It is a pretty jarring experience when you are 19 years old and a college professor who is 40-50 years older than you attacks your Catholic Faith directly. When my Catholic Faith was directly challenged by a professor for an entire semester my sophomore year of college, it deeply affected me for many years.
I didn’t know how to respond to his questions, and in looking back on it now, it is ridiculous to expect a 19 year old to be able to answer the critiques of Catholicism put to a 19 year old by a college professor of religion.
When I entered the seminary 6 years later at the age of 25, I fell deeply in love with my Catholic Faith. Throughout my entire time in college, I never stopped going to Sunday Mass, and I had felt a deep connection to my Catholic Faith even when it was being attacked, but in the seminary I realized that Catholicism is really REALLY smart. I was introduced to the writings of now-St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and, going back thousands of years before that, to the writings of St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Mother Teresa, and on and on I began to learn the answers to the questions that had been put rather forcefully and aggressively to my 19 year old self.
And then a question hit me. Why didn’t I learn all of this at Roncalli? Why had I not been exposed to this treasure trove of amazing, brilliant, spiritual, life-altering books, sermons, writings, etc.?
For a few years as a seminarian and even through the early years of my priesthood as a high school chaplain, on several occasions in conversations with brother priests, and conversations with other Catholics as well, I spoke negatively about the theological training I had received at Roncalli and bemoaned that the Catholic Church was not doing more in Catholic high schools to help students fall in love with their Catholic Faith. My critique was bolstered by the well-known statistic that 92% of college students stop practicing their Catholic Faith when they go away to college. I and many other priests and Catholics rightly look at that number with horror and we want someone to blame. For a few years, I blamed Catholic education, even my own.
So here’s where the apology comes in.
Over the past several years, as I’ve worked with college students as a chaplain, I’ve had to time to realize something – Roncalli DID do a lot to help me fall in love with the Catholic Church.
I remembered back in a particular way to the recently retired Mrs. Lauck, who began a second career as a Catholic school religion teacher with my sophomore year morality class. We all loved her. And she told us right up front in a very vulnerable way “I’m not sure what I’m doing” and that let her and us take a deep breath, and we loved her so much and we knew she loved us and we wanted her class to work. And she pulled no punches. She taught us exactly what the Church teaches, right out of the Catechism, and she told us that we should save ourselves for marriage. She told us if we were using drugs we were murdering ourselves and abusing the gifts God gave us. She taught us that contraception was wrong. She talked about mortal sin. She taught us about Just War Theory. She brought in a man she had befriended who was living with AIDS and who begged us to take a different path. I wrote Mrs. Lauck a note when I was ordained and another one when she retired. I told her that in the moments where I was struggling with major life decisions to go toward sin or Christ, it was often things from her class that came to me seemingly out of nowhere. Even in her first year as a teacher, she showed us there was a Catechism, and she wasn’t afraid to open it, and she taught us that there’s a lot of wisdom in the teachings of the Catholic Church.
In getting to help produce a documentary on Coach Scifres last Summer, I was also able to reflect on the formation that I received through Roncalli athletics. Coach Scifres and Tully on the football field and in the weight room and Coach Niewedde and Kratoska on the track barking at me and telling me, when I thought I didn’t have anything else to give, that I actually had a lot more fight in me. This may sound strange, but I mean it positively of course, but because of my time in sports at Roncalli there’s a loving voice in my mind a lot that is cheering me on. It challenges me saying “FIGHT. WORK HARD. FIGHT SOME MORE. WORK HARD SOME MORE! AIM FOR GREATNESS. BECOME THE BEST VERSION OF YOURSELF. DON’T QUIT. FIGHT!” And it was that voice that helped me through getting punched in the metaphorical face in theology class when I was 19. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but when that prof gave me a hard time, there was a switch in me that said “Don’t curl up and lay down. Stick to your guns. Fight for what you know is right!”
I’ve also realized that I received an unbelievable education in Math, which became my undergrad major, and the way in which logic and reasoning and hard work and discipline were drilled into me by my math teachers at Roncalli paid huge dividends in helping me absorb the writings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. Now I often think that perhaps the greatest thing that helped me understand my Catholic Faith was my geometry class where we learned that you can build an entire Euclidian Geometric Universe on 5 foundational principles – but if you change one word of one foundational principle of Euclid’s, an entirely different world springs from that change, and I’ve realized that it is why the Church fights for the unborn, and for marriage being between one man and one woman, and why the Church fights for religious freedom, and sex only within marriage and without contraception, and why the Church says that Jesus Christ was both 100% God and 100% man – because a world where those foundational principles are altered even slightly produces, eventually, a hellish alternative universe.
