Tonight I will deliver the first of three presentations on the Integrated Classical Catholic School we will reopen at Star of the Sea in August: Stella Maris Academy. My talk tonight at 7pm, entitled, "Raising Saints," describes the Catholic component. Greg Moeck will speak on Saturday at 10am on the Classical component in "Fulfilling the Promise of STEM," and Gavin Colvert will speak next Monday at 7pm on the integrated component in "Forming Character." All of these will be given in our model classroom, live streamed at the times indicated, and available at any time on both our parish (starparish.com) and school (stellamarissf.org) homepages. As soon as we can have in-person meetings again, we will hold live sessions with parents and others interested in this great project of opening a Classical Catholic Academy here in San Francisco. I hope you are inspired to be a part of this crucial endeavor!
The education system in America has devolved into a bit of a mess. Students graduate from high school without the ability to think clearly: they can’t read, write, or speak very well at all, and so are gullible to even the most fatuous propaganda. It’s very hard to have a rational discussion with college students anymore.
But help is on the way. The Classical Curriculum movement sweeping through private schools and even through some public school districts teaches children to read, write, and speak clearly. The so-called “trivium” sequence of grammar, logic, and rhetoric was developed by the Greeks in the fifth century before Christ, and served western civilization well until it began to be replaced by a more “technocratic” approach about a hundred years ago. It is, simply, a better curriculum than what most public and private schools offer today.
Don’t believe me? If you are concerned about the limited attention spans, inadequate social skills, and emotional fragility of young people today, I want to show you something. If you are surprised at how little high school students know about history and literature, or alarmed at how dependent they are on screens and social media, or disturbed at how easily they fall into depression or violence, I want to offer you a better way to educate.
It's called the Classical Curriculum, and we are opening a school in San Francisco this August. We call it, actually, an Integrated Classical Catholic school (ICC), and our school will take the name Stella Maris Academy. You’ve heard me speak of it before, but now it’s crunch time. We need a few teachers who want to teach this way, and ten or twelve families that want to build this school. We’ve got the money, but we need the students. Most Catholic families in the Bay Area have no idea how to better educate their children, and it’s not easy to reach them.
Can you join me in building this school? I need two things from you: First, your prayers, because this is entirely in God’s hands. We are all entirely in His hands. So many of us must ask Him for this blessing, daily, in our prayers. Second, I need you to educate yourself in the Classical Curriculum, and to tell others what you have discovered. Three of us in San Francisco will be presenting on the three aspects of ICC, as follows. “I” stands for Integrated, and Greg Moeck, our director of marketing, will speak on how an Integrated Classical Catholic school fulfils the goals of STEM (“science, technology, engineering, and math”) better than a merely technology-focused education. “C” stands for Classical, and Gavin Colvert, our Head of School, will speak on how ICC forms character by forming the moral imagination. “C” stands for Catholic, and I will speak on how integrating faith and reason raises saints rather than simply students.
I will present on January 25 at 7pm; Greg will present on January 30 at 10am, and Gavin will present on February 3 at 7pm. Tomorrow on this blog I will give you the link to these live streamed presentations.
One year it snowed early in the Sierras, and a bunch of us went skiing before Thanksgiving. I climbed on a ski lift with an older man who was all smiles. “80% of the lifts are open,” he beamed, “and it’s still October. Every ski day before Thanksgiving is gravy!” He considered it pure bonus, unearned and unexpected, to ski for a month before “it should start snowing.”
Every day in my beautiful parish, worshipping freely with a devout and joyful community, is gravy. I didn’t expect to be a free man this long, and I can’t expect it to last indefinitely. The day after the electoral votes were confirmed, an agent from the City of San Francisco called the parish office. “Are aware of the city regulations on worship services?” the agent asked our parish secretary. She said she was. “Are you aware that only one person at a time is permitted in churches?” The parish secretary thought about our 1000-seat church, and she thought about the retail store she had been in earlier that day with hundreds of people. “Yes, we are aware of that and have signage accordingly,” she replied.
Perhaps our churches will be permitted to remain open, but why should we count on freedom to worship in America when our Christian brethren in Hong Kong have already lost theirs? Christianity, and other religions, have been persecuted by populist movements and reigning governments for millennia. And do we think we will die peacefully in our beds? Perhaps we will, and we must pray for a peaceful social order. But we cannot demand it, and every day we are permitted to worship freely is gravy. The freedom to praise God in joyful community does not last indefinitely in any human society, but it will be perfectly restored in the life of the world to come. We must treasure every day that God gives us life and breath to praise him, looking forward to a place untainted by even the shadow of change.
Early in the morning on New Year’s Day I went for my daily ride up and down the hills, along the Bay and by the ocean, to a favorite bench in the park overlooking the mighty Pacific. “2021” has a nice ring to it, I thought to myself, as light began to fill the vast stretches of water between us and China. A man and woman approached on the trail, chatting amiably, as the sun rose behind us. I am resolved to greet at least one stranger a day with a smile, but this time they beat me to it: “Happy New Year!” they said, cheering my heart. A few minutes later another person came along the trail, but she kept her head down. She had pulled a beanie hat low over her ears, into which she had stuffed white earbuds. Dark glasses concealed her eyes, and a tight mask covered her nose and mouth. I waved a “Happy New Year” to her, but she only moved farther away from me, seeing but not hearing. I was reminded of Psalm 135: “they have ears but they cannot hear; they have eyes but they cannot see.” Here’s a New Year’s resolution: go for a walk outside every day, and remove your earbuds. Look and listen freely to the sounds of God’s natural beauty, which includes other people. The outside world is not our enemy!
