The Dedication of The Immaculate Conception Oratory in Saint Norbert Hall

In the Spring of 2010, the Headmaster’s Council decided that several administrative offices, including the Headmaster’s office, would be relocated to The Patio. Rearranging other office spaces in Saint Norbert Hall left empty the administrative suit of offices created in the space of the original library of Saint Norbert Hall. Plans were made to relocated the chapel to this more prominent and much larger space of the original library.

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Construction underway in 2011.

Over the last four years, construction was completed for the Technology Center, located in the area of the former chapel and sacristy, and the Oratory and Spirituality Center space. All of the work was supervised by Mr. James Tosi, Director Facilities. Much of the work was completed by the Archmere facilities staff: Mr. Larry Osborn, Mr. John Grace, Mr. Robert Graham, and Mr. Dan Lutz. Mr. Denis O’Flynn O’Brien ’74 provided a conceptual design and floor plan for the Oratory space, in collaboration with Fr. Andrew Ciferni, O.Praem., Fr. Joseph McLaughlin, O.Praem., and myself. Mr. Tosi engaged contractors for the installation of the hardwood floors and woodwork, the installation of an emergency exit door and stairs, and the new glass entrance door.

I suggested the Arts and Crafts design of the furnishings and finishes for two reasons: 1) the simplicity of design combined with the warmth of the natural materials and jeweled-toned colors create a restful and uncomplicated place for prayer, and 2) the period aligns with the construction of the original historic buildings on campus – The Patio and The Manor – though adopting different, yet related styles. The altar, ambo, credence table, Holy Water font pedestal, and podium for the Book of Remembrance were uniquely designed for this space and executed by Mr. Bob Taylor with Mr. George Campion. The congregational chairs were made by Amish craftspeople, and the benches were resized and refinished from the pews in the original chapel.

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Dedication Mass Opening Prayer.

A main feature of the space are the stained glass windows, especially commissioned for Archmere by Willet Stained Glass Studio, under the guidance of Susan Bockius and designed by artist Jane Collins. The windows, moving from left to right as they are viewed from inside the Oratory, depict significant milestones or aspects of the life of Saint Norbert. The warm color palate in the center moves to cool colors at each window, highlighting the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Individual prayers for each of the windows were developed by Frs. Ciferni and McLaughlin, and are based on key words of focus for each window: scientia, peacemaker, wisdom, pietas, apostolic community, reverence, zeal, respect, faith, hope, and charity.

Another feature that has been commissioned but not yet installed for the space is a three-panel icon featuring images of Saint Norbert, the Immaculate Conception, and Saint Augustine, designed by Peter F. Pearson.

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Fr. McLaughlin consecrates the Eucharist.

On Sunday, we dedicated the Oratory to the Immaculate Conception. In 1932, the Priory of Archmere Academy – The Patio – was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.

Appropriately, Sunday was the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. Also called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin and Candlemas, this feast, which is also the fourth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary, is celebrated every February 2 in the Catholic Church.

Retreat

The word retreat, I believe, is not a part of the vocabulary of the average successful American. As a verb, retreat means to withdraw “from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable.” As a noun, it signifies “the process of receding from a position or state attained.” These definitions do not coalesce with the image of a person who keeps advancing in his or her education and career, facing challenges, taking on more work, and accomplishing it all. In fact, in some circumstances, retreating can be perceived as cowardly or a tactic of avoidance.

And yet, on Thursday, December 5, the Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior classes “made their retreats.” The Freshman spent the day at Archmere; Sophomores traveled to Sandy Hill, Maryland; and Juniors retreated at Daylesford Abbey. Before leaving campus, the Sophomores joined Father McLaughlin in celebration at Mass in Saint Norbert Oratory at 8:15 a.m. Father then celebrated a second Mass with the Freshman at 10 a.m. before leaving for Daylesford Abbey to celebrate a third Mass later in the day with the Juniors.

While some music for the celebrations was pre-recorded, I provided music for the responses of the Masses that were held in the Oratory. Though my only particular involvement with the retreat day was at the Mass times, I left the experience somewhat disappointed in the level of student engagement during Mass. Participation at Mass in the Catholic Church in general has diminished over the years, and the passive participation in and understanding of our religious celebrations by our young people is a challenge to us at Archmere. I have heard many theories about the relevancy of our Catholic ritual – the clergy scandals in the Church, the decline of the “nuclear family,” the increased secularization of our culture and social moorings – all contributing to the decline in Church attendance, participation, and interest.

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At the same time, however, I see our students volunteering to help others through community service projects, raising funds for a variety of worthy causes, being present to and tolerant of others’ diversity, and continuing to be generous of mind and heart, helping and supporting each other, their teachers and staff members.

Are they not “the Church” in action?

I remember a beloved pastor who said to me many years ago while working on parish project, “Michael, I hope you are offering up your efforts as a special prayer to God. Actions speak louder than words.”

