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Of Habits and Hoodies: Forming Saints for the 21st Century

Saturday, October 31, 2015

“To be a Saint is to be myself.” 
Thomas Merton (not yet a Saint)

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My favorite image of any Saint is a photograph I keep on my desk of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, taken in 1895, in a play dressed as St. Joan of Arc.

There’s a beautiful kind of symmetry to the picture. Thérèse, arguably the most popular French Saint of our era, is essentially playing “dress up” of the most popular French Saint of her own era.

It’s a rare picture of Thérèse outside of her traditional habit; and factors into her own origin story. But what I love most about it is just how different Joan and Thérèse turned out to be. One was a zealous military hero, the other was known for her “Little Way,” doing small things with great love. Joan made her mark in combat, Thérèse in the convent.

It’s a common tradition in Catholic schools this week to have some kind of “All Saints Day” celebration wherein we allow students to dress up as their favorite Saints for the day, trading in Batman for Bartholomew, Aquaman for Aquinas. Another picture in my productivity zone is one of my old 8th grade class, taken on All Saints Day, 2011. They’re all dressed up as Catholic Saints. Most of the boys are priests — wearing robes or clerics. The girls, for the most part, are dressed as religious women, in an array of habits and head coverings of different colors.

But one student stands out. Lauren (like Thérèse, nearly 120 years before) is dressed as Joan of Arc. But instead of wearing a dress, she’s wearing a green camouflage military uniform and combat boots. Same Saint, different costumes. She took the same virtues and values of Joan of Arc, but instead of a dress, modernized her for the 21st-Century.

Lauren too can be a Saint. And it was my job to help her become one.

The image strikes me not only for Lauren’s creativity, but for the reminder it gives me that one day, Lauren too can be a Saint. And it was my job to help her become one. Those two pictures — of Thérèse and Lauren, both dressed as Joan — stand as a reminder to me. They help me look back to the past, and peek into the future.

There’s a lot for the modern teacher to keep track of these days: Lesson planning, grading, differentiation, all the while preparing students to be “college and career ready.” All good things, all necessary. But we can’t neglect our most important task as Catholic school educators: forming Saints. That’s not a dream or lofty aspiration, that’s the job. And it’s not for the faint of heart.

We rightly praise St. Augustine for standing up to heretics, but our children also need Saintly examples of people who stand up to school bullies and fight for decency and respect in the school community.

We rightly praise St. Theresa of Avila for founding her own religious order, but we can also praise our students when they start up a new club or sport — which often takes just as much bravery and ingenuity.

We rightly praise St. Thomas Aquinas for his massive intellect, but we must also praise and celebrate our students who pick their grade up from a D- to a C+ over the course of a semester.

Basically, we often talk about preparing students with “21st-Century skills,” but we too seldom consider how to form 21st-Century Saints. The greatest advantage of working in Catholic education is getting a front-row seat to the formation of these young people and helping them to become 21st-Century Saints that the 22nd-Century kids will someday look up to.

One hundred years from now—after we get jet packs and colonize Mars—I have a joyful expectation that my great-great-great-grandchild, as a member of ACE 122, will teach at St. Lauren of Mobile Catholic School. There, 100 years from today, I imagine students at the school dressing up as St. Quintarius of Prichard in his hoodie and Air Jordans, St. Josefína of Santiago with her tattoos, and St. Emily of Baltimore decked out in J.Crew. The kids of the future admiring the children we work with today.

God-willing, a kid in the far-distant might even dress up as Blessed Dan, drawing on some patchy facial hair and donning ink-stained tie, filthy from hours spent unjamming the copy machine—my own symbol of that holy crucible of patience and virtue.

Again, that’s not a pipe dream or a wistful fantasy—that’s the whole point of what we do.

So as our students return to our schools on Monday, trading in their habits for hoodies, let’s remember our primary task of helping them to become the men and women God created them to be, to set the world ablaze, and—in God’s time—to spend eternity with Joan, Thérèse, and us, their teachers.