By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Social media scooped up a story about a Catholic fourth-grader attending a public school in Utah who had to remove the ash cross from his forehead on Ash Wednesday. William McLeod said his teacher asked about the meaning of the cross. When he explained it was a sign of being Catholic, his teacher told him it was inappropriate and had to be removed. News media reported the details differently but, apparently, William had to wash off the cross with a wet cloth, which other students witnessed. The teacher’s reaction left William in tears, wondering if he would get in trouble with the principal. Public schools’ overzealous efforts to avoid religious favoritism lead to heartbreaking stories like these.
However, several aspects of this story uplifted me. First, the boy’s concern for his teacher. After she apologized to William, “I accepted her apology. I kind of feel bad for her,” he said. “She’s a great teacher, and I don’t want her to lose her job” (beliefnet.com). A merciful response from a fourth-grader! We benefit from his example.
Second, the school district bent over backwards to reconcile with William and his family. The district issued a public apology and a district employee, a Roman Catholic deacon, applied an ash cross to William’s forehead that afternoon.
Third, when asked if he would get ashes placed on his head (in the future), William said he would. We worry so much about our youths who have fallen away from or left the Catholic Church, and rightly so, but we also need to celebrate examples of youths living out their faith in the public square.
Fourth, William’s response also resonated with me because of his genuineness. While his grandmother was quoted as being upset with the school over what had happened and was not entirely satisfied with the outcome, William genuinely cared about what might happen to his teacher. He had a positive relationship with her. In the Catholic Church, we are called to focus on building relationships, not tearing them down!
I’ve experienced the affirming fruits of genuineness personally, in the smallest of ways — and that’s where building relationships begins. Riding my bicycle along the Mississippi River Trail last Saturday, I occasionally came across walkers taking up both lanes. “Passing on your left,” I called out in a voice that I hoped conveyed friendliness, concern and not belligerence. Some of the walkers apologized and thanked me, and I thanked them as I passed by. Smiling warmly at walkers and bicyclists in the other direction may have brightened the day for at least some of them. Without a doubt, some will look down or scowl. In this Lenten season, I feel more acutely God’s desire that I convey genuineness in my interactions with others — on and off the trail.
During a Jubilee Mass for Teens in St. Peter’s Square in April 2016, Pope Francis told the youths “The true friends of Jesus stand out essentially by the genuine love that shines forth in their way of life” (asianews.it).
Yes, we need to bring people’s attention to the stories of insensitivity and intolerance regarding the genuine practice of our faith. We should draw greater attention to the genuine demonstration of that faith in action. Thank you to fourth-grader William McLeod, for showing us the way.
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at firstname.lastname@example.org)