Inspired in Seattle

St. James Cathedral, Seattle. Photo courtesy of Catholic News Service.

Last week, I visited western Washington to speak to principals in the Archdiocese of Seattle at their annual retreat. It was a short but wonderful trip. The diocese is filled with inspiring leaders who are synchronizing modern methods of pedagogy with the ancient heartbeat of Catholicism. As we spoke about STEM-learning and dual learning, project-based classrooms and flipped classrooms, I detected a group of educators implicitly addressing this question: “What has Cupertino to do with Jerusalem?”

My reflections to the principals centered upon Catholic education in the modern world, and I tried to shed light on the retreat’s theme, “Handing on to Others What was Handed on to Us.” A few of the highlights:


The Book of Exodus as Curricular Framework. I spoke about the Book of Exodus as a framework or model for teaching theology. Growing in faith involves displacement. We must see differently, think differently, live differently. Faith is a journey from captivity to freedom. It’s a journey that requires students to refuse false gods, to learn and embody virtue, to care for one another, and to place their total trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Accompaniment. Along similar lines, I spoke about the theme of accompaniment. As we invite students into the Catholic faith, as we listen to their questions and struggles, we must join them. We must understand their context, a context that includes the messiness of Facebook and Twitter, the charms of YouTube, the allure of music and film, and the demands of sports. These worlds feed them and tempt them and give them both hope and despair. No theological education can proceed without first mapping that terrain. The teacher must be a cartographer. As we ask, “What should they know?” we must also ask, “What do they know?” Before asking, “What ought they believe?” we must ask, “What do they believe, and why?” Before asking, “Where should they be in four years?” we must ask, “Where have they spent the last eight . . . or the last four . . . or the last two?”

The importance of retreats. Despite attending Catholic school my whole life, I’m a latecomer to the value of retreats. In grade school and high school, I struggled to see their benefits. Not because they weren’t well done, but because I wasn’t ready for the vulnerability that retreats require. I didn't want my faith to result in tears. I didn't want to hear of brokenness. My faith came to me primarily through books, not silence and shared prayer. But as an adult, as a faculty member who has led Kairos and other high school retreats, I now find them to be essential. I understand why students love them.

Given my experiences, I invited the principals to see retreats not as add-ons to the curriculum but as its culmination. Retreats provide a "spiritual lab" that lets students uncover and investigate their latent concerns. They have the chance to pray, to communicate, to forgive, to wonder, to entrust. Retreats help them synthesize their assignments with their experiences, to move past assumptions and to make an interior pilgrimage. On retreat, students can wrestle with that foundational question: "Who do you say that I am?"

There were many other topics, as well as a lot of conversations, after the talks, that left me refining and rethinking some of my own positions. I also learned a lot about the mission of the Fulcrum Foundation, which is doing incredible work to raise money for Seattle Catholic schools and adapt them to the 21st Century.

Overall, the trip was outstanding. I left enthused by the vision and energy in Catholic education, excited for future collaboration. 


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