Interview: “Preparing for a New School Year”

Fr. John Henry Hanson, O. Praem, priest and teacher at St. Michael’s Preparatory School in Silverado, California, is a regular contributor to the St. Josemaria Institute blog.  In this interview, Fr. John Henry shares tips and advice for helping families and students start off the new school year prayerfully- and with a little less stress!

Q:  Families and students around the country are getting ready to go back to school.  Parents are hitting stores with long checklists of school supplies and equipment.  What else should parents be thinking about as they prepare their children to go back to school?

Fr. John Henry:  First off, I should tell you that I speak from the vantage point of a priest who teaches in an all-boys college preparatory boarding school. Our educational environment is unique primarily because the students’ daily schedule includes Mass each morning, as well as an evening period of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, during which time they also have the sacrament of Confession available to them.

We don’t see the daily Mass or Eucharistic adoration as “extras” or things “added on” to the academic formation of our young men. We really want them to see how their life of faith as well as their intellectual development form a whole.

And so in addition to preparing their children with the necessary supplies, parents should be aware that their sons and daughters also need guidance as to how they can integrate their faith with their intellectual development, so that religion is not seen as one “compartment” among many in their lives.

Of course, depending upon what kind of school they attend, parents should also be attentive to what their children are being exposed to in the classroom. The fact is, every school inculcates values or morals, whether they do so openly or not. Young people ought to be so formed that they can tell the right values from the wrong ones.

Along this line, it is helpful for parents to bear in mind what Blessed John Henry Newman says about an important purpose of education. Speaking of university education, Newman says:

“For why do we educate, except to prepare for the world? … If then a University is a direct preparation for this world, let it be what it professes. It is not a Convent, it is not a Seminary; it is a place to fit men of the world for the world. We cannot possibly keep them from plunging into the world, with all its ways and principles and maxims, when their time comes; but we can prepare them against what is inevitable; and it is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them” (from The Idea of a University).

Wherever children end up as adults, they will be immersed in this world and will need to know how to be faithful to Christ in it. The best preparation that parents can offer is to enable them to do so with intelligence and the conviction of a well-formed faith.

Q:  As a high school teacher you experience firsthand the fact that the transition from summer vacation is never really easy for most students.  How do you help ease your students back into the classroom and to their school year schedules?

Fr. John Henry:  That difficult transition is shared by both teachers and students! But I find that it’s helpful not to overwhelm them with too much homework right away, so that they don’t get discouraged early on by the sheer volume of work. Instead, it’s good to spend some time reminding the students of the purpose or end behind each subject.

For instance, as an English teacher, I might remind my students that the purpose of our class would be to learn the intelligent presentation of ideas according to the tradition of the English language. This enables me to hark back to this as an operating principle throughout the year, and refer whatever topics we might study back to it, so that they always have a sense of purpose woven into their study of a particular subject.

Students often experience difficulty in applying themselves to a given subject because they don’t see the “point” in it. But even if they aren’t particularly inclined to math, for instance, they should at least be given a sense of how mathematics is supposed to help develop the mind. Having a sense of purpose is crucial in school as in so many other areas of life.

Q:  The typical schedule of a student today is quite demanding—it often looks a lot like the packed schedules of most working professionals.  What simple things can parents do to make sure that God and faith are not separated from all those great and necessary activities that their children are involved in?

Fr. John Henry:  I may have already addressed this partially in my first answer. However, I would like to emphasize the importance of the sacramental life in the day-to-day triumphs and defeats of the Christian. Both young and old should see the sacraments as normal fixtures in their lives—not, again, as something added on to their lives, but as their center, with the Eucharist being the heart.

While young people are still in school, a challenging but concrete way for parents to ensure that the faith life of their children is not eclipsed by other activities, however important, would be to avoid any extra-curricular activities (such as weekend sports) that prevent students from taking part in the Sunday Eucharist. I mention sports in particular because this is one area that often creates problems with weekend scheduling. If young people are made to choose between Mass and a soccer game, then parents should make it clear that the choice is not a matter of indifference.

Young people have to be made aware that not infrequently they will need to make a sacrifice of something in order to live the sacramental life of the Church to the full.

Q:  What simple things can students do on their own to spend time with God each day?  Why is it important to develop that habit?

