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Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

October 4, 2007

St. Francis and the Environment

While October 4 is the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi, the area of ecology or the environment of which Francis is a patron is one that is not limited to any one time. The current issue of St. Anthony Messenger is devoted to Franciscan spirituality and how it teaches us to be good stewards of the earth. This is an outstanding issue worthy of class study.

Your class might also enjoy reading together Francis’ “Canticle to Brother Sun”. This would lend itself to a PowerPoint presentation as a prayer reflection on God’s wondrous creation.

Reading the “Canticle” might inspire your class to tackle Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur”. This could prompt a reflection on how God sustains creation in the face of human exploitation. Some discussion starters might include:

1. What is the worst ecological issue facing our local community today? What factors contribute to it?

2. Who has the authority to address this issue? Can we as a class do anything to help remedy it, for example, by writing letters to legislators, to those responsible for the abuse, to newspapers and local TV outlets to encourage them to discuss the issue in print or on the airwaves?

3. Are there any ecological issues here at our school? Messy lunchrooms? Lights left on in the classroom when not in use? wasted paper? etc. What can we do to help preserve resources and make our school community a more pleasant place to live?

September 13, 2007

More Chances to Write and Win!

Dear Religious Educators,

Welcome back to another school year! May God bless you and your students in the exciting months ahead.

I am so happy to see that Ave Maria Press is sponsoring an essay contest on Blessed Basil Moreau for you and your students.

I think it is a great idea for your students to consider entering this and other writing and poster contests. Here are a couple more that my students have entered over the years. I offered them as a substitute for one of my more conventional reflection essays. Unfortunately, none of my students ever won. However, those few who took the opportunity to do something a bit different enjoyed the challenge and the chance to express themselves to a larger audience.

  • The first is from the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers. The topic is on the timely theme of peace—“Put Away Your Sword.” You can find the particulars at the Maryknoll website.
  • The second is a poster contest sponsored by the Christophers on the theme of “You Can Make a Difference.” Its deadline is January 18, 2008. There is a downloadable entry form found on the Christopher website.
Good luck to your students.

May 6, 2007

One in Four Read Diocesan Newspapers

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
– Sir Richard Steele

“I took a speed reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.”
- Woody Allen

An item in this month’s issue of St. Anthony Messenger reports that, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research (CARA), only a quarter of American Catholics have read their diocesan newspaper at least once in the past six months! And almost a quarter reported that they had read one or more national Catholic publications during that time.

The survey was commissioned by the United States Catholic Bishops’ Department of Communications. Conducted in the fall of 2005, the survey contacted 1,260 self-identified Catholics, ages 18 or older. Not surprisingly, older Catholics and those who attended Mass more frequently were more likely to read their diocesan paper or other Catholic publications.

As catechists, we can do our part to increase readership of Catholic publications. Perhaps you might try one of these with your students:

  • Have students report on an article of interest about something happening in their home diocese. You can find a great list of diocesan newspapers online via the Catholic Press Association website.
  • Assign a short research project on some current ethical issue. Have your students consult articles that appear in popular Catholic periodicals like: St. Anthony Messenger, U.S.Catholic, Liguorian Magazine, America, Crisis, et. al.
  • Have them report on a biography of a Catholic profiled in one of these publications.
Happy reading!


April 26, 2007

New Zealand and Great Britain: Worth a Visit

FaithCentral is an excellent website maintained by the New Zealand Catholic Education Office and the National Center of Religious Studies. Visit the “Classroom” for some great ideas and links for courses ranging from Catholic Identity, Church History, Scripture, Morality, Jesus, Social Justice, Sacraments, Ecumenism, and so forth. Be sure to click on each year (Years 9-13 and Strand) to see the wide variety of modules.

Another good source from overseas comes from the Praying Each Day website sponsored by the De La Salle Brothers in Great Britain. Click on the “Religious Education” link under “Education.” Though some of the links are dead, there are many wonderful resources worth checking out. You can also find some great Prayer and Social Justice sites listed under the “Prayer Links.”