That phrase came to mind as I walked from Saint Norbert Hall back to my office in the Patio after the Freshman and Sophomore class Masses last Thursday. These nearly 250 young 14, 15, and 16-year-old boys and girls who assembled for Mass on their day of retreat had shared so much joy and care with others by their works of charity. They truly are the kind of disciples that Saint James describes in his letter:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

So why is it so difficult then to develop appropriate retreat programs for teenage students? I wonder if it has to do with the nature of retreating and the fact that it is so antithetical to our contemporary, busy 21st century culture of action.

Do we know how to retreat, or to allow ourselves the time and the commitment to retreat?

I would say that, in general, our young people do not know how to retreat well. And yet, spiritual retreats are an integral part of many world religions, including our Catholic, Christian faith, as a means of developing self-awareness and knowing our God more fully.

In Loving and Living, Thomas Merton writes:

There is a silent self with us whose presence is disturbing precisely because it is so silent; it can’t be spoken but has to remain silent. To articulate it, to verbalize it, is to tamper with it, and in some ways to destroy it.

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Our culture helps us evade any need to face this inner, silent self. We live in a state of constant semi-attention to the sound of voices, music, traffic, or the generalized noise of what goes on around us all the time. This keeps us immersed in a flood of racket and words, a diffuse medium in which our consciousness is half diluted: we are not quite ‘thinking,’ not entirely responding, but we are more or less there. We are not fully present and not entirely absent; not fully withdrawn, yet completely available. We just float along in general ‘noise,’ the commotion and jamming which drown out the deep, secret and insistent demands of the inner self.

With the inner self we have come to terms in silence. That is the reason for choosing silence. In silence we face and admit the gap between the depths of our being, which we consistently ignore, and the surface, which is untrue to our own reality. We recognize the need to be at home with ourselves so that we may go out to meet others, not just with the mask of affability, but with real commitment and authentic love.

So, how can a one-day class retreat respond to the need for students to remain connected with their “silent selves?”

In reply, I would guess that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop a meaningful one-day retreat experience for each student because each is at a different place in knowing and understanding him or her self and God’s presence in his or her life.

Is it so vital then, that I be sure all of the students sing along with me the words to the Mystery of Faith acclamation during the consecration at Mass – words that have been changed recently in the Catholic Church to three different possible variations? Should I be concerned that our students may not grasp the meaning of Advent as a time of preparation and waiting for the “coming of Emmanuel” – “God-with-us,” meaning that He is already here and so why are we waiting for Him? Should I – we – be focused on the manifestation of the faith, their actions, beliefs, convictions?

I think the answer still, is yes to all of the above. We are, after all, a school challenged with the goal of educating boys and girls in an ecumenical Catholic, Christian tradition that is not exclusive, but rather inclusive in understanding and discussing all beliefs that advance our wisdom and knowledge of our selves and the world. It is important for those of us of older generations to impart the Catholic traditions and logic to these future generations, while simultaneously listening to their reactions and comments in order to create a relevant dialog, through which our Catholic Christian traditions can be understood and embraced.

I believe every excellent teacher knows the feeling of teaching some concept, some axiom, some fact of history for the tenth, twentieth, or thirtieth time to a new group of students and the joyful experience of watching them discuss, dissect, and internalize the material. Each time may be different for a variety of reasons, but it is the act of communicating the idea that generates a connection to the ideas and people of the past with the ideas and people of the future.

This is what I feel when I support the music ministry at Masses with students at Archmere. This is what I feel when I offer a few words at various events throughout the school year to put into context the actions we are doing. To prepare for these times, I often feel as though I have to stop action and step back to contemplate what is about to happen in the context of our Archmere Academy history.

Is this retreating?

I think it is, in a way. It is those bracketed moments we can steal away from the day’s activity that help us to reframe what life is bringing to us.

So, are we asking a lot of students when we challenge them to break away from the daily “noise” of life and retreat, for just one day, expecting the impact to be instantaneous, their engagement in the day to be high, and the results to be profound?

Yes, we are. And the impact of these day-long retreats may be negligent, or it may be realized in the years to come. Our students have been made aware of the “silence to know one’s inner self,” as Merton puts it. Hopefully, they will be able to take this journey at length in future years, and then understand how to access that “silence” in the spaces between active moments in their lives.


We are now in the Second Week of Advent. The season is rushed this year with the lateness of Thanksgiving trimming Advent to just 24 days. Steve Mueller, editor of God with Us, printed by All Saints Press, comments that while Advent is a time of “outward symbols of anticipation and joy and the rituals of Christmas preparation, it is also a time to embark on an inner journey to the center of our faith, to a meeting with the Christ who is mysteriously present within us and around us in our world.”

We dutifully scheduled our traditional annual student retreats for December 5 (Seniors complete a retreat before graduation in the spring). We will hold an annual Rite of Reconciliation Service on Thursday, December 19. These are touchstones to the inner journey – to the important journey of understanding one’s true self in the silence. As a parent of young adults, and as headmaster of a wonderfully special, faith-based, high-achieving school, I pray every day that we impart the very best of our knowledge and experience to our next generation, whom I respect, appreciate, and admire. Let us, as the adults in the lives of these young people, use our longevity and experience to help shape and guide our children, so that the moments of retreat are not relegated to the assigned days on the school calendar, but become instinctive and natural moments in our children’s lives when they need them most.

