The Patriot In-Depth: Students harvest different lessons from religion class

The Patriot In-Depth: Students harvest different lessons from religion class

Doctor Joseph Gallen teaches his junior Church History class in the chapel. Students often visit the chapel with their religion teachers as part of class to reflect and grow closer to God.

Hope Kelly, Managing Editor

“The whole process of growing up is so complicated: trying to figure out who you are with your personality, your interests, your career aspirations, where to go to college, what kind of lifestyle you would like in the future, and what kind of person you want to be socially and spiritually. It’s all a journey. It’s all a process that unfolds slowly overtime. For many young people, they come to understand their spiritual selves over the years of high school and college,” Campus minister Patti Murphy-Dohn said.

For Murphy-Dohn, JC’s religion program is more than just a 4 year class requirement.

“Our program has the potential to greatly impact each of our students. We pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our students to have open hearts and an open mind, so they can grow in faith and love of the church, love of God, and love of the neighbor. We pray our students come away from our religion curriculum, our retreat program, and our service requirement with caring hearts and a deeper faith,” Murphy-Dohn said.

According to Religion Department Chair Joseph Gallen, the purpose of JC’s religion program is to have students “gain a deeper sense of their own spirituality and their own, in a sense, giftedness before God. That would be priceless if kids could leave with that realization.”

Gallen teaches sections of both juniors and seniors. He believes that “any kind of religious guidance or spiritual growth” is an “absolute necessity” no matter what religion you are.

The general makeup of JC is Roman Catholic as 78.6% of JC’s students are Roman Catholic. That is 545 JC students.

Although Roman Catholics are the majority at JC, various other religions groups remain. Some numbers may overlap in general categories, but according to Murphy-Dohn, the school has 45 Christians, 23 Methodists, 21 Lutherans, 12 Baptists, 10 Episcopalians, 10 Non-Denominational, 7 Presbyterians, 6 Greek Orthodox, 5 Protestants, 2 Islamic, 2 Jewish, and 4 students of other religious affiliation.

“The role of religion in everyone’s life is of significance in terms of giving them meaning and direction, and even more so in the high school years, because you have people going through a formative stage in their growth. I think when you look at the difference between a ninth grader and a 12th grader, the students that leave here are much more mature than when they enter,” Gallen said.

Students on fire for their faith

Murphy-Dohn can go back 25 years and remember two boys that “indicated an interest in the church” as freshmen even though their families had never been in a church community or a faith life.

“Through the course of their first three years at JC, they wound up taking instruction from one of our priest religion teachers who was full time. Both of these boys, during Holy Week, were fully inducted into membership in the church by receiving at a school wide mass the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the First Holy Communion,” she said.

According to her, it was a “profound experience for our students then.” They all got to witness the two junior boys’ entrance into the church.

As a result of JC, many other students have heard God’s call.

“We have a number of students who, as they have gone through the years here, have become more involved with their churches and parish communities, and many times,  it’s the fruits of their experience growing up, their experience of taking religion classes, and going through retreats here at JC,” Murphy-Dohn said.

Priests Father John Jicha, class of ’78, and Father John Rapisarda, class of ’95, are two examples of JC graduates that went on to religious life. According to Murphy-Dohn, some women have gone on to religious communities as well. Students have gone on to teach CCD, religious education classes, and work in bible schools. Others become rectors or Eucharistic ministers at their parishes.

“We also have students that have served at a diocesan level, and that’s really cool. It’s really gratifying to see that kind of involvement from students who are just on fire for their faith,” she said.

Current students are on fire for their faith as well. In fact, for junior Jessica Clingerman, her decision of where to go to high school was affected “100 percent” by JC’s Catholic nature and appreciates religion class.

“I decided to go here because I was told I couldn’t pray in public school,” she said.

She also thinks she “has learned a lot about the Catholic faith in religion.” In addition, Clingerman has participated on the school’s Mount 2000 retreat and said it was a “really strong experience” for her. She thinks that JC provides many ways to deepen a person’s faith.

“I think it’s available to people who want to strengthen their faith. There are opportunities, like the Mount 2000 retreat, and if you want to grow in your faith you have the opportunity to go,” Clingerman said.

Junior Kayla Bynion has found a benefit in religion classes and the spiritual environment at JC, even though she admits classes like church history can be “a big review.”

“I think being able to have religion class every day and class discussions has really gotten us thinking more, and personally, kind of made me think more about what it means to be Catholic,” she said.

Students upset by religious requirement

Other JC students have different stories to tell. Sophomore Taylor Fitzgerald was not as concerned as Clingerman about attending a Catholic school as her religious views differed greatly.

“I believe in God, I totally acknowledge that he’s there, but I just don’t really think that he’s too interested about what’s going on down here on Earth,” she said.

Fitzgerald did realize that she was committing to religion classes by attending JC.

“They weren’t going to try and force me to be Catholic. They weren’t going to tell me that you can’t go here if you’re not Catholic, so it didn’t really impact my decision on coming here too much,” she said.

Personally, Fitzgerald believes that religion classes would be better for her on a personal level if there were more variety in the choices of courses. She would prefer to have the option of taking any religion classes.  However, she realizes that it would be more likely to “only have to take it for two years” or “only have to take four different courses.”

Regardless, she believes going to a Catholic school has “brought a new light” to certain aspects in her life.   She feels she’s “learned new things, and [is] finally seeing things from a different perspective now,” she said.

According to Gallen, “we’re a Catholic school, so we certainly give a priority to what the Church teaches and to the Church’s traditions, but Catholicism can also deepen an individual’s spirituality without bringing that into a new religion, and I think to realize there is a deeper side to every human person is important.”

He thinks it “can’t hurt” students to have religion and believes it should actually “help them.”

“It might look redundant on paper, but what we’ve done over the last couple of years is certainly not redundant,” Gallen said.

For non-Catholic students, Murphy-Dohn said that “we want them to come out of the experience of a Catholic education with a much deeper understanding and respect for the Catholic faith and the culture that surrounds our faith and the Catholic schools.”

Students confused by messages in religion class

Another JC student, who wishes to remain anonymous, thinks the only thing religion class and JC has done for him is “made me more literate in being able to argue against it.”

“I think that it’s sort of redundant, because you already have a history class where you’re covering things, and all it really does is put a religious spin on it, which gives you bias, and therefore you’re having more of a partial from of history. It’s more supplementary rather than necessary,” he said.

This student does realize “that a religion class is necessary for a Catholic institution.”

“You paid to go here rather than a public school. You pay for that extra experience. Whether or not you agree with it personally doesn’t really matter.  You paid for it, therefore you’re getting it,” he said.

For students who have never been in a Catholic school, the new experience of religion class can be shocking and surprising at times when they come to JC. Controversial present day topics can stir up confusion and emotions in classes like Christian morality and medical ethics.

During one student’s freshman year, they were upset when informed about the church’s position on gay marriage. She was upset and thought her teacher had condemned gay people and those who associate with them to hell.

“I was shocked, I couldn’t believe he would flat out tell things like that to a freshman in high school,” she said.

According to Religion Teacher Father Stephen Sutton, the official Christian beliefs can be found in the Catechism, but in his own words he said that “within the biblical image of marriage, gay marriage is not possible.”

“What is possible between two gay people is companionship, mutual care for each other. Catholic Christians are required by the Church and the Holy Scripture that we show compassion, respect, and care for those who carry this cross,” he said.

Never the less, the whole experience left an impact on her because the topic of gay marriage affected her on a personal note as she had close family friends that are gay.

“It really shook my opinion about Catholics and religious people in general. I’d been taught that they’re all really good people and believe in helping everyone and caring for everyone, and all of a sudden, I had concrete reason to doubt that,” she said.

After going through religion class at JC for three years, she has come to understand “that as a Catholic school it’s necessary” to have religion class, but believes it is “ruining kids’ opinions of religion.”

“Once it becomes a required class with grades and homework, it stops being a retreat and an escape and becomes a source of stress, and that’s not something any private school should want their kids thinking,” she said.

She has found over her time at JC that a teacher’s attitude “directly affects the attitude of the class.”

“If they’re exited and enthusiastic about the material, so will the class. If they aren’t focused and don’t care, neither will the class,” she said.

Bynion also agrees teachers can really impact the classes.

“I think if you have a really good, really dynamic teacher, they can make it really interesting and people try to and tend to get into it more.  It makes it more fun,” Bynion said.

“No matter what we teach, it’s how we teach it and who teaches it,” Gallen said. “Those are the two variables that go along with having a good curriculum or what you consider to be as a complete course of study as you possibly have. If you look at the different religion teachers, you know that students pick up a different vibe from each of them and the variety that’s there will only add as opposed to subtract from what we’re trying to impart.”

Gallen thinks that students “learn as much from the teachers in that way [of faith] as they do with the subject matter itself.”

“They have some pretty good models as far as the adults who are trying to convey the teachings or the curriculum,” he said.

According to Gallen, the importance of religion class doesn’t seem “to click until they get out of here and are in college or finished college that they realize oh, I know this, I experienced this at John Carroll, but I never really thought about it.”

One anonymous student believes that students “mostly react to religion class as just another source of homework, but in the same way that we appreciate that strict teacher we had in middle school once we leave, we might appreciate religion class once we don’t have it anymore. We can have our opinions about it, but if the administration thinks it’s something we’ll need later in life, then we probably will.”

Gallen believes “people need to realize these are kids that are 14 to 18 and they are developing, they are cultivating who they will become, and whatever we can do to deepen that is really important.”

Hope Kelly is a Managing Editor for The Patriot and