August 9, 2019 Duration: 00:31:10 Guests: John Goldberg, Religion teacher and campus minister, St. Anselm’s Abbey School, and John Paul Libonatti, a rising senior at St. Anselm’s Abbey School
Listen Listen to “Becoming a Student of Faith” on Spreaker. Episode Description
In this episode of Following Francis, Chris Dwyer is joined by John Goldberg and John Paul Libonatti to discuss life as a campus minister and a student, respectively, at St. Anselm’s Abbey School, an all-boys preparatory school for grades 6-12 in Washington, D.C. Throughout the episode, they will cover campus ministry, finding spirituality, exploring faith, effects of social media on religion, finding your social circle, and much more.
“One of my favorite quotes that is from Thomas Rhett, the country singer, is ‘You make a plan and you hear God laughing,’ that it’s in all our lives and it’s not your will, it’s his and he’ll lead you where you need to be. Maybe not where you think you want to be, but where you need to be.” – John Goldberg
Chris Dwyer: [00:00] Welcome to Following Francis. I’m Christopher Dwyer, your host coming to you from the Franciscan Monastery in Washington DC. If you’ve been following the podcast, you’re aware that we’ve been looking at the church through the eyes of the younger generation and in particular the young professionals and young families. And today we continue that with a couple of guests that we have from St. Anselm’s Abbey School. We have John Goldberg who’s the campus minister at the Abbey School and then we have John Paul Libonatti, who is a senior or will be actually entering his senior year. So, welcome John and John Paul.
John Goldberg: [00:45] Yeah. Chris, thank you so much for having us.
John Paul: [00:47] Thank you.
Chris Dwyer: [00:47] Oh, you’re welcome. Glad you could join us. And John, we’re going to start with you first cause you’re campus minister over there and can you describe for me a little bit about what your role is over there at St. Anslem’s.
John Goldberg: [00:59] Great. So, campus minister, in charge of campus ministry and community service. So the main job does fall under those two pieces of campus ministry and community service. Campus ministry, just kind of focusing more on retreats and the spiritual life of students. So helping to organize mass, organizing retreats. We do a seventh grade, ninth grade, and then an 11th grade, and our 11th grade is our massive four day, three night Kairos that a lot of, luckily a lot of Catholic schools do either that or something along the lines. And then the second half of my job is really the community service aspect. So organizing community service for our juniors and seniors will be this awesome program that on Tuesday mornings they don’t have class and they go out and they serve in the community. And actually we have six students that volunteer in the greenhouse at the Monastery every Tuesday, which is awesome. And then also organizing a little bit of middle school service and then our big Appalachian trip every summer, which actually John Paul has accompanied me on twice so far.
Chris Dwyer: [02:05] And I understand John Paul, you’re going to be one of the coordinators for this year is Kairos?
John Paul: [02:09] I will, yes. I’ll be our student rector. So that’s very exciting.
Chris Dwyer: [02:12] Oh, that’s terrific. So what does the rector do for that Kairos project?
John Paul: [02:16] You just prepare certain talks. Just the main introductory talks and the final talks and generally planning the retreat to make sure that it runs smoothly and that we’re hitting all the check points and everybody’s having a good time and sort of able to fully engage in the retreat.
Chris Dwyer: [02:38] That’s great. You have your hands full this year.
John Paul: [02:42] Yes I do.
New Speaker: [02:43] But you have a great mentor here with John who can help you through that I’m sure. And you were on that Kairos this past year, so you know how it runs and have seen what previous seniors have done. So I’m sure you’ll take their lead and do a great job.
John Paul: [02:56] Oh, thank you.
Chris Dwyer: [02:57] So John, tell us a little bit, what’s the difference between a campus minister and the campus school counselor? Do they overlap, do the jobs overlap at all?