I’ve realized that, as a priest, I’ve fallen deeply in love with literature, and, as Russian Novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “beauty will save the world” – and I’ve realized that it was Ms. Fox who really instilled that love for literature in me. I didn’t appreciate her at the time, we used to just laugh that she took smoke breaks in the boiler room, and when she was teaching she let you sleep if you didn’t want to participate in her class because I don’t think she wanted to deal with people who didn’t care, but a bunch of us WERE, looking back on it, drawn into an appreciation for literature through her guidance. And we read a lot of the great dystopian novels like “Lord of the Flies” and “1984” and “A Brave New World” (all precursors to the “Hunger Games”) stories that then led into fascinating discussions about Catholicism, technology, what it means to be human from a Catholic perspective, etc. These were books that I had largely forgotten until they were brought up in the midst of a rigorous seminary academic setting, and I began to recognize what Ms. Fox and my English teachers at Roncalli had given me in introducing me to Poe, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Hawthorne, Dickens, and countless other poets and authors from around the world and across the centuries.
The science classes would also prove extremely helpful in my “reversion” to Catholicism in my mid-20’s. The more you study science and math, the more the two subjects merge into and lead a person to also ask deeper philosophical questions. As Benedict XVI said, “Science is the adventure of discovery that God has left to mankind.” Science doesn’t prove God in a scientific way of course, but I could not help but ask those deeper questions about life when I was studying biology in a Catholic classroom, and when my physics and chemistry teacher were talking about atoms and the big bang – I would ponder where it all came from, matter, energy, life, Earth – who made it? When did it start? Why?
And there were the teachers that helped me learn how to write. When Mrs. Helbing returned my papers, however many words long the essay was, there were usually 2-3 times as many words of correction written in the margins. It looked like she had spent more time correcting my papers than I had spent typing them. She never settled for my 90% effort; she demanded improvement, precision, and, perhaps most importantly, that I not be boring. Between homilies, blog posts, social media posts, letters, emails, etc. I probably write 20 pages of material a week. Whatever ability I have to write traces itself back to of course home school and then great teachers in grade school, but it was most notably honed at Roncalli by a team of people who demanded more out of me and my classmates and our writing than any of us knew we had in us.
But perhaps the greatest thing that I failed to remember in those years when I was wishing Roncalli had prepared me better to face the enemies of the Church was the Faith Roncalli instilled in me through the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. I don’t remember any particular all-school Mass, but in looking back I began to see that it just became a habit of life. And the Church says that’s exactly what religion is – a habit. So many leave the Church because they want to feel the “Spiritual Tingles” or have the “warm fuzzies” but religion is good habits toward God. Mass. Every Sunday. And Roncalli made that a part of my life along with my parents on the weekend. I’ll always remember Coach Tully telling my fellow seniors and I that we should think about morning Mass before our football games. It wasn’t a command. It was just an invitation. I’ll always remember those Friday morning Masses with my brothers and Coach Tully. Roncalli also provided confession opportunities throughout the year. And of course prayer. Prayer before school, prayer before each class, prayer at the end of the day, prayer before practice, prayer after practice; while they were happening a lot of times I didn’t care about it in the moment. At Roncalli, Faith became a habit that would get me through lots of struggles and adversity in my life.
I'm leaving out a lot of teachers and a lot of stories. Roncalli gave me 6 awesome friends that I continue to lean on for the last 25 years. Senior retreat. Service projects. Learning from big mistakes. But I'll wrap it up here.
It took me 15 years or so, but I now realize that there was probably nothing Roncalli could have done to prevent me from being in a position where my Faith was directly confronted and challenged as a college sophomore. Can the Catholic identity of any school be improved? Sure. Just like we can all always grow in holiness until the day we die.
But we don’t learn everything we need to know about our Catholic Faith by the time we are 18. The attacks are going to come, no matter what. And what I faced 20 years ago is nothing compared to what 19 year olds face on college campuses and in the larger culture today.
I am now EXTREMELY thankful for all the ways in which Roncalli prepared me to not give up in the face of adversity, and I’m thankful Roncalli taught me how and gave me the tools to fight back against attacks against my Catholic Faith. To all those who gave of themselves so that I could have those experiences, I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate it sooner.