A Holy Communion Memoir
Why Sister Bunny Flick hired me to teach had something to do with an item on my resume: we had attended the same consortium of seminaries in Berkeley, California. Principals of Roman Catholic high schools typically don't even consider hiring a garden variety Protestant heretic like me. I don't know it for a fact, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Roman Bishops issue edicts (?) to that effect. But then Bunny was an RSCJ (an acronym for Religieuse du Sacre Coeur de Jesus). This particular order of nuns is known for its liberality and relative independence within whichever diocese one of their schools happens to be located. RSCJs are well-educated themselves much as are the Jesuits. In addition to the standard vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they add the vow to educate. Sister Flick had pursued her higher education at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, a school that offered coursework in common with several seminaries including the Pacific School of Religion where I studied for three years.
I had chosen teaching as a second career, was finishing coursework for a teaching credential and a PhD in philosophy of education when my resume caught Bunny's interest. She was the Principal of Duchesne Academy in Omaha, Nebraska. Perhaps because I thought of myself as sufficiently Christian, I had naively sent them my credentials. After a short interview in which Sr. Flick perceived that I was worth a chance, I was hired to teach English. I didn't realize at the time that it was an act of bravery and independence or perhaps even disobedience on her part to hire out of "The Church," emphasis on The. She must have known that she would incur the wrath of several influential parents who would take exception to her decision and even try to force her to rescind it. It was not long after I had started teaching that pressure was brought to bear. One father of a student assured me that it had nothing to do with me personally, but he didn't want non-Catholics teaching in "his" school. But the RSCJs knew it was their school, and they had made their decision. They were ready to go to the cross for me. The irate parents even went to the Bishop of the Diocese with their cause, but evidently, even he thought discretion was the better part of valor when it came to dealing with the nuns. I have never felt more supported personally in a new job in my life. Perhaps I was also feeling the power of their prayers, and I have no doubt I was on their list at least once a day.
Getting to know the nuns was one of the most interesting experiences in my life. I suspect that whenever one has the opportunity to be close to the serious practitioners of a religion, it is a fortuitous circumstance worth exploring. These women seemed to know the depth of their own beings better than just about anyone I have met before or since. I remember one encounter that still strikes me as revealing. Sr. Flick was sitting at lunch with Sr. Dunn who was the head of school. I asked if I could sit with them and they graciously included me. They were discussing the death of one of their sisters in Africa. Sr. Dunn was marveling over the death, and sister Flick seemed to be almost laughing about its oddity. Apparently the sister in question had been doing her laundry at the edge of a lake, when a crocodile rushed out, caught and dragged her under. I was horrified but quickly realized that that was not the proper sentiment from a spiritual point of view. The sisters clearly believed so strongly in the basic narrative of Christianity, that the circumstances of a particular death were unimportant. God had fully comprehended this woman's grizzly death, and she was now welcomed to the home of the saints. I learned something about the Roman Catholic attitude to martyrdom and dying in the faith. Their sister's peculiar death could legitimately be a subject of faint mirth.
The RSCJs have brought into being a network of Sacred Heart Schools around the globe that is among the best wherever they are. They have a remarkable, consistent educational philosophy. Unfortunately the order of nuns itself is dwindling, and they are faced with turning over the schools to lay leaders. Their legacy is threatened because without religious committed leadership, they worry about its continued coherence.
At the time I began teaching at Duchesne Academy in the early 90s, I was increasingly involved in the Episcopal Church. My interest in Christianity seems to go in 10 to 15 year cycles. I attended St. Matthew's Episcopal parish in Lincoln and commuted 60 miles to work each day. I found the Church (with a little t) a profound guide and support. In short, it was therapeutic for me at the time. Episcopalians are Eucharist-centered Christians as are Roman Catholics and Holy Communion was particularly meaningful to me. But, I had a problem.
At Duchesne we had a chapel every week and a local Jesuit priest celebrated the Mass. The school was formerly a women's college and had a beautiful chapel and several generous buildings that were so large that entire floors went virtually unused. My frustration was that I was required to attend chapel, but I wasn't allowed to take Communion. I found it surprisingly difficult to feel the rhythm and spiritual pull of the Mass but also be restrained from participating fully in the ceremony. I would sit in the back pew and pray but feel ultimately excluded. I suffered this circumstance for what seemed a long time before I said anything about my discomfort to Sister Flick. She was sympathetic but told me that many of her sisters go for years without Holy Communion because they live and work in remote locations where there are no priests to celebrate the Mass. I took her to mean, "Get over it" and I thought that was the end of the story; however, Sister Flick was not one to walk on by a problem such as mine if it was within her power to do anything about it.
