On being a ‘miracle worker’

September 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few weeks ago I spent the morning with a longtime Catholic educator and administrator who is now the President of a Catholic high school in San Diego. For me, he’s served as a mentor and source of wisdom for all matters in Jesuit education, and our recent encounter was typically enriching. At our breakfast, he told me something that I’ve thought about just about every day since.

Talking about our mission as Catholic educators, he said he tells his teachers to be “miracle workers.”

This was powerful. Powerful because it demonstrated a great optimism, a great hope, a sense of the sacredness and transcendence of education. I’ve thought, “Yes, I want to be a miracle worker. Yes, I want to do great things!”

At the same time, in the midst of these exhilarating thoughts, I remember that I am not a messiah. I am no one’s savior, and the moment I begin to conceive of myself or my lesson plans as bearing salvific powers, the moment I deny the truth of creation. God alone is God. God alone saves. God alone performs miracles.

If I am part of a miracle, it is not because I possess miraculous powers. Mary didn’t even possess miraculous powers. She herself didn’t bring about the Incarnation — it was her role to say “yes” to letting it happen. Likewise, I will participate in a miracle not when I become superhuman, but rather, when I let my very ordinary powers be transformed, when I give permission for my mundane acts to serve as channels for God’s grace.

Posted by Matt Emerson.


Dave Gregory on Georgetown and Catholic witness

June 20, 2013 § 2 Comments

Responding to the recent controversy over the strength of Georgetown University’s Catholic identity, alumnus Dave Gregory shares a personal reflection on how Georgetown shaped his faith and helped him fall in love with Christ.

Encountering Christ at Georgetown University

By Dave Gregory

June 20, 2013

I fell in love with Jesus Christ at Georgetown University.

Madly, truly, deeply in love. Seriously in love; the kind of love that my life makes no sense without. It’s this love that, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, made me want to be a priest as a child. It’s this love that reduced me to tears when I first witnessed Jesuit deacons lie prostrate before the altar of God moments before their ordination. It’s this love that drove me into the Jesuit novitiate and then out of the novitiate 21 months later. It’s this love that has sent me to the last place I ever expected to come, the southern California desert. It’s this love that instills within me two desires, leaving me in a state of ambiguity: the desire to be a husband and a father, and the desire to be His priest.

Georgetown fostered and sharpened this love within my heart, but it enveloped and overwhelmed thousands and thousands of lives apart from my own. This love bound daily Mass communities around Father Tom King’s altar each night at 11:15pm for forty years. This love expresses itself between men and women several times on campus each weekend in the Sacrament of matrimony. This love pours over the foreheads of students baptized into the Catholic Church each Easter. This love is memorialized with each Jesuit father or brother buried on the University’s sacred grounds.

These memories and thoughts come to mind as I consider William Peter Blatty’s recently publicized petition to “make Georgetown honest, Catholic and better,” a petition to draw the University into deeper compliance with the norms of the apostolic constitution Ex corde Ecclesiae, lest Georgetown lose its ability to call itself Catholic and Jesuit.

Georgetown University. Credit: Georgetown University. See original at georgetown.edu/admissions/maincampusphotogallery.html

As an undergraduate, I had my qualms with certain actions initiated by Georgetown’s leadership. Should it have invited Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and abortion rights advocate, to offer an address at commencement exercises? No. Should it have covered up the name of Christ in the hall where President Barack Obama spoke? No. Should it give free reign to the pro-choice student organization on campus? No. Each of these decisions reflected poor discernment at administrative levels, the results of which are indefensible.

These decisions, however, hardly characterize or damage the University as a whole, which is an active and fruitful apostolate of evangelization. And that, really, is where my main disagreement with Blatty’s petition lies, in its misunderstanding of evangelization. The petition even fails to include evangelization in its discussion, a particularly troubling omission given that Ex corde, the very apostolic constitution that the petition cherishes, views a Catholic university’s primary purpose as that of evangelization.

