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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

December 5, 2016

Two Great Teachers of the Faith: St. Nicholas of Myra (December 6) and St. Ambrose (December 7)

As Christmas approaches, remember to tell your students not only that Santa Claus is “real,” but that the saintly figure behind the legend is even more of an inspiration than the jolly perennial visitor of mythical renown! On December 6, the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Nicholas of Myra (ca. AD 270 – 343), and on December 7, the Memorial of St. Ambrose (ca. 340 – 397). These two holy men actually have a fair amount in common:

  • They were both bishops and profoundly intellectual leaders within the Church;
  • They were both staunch opponents of the Arian heresy;
  • They were both greatly devoted to selflessly serving the poor and oppressed;
  • They both lived during the same epoch in Church history;
  • They were both responsible for noteworthy conversions (with Nicholas inspiring others to turn away from the Arian heresy, and with Ambrose playing a key role in the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo);
  • They both led many hearts to the Good News of Jesus Christ through their teachings and example, practicing what they preached (cf. Matthew 23:3b).

The occasion of these two back-to-back memorials on the liturgical calendar is a crucial opportunity to learn more about the lives of these two saintly men, both for your own inspiration as a teacher and in order to lead your students to a greater awareness of these saints’ multiple contributions to the Church and to the kingdom of God by extension. Below are some resources to use in your classroom (and be sure to tell your students about how St. Nicholas [in]famously “took matters into his own hands” at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325)!


Saint Nicholas (December 6) Resources:

St. Ambrose (December 7) Resources:

St. Nicholas of Myra, pray for us!

Saint Ambrose, pray for us!

November 2, 2015

All Souls’ Day and Why Catholics Pray for the Dead: A November Exercise

At the conclusion of most of our school-wide communal prayers at Bishop McNamara High School (Forestville, Maryland), we readily request “Saint André Bessette, pray for us! Blessed Basil Moreau, pray for us!” These two holy men of God (the first a humble Holy Cross Brother and the second the devout founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross) are powerful intercessors to whom the members of our high school community have a deep devotion, as we likewise do to Saint Joseph and Our Lady of Sorrows, in keeping with the charism of Holy Cross. Is your Catholic school named for any particular saint(s), or does it otherwise have a devotion to particular saints and/or blesseds? If so, do your students ever ask why you communally and collectively invoke their intercession to God in heaven? Similarly, does your Catholic educational institution pray for those loved ones within your extended school community who have passed away?

November 1 and November 2 are two very special days in the liturgical life of the Church. On the one hand, we prayerfully ask the saints to intercede to God for us in a special way on All Saints’ Day (November 1), while on the other hand, we commemorate and pray for the souls of all of our faithful departed on All Souls’ Day (November 2). An interesting dynamic is that the latter of these two days likewise involves asking the saints in heaven to intercede to God for the dead whose souls might be in Purgatory. Beyond merely these two days, we can thus pray constantly throughout the year, although especially during the month of November.

The theology teacher has the ability to rely on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day as key opportunities to explain to students why (and how) the Catholic Church advocates for both asking for the intercession of the saints and praying for the dead (whose souls could be in Purgatory). There are numerous commonly-occurring misconceptions regarding the Church’s teachings on these profound theological topics, and they deserve thorough clarification. Of particular note, both practices are based on the duality of the Deposit of Faith – Sacred Scripture (stemming from passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament) and Sacred Tradition (having been Church practice for nearly two-thousand years [and even earlier if we consider the broader expanse of salvation history]). Since previous posts have focused on All Saints’ Day, below are some resources on All Souls’ Day in more particular terms, which the theology teacher can use for deepening his or her content knowledge, as well as to foster classroom discussions regarding the Church’s practice of praying for the dead. There are many resources available, but here are some prominent ones that can help guide your discussions especially throughout the month of November:

“All Saints and All Souls” by Fr. William Saunders (Courtesy of the Catholic Education Resource Center)

“All Souls’ Day” (Courtesy of the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)

“What Catholics Believe: 10 Truths about Purgatory” by Valerie Schmalz, writing for Catholic San Francisco (the publication of the Archdiocese of San Francisco)

The Section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church Regarding Purgatory (Paragraphs #1030-#1032)

October 12, 2015

How Catholic Schools Can Address the Sinful Nature of Bullying

Over the last few decades, there has fortunately arisen a greater awareness of the scourge of bullying within school settings throughout the United States. To be clear, the awareness is the fortunate aspect, while the prevalence is the obviously deleterious one. In other words, bullying is being exposed for what it is, while the sheer quantity of its occurrence remains stunning.

In a digital age ever more categorized by the trappings of the realm of virtual reality afforded by the Internet and social media, bullying now has an altogether uncharted dimension whereby much of it takes place even outside of a school’s walls. Worthwhile initiatives such as and the HRSA’s Bullying Prevention Campaign have brought the dilemma of bullying and its proposed remedial measures to national prominence, leading schools and other administrative societal frameworks to address the issue and seek possible solutions.

