Back to the Future

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed.

 back to the future

by Sara Janecko Milone.

It’s Monday morning and I’m driving to work on familiar roads. I look around and glance at the houses that line the commute, taking note how they have been updated over the past two years. It’s all so familiar, and yet it has changed.

I am familiar with the school, the position, the ministry. But yet, like the houses that line my commute, I have changed. I am returning to a position at the school in which I taught and ministered for seven years, but have been away for two years to stay home with my young family.

These past two years have afforded me the opportunity to be present at home with my daughters and enjoy the little moments as well as the big milestones. Beyond family life, these two years enabled me to try new things, to stretch myself in my ministry and to explore new ways to respond to God’s call in my life. Spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy and online class facilitation have inspired new personal and professional growth, and have deepened my relationship with God. I know I will be a better teacher, minister, mother, and human being because of how these experiences have shaped me.

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed. I know the mission, I know my colleagues, I know the routine, and yet the students do not know me. My former students have all graduated. From perspective of the current students, I am a brand new teacher with no baggage, history or reputation. I have the unique opportunity to have a fresh start, to reinvent myself and my teaching. How many times do you have the opportunity for a second chance, a completely fresh start?

The courses may be familiar, but my philosophy of religious education has shifted and evolved. In my first tenure at the school, I had just graduated with my Masters in Divinity. I was intent on convincing the students to view Religion as an equally important and rigorous class as their other academic subjects. After all, people spent years studying theology in higher education.

My experiences during the past two years have prompted me to reflect on the primacy of cultivating relationships with self, others and God in the ministry of religious education. While imparting the content of our faith to my students is certainly important, my main purpose as a religious educator is to form disciples in the faith. This paradigm shift has energized me and inspired creativity with how I want to teach my classes and minister to my students. I’m grateful for the grace of a fresh start: to honor the familiar and embrace the change.

Sara Janecko Milone

Sara Janecko Milone is the Director of Campus Ministry and religion teacher at an all girls high school in Newton, MA.

Why I Left

So I made up my mind. . . that this had to be my last year there.

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by Anonymous

When I was about 10, my family went to a church picnic after mass one summer morning.  While there, the pastor came over to my three teenage brothers and I, and with great exuberance, asked, “Would you like to travel the world, meet amazing people, and serve God?” My older brothers, knowing where this was going, shuffled their feet, stared at their shoes and mumbled into their collars.  But I excitedly answered, “I want to do that!” To which this pastor responded, in a kind but disappointed voice, “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that.”

I think I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to prove this pastor wrong.  I studied hard, got theological degrees, and followed my vocation to teach high school theology and work in campus ministry.  I did this for many years, certain that this was God’s will for my life.  And I was good at it, even receiving the highest award in Catholic education given in the archdiocese in which I live.

However, in the last few years of my job, there was a change of leadership.  The lay person that hired me became a friend and mentor who I trusted implicitly.  Though he still held a leadership role in the school, a member of the religious order that “technically” ran the school (in basic ceremonial roles for the majority of my tenure) was given top billing.  This priest was familiar with my work, as he and I had been interacting for a few years.  But with his new leadership role, he took to micromanaging my job.

Bit by bit, he began to tear down my confidence: second guessing my choices, double checking my details, and generally causing me to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt.  Like any good manipulator, his tactics worked.  I began to slip and make errors I had never made. I started to doubt my own abilities, never realizing why I was doing what I was doing. I was convinced that I was losing my touch and getting too old for my job.

It just took one moment to see everything with clarity; the moment he spoke to me in that demeaning way he spoke to our teenage students.  He reprimanded me for a comment I made among colleagues; a comment that I had made 3 months prior, at the end of the previous school year.  It was not a comment that I regret making, for I spoke a truth about our Church.  He then felt entitled to follow his reprimand with a personal attack that went right to the heart of everything I believe about myself.  In that moment, I was that 10 year old girl, being told that I couldn’t serve God.

So I made up my mind that day–at the very beginning of a new school year–that this had to be my last year there.  I knew I could never go to another school; I had too much love and devotion for my principal to do that.

In the #metoo movement, I have nothing dramatic to claim: just a few clerics thinking that they are inherently smarter, infinitely more worthy of authority, perhaps even more deserving of God’s grace and love than me.  In light of the most recent Church scandals, this is what terrifies me the most about the priesthood, and the future of the Church.  Until the church hierarchy can acknowledge that its seminaries helped to form this,  we’ll continue to perpetuate the formation of a group of people who see themselves as other, as better, and who treat women (not to mention anyone other than priests) as less-than.  Though I don’t know any women who have had dramatic experiences of sexual abuse by a priest, I know far too many who have been treated as utterly and completely inferior.  The damage done by the choices of a few priests who have done unspeakable actions has caused grave harm to the Church, but I wonder daily about the lesser harms, like those that happened to me and too many other women.
By the grace of God, a new ministerial job fell into my lap.  I left a job where I had been for the entirety of my adult life; a job that I had poured my heart and soul into as I felt that I was living out my vocation.  Even though I knew that the Lord had opened new doors for me, leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.   I’m still working for the Church, but in a different role (and not for a school).  And I’m still trying to find, heal, and re-inspire that little girl who had always felt like God had a plan for her.

The author worked in Catholic high school for nearly two decades and is now engaged in a parish faith formation ministry. She would like to return to high school education someday.

The Growing Season

Gardening mirrors educating in that both are labors of love.