Within the Roman Catholic Church, there exist a variety of ministerial works understood as forms and methods of evangelization. A parish administers the Sacraments, a Catholic school provides a Christocentric learning environment, and Catholic charities provide physical and financial aid to the marginalized, regardless of whether those in need profess the Catholic faith or not. Why would a Catholic organization provide aid to those who are not Catholic? Because that is precisely what Christ would have us do.

The question to ask when pondering the Catholicity of a given institution is whether or not the institution faithfully represents Jesus Christ. Put more elaborately, we might ask, “Is this a means by which I am entering into a deeper, more authentic, more genuine love of another human being? Do I love in the same way that the Lover loves? Am I allowing myself to be a channel of His grace?” Compared to the narrow alternative — “Is this a conveyance of official dogma and doctrine?”– I believe Christ to be more concerned with the former. It’s not that the latter should be ignored, but it should not be held to be the sole standard by which the effectiveness of a Catholic apostolate, including schools, is measured.

When it comes to evangelization, love is central. The transformative love that I experienced at Georgetown is by no means confined to things explicitly “religious.” All sorts of liturgies celebrate this love: the liturgy of Healy’s bells sounding across campus, the liturgy of students moving in at the end of every August, the liturgy of a capella groups lifting voices in harmony, the liturgy of debates between students and professors seeking truth, the liturgy of lives moving to salve a bloodied and bleeding world. God’s grandeur flings itself wide across a one hundred acre Hilltop in the District of Columbia. These melodies cry out to the Heavens, and the Heavens cry to Hoyas through these melodies.

All that said, do I think Georgetown evangelizes? I can give personal testimony that it does. Georgetown evangelized me in specific and broad ways, cultivating a devotion to Christ and to his Church, even to the beauty of its teachings. And, as I’ve seen repeatedly, Georgetown evangelizes all those students and faculty willing to become men and women for others.

Blatty’s petition, therefore, is severely misguided. It implies possession of knowledge that Georgetown contributes to the damnation of more souls than it helps to save. It overlooks the countless ways in which God works on campus, because the petition only looks at the actions of a select few. It essentially says, “No, grace isn’t operating here, God isn’t able to do His work here. This university no longer permits Christ to be present.” It thereby posits gnosticism in the modern age.

Knowing the outcome of salvation history is an impossible claim for any mortal to make. Georgetown has her faults and flaws to be sure, but God has borne fruit of human folly since the beginning. When compared to the fruit she bears, the follies of the first Catholic university in these United States are trivialities.

God will continue to knock, even though we might remain unaware, and we will answer, even though we might remain unaware. I, for one, trust that God incessantly and relentlessly labors so.

Hoya Saxa. May Georgetown live forever.

Dave Gregory

Dave Gregory


Dave Gregory teaches theology and coaches soccer at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA. He graduated from Georgetown University in 2010 with a double major in philosophy and theology. He can be reached at dgregory@xavierprep.org.

Gregory’s prior essays at The Ignatian Educator can be found here.

What is the center of your solar system?

June 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

If your life is a solar system, what is your sun? Around what do you orbit? What is the source of your light? Your energy? Your vision? Your warmth? What keeps you in a stable gravitational pull so that you don’t go skipping off into the atmosphere and beyond?

Photo by Matt Emerson

Photo by Matt Emerson

I ask these questions to my students, and I think they are worth considering again in light of yesterday’s post about the orange Range Rover, which was really a way to consider how to desire the right things in the right way, how to stay connected to the deepest sources of our thriving. The solar system metaphor offers another avenue to the same questions.

Discussions growing from the metaphor are usually very revealing, due in large part (I believe) to its visual richness. By high school, all students know the basics of the solar system and the sun’s preeminent role. It’s a helpful framework, an imaginative way for them to assess the orientation of all their activities.

In the wake of the questions, some students admit that they themselves are the center of their solar systems. One student said, “Me, I orbit around me. Everything I do concerns my life.” One sophomore, without hesitation, said it was volleyball. Others said homework. Some said friends; others, family. Others had no idea. They needed time to think.