Catholic schools, while unfortunately hardly immune from the effects of bullying, are actually in a position to positively contribute to this significant dialogue, yet with an even greater ethos: that of the theological dynamic inherent to the consideration of the sinful nature of bullying, which is opposed by way of a call to virtue as its true alternative. Listed below are four ways that Catholic school teachers, administrators, and other personnel within the school community can encourage their students to not only stop bullying or condoning the behavior of [would-be] bullies, but to likewise deter and dissuade students from otherwise contributing to such inappropriate comportment by encouraging them to seek justifiably righteous demeanors instead. These suggestions are not necessarily programmatic or systematic, but they will reliably help to confront the heart of the matter of bullying: the requirement that we recognize that our neighbor is likewise made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). As such, these recommendations may initially appear to be fodder for cynicism, but an uplifting and optimistic approach imbued with Christian principles is due for consideration, and can yield highly affirmative results in order to facilitate enduring peace in our schools.

  1. Familiarize yourself, and share with your students, scriptural passages related to the Christian way to approach others. Have your students reflect on these, perhaps in written form, such as in a prayer journal or within the context of a more extensive essay. A few (of the many) passages to consider, in canonical order, include the following (courtesy of the New American Bible, Revised Edition):          


  1. Remind your students of how school is meant to be a safe place. This statement may seem trite, but students must recall that being at school implies being in a secure location, both physically and socially. Feeling isolated, whether through intentional exclusion, is not a normal condition, and there are many support networks available for them, including your school’s guidance office, campus ministry, or another outlet that will allow them to express their concern and to build up positive relationships with others.
  1. If you notice that a student is, or has become, particularly withdrawn, emotional, sensitive, or similarly out of his or her typical character, speak to his or her guidance counselor or to a school administrator. Your student might be dealing with a considerably concerning situation, either within or outside of school, that deserves attention.
  1. Pray. Jesus taught us the need to pray consistently, particularly during a trial or set of difficult circumstances: “Then he told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). Bullying has been a disordered specter within humanity for a multitude of generations, yet we must steadily recall that Jesus himself knew revulsion and mistreatment at the hands of his tormentors, and he of course has provided us with the epitome of a Christian response – one laden with prayer (read Matthew 27:46 [and Mark 15:34] in light of the extent of Psalm 22 [often denoted as the “Prayer of an Innocent Person”]). Bullying can ultimately only be counteracted with the love which must typify our Catholic educational institutions. After all, as Jesus reminds us: “‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’” (Luke 6:31). And just how seriously does Jesus take our expectation to treat everyone else in a Christian manner? In comparison to this passage from Luke’s Gospel (6:31), how fitting that the version in Matthew’s Gospel, the great “teaching Gospel,” features the added attestation that the Lord holds this Christian outlook to be so crucial that he further asserts that “‘this is the law and the prophets’” (Matthew 7:12). In other words, against injustice, God commands us to have love for others.

September 21, 2015

Ideas for Curricular Supplements on the World Meeting of Families

At this point, hopefully both you, your students, and others throughout your community are excited about the Holy Father’s imminent visit to the United States. This is a historic occasion for a variety of reasons: this will be Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States; this will be the first time that any pope has addressed the U.S. Congress; and Pope Francis’s visit will be closely affiliated with the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. Regarding the latter point specifically, the World Meeting of Families will occur from Tuesday, September 22 to Friday, September 25, while the Holy Father’s presence in Philadelphia will be Saturday, September 26 and Sunday, September 27.

It is important to recall that the World Meeting of Families is not merely an event to capture the attention of parents with families –after all, it is likewise a chance for even the youth to be drawn to reflect on the importance of the family within society. As such, here are some ways that Catholic school teachers can incorporate the setting of the World Meeting of Families into curricular lessons:

  • Guide your students in a reading of the first two chapters of both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Then, have your students reflect on the unique respective roles that Mary and Joseph filled as Jesus’ parents within the framework of the Holy Family. Ask your students worthwhile questions such as the following: How did Mary and Joseph hold indispensable roles when it came to both protecting and following the Child Jesus? What challenges would the Holy Family have faced, including during Jesus’ infancy, his childhood, and his adolescence prior to the beginning of his public ministry? In what ways did Mary and Joseph remain faithful to their divine Son as he advanced [in] wisdom and age and favor before God and man” (Luke 2:52)?
  • Look through the short videos offered by the World Meeting of Families that cover various Catholic initiatives, in order to familiarize yourself with both the topics covered and how students can learn more about matters of faith and the family long after the World Meeting of Families has concluded.
  • Have your students read about, and perhaps write their own short biographical sketches of, some of the Saints for the Family included on the World Meeting of Families’ website.
  • Have your students look through the profiles of the World Meeting of Families speakers for sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as Thursday and Friday. Ask your students which particular session(s) they would attend if they could. You might also ask them what hypothetical session(s) they would develop, organize, and lead if given the opportunity.
  • Share and recite the “World Meeting of Families Prayer” with your students during class. The prayer is available for free as a PDF (and can even be viewed in multiple languages in order to add an international scope to your lesson plans).
  • Encourage your students to follow the proceedings on the upcoming 2015 Synod on the Family that will take place at the Vatican from October 4, 2015 through October 25, 2015.