John Goldberg: [03:07] So they do overlap. And I think the biggest difference is the idea of guidance. We’re blessed with an incredible school counselor that she’s wonderful in everything she does and how she connects with students. The main difference between her and I is she’s really big in guidance and I don’t like to give advice. Really my main piece of advice is talk to God. God wants to hear from you. But really it’s more accompaniment and saying, I won’t really give you advice, I’m not going to really show you exactly where to go, but I’ll walk with you in it. And that’s really all I can offer and if you want to go to prayer with the monks, I’ll go to pray with you. If you want to set up sacrament of reconciliation, all set that up and luckily, I’m closer in age and we’re an all-boys school. So the relatability of having a young male, it can, I’m 24, the students can talk to me and sometimes they may not feel comfortable, they may feel intimidated going to see this school counselor, this social worker with norms of, so the stigma of mental health in today’s society. And I’ll say, listen, I’m here with you every step of the way. What I really want to do is I really like you to talk to our school counselor. And they just may say, oh no, no, no, I’m nervous, I’m nervous and I’ll go, I’ll go with you. So a couple of times a students, I’ll go and I’ll sit in on the first couple of meetings and not really talk, but just be there as kind of a support, a friendly face to kind of say like, you’ve got this and I’m here with you every step of the way.
Chris Dwyer: [04:43] That’s great.
John Goldberg: [04:44] Regardless of if I know what I’m doing or not.
Chris Dwyer: [04:47] Oh, I’m sure you know what you’re doing and I have no doubt I’ve seen you in action with your students. So I have no doubt that you know what you’re doing. So your background, you went to St. Joe’s University up in Philadelphia. Was that a big part in leading you to your current position?
John Goldberg: [05:03] Oh, it was massive. I actually studied English and secondary education and I student taught in Philadelphia up in northeast in Kensington high school and thought I was going to be a urban public school teacher, was all for it. All my research in college was on the school to prison pipeline and how public schools and inner cities can really reduce the amount of juvenile incarcerations. And I was involved in campus ministry a lot. Never thought I could do it full time. Thought there’s very few positions. I’ll just go the public school route and ended up stumbling across St. Anselm’s, just googling Catholic schools in DC. My best friend was moving down here and I thought, cool, anew city would be nice. Came to DC once on a seventh grade field trip, so why not live there? Applied on a whim saying like, I know really don’t have degree in theology, but I really like Jesus and I like volunteering a lot and I’ve been on a lot of retreats, so let’s talk. And it worked out enough to where I have an awesome support system with our monks and my mentor, Father Michael Hall, over at the Abby to where I really been able to grow in this position of campus ministry, a position I thought I’d never really be able to do full time and get paid for.
Chris Dwyer: [06:28] Isn’t it amazing how the hand of God in your life becomes such an opportunity to share that with your students.
John Goldberg: [06:38] Oh, incredibly so.
Chris Dwyer: [06:38] They’re in that time of their life where they’re trying to figure out what to do with their life. They have a plan that they think God has set for them until they start on that plan.
John Goldberg: [06:49] And one of my favorite quotes that is from Thomas Rhett, the country singer, is you make a plan and you hear God laughing, that it’s in all our lives and it’s not your will, it’s his and he’ll lead you where you need to be. Maybe not where you think you want to be, but where you need to be.
Chris Dwyer: [07:07] And you haven’t abandoned your education because in fact a campus minister is an educator.
John Goldberg: [07:13] Right and I still am in the classroom. I teach sixth grade religion, which is a blast. I love it so much. And really just being able to interact with the students every day. I do use a lot of the Secondary Ed background of child development and child psych that I have learned. And I mean English is always good, helps you write. And I really developed a love of reading, which is great, but never thought I could do it full time, but beyond blessed that this is my job. There hasn’t been a single day that I’ve gone into school and said, oh, I don’t want to go to work today.
Chris Dwyer: [07:51] Oh no, I’ve never seen that in you. Every time I visit over at the Abby and see you interacting with the kids and in your own office, it’s obvious you love what you do.
John Goldberg: [08:00] I love it, I get to play all day.
Chris Dwyer: [08:02] I’m sure.
John Goldberg: [08:02] It’s fantastic.
John Goldberg: [08:05] How do you and your colleagues deal with the current trends and all that’s in the news right now? How do you help the students in looking at that?
John Goldberg: [08:17] The biggest piece is encouraging students not to turn away from God with so much that it’s in the news of violence and anger and just awful, awful things saying that God’s here for you, for you, he wants to hear from you. And really just kind of creating this space of community and especially, we see a lot of students turning away from faith, turning away from organized religion. But, one thing it at our school we’re Benedictine, where students may not jive fully with the Catholic ethos and Catholic dogma. What they will connect with is a Benedictine lifestyle and they’ll see these guys and we’ve got, I think some of the coolest monks ever. The friars of the Monastery are also awesome, but we’ve got these awesome monks t to where the students will just see them living out the Benedictine ethos of prayer and work. You’d get up, you do the work to the best of your ability, you talk to God every once in a while and you just don’t complain and just really try to be joyful.
Chris Dwyer: [09:33] There’s great pressure I think in the current society to say, you know, where is God? You know, particularly when tragedies happen, they often will spend at that, that God must’ve abandoned us. I mean, it’s too big. And how do you convince students that they have to hang on to their faith while looking at these tragedies?
John Goldberg: [09:56] Really, I’m not a big theological guy, so we’ve got an awesome staff of theology teachers that can quote St. Anselm and Aquinas of why they need to, but for me in campus ministry, it’s just more example of sharing my story of saying these are the tragedies that have happened in my life, my own struggles with family, my own struggles with depression, with really struggling in high school to find out who I was and saying, if I didn’t have God in my life, if I didn’t have God, a connection with him, a friendship with him, I don’t want to think about where it’d be. It would really be different in saying to students, I don’t have all the answers of this is why you need to talk to God. But what I do have is this is why I talk to God and this is why it’s helping me. And our staff is really awesome about really being open and sharing themselves too. So even guys and girls in our math department and our foreign languages department, they will share that same thing. And we have a really faithful faculty and staff to say, here’s what’s happened in my life. Here’s why God is important to me.
Chris Dwyer: [11:14] That’s awesome advice. John Paul, are you seeing that in the faculty? Are they, are they sharing their stories and helping reinforce what you’re going through and understand that God can be a friend through these tough times?
John Paul: [11:30] For sure. I think that certain times faculty members have definitely been examples and have sort of reached out and helped, especially Mr. Goldberg and especially in our Kairos retreat, we have a lot of like faculty that are very, very much like overstep that boundary of authority. So you’re not necessarily looking at them in the traditional student to teacher, but more peer to peer view. And I think that that really allows you to understand definitely to understand your teachers more as people, but also to understand yourself more as a person through the wisdom that they share with you. And I think in the traditional classroom setting, within the classical teacher to student authority, they still have a tremendous, there’s still tremendous example to us and, definitely very helpful in the faith, especially in our religion classes of course. But in all classes, just showing us that education is formation for the whole, you know, mind, body and spirit, not just for the mind.
Chris Dwyer: [12:40] And what activities, you have the Kairos coming up and John Paul, you’re going to be responsible for managing that this year. What other spiritual activities does the Abbey School provide for students?
John Paul: [12:53] I mean, throughout my experience, I’ve gone on several retreats, throughout the different, various different grades. Had been like one day retreats. And they have been good at, you know, helping us grow closer together as a grade and as a school. But also of course having that spiritual element of growing closer to God. And aside from that, we have a couple other events throughout the year. I guess you can talk to that more.
John Goldberg: [13:21] Yeah, we do host events. Kind of more students focused, than more parent focused. So, we have a couple of groups for parents to learn more about the Benedictine ethos, the Catholic identity, and kind of book groups so that we can educate the parents at home. And then they can also trickle down and we’ve got other programs for students. We do, last year for lent, we did kind of like a Lenten simple meals and learn about like solidarity and that was more middle school focused and different volunteering opportunities. I know that my job, the way I kind of focus it is more heavy on the community service side then the retreat side often at times, that our retreat season, we pretty much do all of our retreats within a month and a half. And then after that it’s really focused on community service opportunities. Kind of like voluntary, a couple of weekends here and there, a couple nights and then getting ready for the big, big mission trip of Appalachia, where we traditionally go to West Virginia and we’re blessed that because we are like half the school, we’ll celebrate high masses together, whether it’s feast of Saint Benedict, Feast of Saint Anselm, any holy day of obligation that comes, we’ll celebrate together. And the only place that can hold our entire school is our auditorium. So we roll out an altar, the monastic community comes down and it’s just a really cool time to take a second to celebrate together. We pushed classes back an hour saying that this is as important as classes are for the day.
