My Dear Graduates of Chaminade, Kellenberg Memorial, and St. Martin de Porres Marianist School,
You are probably not going to believe this, but I was once suspended from school. I know that’s hard to believe, but it’s true.
My suspension from school occurred in the seventh grade. I was attending St. Peter of Alcantara Grade School in Port Washington. We were on our lunch break, and all of us boys were playing keep-away. Now, you must understand that keep-away was strictly forbidden on the St. Peter’s playground. Our principal, teachers, and lunch/recess monitors deemed it entirely too rough a game, and, in truth, it really was, especially because our “playground” at St. Peter’s was an asphalt parking lot. We had no grass fields, no sandboxes, and certainly no FieldTurf. So, as you can well imagine, any athletic activity beyond kickball and stickball was pretty risky.
In seventh grade, however, we didn’t see it that way. At least we boys didn’t, and we were constantly breaking the rules regarding keep-away and other unsafe playground games. Needless to say, our defiance did not ingratiate us to the recess monitors, almost all of whom were our own parents. In fact, one of the strictest of the recess monitors was my own mother, who, as a former grade-school teacher, was not about to brook disobedience from a bunch of hyperactive boys.
I can picture the scene as if it had occurred yesterday. My mother -- ever the leader and spokesperson in whatever parent group to which she belonged -- told all of the seventh-grade boys that we were to cease and desist immediately from our roughhousing and report to the gymnasium, where we should take a seat and calm down. And then something transpired that probably could have happened only in those heady, halcyon days of the 60s. All the boys sat down in the parking lot/playground and started chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go!”
Well, to make a long story short, the principal was called to the scene. We were summarily suspended for the day and were readmitted the next morning, upon an interview in the principal’s office with one of our parents.
And there it is -- the unsavory saga of one Stephen Balletta and his transformation from grade-school rebel without a cause to high-school teacher with plenty of causes. I guess, in the long run, I turned out more like my mother than Jimmy Dean. (No surprise there, for anyone who knows me.)
Thank God for the possibility of transformation. Now, I’ll admit, I was in no way the grade-school bad boy and ringleader, although my friends took great delight in getting me -- generally the teacher’s pet and goody-two-shoes of the class -- involved in their antics and thus caught up in trouble. No, I wasn’t the proverbial bad boy, but I wasn’t perfect either. I shouldn’t even need to write this, but I am in no way perfect now, not even close.
But I do believe in the possibility of transformation. I believe in second chances -- in third and fourth chances and, in fact, an infinite number of chances to start over and be transformed.
In the secular world, we celebrate second chances on New Year’s Day, when we make our resolutions for the coming calendar year.
In the religious world, recognizing second chances is part and parcel of our faith. Think of St. Peter. He denied Christ three times, yet he went on to become our first Pope, the rock on whom Christ built His Church. Or St. Paul, the feared persecutor of Christianity who became the faith’s greatest promoter. St. Augustine of Hippo comes to mind as well -- a man consumed by enormous pride and no small degree of lust -- who became one of the most prominent Doctors of the Church. As this famous quotation from St. Augustine reminds us:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness, I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Except for the poetic phraseology, that sounds like something any one of us could echo. Late, have I loved you, O Lord, late have I loved you. And even then, I continually backslide, stumble, and start all over again. Thank God you are the God of second chances. Thank God you are the merciful God who forgave the repentant thief and promised him, “This very day, you will be with me in paradise.” Talk about last-minute transformations! And thank God for that!
My least favorite sacrament (if I am to be honest) is a powerful witness to our God of second chances. That sacrament, as you may have guessed, is Confession. There’s something in me that balks at cataloging my sins in the confessional. Maybe that’s the perfectionist in me. Whatever the reason, I have not yet grown comfortable with reciting my sins to another person. Still that person is a priest, and that priest stands in persona Christi -- in the person of Christ. As such, that priest mediates the ultimate sacrament of second chances, and third chances, and fourth chances, and chances ad infinitum -- as long as we are sincerely sorry for our sins. As long as we are willing to be transformed, we are washed clean, making progress by the grace of the sacrament and assured that Christ will extend His mercy when we fail again.
So, yes, New Year’s provides us with a day to make resolutions, keep a few, and break a lot. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for efforts at self-improvement. But maybe we should focus less on our own efforts and more on the God of second chances. It is His mercy that can bring about real transformation -- transformation in Christ.
On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,
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