Perhaps most importantly, encourage your students to pray for holy marriages, for the spiritual wellbeing of husbands, wives, and their children, and for them to look with hope to the model of the Holy Family as their Christian inspiration.

Most Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, pray for us!

September 11, 2015

Encouraging an Actively Pro-Life Generation of High School Students

This year marks twenty years since the release of St. Pope John Paul II’s watershed encyclical Evangelium Vitae: On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life. The recent undercover videos exposing heinous acts against human life by Planned Parenthood have resulted in many Catholic bishops writing pieces both condemning these acts and calling for greater societal reflection on pro-life matters as a whole, as we see in the statements of such prelates as Cardinal Seán O’Malley  (Archbishop of Boston and Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities) and Archbishop Charles Chaput (Archbishop of Philadelphia). In a similar purview, we are called to meditate on the significance of all human life from the perspective of addressing numerous social polemics, as we have seen reinforced by bishops such as Archbishop Blaise Cupich (Archbishop of Chicago).


As the Catholic Church continues to proclaim the sanctity of every human life (as it has done for nearly two-thousand years), from the point of conception through the eventual occasion of natural death, there are numerous opportunities for Catholic educational institutions to play a key role in reinforcing a “Culture of Life” throughout both the United States and the world. As a prominent example among many, the annual March for Life takes place each January 22 (or the Monday thereafter) in Washington, DC, in order to raise awareness of the dignity and sanctity of all human life. This is, of course, in the wake of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on January 22, 1973. A reliable presence at the March for Life is the multitude of Catholic schools (both K-12 and higher educational institutions) that stand up for the recognition of the shared humanity of all unborn life.


High school students in particular are in a position to take their support of pro-life principles seriously, given their preparation to enter into the international dialogue on this critical issue following their graduation, advancement to university studies, and subsequent participation in broader society. Below are various ways that teachers in Catholic high schools, particularly (but not exclusively) theology teachers, can encourage their students to become engaged in the pro-life movement, along with methods of leading students to better learn and understand the vital theological basis by which we celebrate human life in all its multi-faceted stages.


  1. Have students read through Evangelium Vitae, at least in excerpted form. Lead them through a discussion of the monumental points of the text, and offer certain questions that give them the opportunity to reflect profoundly on why all human life, especially including babies as the most innocent, is so special and sacred.
  1. Along with Evangelium Vitae, have students read through other papal encyclicals that underscore the value of human life and God’s plan for human sexuality. A few examples (of numerous) include Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae: On the Regulation of Birth and Pope [Emeritus] Benedict XVI’s 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth (especially paragraphs #28 and #75). In more recent times, Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home has invited us to consider how humanity is the pinnacle of all of God’s creation (such as through drawing us to realize that protecting all human life specifically is a necessary element of respecting God’s creation broadly [as we read in paragraph #120 in particular]).
  1. Organize a pro-life prayer service, perhaps led by students from your school’s pro-life club. Offer reflective intentions that call on humanity to show ultimate respect for all human life, including the unborn, the elderly, the seriously infirm and terminally ill, and even the inmate facing capital punishment, as well as others.
  1. Have students see if your school will allow them to complete their periodic service hours by volunteering at a local crisis pregnancy center or other pro-life organization.
  1. Have students write to their local political officials in order to encourage them to enact pro-life legislation and other civil measures for the broader good of society.
  1. Encourage your students to learn more about how they can delve deeper into knowledge of, and commitment to, pro-life issues, such as by visiting the website for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, or various local [arch]diocesan committees, such as the Archdiocese of Washington’s Department of Life Issues.
  1. Inform students about the availability of different free resources offered by the Catholic Church, as well as other Christian groups, such as Project Rachel Ministry, that help bring women and men to spiritual healing in the aftermath of having undergone an abortion. On this latter point, make sure to emphasize to students that, in the midst of such a violation of the dignity of human life, God offers mercy to those who are truly repentant, as Pope Francis reminded us when talking about this sensitive topic within the context of his recent Letter of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy (December 8, 2015 through November 20, 2016).
  1. Pray for all of your students to appreciate the gift all human life, which God has given to us so abundantly (cf. John 10:10). Likewise, pray for them to make wise and prudent decisions, in order to foster a more charitable and peaceful world for the Lord’s greater glory.

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 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.


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 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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