We can wish each other a happy New Year, because God has given us this time of praise and thanksgiving for his manifold blessings. We are tempted to ingratitude, as even the Pope expressed in his New Year’s remarks. “It might seem forced, even jarring,” he said, “to thank God at the end of a year like this….” After Mass last night, a woman hesitated on her way out, then turned to point a finger at me. “I want to talk to you,” she said, and I thought I had was in trouble for something. But her quarrel was with God. “How can I believe in God when He allows the darkness and chaos we saw this past week? Our motherland is collapsing.” No one seems able to prevent the rapid decline of a rightly-ordered society built on truth and mutual respect.
This morning I began the Book of Job, a man who loses his entire life’s work in one day. Marauding Sabeans slaughter his field hands and take his cattle, fire from heaven consumes his sheep and goats, murderous Chaldeans make off with his camels and butcher his servants, and a violent wind destroys his sons and daughters in their own homes. So what does Job do? He praises God. “Job rose. He tore his gown and shaved his head. Then, falling to the ground he worshipped and said: Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken back. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.” Job’s wife concludes that her husband has lost his mind. “Curse God and die,” she tells him.
The distressed woman last night could not be consoled at the loss of her country, and of all her friends, and of all her family members. She could only express fear, outrage, and helplessness. She wanted my help, so I recommended a book; I affirmed that God will not abandon those who hope in Him; I pointed out that we are not meant to live here forever anyway. She would not be consoled. Finally I just said “this church is open day and night for you. Throw yourself down before God, and He will heal you.” She smiled a little, and thanked me, and left.
Naked we entered this world, and naked we leave. What do we expect from this world? Earthly paradise? Those who believe in utopias inevitably destroy whatever fragile order we manage to build on earth. And yet, paradise glows on the faces of those who praise God in all circumstances. It is possible to radiate peace and joy, even as Leviathan is unleashed. The answer to every distress is always “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” At times faith must be blind: blind, but not unseeing.
Today’s feast of “Epiphany” is a Greek word, two words, actually: “epi” and “phaineo,” meaning a “shining upon.” The star shone upon Israel, leading the three kings over mountain ranges and through river valleys to Bethlehem. It shone upon a simple dwelling, and upon a child. Have you noticed that we’ve fixed the “nativity light” high above the altar? It points directly at the tiny baby Jesus in the manger scene painting, the third of the five joyful mystery frescos in our apse. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it, but only those who study the heavens will notice it. The three kings studied the heavens, seeking to discover the true essence of things, searching for a light beyond human wisdom. And so a great light was revealed to their minds, which is what “epiphany” means: the veil between heaven and earth was lifted, and the fundamental order of the universe became clear to them. It was the love of a child for his mother, of God for his creatures. Heaven guides earth, and heaven is a little child, who is Christ the Lord.
Herod wants to be a star
King Herod also saw that star, but what did it mean to him? Nothing. He didn’t grasp its meaning because poor Herod was trapped in himself. He considered himself a rising star in the Roman Empire, becoming governor of Galilee at age 25. To consolidate his position he banished his first wife and their son, sent hundreds of priests to their deaths, and finally murdered his second wife and their children. And of course he killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem in a fanatical attempt to maintain control. He spent his life seeking to be a star rather than to follow a star, leaving a trail of blood, destruction, and anguish in the wake of his pitiful life.
Wise Men look up not down
Herod looked down, at himself, but the Wise Men looked up, into the heavens. They recognized the traces of God in all of creation, while Herod recognized nothing of God in himself or in this world, a stranger to himself and a monster to others.
There’s only two ways to go in this life: up or down. I can be a Herod, or I can be a Wise Man. I can choose to complain, to rant, and to despair, or I can choose to thank God, to edify, and to rejoice in the life God has given me. This joy is not just the power of positive thinking; it is “a cry of recognition and of love,” as St. Therese wrote: “to me, prayer is a surge of the heart, a cry of recognition and love.” All of us, in this new year, are concerned about our nation, about our Church, and about our personal lives. Try not to worry. Try to look up, not down. Everything in the Scriptures today urges us to look up: “Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come … Raise your eyes and look about, and you shall be radiant at what you see.” A young professional, who recently moved to San Francisco, the shining city on the bay, asked me before the last Mass: “what will happen to us this year?” I was inspired to reply that I knew what will happen this year: God’s grace will prevail over every darkness and disorder. Has 2020 left you downcast? Then look up, after the shining example of Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar, our three Kings.
A People of Praise
No one wants to be a Herod, not even Herod. No one wants to kill babies, or their own wife and sons, and live in fear. But unless we study the heavens like the Magi, we will sink with him into chaos. Take the trouble to pray, to look up instead of down, to seek and expect joy. Take the time to stop in the church for a quiet prayer, or gaze through an open window at the horizon, or look into the eyes of someone who lives with you. Training our eyes on the things of God will grant us keen intelligence, unshakeable peace, and enduring joy. A blessed and happy New Year to you all!
Fr. Joseph Illo
Star of the Sea Parish,