attention of teachers every day. Every Day Hospitality: Simple Steps to Cultivating a Welcoming Heart by Thea Jarvis is a delightful presentation of the real meaning of hospitality and its precious but often needed niche in modern life. Facing Forgiveness: A Catholic's Guide to Letting Go of Anger and Welcoming Reconciliation by Loughlan Sofield, Carroll Juliano, and Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin, Texas is an wonderful collection of real-life stories about forgiveness. An excellent introduction, helpful reflection questions and appendices make this book an excellent handbook on forgiveness.

March 14, 2007

Patrick: The Terrified Teen Who Learned to Trust

Few Catholic teens realize that the famous St. Patrick of Ireland would never have inspired so many people to dye their hair green or to eat corned beef and cabbage (which they often pretend to like...) if he hadn't found the gumption to do some gutsy things as a teenager. Patrick (or Patricius in Latin) had been kidnapped as a boy in Great Britain. He spent six long, lonely years in slavery as a shepherd in the cold hills of Ireland. Then one day in his teens, Patrick dreamed that God was calling him. He risked his life to be free and ran away.

Anita McSorley's terrific article, The Patrick You Never Knew," isn't particularly new but it deftly sorts biography from blarney where Patrick is concerned. What's left is a well documented portrait of a strong and courageous saint whose story should connect well with teens.

If you are teaching church history, ecclesiology, or an introduction to Catholicism, you might easily comb through this article to put together a powerful mini-lesson on Patrick, a terrified teenager who learned to trust God.

November 15, 2006

Ready to Retreat?

Haven’t done much of this myself in recent years, but I hear that a growing smorgasbord of spiritual retreats now offered at many retreat centers around the country can be “lifesavers” for us battle-weary, multi-tasking adults who can’t readily ease off the fast track. Teachers, of course, fall into this large lump of humanity in our culture.

A recent contact with Ann Luther, executive director of Retreats International, now based in Chicago, confirms that there’s plenty of teacher-friendly retreat options nationwide. It’s true that many diocesan education offices annually offer some retreats for teachers but sometimes these are just not enough. “Rehab for the soul” – that’s Anne’s take on what retreats can do for us.

Retreats International’s website directs you to a state by state listing of RI member centers. Most retreat facilities feature websites or phone numbers to let your fingers to the shopping. Cruise this site. Everything from the snug cabins tucked into the woods at the Creighton University Retreat Center at Griswold, Iowa to the breathtaking views of the Pacific offered by a center like the Headlands Institute Conference and Retreat Center near Rodeo Beach, and twenty minutes from San Francisco.

According to Luther, many teachers might prefer thematic retreats on topics like politics and faith, peace, the psalms. These retreats are often offered on weekends or in the evenings. If you’ve got a bit more time, you and some teaching buddies may want to try a guided retreat. These retreats, Luther says, feature talks on selected themes or Scriptures, but allow retreatants plenty of quiet time to read, recharge, pray, walk, swim, row a boat, and zzzzzzzzz . . . get in some holy snoozing. Directed retreats usually take longer and present the Ignatian retreat format.

It all sounds great to me . . . What’s your take?

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