Good luck in your searching.

January 11, 2007

The Christophers

Happy and a blessed New Year to all the readers of this blog. I want to tell you about a great book I just finished reading—the anniversary edition of Father James Keller’s You Can Change the World. The revised version of Father Keller’s classic was edited and abridged by Gerald M. Costello (New York: The Christophers/Alba House, 2006) to help commemorate the founding of the Christopher Movement in 1945. This timeless book contains much wisdom on the power of the individual to be a “Christ-bearer” in the world.

The Christophers are still going strong today. I’ve been receiving their free News Notes for years (they do appreciate contributions). Their most recent ones deal with serving God’s people, a guide to teen dating (excellent advice for your students), practical tips on how to make a difference, and the power of prayer. Many times over the years I used various of these News Notes in my teaching—with good success. The Christophers also sponsor an art contest for high school students. (I’ve encouraged students to participate as an alternative to one of my other projects. Unfortunately, none of my students won, but they did produce some wonderful posters!)

Fr. Keller makes a strong case for Christophers to get involved in careers and professions that make a real impact on society: the fields of education, government service, labor-management relations, and writing and other forms of media. Students would benefit from reading this book simply to consider some vocations that are truly ones of service.

He also includes chapters on how to write letters and how to give a speech. I especially take to heart Fr. Keller’s observation that a clearly written letter to a person of influence can make a difference. This is one practical and effective way for students to get involved in various social justice issues.

The second last chapter of the book gives reminders for Christophers. Many of these apply to us religious educators as well. Here are some of my favorites, good thought-provokers for a new year:

  • Depend more on God, less on self.
  • Be world-minded, not local-minded.
  • Aim to serve, not be served.
  • Be gentle, don’t hurt.
  • Submit ideas, don’t impose them.
  • Be optimistic, rather than pessimistic.
  • Admit your mistakes, don’t deny them.
  • Be humble, not proud.
  • Be a doer, not just a talker.
Hope you get the book and enjoy it as much as I did. God bless.

December 5, 2006

Random Acts of Kindness

Religious educators and catechists are always looking for good ideas on how their students might translate faith into action. Christmas is an especially good time to remind us of why and how to love. Check Random Acts of Kindness for some great ideas. The site also has some nice e-cards that your students might send to their friends.

A spinoff idea: Challenge your students to create and send their own Christmas e-cards with an appropriate Biblical passage to commemorate the Lord’s birth.

December 5, 2006

The Nativity Story

My wife and I saw this wonderful film yesterday after Sunday Mass. It was very well done. Joseph comes across as virile and a person of profound faith. Scripture is integrated well into the dialogue. The settings seem realistic. The music is inspirational. And there is a bit of humor with the Magi—the back-and-forth banter evokes gentle smiles. The only thing I didn’t like was the washed-out color throughout the film, but this critique is from a person weaned on the brilliant technicolor of the 1950s.

Perhaps you can assign the viewing of this film for extra credit.

November 20, 2006

A Letter of Thanks: Thanksgiving Activity

I tried this as a prayer exercise in all of my classes the day before Thanksgiving vacation. I duplicated on various colored sheets of paper the word Thanks. I would generally use a graphic or two, easily downloaded after googling “Thanksgiving graphics.” I asked the students to take one of colored sheets that they found appealing. I also gave each of them an envelope.

Then, I offered a spontaneous prayer of thanksgiving for all God’s blessings: for the gift of life, the gift of faith, the gift of Jesus and salvation, the gift of our families, the gifts of our intelligence and health, the gift of freedom, etc. I always included a prayer thanking the dear Lord for my students as well.

Next, I asked students to quietly think about a person for whom they were especially thankful and then invited them to write a personal letter briefly expressing their gratitude for the goodness of that person. Popular recipients included: a parent, a friend, a teacher, a coach, and a parish priest. After ten minutes of writing, I concluded the prayer session and then challenged the students to send their letter, or deliver it personally. (I would always volunteer to deliver their sealed envelopes to any of my colleagues who may have been fortunate enough to receive “a letter of thanks.”)