May God bless you this Advent and Christmas, and throughout the New Year!

Saying “Yes” Every Day

Where has summer gone? After a busy start of the school year in August, and event-packed September, who can remember the summer as October begins?

Fortunately, we have the opportunity to pause each year on October 7 – the Feast of the Holy Rosary – to pray the Rosary with Father McLaughlin in the formal garden before the statue of Mary. This year, the rain forces us to take our prayer into the Patio Music Room before the painting of the Assumption of Mary.

The Battle of Lepanto, Paolo Veronese

The Battle of Lepanto, Paolo Veronese

Along with 35 or so mothers of current and former students, I enjoy joining in the Rosary that reflects on moments in the life of Jesus – joyful, sorrowful, glorious, or luminous mysteries of Christ. In 1572, Pope Saint Pius V established October 7 as the Feast of the Holy Rosary in thanksgiving to God for the victory of Christians over the Turks at Lepanto – victory that prevented Islam from spreading into Western Europe. Pope John-Paul II added the Luminous Mysteries, or “Mysteries of Light,” in his 2002 Apostolic Letter entitled, The Rosary of the Virgin Mary. The five reflections are “The Baptism of Jesus,” “The Wedding at Cana,” “Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom,” “The Transfiguration,” and “The First Eucharist.”

While the central figure of the October 7 feast day is Mary, the great prayer of the Rosary underscores Mary’s “yes” to God, and focuses our prayer to Jesus through Mary. Originally attributed to Saint Dominic, the Rosary is thought to be modeled after the 150 psalms with 150 “Our Father” prayers followed by decades of the “Hail Mary.” Hypnotic and meditative, the prayer requires us to consider the events in the life of Christ as we pray over and over again two great prayers of our faith.

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I first recall praying the Rosary in grade school, remembering how sometimes I was distracted by the heat in the classroom or how I became drowsy after just having had lunch and recess. The prayers seemed so repetitive and boring as a child. Only after I grew older do I now appreciate the contemplative power of the Rosary. I am especially grateful for it on anxious nights before bed when my mind cannot rest. I begin the prayer and feel as though I am resting my head in the arms of Mary. That image and feeling of complete resignation offer me the peace and comfort I seek in those sleepless moments.

In recent weeks I came across an alternative idea about the life of Saint Norbert that helped me consider how conversion of our hearts and God’s call in our lives might really come about.

In speaking with Father Ted Antry, O.Praem., after a Mission and Heritage meeting at Archmere, we started to discuss Norbert’s call by God. The account, found in Chapter 1 of The Life of Saint Norbert, Vita A, explains that Norbert was on horseback on his way to Freden when a storm arose and a bolt of lightening scared his horse, throwing him to ground. It was then when Norbert heard the words of Psalm 33 spoken to him, “Turn from evil and do good.”

The Conversion of Norbert

The Conversion of Norbert

Father Antry suggested that the conversion of Norbert may have been articulated in that final defining moment on the way to Freden. However, Norbert may have been considering a call to conversion, to a different way of life, several years before when he was at the imperial court of Henry V. Norbert became disenchanted with Henry’s use of force against the Pope, and he left the Court along with his position as the son of noble parents. In other words, a study of Norbert’s life may suggest that his conversion was a process of discernment over several years, culminating in the vision of establishing a new religious community.

I like this explanation of Norbert’s conversion because I find it more plausible based on my own personal experience. I do believe that many of us have not had that singular defining moment – “the thunderbolt” that completely changes our lives. Rather, discernment happens over time. This discussion about Norbert’s conversion also led me to consider the story of how Mary said “yes” to God’s call during the Visitation of the angel Gabriel.

After Saint Gabriel told her that she would be the Mother of God, I would like to believe that her affirmative response was not a simple one. I would like to think that Mary, as an example for us today, had to have prevailing faith to learn more about the plan of salvation for humankind that included her. Not just once, rather each day, she had to say “yes” to God with a blind faith that each of us would very likely find difficult to manage.

When I consider the 501 students enrolled at Archmere this year, their families, and all those who support our community as parents of graduates, alumni, grandparents, and friends, I am overwhelmed with joy by our responsibility to make sure Christ is present in our words and actions, so that transformative experiences are possible every day. In the coming weeks, we will be welcoming to campus the grandparents of our students, our alumni celebrating class reunions, and other alumni, parents of graduates, and friends who will be attending the events of this year’s Homecoming. These lasting relationships are the signs of transformative experiences – ones that allow us to share our mutual belief in God and make us want to care for one another – loving God and neighbor, the two greatest commandments.

During this month of the Holy Rosary and of Respect for Life, I hope that all of us may take the time to offer prayers to God through the intercession of Mary for the courage to say “yes” to God’s call – a call to serve within our families, the Archmere community, our local communities, and the world.