Papal visit in lesson plan At Catholic school, pope's trip provides 'teachable moment'


The class began with a prayer. Then the theology teacher, Lee Knox, led eight high school juniors in an examination of the human conscience and what makes it tick.

A banner over the blackboard quoted from the biblical Book of John: "Love one another as I have loved you."

On a morning last week, Mr. Knox managed to work Pope John Paul II's Sunday visit to Baltimore into class discussion at Our Lady of Mount Carmel High School in Essex. Asked to rank the major influences on their moral behavior, the students put the pope and his church fifth, behind parents, friends, teachers and television.

Had Mount Carmel been a public school, a First Amendment enforcer could have made a citizen's arrest. But this was a routine day in Mr. Knox's class. Four years of theology are required at the 200-student high school, in a sequence that includes study of the Bible, church history and -- in the junior year -- morality. And Mount Carmel students, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, pray before every class.

The pope's visit to Baltimore "provides us with a wonderful opportunity," said Mr. Knox, 41. "It's a teachable moment we may never have again."

It's a moment of great anticipation, too. Voni Schreiber, 15, will be a "communion distributor" and usher at Sunday's event in Camden Yards. Her friend, Jennifer Kim, 14, will watch the proceedings on television at her church. If the two sophomores were more excited, they'd burst.

"He lives all the way in Rome," said Voni. "We'll never get to see him again after this. He's not an ordinary priest; he's the pope. He's an extraordinary person. You have to do a lot to be a pope. It takes a lot to know all that stuff and to want to be that high."

Teachers at Mount Carmel and in parochial schools across the archdiocese are blending the pope and the papacy into their classroom activities. "The visit brings to life what we've been studying," said Ronald J. Valenti, the archdiocesan school superintendent. "We may never meet the Holy Father, but it's thrilling to know he's in our country and our city, reaching out and touching all people, not just Catholics."

The teaching of religion, and of Catholic history, has changed, said Mr. Knox and others at Mount Carmel. It's less didactic and less formal. Gone are the days of nuns in habits patrolling the aisles, rulers at the ready. In fact, only three full-time "religious" are left on the 55-member Mount Carmel faculty, said Kathy Sipes, principal of both the high school and the adjacent 500-student elementary school.

"Anything we teach would, of course, follow the doctrine and mandates of the church," said Ms. Sipes, 47, who also teaches a course on the New Testament. "The pope is the leader and the spokesman. He's a world leader as well as a church leader, and we want our students to know about him and understand him."

But, Ms. Sipes added, "We can't tell students what to think; we never could. What we can do is broaden their perspective."

Asked how he felt about the pope's views on such controversial matters as abortion, Charles Jenkins, 16, said, "I agree on some of the pope's teachings, but when the abortion topic comes up, I disagree. It's up to the woman what she wants to do with her body. But I still think the pope's a great person to look up to."

Jennifer Trentowski, a 16-year-old senior, said in an interview she agreed with the church's stands against abortion and birth control, "but I think women should have the opportunity to become priests. We took a step up in having girls as altar servers. That was good. I can understand how Jesus was a man and the apostles were men. But that was then, this is now, and we have to change with the times."

At Mount Carmel, it's easy to tell which students have reached the second semester of the 10th grade by talking to them about church history. That's the semester in which church history is taught at the same time as world history -- deliberately, according to Ms. Sipes. Older students such as Miss Trentowski know something about the papacy and the church hierarchy.

Periods of corruption and shame in Catholic history aren't covered up, she said. "They don't try to hide it and make it sound like it's somebody else's fault. They really can't, because we're not stupid."

Dr. Valenti, who oversees the 101 archdiocesan schools, said there are historical events "the church is not proud of, things that evolved that shouldn't have happened. The church is a divine institution run by humans, and therefore it's subject to human failure. The remarkable thing is that it's remained constant, even gathered strength, through all these years."

Voni Schreiber and Jennifer Kim giggled and said they haven't taken the church history course yet and don't know a lot about the papacy. Jennifer said she agrees with the church's position on abortion, but when asked how she'd react if her principal distributed condoms, she said, "I think it's a very good idea. Too many girls are getting pregnant at a very young age."

Then there was a pause. "That sort of goes against the pope," Jennifer said.

Mr. Knox, in his 10th year at Mount Carmel, said the essence of teaching theology at a Catholic school is "hating the sin but loving the sinner." His job is more about "bringing out the goodness in students," less about enforcing orthodoxy.

Mr. Knox said students have changed. They're "more verbally open about their concerns than they were years ago," he said. "They're also less respectful at times, and, generally, they have less love in their lives as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago. They're much more grown up than they used to be. They're dealing with moral issues at 12 and 13 that I didn't have to deal with until I was 18.

"You have to be a lot more patient and try your best to help them work through their problems. You have to just... "

Another pause. "... love them."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad