Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue with Sister Mary Michael

The article below is an excerpt taken from Mind and Heart, a weekly podcast series hosted by Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen, OP. The producer of the series was GoLEDigital, a digital community created by the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist.

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Our conversation today with Sister Mary Michael is on the beginning of Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue. Could you just tell our listeners a little about your vocation and what you’re doing now?

Sr. Mary Michael:

I entered in 2002, just five years after the community was founded. I was studying occupational therapy before I entered, and I always knew that I wanted to help others in some way. I remember helping a patient in a hospital and realizing that she needed more than just physical help. I wanted to give her spiritual help, but I knew I couldn’t do that in that environment. It was against the regulations.

I think that prompting, and many other things, led me to enter the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. I got my degree after making vows, went into the classroom for a few years, and then became a principal in a school. I was principal for four years and then came back to the Motherhouse. Now, I am the director of our formation of the novices and postulants of the Motherhouse. It’s such a joy to teach our young sisters. They’re on fire for the faith and want to live their lives fully.

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Sr. John Dominic:

So you had that experience when teaching?

Sr. Mary Michael:

Yes. Every time I went up to teach, I thought, “They’re just eating this up.” It was a joy to be with them. I always tell people that we get our best ideas for school when we talk at recreation. You mentioned that we are being asked about Catholic education, as are a lot of people across the United States in the different dioceses. To me, that is very exciting because it shows there is a resurgence of the essentials of Catholic education. 

One part that you were looking at carefully was how to define Catholic identity. Being Dominican, you were approaching it the same way I did as a principal, asking what we can bring as Dominicans. Of course, as Dominicans we can bring the virtue education and as a result, allow people to see that happiness is living a virtuous life. That can be a part of the identity of the Dominican school but also is grounded in the church and the life of the church. I remember you bringing me a program that had been put in the school and asking, “Can this be defined as Catholic identity?” 

Sr. John Dominic:

I remember having this conversation. We were trying to make it work. We were there for a couple of years, and this was the Catholic identity goal.

Sr. Mary Michael:

The program was about character formation. I think a lot of public schools are using character formation for their students because they realize that it is needed, but they can’t have God in the picture. We were trying to take this secular character formation program with catchy language and great resources for teachers and figure out how we could make it Catholic. The more we looked at it, the more we thought that the goal of a program like this is to teach people to be good citizens for society.  

We all agree that is important, but how can we make this program more far-reaching, making them citizens for heaven and leading to formation of lifelong virtue? No matter what you did, the root of the program was about the individual , both their understanding of growing in character and their successful decision making. We realized that’s not a Catholic view. 

Sr. John Dominic:

Exactly. This reinforces a conversation I recently had with another educator in California. He said that what attracted him to Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue is that it’s rooted in grace and in our baptism. You mentioned that we want the children in a Catholic school environment to realize that they can be a good Catholic. They can love their faith and want to be a citizen of heaven. It’s not a dualism. It’s not either/or. It’s a both/and. 

We were trying hard to make the program work, but it couldn’t because only grace can perfect nature. How do we live, as you said, as a good citizen on a natural level? If we look at the four cardinal virtues, they are human virtues that everyone can have: prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. Our Catholic tradition is so rich because these virtues are infused in our baptism. We’re living out the grace of baptism. That’s what we want the children, the parents, and the teachers to do. Grace is our participation in God’s life, and He makes us holy. 

I would imagine making the shift to Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue brought a few challenges. The transition was the perfect storm. The beauty of communities is that we do so much in collaboration even though we’re in other parts of the country. A lot of people, like my teachers and the people in the building, didn’t really realize that we were helping each other and doing this together. I had teachers coming to me saying they did not know how to teach virtue, and that was hard for them to admit. They would say, “I understand what the words mean, but how in the world am I going to teach temperance to a kindergartener?” Were you getting that same humble reaction from your faculty and staff?

Sr. Mary Michael:

We come from that generation. We weren’t catechized ourselves. We were talking about how grace builds on nature. All of these virtues are rooted in Christ. It’s not a self-help program. It’s almost a perfectionistic way of looking at our formation. I think that the teachers definitely needed help. They ask teachers to teach a fundamental part of our faith, the virtues. 

They needed a lot of support. We have that support in other programs, but there is often confusion on how to approach teaching the virtues. I think a big obstacle was the language. For example, you might teach a student what circumspection means, but they can’t even say that word.

Sr. John Dominic:

You never know what may come out with it. As all of us were talking and collaborating with each other, we faced the question about what a virtue both looks and sounds like. What makes Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue different than anything else are the virtue cards where we have both the illustrations and the words. 

What makes a Catholic education distinct is that we want students to become saints. In order for someone to be a saint, they have to demonstrate that they’ve lived virtue heroically. If children, adults, and parents don’t know what the virtues are, how can they practice them heroically? Even though it was a challenge for both of us in different ways, I found it very exciting. What were some of the things that gave you support?

Sr. Mary Michael:

A lot of the support that we received was from what you were working on with your teachers and what you shared with them. That “looks like/sounds like” approach changed everything. Seeing the cards gave them the visual to realize practicing modesty is not just in the way you dress; It’s also in the way you speak and behave. Right now, the image in my mind is a little student holding up their test paper with an A on it, bragging about their grade on a test paper. That was a way to learn what modesty is. They learn from example. 

I remember when you came to the school and explained to the teachers, “Look at these yourself. See how you’re practicing these virtues and read through a few cards the night before you go to bed. Study them.” The way you learn it is by trying to practice the virtues yourself.

Sr. John Dominic:

Your coming down there to talk to your teachers was a beautiful thing. In my experience as an administrator, anytime something new is introduced, there’s fear. Teachers wonder, “How can I do one more thing? And am I going to be able to fit this into the day?” Sometimes, their fear arises just because they’re not familiar with it, and they have to learn it. When we showed them these resources, we could almost feel any tension decreasing. As we started working with them, they were more comfortable in using it. When you have this language of virtue, it creates a more positive culture within the school because you’re using different words. Your mindset changes because you’re striving for goodness. I don’t know if you had that same experience.

Sr. Mary Michael:

Definitely. One of the teachers said, “It’s positive peer pressure.” They were trying to get the kids to influence each other to practice virtue. You point out virtue in the students as an example for other students to follow. The teachers have to be witnesses in order to teach the faith.

Sr. John Dominic:

It’s not that we strive for the habit of doing good. God will love us no matter what. He’s not going to love us more or less if I’m better or if I have more virtues. The reason we want to live this way is because there’s harmony and order. The more we live with this good disposition, the more free we are for excellence. It is not that we become more pleasing to God; it’s that we are more fully alive. We’re living as He intended us to be. It’s our response to all that God has done. 

Is there anything else that you’d like to share from when you began to have these resources and how since there was more of a focus towards true Catholic identity, you felt the culture of the school change?

Sr. Mary Michael:

I remember a story you told from when you were principal, and it was about how you dealt with students that had come into the office for making a bad choice. You shared that you would talk through that decision with them and then pull out a virtue card and say, “I want you to work on this virtue and pray for the grace to practice this virtue.” I remember I did this several times after we started introducing the virtues in the school. It was helpful, not only for talking through the problem with them, but also for giving them a positive when they were being disciplined. That’s one part of the story. The other part is we want you to be happy. The way you can be happy is living this life. It has to be a habit for you. 

I still have a little card on patience that I gave this boy once. I gave him the card, and we talked about it. He needed to work on being patient and waiting his turn. He came back to my office three weeks later with his little card and said, “Sister, do you have any more? Mine ended up going through the dryer.” It was tattered and worn. He had carried it around with him. Every time I saw him in the hall, he would show me he had his little card, no matter where he was headed. I realized that this approach is changing the culture of the school. It’s changing the way the students see discipline as they can see that their principal has their best interest in mind. They know that their teachers and principal want them to be happy. That’s what we want for our children in Catholic schools. We want them to know that what they learned when they were in Catholic school is something they will be happy practicing for the rest of their lives.

Sr. John Dominic:

Hopefully they can emulate that as they get older, whatever their vocation may be.

Thank you, Sister. As we begin with the podcast, it’s a great opportunity to talk about Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue. It’s great for our listeners to hear that what we’re doing is a natural thing. We’re responding to our Dominican charism and our life. All of these things, as it came together, is almost the perfect storm. You were there, and I was here, and it pushed us to do this quickly. We want to continue these conversations to help people understand this life and the beauty of it, not only in school, but in our own personal lives. 

If you are interested in learning more about Disciple of Christ: Education and Virtue, you can look at our website or go to the Sisters of Mary and look it up. Sister, we’d love to have you back to keep the conversation going. You’ve got a wealth of experience to offer. All that we’re doing nourishes our minds and hearts. We know just as we begin to study these things, our minds and our hearts can be drawn to love God and to live more fully in our relationship with Him.

About:

Sr. John Dominic Rasmussen is a Foundress and General Editor of Lumen Ecclesiae Press for the Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. Her podcast Mind and Heart can be downloaded every Monday at 3:00 p.m. EST from iTunes. A visual presentation of the podcast can also be seen on YouTube at GoLEDigital.

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