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Kevin DeCusatis

The month of August is coming to an end, I’ve begun writing numerous lists of what needs to be done before the school year begins next week. As my third year of teaching approaches, there is one particularly daunting task that awaits me: moving my many plants back into their home, my classroom.

I have always felt a connection with plants, and one of my fondest memories of childhood is cutting back the hostas with my mom at the beginning of fall. Anyone that knows me is well acquainted with my love of plants and desire to have as many as can fit in my house and classroom. I consistently post pictures of my garden’s progress on social media, and whenever I get a new houseplant from a Farmers Market, IKEA, or a school event, I take a survey of my classes to see what we should name the plants: Ruth for my golden pothos, Naomi for a hydrangea, Cain & Abel for plants in twin pots.

Plants and gardening are so attractive to me because they give me a sense of immense satisfaction. I can see the progress almost immediately. My seedlings can double in size in a week’s time and their fruit can emerge in a blink of an eye. It’s apparent to me why I gravitate toward gardening so much – it mirrors ministry.

In order for both students and plants to thrive, I need to give them my attention and provide an environment conducive to growth. Integral to this is having a healthy and realistic set of expectations; if I don’t, they’ll eventually spoil. As an educator, I have very high expectations of the quality of work my students will provide me; however, it would be unrealistic to expect this at the beginning of the year. I first need to give them all the tools to succeed, and then I can expect that they will work to their potential. The same happens when I have a plant that has outgrown its pot and I have to use a bigger, wider pot. While it looks so overwhelmed by the new soil and pot, it eventually settles in and begins to grow – robustly and quickly. It is a learned skill to know when to push to the next level: are my students ready for the next level of inquiry? will my plant acclimate to its new home? Along the way, I need to take stock to see what they need – does my plant need extra water this week due to excessive heat? Does my student need extra support crafting an argument for a paper because she is struggling with a new concept?

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Gardening also mirrors educating in that both are labors of love. In my classroom, I spend much time checking in with my students about their lives; students have often commented that my classroom has a good “vibe.” Many even cite things that happen in my class as their favorite moments of their year: our ritual of singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before every class during Advent; our thank you card writing exercise during Thanksgiving; opening class with a song or video clip of their choice.  The raison d’etre for these activities is for me to get to know my students better and create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable leaning into who they really are and who they want to become. I approach gardening in a similar way. I “listen” to my plants: if their leaves look droopy, I add water; if they look cramped, I try to a new pot; if they haven’t grown, I try different levels of sun. In order for me to be so skilled at this, I need to take the time to know my plants; this is not automatic knowledge.

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Both students and plants are living and organic. They need to be nurtured to grow; they’re complex with varying needs. I approach my classroom and garden with the same amount of care and attention, knowing that they are both on a path of growth where hopefully they will eventually flower and bring forth their gifts.  I take delight in accompanying them both on their journeys.

Decusatis

Kevin DeCusatis teaches 7th grade and sophomore religion outside of Philadelphia.

THAT IS Being Catholic

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

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by Julie Dienno-Demarest

We are called to evangelize through witness (living out our faith) and sharing (explicitly spreading the Good News).  So often our instinct is to examine what else we can do. We focus on the call to conversion and re-evangelizing our colleagues through Faculty Faith Formation. We also have a tremendous opportunity to engage in the “new evangelization” to colleagues who have become distant from the faith by simply naming the ways in which we are already living God’s love in our life, work, and ministry.

Yet there are familiar ways by which evangelization happens: by the way we live God’s love in our daily life; by the love, example, and support people give each other…in the care we show to those most in need; and in the ways we go about our work. (Go and Make Disciples, 35)

Too often, the Catholic Identity of our schools is (mis)understood too narrowly by those who work with us. Our non-Catholic faculty and staff tend to see Catholic Identity as coming from the concrete experiences of morning prayer, retreats, liturgies, and catechesis from the Campus Ministry and the Theology Departments.  While those encounters are certainly essential, too many adults in the building compartmentalize our Catholicity as existing solely within these sources.

In reality, as professional religious educators, we know that this is simply not the case.  In reality, so many of our colleagues have been drawn to our schools because we live out this Catholic Identity in our way of being with one another and our students.  Put another way, our colleagues have an implicit knowledge of our schools’ Catholicity; we need to do a better job of explicitly naming what we implicitly know as true.

A caring school community is being Catholic (Acts 2:42).  Placing a student’s well-being ahead of academic expectations is being Catholic (Jn 15:12).  Coaches who prioritize sportsmanship and the well-being of their athletes above winning is being Catholic (Prov 24:17-18; Phil 2:3).  Teaching with mutual respect is being Catholic (CCC 1930).

What would happen if we respectfully invited our colleagues to recognize that their natural way of being in and contributions to our schools is being Catholic?  How might affirming that all goodness comes from God (James 1:17, CCC 843) foster a shared sense of accomplishing Catholic Identity?  Imagine if every faculty meeting began with a few minutes of specifically affirming the goodness and excellence that we see in the work of our colleagues and explicitly connecting those actions with the Catholicity of the school.

It is the responsibility of every member of the faculty and staff to support the vision and mission of the school.  Supporting the school’s vision and mission isn’t asking faculty and staff to be all things to all people, but it does require that we support one another as one body (1 Cor 12:20).  For example, what if our invitation to support Campus Ministry was rephrased as: “Would you rather assist student retreats by being personally present or by enthusiastically substituting for those colleagues who will be personally present”?

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

Julie Dienno-Demarest is a professional religious educator living in Houston, TX. She has previously served as a high school teacher and campus minister and was a contributing author and editor for a high school textbook series.