Fr. John Henry:  I think all students typically pray before a difficult exam. But if we want to encourage a more regular recourse to prayer, then establishing set times when one prays is very important. Like physical exercise, prayer (at least “formal” prayer) won’t happen unless we commit ourselves to times and places where we want to make it happen.

Additionally, young people should be encouraged to approach God at all times within their hearts. They should not get the idea that prayer is something that only happens in a church building, even though that is its privileged setting. Our Lord, and St Paul echoing Him, teach us to pray always, unceasingly. I often counsel young people to realize that God, as their Father, is interested in every aspect of their lives, that He wants to hear the voices of His children calling upon Him often.

Q:  St. Josemaria Escriva desired that all souls would come to understand that “everything can be prayer, all activity can and should lead us to God, nourish our intimate dealings with him, from morning to night.”  Therefore to study is also prayer.  How do you help your students understand this teaching and to benefit from it?

Fr. John Henry:  In order to answer this question I would say that first of all sanctity has to be proposed to students as something both desirable and possible. Once they see it as both, then you can begin to speak about the means—such as forms of prayer. They won’t want to see study as a way of getting closer to God unless that desire has already been kindled within them.

So, it is a matter of addressing a prior question first. But our primary aim as priests and as Catholic educators is to foster the interpersonal relationship with Jesus Christ. That is primary.

However, I might also add that sometimes when students find their studies to be particularly onerous, we encourage them to offer it as a sacrifice pleasing to God. Doing things—pleasant as well as difficult—from a higher motivation always lightens the load and, with Christ sharing our yoke, makes it easier to bear. Bearing all things with Christ as our chosen Companion inevitably bonds us more closely to Him, as friend to Friend.

Q:  You have read and discussed in the classroom excerpts from St. Josemaria’s homily “Passionately Loving the World”.  What are some things your students shared with you about it?  Are there certain points that they relate to more than others?  Has it helped them think about their faith in new ways?

Fr. John Henry:  I have used portions of St Josemaria’s homily “Passionately Loving the World” both to stimulate class discussions and as a writing prompt. I am particularly interested to hear the students’ reflections on what St Josemaria calls leading a “double life” as Christians. Young people who are on the verge of leaving high school, home, and being on their own in college need to confront themselves with this question, since it will be a very real temptation for them.

Another point that my students find interesting from St Josemaria’s homily is his insistence that Christians need to find God where they are right now, without regretting their state in life. He lists a series of “if only’s” that people sometimes recite to themselves when life seems to be going on without purpose: “Leave behind false idealism, fantasies, and what I usually call mystical wishful thinking; if only I hadn’t married, if only I hadn’t this profession, if only I were healthier, if only I were young, if only I were old… Instead turn seriously to the most material and immediate reality, which is where Our Lord is….”

Such a direct depiction of the regrets that people are often prone to grabs the students’ attention because it is so true to human experience. And the solution that the Saint indicates is no less direct, concrete, and attention-getting.

Q:  Coincidentally, St. Josemaria preached the homily “Passionately Loving the World” during the first “Year of Faith” proclaimed in 1967 by Pope Paul VI.  The Church is preparing now for a new “Year of Faith” which begins in October (2012).  How can the message of St. Josemaria’s homily—that “without faith, we lack the very foundation for the sanctification of ordinary life”—help families today in living out and growing in their lives of faith?

Fr. John Henry:  St Josemaria’s message, like that of St Therese of Lisieux and so many others, is that we need to see the “most material and immediate” realities with eyes enlightened by God in order to see them truly as our meeting place with Him. Yet, if we tell people to find God in material things, in little and ordinary things, they won’t get very far unless they are also shown the only means by which they can find the Lord there: the supernatural gift of faith.

Without this faith, as St Josemaria says, we will lack an essential ingredient in our sanctification. We need to be enlightened by God in order to find Him where He wants to be found. Human vision, so limited and fallible, cannot do this unaided by grace.

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The St. Josemaria Institute was founded in 2006 to promote the life, teachings, and devotion to St. Josemaria Escriva among all men and women who desire to find meaning and happiness in their daily lives by growing closer to God. The St. Josemaria Institute produces and distributes digital and print media as a means to spread Christian values around the world and to help people navigate and live well in the digital age.

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