They are always surprised when I ask them where God fits in. In your mental framework, is God orbiting around you, or are you orbiting around God? Are you letting God’s light power everything you do, or are you trying to work without him, under the cover of darkness?

Using this metaphor can be unsettling. Some have never even thought this way, never thought intentionally and carefully about who or what should receive their attention and time. I tell my students that all of us are tempted to drift into empty space, pulled in by whatever gravitational forces are near, whether it’s work, family, friends, our appearance or material things.

All of us, no matter our age, must ask whether we’re treating God like Neptune. Sometimes we just have to step away from our own preoccupations and ask, “What is the center of my solar system?”

Posted by Matt Emerson.



Living what we teach: Authenticity and the Catholic educator

June 14, 2013 § 9 Comments

Reflecting on the past year; remembering the bus ride to Kairos 9, the trips to mock trial competitions, the long conversations about college applications with stressed seniors, the eyes of anxious parents wondering about financial aid, weekly CLC meetings, conversations with faculty . . . I find myself reflecting on the variety of roles that I and my colleagues inhabit throughout the year.

This was not the case when I practiced law.

When I practiced law, my role was to think and write and keep track of cases for busy partners. To be a lawyer was to be really good at understanding and applying rules, regulations, and judicial opinions. My spiritual and emotional state, or that of colleagues or clients, the messiness of the interior life, did not take up my time. Our private concerns remained at home. Discussions about a contract dispute did not involve the discernment of God’s will. (“Do you think God wants you to file this lawsuit? Have you put the matter to prayer? Would you like to think about it and meet again?” Ah, how quickly I would have been fired!)

Photo by Matt Emerson

Photo by Matt Emerson

But Ignatian education, and Catholic education in general, brings in the fullness of life. We are teachers, coaches, and club moderators, and given our commitment to the voyage of faith, we are also spiritual leaders. We are asked to weigh the natural against the supernatural, the temporal against the timeless. And because matters of the spirit intersect with family, friends, and the details of happiness, the line between spiritual direction and counseling blurs. Any teacher who’s ever led a small group on retreat knows that the personal and the religious are intimately connected. Division in the family or strife with friends can quickly undermine a student’s understanding of God. Sometimes, therefore, teachers take on roles analogous to parents, helping students cope with the natural tensions of adolescence.

In each of these capacities, we are entrusted not just to transmit information, not just to break down an equation or a technique. We are called to form young men and women at the very core of their being. In Jesuit education in particular, we have committed ourselves to shaping students along the five soul-moving criteria of the Graduate at Graduation. It is not enough, for example, to teach a student about World War II; an Ignatian educator has to connect that subject to a student’s emotional, spiritual and moral growth, to an expanding awareness of the presence of God. Maybe not all at once, in one class or lesson plan. But over time, an Ignatian education must reach these deepest, most hidden of layers.

In Jesuit education the material we teach is less important than the persons we teach. The student is central, not the subject. This, in part, is what distinguishes an Ignatian way of educating: the focus is on the learner more than what is learned. Put another way, what is learned is only meaningful and transformative if the learner has been properly cared for. Accolades, college acceptances, high test scores — it’s all judged by the well-being of the student, by whether he or she is moving into young adulthood stable and healthy, with an intentional and loving disposition, with an appreciation of ultimate concerns and our divine origin and end. I would much rather hear a student say, “I have come to know that I am loved by God, and that I am to share this love with others” than to say, “I got into Stanford.” If the both, all the better. But we cannot forget which of those two we must prioritize.

To be a teacher, coach or counselor within such a way of proceeding carries extraordinary responsibility. Our character matters. Our integrity matters. Our life choices matter. How we understand the world, how we understand relationships, how we resolve conflicts, how we model fidelity and love, how we interact with colleagues and how we treat those on campus: all of this is part of our teaching. All of this is part of the curriculum. Our students are looking for models, for templates, for examples. They come to us with very difficult questions about the dilemmas in their lives. We owe it to them to speak from a place of honesty, authenticity and virtue.