Chris Dwyer: [15:00] Yeah. If not more important, right?
John Goldberg: [15:02] Right.
Chris Dwyer: [15:03] You know, that’s the foundation in which they spend their whole day based on prayer first and then academics after that. John Paul being an all-boys school, has that freed you up a little bit rather than a coed school to explore your faith? Has it impacted, maybe it hasn’t, maybe you feel it would have been just as comfortable in a coed environment. What are your thoughts on that?
John Paul: [15:27] Well, for me, the single single-sex or all boys education for me because I’m a boy, that would play more into the academic side in terms of like full education, mind, body and spirit. Rather than the spiritual side because I see a diminishing of distraction in a sense. Like when I step into a classroom with girls, I might not necessarily be focusing on the material that’s being taught. So that, that is my big reason for liking single sex education the most. But in terms of faith and faith formation, I would say that more than being an all-boys school, just being a Catholic school and having that foundation in the Benedictine tradition has been probably the most formative, aspect of my education probably because like Mr. Goldberg was saying earlier, you have that example, you have the those men up there who are leading their lives, living out their vocation and serving God in everything that they do. And, I think one of the biggest things for me has been being able to go to a noonday prayer with them. And that’s been very, just to witness their faith and their spirituality and to sort of become part of that through participating in that has been very formative for me. But I think that could’ve just as easily been in a coed school, then an all-boys and all-girls school. I don’t necessarily think that that necessarily has a play on it, but, I certainly love my experience at my school, so I wouldn’t change anything.
Chris Dwyer: [17:07] Oh, that’s great. In a couple podcasts before we were talking about the difference between religion and being spiritual, Do you see a difference John Paul? Is there a difference between religion and being spiritual?
John Paul: [17:23] I would say yes. And for me, and this might not be the same for everybody, but for me, spirituality is a sort of a subsection of the broader circle of religion. You know, if you have like the big circle, it’s like the little circle inside. And I would think of it more as the personal relationship between you and God, between you and Christ or like you’re growing to them as a person and him from closer to you as your God. And so I see, you know, there’s just so many different ways that you can accomplish that within the, the scope of your religion. So I would see it sort of like as us a subsection so to speak of religious practice as a whole.
Chris Dwyer: [18:10] And your feelings are pretty similar to what we had heard from most folks when we talk about this. So, you’re right there with your peers for sure. And speaking of your peers outside of St. Anselm’s, your social circle, how do they feel? Because our society is pushing people away from religion and spirituality. So how do they feel about your faith filled life?
John Paul: [18:34] Well, I’ve actually been very blessed, especially these past two years because I’ve been a part of, or I went on a retreat with the archdiocese and made a lot of friends, friends who are very faithful. And so I’ve had this sort of community that has been very supportive and very faithful. And like the monks had been really, a shining example of living out the faith in their daily lives. And so for me, especially around them, I don’t feel any sort of pressure to not practice the faith, but around or not necessarily practice the faith, but not necessarily show it as much. But around my other friends that aren’t necessarily as religious or religiously inclined, I definitely feel a need to sort of not show as much of the faith, not a need, but a desire to know for fear of being off, being, I listened to your last podcast and I believe they said labeled was one of the things that you said and that is a common fear. Oh, you’re just, you’re the Catholic kid. You know, you’re the one that says grace before every meal, you know. But, I think for me, one of the blessings of that or just a grace that God’s given me is that I just accept it. So it’s like, it’s okay. All right, I’ll be that Catholic boy who says grace before every meal or whatever, you know, I’ll be that guy in their friend group. It’s okay. And so I don’t necessarily feel as pressured not to be as vocal with my faith.
Chris Dwyer: [20:03] But it sounds like you’ve also found a solution by seeking out others who are like you.
