By Michael Lally
Theology Teacher, Cross Country and Track Coach,
Alum Service Corps (ASC) Alumnus
How does one ingrain virtue into teenage boys? Is it possible to “teach” young men to embody courage over an 80-minute theology class? How do you instruct a teenager to be just, or loving, or contemplative, as they sit in their mildly uncomfortable desk, at 8:45 a.m.?
In addition to teaching theology, I coach cross country and track. Nerves and anxiety often strike our athletes before and during races. Coaches often dread seeing the wide eyes of shock or fear in an athlete’s face mid-race, the runner who cannot believe how fast their competitors are running, or how much it hurts to sustain the same pace. So, it is crucial that our young men become familiar with the physical and mental difficulty they will inevitably encounter.
To prepare, one of our critical practices consists of “race pace” repeats. For example, if the coaches want an athlete to run a three-mile race in 15 minutes, then we will have them run a five-minute mile three times (in a row) at practice. Having encountered similar stimuli before at practice, the athlete will be able to greet the pain mid-race as a familiar acquaintance, embrace the difficulty that they knew would eventually come, and succeed in the midst of it.
What, then, does “race-pace” work look like in theology class?
In my Junior Catholic Morality Class, it involves convincing my students that the moral quandaries and issues at hand are not abstract, academic topics. We are studying moral questions that they will one day answer.
A college ethics professor, Dr. Adam Eitel, once told my class, “There are not ‘smart’ people in some other room, at some other school figuring out these problems. You are the smart people. You are in the room. You have to solve these problems.”
I believe the same is true for my junior theology students. We study Just War Theory because some of my students will one day be in the military. Some will be engineers tasked with designing weapons of war.
We study the morality of capitalism because some of them will be business leaders. We discuss the intricacies of immigration policy, incarceration and racial disparities, because some of them will be lawyers, civic leaders and politicians. And, we talk about bioethical questions of euthanasia, abortion and CRISPR gene-editing, because some of them will be doctors or nurses, and all of them will be caretakers of loved ones.
I frequently remind my students that modern-day Vice-Presidential candidates, U.S. senators and Supreme Court Justices once sat in similar desks at similar Jesuit high schools.
So, I often ask my students to place themselves in these moral scenarios: If you were in charge, how would you address our immigration crisis? What would your COVID vaccine implementation program look like? When do you think human life begins? If given the option, would you drop the bomb on Hiroshima?
In these scenarios, the virtuous decision is often difficult to make, perhaps more difficult than running a five-minute mile. But by beginning to practice wise discernment in these “race-pace” scenarios, our young men hopefully begin to discover the wisdom and courage, grounded in contemplation of Christ, necessary for shaping the Kingdom of God.