Outside the abbey at Montserrat. Photo by Matt Emerson

Outside the abbey at Montserrat. Photo by Matt Emerson

Summer break is here. It’s tempting for teachers to use these months to check out; to travel and relax and spend little time thinking about teaching. We might even become disconnected with a community of faith, now that we don’t have school liturgies or prayer services built into our schedule. But here lies a threshold moment; for how can we guide our students in the grad at grad qualities if we don’t nourish these traits in ourselves? If we don’t strive to become more loving and compassionate and open to growth, why should we expect our students to? We hope our students develop a relationship with God that goes beyond mere compliance with a school schedule. But if we don’t seek that for ourselves, in our free time, why should they?

Looking back upon my year, I know that I am strong in some areas, weak in others. I have work to do. I have work to do to become more loving, more affirming, more open, more selfless, more prayerful and more trusting. I have work to do to become a better grader, a better listener and a better email returner. I have work to do in each of these areas (and more), and I owe it not just to myself and to those I work with: after God, I owe it most of all to our students. I owe it to them, because the better I become at returning email, the more genuinely I can tell them to return their homework. The more I pray in my own free time, the more I can encourage them to do the same. The more I listen to my friends and my family, and the more I forgive when I feel slighted, the more I can sympathize with frustrated students and motivate them to choose truth over expediency.

Integrity. Wholeness. Justice. Authenticity. Love. Faith. Compassion. The magis. We seek it for our students, but it starts with us. It starts in the choices we make and the people we choose to become, both during the school year and in the summer, at the barbecue and the beach, with the grace of unscheduled time.


Posted by Matt Emerson.

Wise words from Fr. Michael Himes

April 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

An excellent description of the human predicament:

“To be human is to be endlessly caught in a web of decisions among partial goods. It involves choosing between shades of grey, seldom if ever between absolute black and white. It means taking the risk of discerning the good and acting upon it insofar as you can see the good, knowing that you never see it with perfect clarity. To live and work and serve God and our brothers and sisters in the tangle of our minds demands infinite patience with ourselves and with one another.”

-Fr. Michael J. Himes, from Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships and Service

Stephanie DePrez on Easter and the order of love

March 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Today, Holy Thursday, my friend and colleague Stephanie DePrez shares a bit about her journey from the University of Notre Dame to Xavier College Preparatory and talks about her role ministering to students in the wake of tragedy.

 Love and Loss for an Easter People

March 28, 2013

By Stephanie DePrez

“Are you Catholic?”


“Would you be willing to teach religion?”

Two months after that impromptu interview, I found myself packing a U-Haul and driving from Denver to Palm Desert, my brand-new degree from the University of Notre Dame in hand.

I never planned on teaching high school. My own experience as a member of the first freshman class of Regis Jesuit High School’s Girls Division in Aurora, Colorado was fantastic, and I loved my four years spent “building” our new school. My two summers in college doing catechetical work with high school students with the Notre Dame Vision program rocked me and my faith. But my passion was performance, and my majors were Music and Film, Television & Theatre. What could I bring to a religion classroom? Especially one that is Jesuit?

Nearing the end of my second year at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, I’m beginning to understand what I am truly called to be and do as an Ignatian educator.

When I walked into my classroom, a 22-year-old directing a choir and teaching sophomore Scripture, I was frantic. Text and materials, homework assignments, lectures, and disciplinary procedures swirled in my head as I attempted to keep my no-idea-what-I’m-in-for grin to a minimum and command respect from the terrifying monsters darling children now in my care. The grace of God, assisted by my pure foolishness, led me to abandon plans to move to Los Angeles to write for television or to audition for a Young Artists’ Program with an opera company. Instead, I found myself teaching high school.