John Paul: [20:09] Yes, for sure. And for me, I think like, I remember the first time I went on this retreat, it was like, I just had so much like hope and joy. I was like, there are other people like me, oh my gosh, thank God. Yeah. And so that was really fantastic. That experience was really awesome. And just to be able to see other people like being that witness, I was like, oh my gosh, I can, I can really relate to these people. And, you know, have so many common experiences even though I’ve never met them before. And so, that was really awesome.
Chris Dwyer: [20:42] So it sounds like good advice that if you’re, if you want to continue to strengthen your faith, that it’s good to surround yourself with others who are trying to do the same thing.
John Paul: [20:51] For sure, for sure. But to somebody who might be, in terms of like, their, their friends went to rearrange it so that it would more suit their faith. I would counsel against like, because I hear a lot of people saying, you know, I’m not going to shy away from this friend because they don’t necessarily bring me to the faith and instead like grow closer to these other people, which is good that you’re growing closer to other people. But like for me, I feel that when I’m with my other friends as, you know, the Catholic kid, you know, I’m sort of helping them sort of like, you know, as Christ when ate with, you know, the, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, you know, you need to be that evangelizing force going in and helping them improve themselves too. And, and in doing that, help yourself to, you know, grow in your own faith and through sort of like temptations or tests or whatever with your friends that you might find growing in your own faith and becoming closer to Christ.
Chris Dwyer: [21:52] That’s a great way of approaching it. John, you must be so proud.
John Goldberg: [21:56] He’s like one of our awesome, awesome guys that blessed the known simplicities at the Abbey.
John Paul: [22:03] You flatter me.
Chris Dwyer: [22:05] Big question. You know, social media is such a big, big part of our lives today. How is that impacting if at all, your faith?
John Paul: [22:16] Yes, that is the big question. Social media. Well, one thing that my pastor at my parish said to me not too long ago that kind of like sticks with me was, you know, I was scrolling through Instagram and I follow a bunch of a Catholic pages. So I like found this Catholic post and it’s like, look, look, this is exactly what you were talking about and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And they’re like, oh yeah. And then he said, so I was using it like, oh look, look, look, social media can be good. You see, you see social media can be good. And he was saying, yeah, yeah, social media can be good, but it’s only as good as you make it. Or you know, you just like with your friends, it’s who you follow. It’s who you surround yourself with that allows you to either grow in your faith or diminish in your faith. And so for me, you know, I love following Catholic pages like very strongly, and pro-life activism is like another thing that I really love. So I follow a ton of pages like that and I get a lot of things from them and that sort of helps me, you know, be at ease, like not, not necessarily feel I need to conform to anything, you know, sort of having an extra resource where I can go and I can see people who, who think like me and who have similar sentiments. And so in that way, I think it can be a huge boom to individuals, of faith, especially in a society that is necessary, not necessarily so receptive to them, but it can also be the bane of someone with faith in that there is, there is fundamentally I think such an aspect of pride within social media, which I think you see manifested in a lot of different ailments that are really plaguing the younger community right now. And so I think that acknowledging the fact that it is, you know, like a mode of communication, a way for you to express yourself and a way for you to find a community that you feel that you belong with, while also acknowledging that there is a potential for a sort of like a gratification seeking of gratification or something like that. So just being wary of social media I think has probably been the best thing for me. And then there’s always the, the fact that it’s like a distraction. And one of my one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is that one of the biggest barriers to my generation, I would say, and their faith is distractions because, you know it’s, it’s the constant leading away from anything from the, from the truth, from Christ, from the beautiful, from the good. And, and sort of like, you know, on the path, you know, being distracted by, you know, this little flower, the shiny thing when you’re really trying to get to the main goal, you know. And so I definitely see that with social media no matter what platform. And I think that’s because of that, a lot of times for me, it’s just very necessary to just say, you know what, enough is enough. I’m going to, you know, maybe I’m just scrolling through only Catholic pages, but even if I’m just scrolling through only Catholic pages, if I don’t put down the phone and I didn’t say a Hail Mary or, you know, just take a couple of minutes to be with Christ, then I’m never going to grow in faith. You know?
