Dear Star Parents.
I haven’t written in two weeks and I’ve been thinking about this for a while, so please forgive the length and the Halloween throwback. I suggest setting aside a little time and listening to this song as preface before reading.
On Halloween, I had a conversation with one of our students who despises Halloween. “It’s too scary,” he said. “Everything looks bigger, meaner, and scarier in the dark.”
And he’s right. I am most fearful in the dark when I feel most alone. Any movement or sound seems a sure sign of my imminent demise. Worse is the terror that comes after being in a huddle of friends recounting scary stories that usually begin with, “Have you heard about…?” And go on to describe some evil being you can summon with a mirror or gameboard by chanting something spooky. Typically, these stories end with, “It’s true, you know, believe me. I saw it… Or it happened to a friend.”
In times of change, such as we are experiencing here at Star, there’s lots of huddled groups, lots of stories, and lots of compounded fears in the darkness of the unknown. Normal things expected to be seen and heard in any Catholic school, like:
- a new book fair, admittedly not as robust or as carefully planned due to our community’s tragic loss, but still a book fair that celebrates the heroes of our faith, as well as the dignity and goodness found in our humanity. We are teachers and didn’t foresee any conflicts with the stopgap, we just saw good books.(Insert shrug emoji)
- the anticipation of Catholic Schools Week, The Walk for Life, and Vocations Day, all calendar events after January.
- Catholic speakers – from the Papal Ninja to 20-somethings coming to talk about living a life of virtue in an X-rated world that infiltrates our children’s lives via something as seemingly innocuous as an online video game.
- discussions of chastity and the sanctity of life in our Family Life lessons
- the mere mention of nuns possibly returning to Star. Bringing a few nuns back into the fold is a move I personally embrace, especially considering the amazing women with whom I’ve had the privilege to work and have had the honor of calling mentor and friend..
- kids being taught the Rosary, the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.
- school families being invited to attend Sunday Mass and to maybe help pass out donuts while wearing their school sweatshirts. I mean really, are we really hating on donuts?
Right now, in our community, these things are looked upon with fear and skepticism while at any other parochial school worth their weight, these are not noteworthy things.
It seems to bear repeating that our school has a shiny, new six-year accreditation from the Western Catholic Educational Association, the highest score possible that extols not only our rigorous academic program and our incredible teachers, but also, and more importantly, recognizes our Catholicity – the active faith-filled Christian celebration of our faith in all that we say and do.
Since taking over the helm, I’ve wondered, even despaired over, why we seem so reticent to claim our Catholicity. Why do so many seem scared or ashamed of it? Why are we afraid to market, discuss or bring to light what is indeed our crowning glory – the lifework of Star’s staff and faculty members who, often at great personal sacrifice, have consistently worked to grow and nurture throughout our school’s existence? It is an achievement Mr. Hanley and all of us who work here are incredibly proud to have been given. And yet I ask the question, why is our teaching and living out of our religious faith here at Star proclaimed with a whisper instead of a shout?
I suspect the numerous emails I’ve received and conversations I’ve had that are centered on how scary things are is because we are in this precarious time of rebuilding broken relationships. Naturally, the bullet points above are deemed immediately suspect by some in our community because we are literally living in the crosshairs of the larger debate of what living a Catholic life actually means. No one’s defined it and that leaves a lot to interpretation, thus opening the way to fear and speculation. But within this uncertainty lies opportunity, too.
So, let’s get real. Many think the religious stuff we do here – which we’ve done in the past and some for as long as I’ve worked at Star – is odd or strange or just, “Ehh, whatever, that must just be a Catholic thing.” For others, what we do is downright scary.
This is our darkness… It is our grave lack of understanding and consensus of what it means to be Catholic. Worse is the deep seated fear that we will be examined and judged unworthy. (Am now subtly pointing back to the paragraph about our recent 6-year accreditation.)
Added to this is the question of who is accepted into this community. Will our non-Catholic family members continue to have a place at the table? Of course they will, at least for as long as they can accept and live with our weirdness. If not, what’ll I do with my atheist husband?!
