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Catholic Education

From stories, hints of transcendence


The approach of Christmas in St. Clare’s parish on Staten Island was a bittersweet time this year. Like the rest of New York City, St. Clare’s had been deeply scarred by the events of Sept.11. Thirty parishioners had died at the World Trade Center, and the past several months seemed like an endless procession of pain and grief. The ordinary events of Advent, usually guaranteed to raise the spirits of the most hardened Scrooge, seemed vaguely muted and subdued this time.

The eighth-grade Christmas pageant, a moment that students and their families waited for throughout grammar school, looked to be almost an afterthought this year. When the day finally arrived, more than 200 parents, grandparents, family and friends, along with students from the grammar school, packed the parish church. Cameras clicked, parents nudged one another and pointed to their child, and finally the ancient Christmas story began to unfold.

Somehow the mood in that church began to change, and everyone recognized that something remarkable was happening. When John the shepherd finally led the rest of the flock to their place before the manger, our pastor, Msgr. Joseph Murphy, stood to thank the young people for their message. His voiced cracked, however, and there was not a dry eye in the church. He told these eighth-graders that they had given parishioners hope again, joy in a dismal time. In that sacred moment everything that is best about our Catholic tradition and our Catholic schools shone as brightly as any Christmas star.

Our Catholic tradition reminds young people in a hundred different ways that God made humans because God loves stories, and our lives are the stories God tells. Fr. Richard McBrien has suggested that there are “various characteristics of Catholicism, each of which ... it shares with one or another Christian church or tradition. It is their distinctive combination in Catholicism that gives it a unique flavor.” McBrien concludes that “nowhere else except in the Catholic church are all of Catholicism’s characteristics present in the precise configuration in which they are found within Catholicism.”

In his final talk, Thomas Merton challenged his listeners to search for the essential elements in their faith. He reminded them that “Zen people have a saying: Where do you go from the top of a 30-foot pole?”

What is at the top of the 30-foot pole for those who struggle to create Catholic schools that embrace this rich imaginative world? What is at the heart of our stories?

Somewhat like God

Fr. Andrew Greeley has argued that the essential quality of Catholic stories is an imagination that tends to be “sacramental.” Catholics assume a God who is present and active in the world. Everything in the world, its events, objects and people, tend to be somewhat like God.

Catholics are thus more likely to see God as acting in the world and to place great value on community, institutions and the hierarchy. Our stories emphasize ritual and ceremony. They demonstrate an interest in the fine arts and take great comfort in angels, saints and especially the Mother of God.

What do we hope to pass on to our children in our Catholic schools? Rules, doctrine and sophisticated religious education programs with lots of bells and whistles do not attract people to the church. Greeley’s research suggests, in fact, that the sacramental imagination is stronger in those who have grown up in the post-Vatican II church. He reports, “Catholics under 40 are significantly more likely to imagine God as mother, lover, spouse and friend than are Catholics over 40.” This is not to discount the role of doctrine and dogma. But, as the poet Kathleen Norris has so aptly put it: “We go to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary.”

People are drawn to religion by experiences in which they come into contact with someone or something providing hints of transcendence. Greeley suggests that the kind of things that can be religious experiences in ordinary life are reconciliation after a quarrel; meeting an old friend, say, in an airport; a smile on a kid’s face; Christmas dinner; the lights of the city at night. “Every transcendent moment can serve as a rumor of angels for young people,” he writes.

Religion in the lives of young people begins with an experience of a graced reality that renews hope. These experiences are encoded as pictures and shared as stories. These stories evoke parallel experiences in others and call them to share their experiences of hope. Our stories build solidarity and community with others. Consequently our young people become parts of a larger storytelling community that we call church.

Pastors, administrators, parents and all who support a Catholic school are anchors and points of contact with that great storytelling tradition. Students struggle to find language to express their transcendent experiences and a forum in which to share their stories. Everyone committed to the life of a Catholic school helps to define its mission by encouraging students and providing them with an opportunity to articulate these experiences and to relate them to a larger Catholic storytelling tradition.

The Catholic school exists to meet this fundamentally human and religious challenge. Our academic endeavors, our extracurricular activities, our athletic programs, our disciplinary procedures, as well as our service and worship programs, all flow out of our desire to foster the spiritual journeys of young people. The structure of the Catholic school provides a living story that strives to articulate our communal transcendent experiences of the presence of God and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Our schools have come into existence not because of a state mandate or a desire for power. Rather, they are a response to the living God who calls us to spread the good news.

Fairy tales that are true

The parents who came to that manger at St. Clare’s wanted that for their children. They hope to pass on that rich Catholic story.

Anna Quindlen described it this way: “I think those families are people ... who believe in something, ... people who feel that in a world of precious little history or tradition, this is theirs. We will pass down the story to our children: There was a woman named Mary who was visited by an angel. And that angel said, ‘Do not be afraid’ and told her that though she was a virgin she would have a child. And He was named Jesus and was the Son of God and rose from the dead. Everything else our children learn in America ... will make this sound like a fairy tale, like tales of the potato famine in Ireland and the little ramshackle houses with grape arbors on hillsides in Italy. But these are my fairy tales, and so, whether or not they are fact, they are true.”

When Msgr. Murphy’s voice caught in his throat, as he thanked the angels and sheep and John the shepherd led the flock to the manger, not an eye in the church was dry, and every heart knew that this, too, was their story.

Fred Herron is director of campus ministry at Fontbonne Hall Academy, Brooklyn, N.Y.

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002