Thus began my quest to discover what I am called to do with a millennial teenager. There are competing opinions. I recently heard teenagers referred to as piñatas of hormones and emotion, and if that’s the case, there’s really not more for a teacher in secondary education to do other than babysit the fiesta and hope it doesn’t get out of control. Especially if my subject matter is so radical (God, truth) that the run-of-the-mill relativist takes sharp offense at virtually every idea I propose. Get them in, get them out, keep them safe, and make sure they know who Moses is.

This is, of course, a wildly simplified and incomplete view. Teaching teenagers, especially at a Jesuit school, means wresting with love every day. Who am I? Someone who is loved. Whose am I? The God of love’s. Who am I called to be? Love. Which means, when three students lose a parent, and when a senior is unconscious in the ICU, when it looks like hope is gone and the piñatas turn into exhausted zombies with red-rimmed eyes fearfully stuffed into polo’s, the order of love gets bigger. And that’s where I, the Ignatian educator, come in.

I remarked off-handedly earlier this year that the only thing I really need to do every day is look my students in the eye and say, “You’re okay.” This simple task is indicative of the larger act of reminding my students that they’re safe, they’re important, and they’re not screwing up. Even if your parents are getting divorced, even if you failed a math exam, even if you didn’t make Varsity … you’re okay. It’s going to be okay. You’re a good person, and you will do good things. This is the best thing I do for my students – I give them permission to breathe, to meet themselves in the middle of the mess that is high school and be comfortable with the person they see in the mirror.

So what happens when the questions get harder? This week, as we grieved the death of a Xavier senior, a student sitting in front of me crumpled into my arms, sobbing, and said, “I just don’t get it, Miss DePrez. We’re such good people, and we’re all so sad.” I got an email from a student who wrote, “I have no experience with loss. But since you teach religion and such, I thought maybe you’d be able to point me towards God in this situation. Where is he? What the hell is he thinking?”

In my year and a half at a Jesuit school I’ve felt lost, humbled, confused, grossly wrong, upset, disappointed, frustrated, and like a bad teacher, but I have never felt paralyzed. That’s what I felt this week. I didn’t have answers, and I couldn’t pull out my favorite line, “Let’s look it up in the Catechism!” I had to sit there, holding hearts bleeding out pain with purity only teenagers possess, and the only thing I could do is … love. I gave the student a bear hug, and I emailed a response with a song I’d been listening to and a confession that I have no idea where He is, either. I have lost count of the hugs I’ve initiated, giving my darlings permission to weep, to moan, to be present to their emotions. The world they know is destroyed; they are not invincible. The only response I have, and the only one I am called to have, is to love.

This means showing up every day. It means being real with them about my own grief. It means continuing to do our work. It means goofing off and having a good laugh and letting them convince me to soap-box — at least for a little while — about reality television instead of the origins of the Liturgy. It means saying a rosary next to a hospital bed while the patient’s dad stands watch. It means holding a colleague’s hand in the faculty lounge as she breaks down at 8:30 AM. It means weekend meals with other teachers, facing each other, looking for the face of Christ.

Because, no matter what happens, we are going to be okay. We are rooted in Christ, fed by the Eucharist, and at the mercy of our own faithful desires to seek the magis. We are an Easter people.

Stephanie DePrez

Stephanie DePrez

Stephanie DePrez is a member of the first four-year class from Regis Jesuit High School Girls Division in Aurora, Colorado (class of 2007). She received a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame in Music (Vocal Performance) and Film, Television & Theatre in 2011. She is currently the Choir Director and member of the Theology Department at Xavier College Preparatory High School in Palm Desert, CA. She can be reached at sdeprez@xavierprep.org.

Billy Robb on the ‘radical call’

March 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

My friend and former colleague, Billy Robb, offers a guest post describing a recent lecture of his on the topic of poverty and spirituality, questioning how well he’d measure up to the rich young man from the Gospel of Mark.

Detachment and Eternal Life

March 13, 2013

By Billy Robb

“When you ask Jesus what you need to do to inherit eternal life, what does he say?”