Or how about our brothers and sisters who claim being a liberal Catholic, or a Catholic in name only? How about just C&E (that’s Christmas & Easter for you newbies) Catholics? Will we all be condemned as not Catholic enough…? Again? I have a college student who fits any and all of these descriptions. I would never condemn my daughter for her place on her faith journey, but I can invite her to remember the roots of her faith, nurtured here at Star. To be clear, I have been assured that all who accept and agree to the contents of our Family Handbook are still and will still be welcome.
Like some of you, I was walking around in this darkness, deep diving into it until I was near paralyzed. Then, when I stepped into this office, I was invited by the parish to help provide hospitality after the 9:30am Mass (this means bringing donuts – it’s ok if you didn’t know, I didn’t either). I’d heard about the practice of Ad orientem at Star from Terry, who’d attended Mass to provide hospitality once a month. He also told me he took bread kneeling at the altar rail, but with his hands, not his tongue (because, ewwww). At Star on Sundays, I’ve since learned that all are welcome to the altar rail to simulate a family gathering around the table to share a meal. And it doesn’t matter if you’re kneeling or standing, or receiving with hands or by tongue.
Was I scared to go to Mass at Star after nearly 3 years of going elsewhere? Yes. Did I go? Yes. Was it as scary as I thought? No. Was it different? A little. In all honesty, I witnessed what Terry always told me Mass at Star was for him. It was beautiful and reverent in its own right. So, now I know how my Grandma worships. Not particularly my cup of tea, but to each her own. And I’m not writing off my Grandma for the way she worships our God.
Truly, though, how Mass was celebrated didn’t matter. In the end, I’d heard The Word, received Eucharist, reconnected with parishioners, and met new friends. You see, I found the hospitality after Mass to be an extension of the message and celebration of Christ in our lives. In the yard, Father Illo told a joke I thought was funny and I laughed. Then we found ourselves laughing together. I watched our priests bless all the little children at Communion and witnessed them converse with Star parishioners over orange juice.
This is how relationships are built. A wave of hello, a few pleasantries, a little bit of give and take. A smile, a laugh. A little bit of kindness, a little bit of faith (perhaps in our case, a lot bit).
Now, before you start calling me a Pollyanna or start whispering about how I’ve been drinking the Catholic Kool-aid, let me just say I’m of the mind that people canchange – otherwise why would I ever be an educator? I am faith-filled enough to believe in redemption, am working to learn to love my neighbor, and I truly believe the Holy Spirit is at work beyond the church building, when we’re all sharing a laugh over a donut.
This year, I’ve chosen to work with what I have in front of me because there’s no sense in wandering around in the dark, over-examining and wringing my hands over the things of the past that brought me -us- such strife.
Regular exposure to the very things and people I once thought menacing has me realizing I’ve always been Catholic enough – that the Catholic Kool-aid has alwaysbeen a consistent part of my diet and that I sorta miss the donuts. Frankly, I am quite proud of how I’m growing in my faith and I don’t have to be defensive about how I live out the message of the gospel.
Will we continue to have our differences with the Parish? Yes, of course we will. Will things sometimes be uncomfortable, maddening, or seem downright terrifying as we travel this journey of reconciliation together? Yes, I’m sure things will. But God doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves. So, why should we continue to fret over what’s been bad? Why not look at and focus on all the good and the positives of what can be?
Therefore, while in this role, I’ve chosen to seek the good and I’ll keep on making decisions with the faculty about what’s best for our students, both academically and spiritually. We will continue to encourage a prayer life and offer messages of hope, love, peace, generosity, acceptance and resilience to help guide each into whole personhood. Ours will continue to be a community and curriculum based on our Student Learning Expectations, school mission, and charism of our founding Sisters. I will work tirelessly with our chaplain and our pastor to preserve and strengthen the Catholicity of our school.
I wonder if you might be willing to step into the light and join me in sharing a donut and sipping the Kool-aid as we come to realize that all the things that cast the big shadows and make us afraid are actually quite familiar things – stuff that’s not so scary once we see them for what they are. I’d rather do this with full transparency, and likely some bumbling around, welcoming in new information from the parish, digesting it and figuring out how it fits into who we are and have always been at Star.
In a world where fake news is a thing and the future seems all sorts of bad, where the norm is everyone shouting from their bubbles, maybe it’s time we hold out a hand and work to hear the Good News. Perhaps then we’ll come to realize we share common values and a similar vision of what a loving and faithful school community can be.
To laughter, donuts, and walking in the light,
Mrs. Theresa Poon