The students always seemed to appreciate this opportunity to say thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

November 14, 2006

There and Back Again: An Author's Tale

My wife Carol and I recently drove 3,500 miles from our home in Austin, TX, to visit my publisher at Ave Maria Press on the beautiful campus of Notre Dame. We then drove on to the Cleveland, OH, area to visit two of my children and three granddaughters. We came back by way of Branson, MO, where we took in some wonderful shows, including the “lovely Lennon sisters,” (I got to meet Janet, my favorite from when I was a youngster); Bobby Vinton, who had a terrific show, which also featured his two beautiful daughters and talented son; and the incomparable Andy Williams and his Christmas show. Besides the great shows in Branson, three things are memorable from this trip.

The first was driving through this beautiful country of ours and taking in the magnificent Fall colors, especially in southern Illinois. Our gracious Lord paints his colors on the landscape, manifesting his beauty in nature and in all God’s creatures. God’s goodness is reinforced in Effingham, IL, at the intersection of I-70 and I-57 when you see from the road the magnificent Cross standing by the interstates, reminding us of the Messiah who gave his all for us.

My next fond memory is of the fantastic people I met at Ave Maria Press, which has published my books since 1976. I wish you could all work with such a talented and loving group of people like Mike Amodei, Bob Hamma, Cathy Odell, Peter Gehred, Karey Welde, Tom Grady, Keri Suarez, and so many others. These folks are simply the best in the business, so affirming, so devoted to spreading the Gospel. I thank the dear Lord that I am associated with AMP.

Finally, my granddaughters! I was telling a former student recently (he’s now a senior in college) that being a father is quite miraculous. But being a grandfather—it is beyond description! On this trip, I bonded in a special way with my oldest granddaughter, Natalie Louise (age 3 on November 19). I think it is because I told her stories, just like I used to do for my own children when they were little. After she would crawl up on my lap, I would start the story. It was always about me (Pop-Pop) and her (“Puddin’”). We would go into the woods and be confronted by a big bug, and then to a river where we would meet an alligator, then on to a desert where we would be dying of thirst, then on to a waterfall where we would have our thirst quenched. After a series of further adventures, where our lives were in danger—but I would always rescue her or she me—we would eventually make it back home, safe and sound.

Natalie loved the stories and asked me to retell them time and again, making sure I got all the details right. She even asked my wife to tell her the story that Pop-Pop told her and “be sure to tell about the big bugs.” Of course, Carol didn’t hear the story, so I had to coach her on the details.

In reflecting on why Natalie wanted me to tell the same story over and over again, I came to the conclusion that kids—in fact, all of us—like to hear happy endings. We don’t mind the scary parts as long as there is a good outcome. We also like stories where we can picture ourselves being in it.

This makes me think of the Nativity story (also the title of a new movie). Do we ever tire of hearing about and celebrating the beginning of “the greatest story ever told”? Don’t we imagine ourselves in the Holy Land, journeying with Mary and Joseph, picturing the inn, the stable, the shepherds, the Magi? Christmas is a time for children (and grandchildren), but also a time to recall God’s great gift to us—the Messiah. Perhaps this coming Advent season, we could plan some special projects with our students and children. Don't know what to do? Here are some good ideas.

And let us not forget Thanksgiving, recalling that Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” When we thank someone we express our gratitude and appreciation. We acknowledge what has been done for us. Can we ever thank God enough for the gift of life, for the gift of salvation, for the gift of grandchildren? Thank God for the Eucharist where we can certainly try to acknowledge God’s goodness. Another question: Can authors ever adequately thank their readers for reading their books? Probably not, but I would like to try by personally thanking each of you for your interest in my work and the other wonderful books and products that Ave Maria Press publishes.

Finally, please check out one of my favorite web sources, well worth investigating.

May our dear Lord bless and keep you.

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