Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Religion and Jesus

Last week, a youtube video went viral on Facebook about Jesus and religion.  The video, aptly entitled "Why I hate religion, but love Jesus", is one man's poetic 'witness' of his negative experience with organized religion.  Though there were certainly many lines that I would adamantly disagree with, there were many I'd have to admit were thoughtful and significant critiques of the way organized religion has perhaps lost its focus in many contexts.  Check it out for yourself here! 
I think one of his most poignant critiques questions priorities: why do Churches spend money building fancy churches when they fail to feed the poor?  He asks a similar question in different forms, getting to the heart of faith and religion: do we practice what Jesus preached?  Not do we practice what WE preach, but are we authentically faithful to the Gospel?  The answer must always be no, because we are not perfect.  However, are we moving in that direction?  Do our choices and actions reflect right intention?  In the recent announcement of plans to close and consolidate schools in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I found great consolation and respect for our new Archbishop when he simultaneously announced the sale of the extravagant Bishop's residence in the city (complete with a three-hole putting green, in-ground pool, etc.)  This shows our priorities and intention are consistent with what we preach. 
The young man in this youtube video certainly had a difficult experience with one brand of religion, as he describes being a 'good church-going boy' on Sunday but partying, having sex and being addicted to pornography the rest of the week.  Ultimately, his experience of religion was just something for show, a veneer that didn't cut to the core of its believers.  This is inauthentic religion, certainly, but I do not think one can jump to the assumption that all religion has this affect on people.  I look at people who have been martyrs for their faith, including some religious sisters who have died trying to bring justice to people such as Sister Dorothy Stang, SND.  They were compelled to seek this justice based in their religion and authentic personal relationship with Jesus.  Can religion help us to encounter Jesus on a personal level, lead us to truly live our beliefs instead of merely 'showing up' or saying what we think people want to hear?  In my experience, the answer is a resounding yes.  But it depends on many things, including your willingness to go 'deeper' and finding a faith community that both nurtures you and challenges you...  and both of those are not easy things to do or find!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Anger, hurt... and then some.

The big announcement came, after much anticipation and speculation, and 49 schools in the Archidocese of Philadelphia will close or combine at the end of this school year.  It was a day of angst for many who waited to hear if their schools were on 'the list' and the afternoon brought sadness for all, even if their own school wasn't one that would be closed.  Sadness because Catholic education as we know it is forever changed, and for many it will not be an option in the future.   This is not just a local phenomenon either, as Catholic schools throughout the country are facing similar questions of closing and/or consolidation. 
It is particularly troubling from the angle of justice.  Many of the young children, particularly in the inner city, who depend on Catholic education as an alternative to their neighborhood public schools will be forced to attend the school district of Philadelphia, with a high school graduation rate of 56% over four years.  Now, when the Catholic schools close or consolidate, there are alternative sites where the students can attend (the schools that weren't on the list).  But for many, the distance to travel is too far or poses difficulty for parents who may need to accompany their children to school.  Additionally, many of the economically disadvantaged students have received scholarships or decreased tuition, which is becoming (or has become) a rarity in the current economic climate in the Catholic Church.  So, these kids are left to fend for themselves, in schools where violence is a given on a daily basis.  They'll pass through metal detectors on their way to homeroom.  They'll sit in over-sized classrooms without sufficient learning materials and try to be among the 56% who graduate.  This doesn't seem fair, or at least, it doesn't seem to be true to the message of Jesus.
I was educated in public school up until high school.  But, I am fairly certain had I attended the public school in my hometown, I'd be just as successful (if not more) than I am, having attended a Catholic high school.  I grew up in an area (at the time at least-- they've been affected by budget problems, too) where the public schools provided an excellent education in an environment that was caring, loving, and an extension of our community.  I am still friends with some of my (public) grade school teachers on facebook and our families regularly exchange Christmas cards.  So I didn't have to face the dire circumstances in Philadelphia public schools as a child.  But I've seen them firsthand when I was a social worker.  It's not pretty.  It's depressing in many of the schools.  And Catholic education provided an alternative, a safer option, providing not just physical safety but also a sense of stability and empowerment for kids who might not get that at home.
Do we give up hope, then?
Well, just because you asked... there is a wonderful new model of Catholic education about to make its debut in Philadelphia that provides that element of hope for the kids I am describing.  The Cristo Rey Network will open the doors of its first Philadelphia-area high school in September of 2012 to 125 freshmen.  Cristo Rey is a coeducational high school, the product of collaboration between various religious orders in the US to provide affordable Catholic education and expose them to career opportunities to populations of students who may not otherwise be able to attend (often due to economic circumstances).  Cristo Rey has a different model of school, as students typically attend classes four days a week and then work one day per week.  Their placements provide job training, spark curiosity for future career options, and help to defray the cost of tuition for the students.  The school day is extended and the school year is extended, providing a community setting for students and their families to be involved and benefit from this unique opportunity.  Oh, and their graduation and college acceptance rate?  Um, 99%!  (check out their website) Yes.  So there is hope, in the creative vision of people who are seeking, living and advocating for the voiceless.  Thank God.

Thursday, January 5, 2012


As a Catholic school teacher at a private, independent all-girls school in the Philadelphia area, I have hard a constant stream of commentary, angst and fear over the coming pronouncement tomorrow that upwards of 40 (or more) diocesan schools will close or consolidate at the end of this academic year.  This will represent the single largest consolidation/closure of its kind in the Church's history in the US, and it will be announced the day after Cardinal John Newman's feast day.  Newman is the founding of the Catholic school system here in Philadelphia, a model that spread throughout the nation.  It focused on parish-based schools, which in turn fostered a strong sense of identity based on neighborhood.  I remember when I first moved to Philadelphia and came to know people who grew up in the area.  When you asked where someone was from, the answer was almost always _____ parish.  Not their town, not their street, not their geographic location in the sense that I understood 'home'.  Your parish is your home.  That has changed significantly over the years in Philadelphia as some parishes and schools have already consolidated, but tomorrow will create a whole new era of Catholic identity, parish life and education in Philadelphia, and in the United States.  One of my co-workers and dear friends who is born and raised in Philadelphia, put it so poignantly: "People from Philadelphia identify with their parish and where they went to high school. Our families have supported the Archdiocese Of Philadelphia for generations and we are proud and grateful to have experienced what many of us call the best four years of our lives. Some may call it a sign of the times but I have other words for it. I will be praying for hundreds of teachers and students who will be displaced."
There is anger and hurt, questions about why the numbers attending schools are so low, where the money given to parish collections on Sunday is actually going, and an overall distrust and frustration on the behalf of many.  And yet we must move forward and carry on, realizing that though the form and structure might be different, we still need to do the work of forming 'home' and relationship for people and with God.  Maybe it is unfair for me to speak so optimistically on this topic.  After all, my school/home/place of employment is not under threat of closing down.  My heart breaks, and my heart beat gets faster when I think about what that would mean to me if I were that personally affected.  And some of my friends and companions will be.  What can we do?  Choose to stay, to claim our Catholic identity and re-build this broken Church to reflect the image of home and family that Saint John Newman and Jesus Christ envisioned (and that many of us have been blessed to experience at times).
And so we pray with, and for, those who will be displaced, those in leadership positions, and those whose sense of 'home' will forever be changed.  We stand in solidarity, refusing to give up and pledging support and ultimately we look to God for what's next.