Dominican Formation Among Fenwick’s Faculty and Staff

While students sleep in, instructors and school administrators reflect on the spiritual side of their teaching ministry.

By Brother John Steilberg, O.P.

During the course of the school year, the faculty and staff at Fenwick participate in Dominican Formation Days. These late-start dates for students are an opportunity for the faculty and staff to reflect on who we are as a Catholic and Dominican school. Dominican formation stems from our need for ongoing education and formation in Catholic values vital to the mission of our school. We would like to share some thoughts shared by our faculty and staff after attending our most recent Dominican formation day in February.

One faculty member commented, “Dominican formation helps us better understand the Dominican tradition central to our school identity and helps us strengthen community with one another.” Another faculty relayed these sentiments: “It is important for us to participate in Dominican formation so that we can continue to grow spiritually as a community and to continue to remind us of our mission.” Another stressed the need to extend our mission to how we live, teach and preach here at Fenwick every day. “I would see the purpose as continuing to reflect on how we can best understand and live out our Catholic Dominican identity in specific ways.”

Dominican formation centers on the Four Pillars of Dominican Life:

  1. Prayer
  2. Study
  3. Community
  4. Preaching

The Four Pillars are a descriptive way of explaining the essence of and daily practice of Dominican life. The Dominican friars here at Fenwick live out the pillars in a very intentional way and oftentimes in a very external way. But all of our faculty and staff, in a wide diversity of actions, live out the pillars as part of their particular Christian vocation.

“Our job at Fenwick is to do more than teach and support academically, but to show through our actions the meaning of Christ’s love.”

One teacher described this shared mission of both the Dominican friars and the staff in this way, “As teachers, we must be able to model the Dominican Catholic values of the school.” Another teacher asserted, “Also, to remind us that our job at Fenwick is to do more than teach and support academically, but to show through our actions the meaning of Christ’s love.”

The Fenwick Community

Campus Ministry Director and proud alumnus Fr. Dennis Woerter, O.P. ’86 (with his back to us) co-led the Dominican Formation Day with Br. Steilberg, O.P.

Each year, our Dominican formation programs focus on one of the four pillars in particular. This year we reflected on “community,” how we are called by God to live together as Christian people. As a community, we discussed questions such as:

  • What is the most important thing we do that brings us together as a community?
  • What issues divide us at times?
  • What items do we need to work on?

We also examined where are the margins of our community are and how we can bring the gospel message to those margins. Our conversation was heartfelt and lively around these difficult questions.

What Makes Fenwick Different?

In later meetings we discussed our identity as a Catholic school. What makes us different, being Catholic and Dominican, from other schools in the area? One teacher explained it this way: “Every school prepares its students to lead, achieve and serve. Not every school’s mission is predicated upon a deep theological commitment to the dignity of the human person.” One faculty member explained, “to be Catholic is to be counter-cultural. Our identity and our values need to be true to who we are — even though that may not be popular or generally accepted.”

“Not every school’s mission is predicated upon a deep theological commitment to the dignity of the human person.”
Brother John
Brother John

We then discussed how to avoid going too far in emphasizing what makes us different, so that we can preach Jesus’ universal message of the gospel that is meant for all of mankind. This can be a challenging balance: to be true to our Catholic identity yet open to diversity, welcoming to all people, and proclaiming God’s mercy available to every person.

Finally, we discussed where God is in this picture here at Fenwick. Faculty members expressed this idea: “God is [present] in relationships with other people, with our students and our colleagues.”

As we strive to build a faith community, what does that say about what we believe about God? What is God asking of us, as a faith community, as a high school? These are challenging questions. These are questions that may take a lifetime to answer. But that is what we are about here at Fenwick. We seek the Truth.

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‘Death to Self:’ Bishop Barron’s Calling Began at Fenwick

By John Paulett, Fenwick Theology Teacher

Editor’s note: Monday, January 28, is the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas, priest and doctor of the Catholic Church and patron of students.

Three years ago Bishop Barron (left) reconnected with Fr. Thomas Poulsen, O.P., his former teacher at Fenwick.

Readers interested in exploring the excellent videos of Bishop Robert Barron, the recipient of the Lumen Tranquillum Award from Fenwick High School this year, might start with the short presentation he gives on the man he describes as his hero: St. Thomas Aquinas. The bishop explains how it was at Fenwick, when he was 14 years old, that a theology teacher first introduced him to St. Thomas Aquinas. He describes it as a “bell-ringer” event and goes on to explain how it changed the course of his life. He seems to suggest that this seminal moment led him, through the grace of God, into the priesthood.

Besides his description of the encounter in his freshman theology class, there is another deep Fenwick link in Barron’s explanation of Aquinas. He lists three ideas, which he believes characterize the thought and teaching of Thomas. It is interesting to note how closely the three themes he describes resemble three main ideas characteristic of a Fenwick education. Many high schools talk about the “grad at grad,” or what a graduate will know and be. I would suggest that these three concepts, reflective of the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, might be a good description of a Fenwick student after four years on Washington Boulevard.