I was standing in front of a small audience of students and teachers at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert when Jimmy Tricco, a dear friend and former colleague, asked me this question.

I had just delivered a talk about spirituality, justice, and Jesuit education. I spoke about the radical call to discipleship and the dire need for us to activate this call for the sake of love and peace in our world. I said that only by giving our whole selves to this call, following the example of Jesus, do we become fulfilled as human beings.

Early in the talk I had used the story of Jesus and the rich man, as told in the Gospel of Mark. Fittingly, this Gospel passage was also used as the central theme at Xavier that week for the school’s Summit on Human Dignity: Education in the Margins.

In the story, the man asks Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the man to part with his possessions and “come, follow me.” For the rich man, this request hit a raw nerve, the final desperate grasp of his inordinate attachment, the last “yes, but not THAT” in his arsenal.

When the question turned on me, I babbled. I got caught by the phrase “eternal life” and talked about how God loved me no matter what. I am a loved sinner, thank God. I evaded the question, pretending like I hadn’t just used the story as the entry point into a conversation about human fulfillment.

Jimmy clarified: “What are those attachments you need to give up, in order to answer the call to discipleship?”

Again I waffled, giving a few examples of how I benefit from unjust social structures: I would never want to spend all day in a cramped factory sewing shoes together, but I am happy to pay and receive the fruits of some distant person’s dreary life. I like to criticize our country for exploiting the Earth and mingling in international affairs, but I am happy to burn oil flying here and there at my fancy. In order to become truly fulfilled, I answered, I would need to find an exit strategy from these troublesome conveniences.

But the question cut deeper than that, and it has been burning in my thoughts and prayers ever since. What do I cling to, more than anything? What causes me to walk away sad, attached, unable to face the love of my creator?

It’s not so simple. My entire life is interwoven into the American superstructure: Lights burning, refrigerator cooling, laptop screen glowing, streets upon streets of houses doing the same. Concrete oceans, interrupted by steel buildings. While our cities pulsate, our humanity suffocates. Instead of engaging in each other through community, we live separated, ignoring each other in our busyness while raving about our increased connectivity. And I am guilty.

What do I need to do to inherit eternal life? Not comfortable life, not impulse-satisfying life, not feel-good-about-myself-for-doing-good-deeds life. Not pretty good life or bearable life. Eternal life.

In reflecting on this question, two profound insights that I received when making Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises struck me (again): First, I am not in control. Second, this is not about me.

My own eternal life is inextricably tied to everyone else’s eternal life. The doorway to the truth of God’s love was opened to me gradually, thanks to many people on various steps of my life journey. If we stepped backward through time we could trace a stunning web of interpersonal influences tied back to Jesus himself, and then still further to the historical, philosophical, and religious underpinnings that set the stage for His message. Looking forward, I cannot step through this doorway alone because I exist as one of seven billion souls on this planet. My life will be a thread in the fabric of humanity.

When preparing my talk, I stressed for months. I labored over each line, as if grammatical structure would determine whether students would “see the light.” It all depended on me. My talk was on a Thursday. On Friday, the last day of the Summit, we celebrated Mass. The setting created a reverent space for the teenagers to process all of the information from the Summit. Fr. Scott Santarosa, a Jesuit priest from Dolores Mission in Los Angeles, delivered a soul-igniting homily using the week’s Gospel passage. The words seemed to flow out of him: stories from his parish, metaphors for the Kingdom of God, and an interpretation of the story of Jesus and the rich man. He said Jesus is telling us to give up control, to give up power. To let go.

In that moment, I felt he was speaking to me. Any salvific movement will be messy and require courageous forfeitures of the status quo. But the saving work is God’s, not mine.

Billy Robb

Billy Robb

Billy Robb is a first-year graduate student at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, CA. Prior to attending the JST, Robb taught psychology at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA. He can be reached at billyrobb33@gmail.com.

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