Each year the teachers and administrators took a day off from teaching and administrating to renew ourselves and to somehow think about how things might go better. Public schools call such occasions "in-service days." We gathered in the beautiful, light-filled library that had old maple floors and an extraordinary collection of books left over from the days when the school was a college. Sr. Flick had decided to begin our colloquium with a Mass, although this time she had made special preparations. We gathered in a large circle and a blind Jesuit priest prepared to celebrate from an old oak library table in the middle of the room. To me it seemed like it would be just one more, sad, irritable moment for the heretic in the room. But just before distributing the sacraments, the priest announced: "I understand that some of you here are not Roman Catholics, but don't hesitate to take Communion if you wish because I won't be able to see the difference". He said this with obvious humor, goodwill and genuine invitation. From that day forward, I felt fully accepted at Duchesne even though I still sat in the back pew at chapel.
Sacred Heart Schools Philosophy of Education
- In the Goals and Criteria , the Society of the Sacred Heart defines the mission of the school as part of the Society's educational mission in the Catholic Church.
- Each school is accountable to the Society through the Sacred Heart Commission on Goals for adherence to the Goals and Criteria.
- Each school's Board of Trustees and Administration establish and uphold policies that are consistent with the Goals and Criteria .
- The school allocates its resources to support each Goal and its Criteria.
- The school is in compliance with professional standards as stated by accrediting agencies.
Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to a personal and active faith in God.
- Rooted in the love of Jesus Christ, the school promotes a personal relationship with God and fosters the spiritual lives of its members.
- The school seeks to form its students in the attitudes of the heart of Jesus expressed in respect, compassion, forgiveness and generosity.
- The entire school program explores one's relationship to God, to self, to others, and to all creation.
- Opening themselves to the transforming power of the Spirit of God, members of the school community engage in personal and communal prayer, reflection and action.
- The entire school program affirms that there is meaning and value in life and fosters a sense of hope in the individual and in the school community.
- The school fosters inter-religious acceptance and dialogue by educating to an understanding of and deep respect for the religions of the world.
- The school presents itself to the wider community as a Christ-centered institution and as an expression of the mission of the Society of the Sacred Heart.
Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to a deep respect for intellectual values.
- The school develops and implements a curriculum based on the Goals and Criteria , educational research and ongoing evaluation.
- The school provides a rigorous education that incorporates all forms of critical thinking and inspires a life-long love of learning.
- The school program develops aesthetic values and the creative use of the imagination.
- The faculty utilizes a variety of teaching and learning strategies that recognizes the individual needs of the students.
- The school provides ongoing professional development for faculty and staff.
- Members of the school community model and teach ethical and respectful use of technology.
Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to a social awareness which impels to action.
- The school educates to a critical consciousness that leads its total community to analyze and reflect on the values of society and to act for justice.
- The school offers all its members opportunities for direct service and advocacy and instills a life-long commitment to service.
- The school is linked in a reciprocal manner with ministries among people who are poor, marginalized and suffering from injustice.
- In our multicultural world, the school prepares and inspires students to be active, informed, and responsible citizens locally, nationally, and globally.
- The school teaches respect for creation and prepares students to be stewards of the earth's resources.
Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to the building of community as a Christian value.
- The school implements an ongoing plan for educating both adults and students in the heritage and mission of Sacred Heart education.
- The school promotes a safe and welcoming environment in which each person is valued, cared for and respected.
- Adult members of the school model and teach skills needed to build community and practice clear, direct and open communication.
- The school has programs that teach the principles of nonviolence, conflict resolution and peacemaking.
- The school makes a deliberate effort to recruit students and employ faculty and staff of diverse races, ethnicities and backgrounds.
- The financial aid program effectively supports socioeconomic diversity.
- The school participates actively in the national and international networks of Sacred Heart schools.
Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom.
- All members of the school community show respect, acceptance and concern for themselves and for others.
- School policies and practices promote self-discipline, responsible decision-making, and accountability.
- Students grow in self-knowledge and develop self-confidence as they learn to deal realistically with their gifts and limitations.
- School programs provide for recognizing, nurturing and exercising leadership in its many forms.
- The school provides opportunities for all members of the community to share their knowledge and gifts with others.
- All members of the school community take personal responsibility for balance in their lives and for their health and well-being.