Bishop Barron first explains in the video that Aquinas believed there was one truth. He explains that people of Thomas’s time (we might note of our time as well) often thought there were two truths — scientific and religious. Aquinas refused to accept that. He knew that there could be only one truth. If science and religion seemed to be in conflict, there was a problem in either the scientific or the theological method. More thought and study were required.

‘Dominicans are not afraid of reason; we embrace it.’

Barron calls St. Thomas Aquinas his hero.

At Fenwick, we sometimes express this same idea as, “Don’t leave your brain at the door of the church (or the theology classroom.)” It is a characteristic of Dominican education to apply rigorous study and thought to every aspect of our education, including our religious belief. We are not afraid of reason; we embrace it. We are convinced that reason and critical examination will lead to the Creator, not contradict creation.

And so we teach Fenwick students to question, to wonder, and to apply the lessons they learn from science and philosophy to their faith. Bishop Barron reassures us that Aquinas had no fear of reason. Neither should we.

Radical Humanism

Secondly, Barron describes the Thomistic understanding that we are contingent beings. This is a fancy way of saying that we depend on something else for our existence. That thing that is the First Cause, what does not depend on anything else for its existence, is what we call God. It was this explanation of the Proofs of the Existence of God that first rang the bell of 14-year-old Bob Barron. [A Western Springs resident, he transferred to Benet Academy in Lisle.]

I often say to myself, “There is a God and it is not me.” When we recognize that we are dependent on a power beyond ourselves (12-step programs would call it a Higher Power,) we are on the path to faith. We begin this journey with the destruction of self-centeredness and ego. Christian theology calls it “death to self.” In the gospel of John, Jesus tells us, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it produces great fruit.”

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Advent Has Come!

Bishop Barron tell us, “The only way up is down.”

By Brother Joseph Trout, O.P.

Welcome to Advent! This is one of my favorite seasons of the church year, though it can easily get lost, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That really is a shame because of how odd this season is: We begin by thinking about the end of the world. Yes, the Catholic Church begins its new liturgical year and the build-up to Christmas by pondering the end of time.

Of course, we claim the return of Christ in the last days truly is what we all want because he will put an end to suffering and injustice, so it’s not exactly a doomsday message. However, it is still sobering to ponder where all of life is going and to wrestle with the truth that we don’t live in a particularly just world now. I don’t know about you, but I would love for a world without “harm or ruin,” as the prophets promise. I’d also love to live in a world where I don’t make any mistakes that cause pain around me. Alas, that is not this world yet.

That is why advent is a season of hope — hope for the coming of perfect mercy and justice. It’s a gritty virtue for people in need, not the fluffy one often imagined. It’s the virtue of being on a journey towards God and trusting goodness really will reign one day. It’s for those who don’t have everything they want and know they need something more. We need Christ, the light who shines in the darkness. We also need to ponder the darkness if we want to appreciate the light.

Though it says nothing about advent or Christmas, I find Bishop Barron’s video, “Dante and the Spiritual Journey,” a great way to get this season of hope started. Dante’s Divine Comedy tells of the life as a pilgrim and the ways we can get lost on the journey. Barron’s line that catches me every time I watch the video is: “The only way up is down.”

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron

Without spoiling the video for you, Barron reminds us that we have to wrestle with the reality of our sins, the limits of earthly life and finite creation if we ever really want to find joy. We can’t receive the love of God and others this season if we don’t let go of selfishness first. After all, ’tis the season of paradoxes where we begin at the end and embrace the omnipotent God of justice in the form of a defenseless child. So why not go down to go up first?

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Summer of Service

By Grace Vomacka ’20

Juniors at Fenwick are required to complete 30 hours of service to fulfill the third year of the Christian Service Project. For freshman year, students participate in a charity initiative in their Theology classes. Sophomores spend a day visiting people in need around Chicago and its suburbs. Junior year is when our service becomes more independent. Although a list of pre-approved volunteer sites is provided, it is really up to us to decide where we want to serve.

The purpose of the Christian Service Project is to serve people who are considered poor or in need. Our ministry experiences introduce us to Christ in unexpected places. Many juniors struggle with figuring out where they want to serve.

Since the year I went into seventh grade, I have spent one or two days a week each summer at Soaring Eagle Academy, a school [in Lombard, IL] for kids with autism and related disorders, which are commonly viewed as a severe disadvantage to a child. The students often struggle with academic and social interactions. (See sidebar.) At Soaring Eagle, students develop interaction and communication skills while achieving higher levels of learning.

Many parents of children with autism decide to enroll their kids in a school such as Soaring Eagle. Therefore, a large number of my peers do not often interact with students who are affected by autism, so these students are often overlooked. Christ spoke for all people while he lived on earth, and he showed intense companionship and love to them. Christ is present in the students of Soaring Eagle in the boundless love they spread.

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