December 08, 2008

A Story For Christmas

Tonight, I attended a fundraiser for my high school alma mater, St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland.  As fundraisers go, it’s nicer than most:  it features a Christmas concert by one of the world’s best orchestras in one of the country’s best concert venues, the beautifully renovated Severance Hall.  It also features an award to a prominent alumnus or benefactor.  I’ve been going to this event, on and off, since it began well over 20 years ago, and the award has always been my least favorite part of the event.  Until tonight.

This year’s recipient was James Skerl, class of ‘74, who has been a theology teacher at the school since I started there.  As a student, Mr. Skerl did not make much of an impression on me.  But tonight he did.  After an eloquent introduction by the school’s former president, Timothy Kesicki, S. J., who explained how difficult it was to convince him to accept the award, Mr. Skerl gave a very humble, moving talk, in which he talked about how much he had learned from the members of the L’Arche Community whom he has invited into his home and into his classroom, and from the homeless of Cleveland, who, in a program he initiated, have received regular visits from student volunteers.  He told us that members of L’Arche were in attendance, as well as some no longer homeless people who had been helped to turn around their lives by those volunteers.  He also described how his parents instilled his faith in him, and how that faith has been strengthened by all manner of people, including the 8,000 or so students he has taught.

What Mr. Skerl is probably best known for, however, is the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Society, an organization he started in 2003 that is now the largest extracurricular activity at the school, with 300 members.  That level of participation is extraordinary, since membership is restricted to juniors and seniors—nearly half of all juniors and seniors are members.  What the members do is act as pallbearers for those who have no one to carry their caskets, a category that encompasses not just the homeless and indigent but people whose family and friends are too few or infirm to do that.  In Cleveland, funeral directors know about the society and regularly request its help.  And after some well-deserved publicity, other Catholic high schools have started emulating Ignatius and organizing such societies.

As the talks by Fr. Kesicki and Mr. Skerl made clear, the inspiration for all this was Catholic theology, specifically the corporal works of mercy, one of which is to bury the dead.  Mr. Skerl wanted his students to carry out each of these works of mercy, and his imagination led him to conceive a way for the boys he teaches to help provide some dignity and honor at life’s end for people who, for whatever reason, are largely forgotten at that time.  There is talk on both the left and the right about how theology is either useless or pernicious.  But I beg to differ.  The pride many Ignatius alumni take in the school is understandable.  We regularly have one of the largest numbers of National Merit Finalists in Ohio, we have won a record ten Ohio football championships, an alumnus won an Olympic gold medal in Athens, and alumni are prominent in many areas of endeavor.  But I have never been more proud of my alma mater than I was tonight, as I listened to how Jim Skerl has tried to represent Christ to his students, and how he has tried to inspire his students to represent Christ to those they meet.

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