Chris Dwyer: [25:34] Sort of mind numbing.
John Paul: [25:37] Exactly. Yeah, exactly.
Chris Dwyer: [25:38] Yeah. It’s hypnotic of some sort.
John Paul: [25:39] For sure, for sure.
Chris Dwyer: [25:42] So you’re growing up at a time where information is available at an instant. All you have to do is pull out that cell phone and pull up whatever you want regarding the faith. And you’ve talked about that and you took your pastors advice very well. Has it caused you to look at other religious beliefs at all, explore what other faiths are teaching?
John Paul: [26:05] Not really. I’m not very, I see such a wealth of knowledge and such a depth of knowledge and of truth in Catholicism in of itself that I don’t necessarily feel the need to explore other faiths. Maybe just as a sort of like a just to, to pursue something interesting and possibly, but, I don’t, I feel at peace and at home and grounded in my own faith to the point where I don’t necessarily feel a need to actually investigate other faiths. I mean, I do, because I find it interesting and because I wanted to learn more about the world and about other people and what they think and different ideas and, but, I haven’t like explored them with this new availability for knowledge in a sense.
Chris Dwyer: [27:04] And you had mentioned your home life. So how much has home life impacted your faith? Was that the foundation for it or was it the school that actually helped develop that?
John Paul: [27:13] I would say it’s both. I think, yeah, there’s definitely formation I think start in the family at home. And so for me it definitely did. You’re going to mass, saying the chaplain divine mercy and, we also just have a ton of like sacred imagery around the house, which I think is really cool. So, but also like that, that sort of continues in school and in school, I definitely get more of a like intellectual formation in the faith. So like with the religion classes, learning philosophy and theology and about the church fathers and their writings. I get a background and a knowledge that I wouldn’t necessarily get within my own family. But, fundamentally I think, you know, with the beginnings of the faith and the prayers and you know, the, the foundation of philosophy really starts or at least started for me in my family.
Chris Dwyer: [28:08] And if you had to give one piece of advice to your peers or maybe somebody even a little younger, what would you give them in terms of how to hang on to their faith, particularly traveling through high school?
John Paul: [28:22] It’s hard to think of just one cause I think for me it was very important that I had this community of people who also shared the faith. And so probably my biggest one would be like, find a community that it doesn’t have to be your only community and it could be the community that you’re in right now, but one that has with people, individuals that have a strong faith that can keep you close to Christ. I think that that would be like my main piece of advice. But then another one, if I could just get another one in there, It would probably be staying close to the sacraments because I think that the sacraments that the Eucharist being the source and summit of the Catholic faith and you know, confession and reconciliation, being able to bring us closer to Christ, very literally through, through the graces that it bestows. And I think that those for anybody are extremely formative or can be.
Chris Dwyer: [29:28] I know you’re looking at pre-med, but you may want to consider campus ministry at some point. You give great advice.
John Paul: [29:36] Whatever the Lord sends me.
Chris Dwyer: [29:36] Remember the hand of God? He may have a different mission for you there. I can’t thank you enough, both of you, John and John Paul for coming by today, spending time with us. It’s great to see that faith is alive and well on high school campuses and it gives us great hope. Gives me great hope for sure. So thank you. Thank you John. Thank you, John Paul.
John Goldberg: [30:01] Thank you so much for having us Chris
John Paul: [30:01] Thanks, Chris. Thank you so much.
Chris Dwyer: [30:03] I want to thank you, our listeners as well, and I ask that you join us next time when we’re discussing our Catholic faith on college campuses. We’re going to be joined by three college students who have recently completed an internship with Catholic Charities. In the meantime, I hope you’ll follow the friars between podcasts by checking out the latest information about the Monastery and the work of the Holy Land friars. I encourage you to visit our website, myfranciscan.org as well as our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Please subscribe to our podcast and share the link with your family and friends and thank you again for joining us today. I’m Christopher Dwyer and on behalf of the Franciscan Friars, I extend to you the Franciscan blessing peace and all good.