Catholic School Principals and Teachers

An open letter to teachers and principals in Catholic Schools


Please bear with me because I am going to make a preposterous and impossible request!

Principals, would you consider sharing information among your teachers about coming with me on the Early Christian World Pilgrimage 2010 to Turkey? The preposterous part is that it takes place from April 6 to 28, and would therefore require taking at least an extra thirteen days off after Easter break. Perhaps you would consider coming yourself. See, I warned you!

Teachers, would you consider making the sacrifices needed to engage in this life-changing experience that will immensely benefit you and your students?

If you are still bearing with me, let me explain.

After having led three very successful Pilgrimages to Early Christian World sites in Turkey, I have become convinced of its importance for those who have the most immediate influence in the formation of our young Catholics. Who else but you and you teachers? Why? This Pilgrimage is an intense multi-faceted experience. As you can see from browsing our itinerary, we not only visit important Biblical and historical sites, but also experience Muslim religion, history and culture in a modern, democratic, secular nation. Because of its unique significance for both Muslims and Christians, as well as some surprising aspects of Jewish heritage, I often refer to Turkey as “the other Holy Land! It’s a unique opportunity to drink deeply of our own heritage of faith and acquire the kind of broad understanding that is so important in building hope for the future.

The Pilgrimage is a wonderful opportunity for the continuing formation of teachers in Catholic schools. In fact, the Center for Religion and Spirituality of Loyola Marymount is offering 4.5 semester hours of Continuing Education credit for participation in the Pilgrimage.  I can also provide several substantial scholarships to assist some teachers who might otherwise be prevented by financial hardship.  Very important for principals, each scholarship will include $1,000 to the school to help provide a substitute teacher while the regular teacher is making the Pilgrimage.

There is still the question of missing at least two weeks of class at an exceptionally difficult time of the year. Couldn’t it just as well be done in the summer? I thought and prayed long and hard about this, and during this past year’s Pilgrimage, which also began during Easter week, the answer came to me loud and clear: NO!, it couldn’t. Why not? I can pinpoint the spot and the moment: Ephesus, the morning of last April 21, a Saturday. It was a pleasantly cool spring day. The hills were green and the wildflowers bursting forth everywhere, and . . . our group was almost alone! On a midsummer day, we would find ourselves competing with 5,000 tourists in 90+-degree heat with no shade. I’ve been there in summertime, and I can assure you that the heat and crowds would seriously degrade the quality of the experience this Pilgrimage is designed to provide. One might as well stay home and read about the sites on the internet! I am convinced that spring is the only time of the year when it is really possible to accomplish the goals of this Pilgrimage. It may require a sacrifice, but I believe it is worth the effort for someone who is truly interested and dedicated.

As a pastor I have lots of experience with Catholic schools, and I am very aware that a teacher does not skip thirteen days of school lightly. More than two weeks with a substitute teacher simply isn’t desirable for a class under any circumstances, and would usually be tolerated only for severe emergency or health-related issues, not for an optional academic enrichment program, no matter how valuable it may seem to be. So, what about the effect on your school? The negative effects are obvious enough; are there positive outcomes strong enough to offset the negative? I am convinced there are.

First of all, I believe that the depth and breadth of this Pilgrimage experience will enhance almost any curriculum at any grade level—not only religion but also history, sociology, geography, language, art, cultural anthropology, and so on. Even mathematics enters into the study of archeology and ancient architecture. But of more immediate benefit is that your students and their families can get involved in the preparation for the pilgrimage, and can follow its progress through online resources as well as books. All the participants are invited to a series of preparatory gatherings early in 2010 where they can meet one another and past Pilgrims, and share resources, stories, advice and homemade Turkish food. (Yes, food is important too.) Our experience has been that these gatherings contribute mightily to the overall success and richness of the Pilgrimage.

Here’s some testimony from a veteran Catholic school principal, who now teaches high school history and religion, and a Catholic elementary school teacher, both of whom have already made the Pilgrimage:

WOW, what an opportunity for people who need the continuing education units! …  I truly believe it was an excellent and inspiring learning experience.  Much of what I experienced has come in handy in teaching my senior Church History class. (Sr. Feliz Gil-Jimenez, CSSF, Pomona Catholic; former principal at Our Lady of the Assumption.)

As a Catholic, my eyes were opened toward the Muslim faith and its people. I am teaching Art and Multicultural Awareness this summer to third graders. My Turkish Pilgrimage will be an awesome supplement to the curriculum. (Angela Maiorano, formerly at St. Vincent’s in Los Angeles.)

I want all participants to want the best that an twenty-two-day immersion into the experience of Turkey can offer; and I want to be able to fulfill that desire. In this connection, a word about our tour guide. Aydın Eroğlu is a devout Muslim who is both eager to introduce us to the meaning and practice of his faith and has a strong interest and understanding of Christian faith. He is very interested in promoting Muslim-Christian dialogue and understanding, as am I. He has forty years’ experience as a tour guide in his native Turkey, speaks flawless American English, and knows well how to communicate with the people in his care. His understanding and love of his own country and people are matched by his love and respect for the people he guides—us!

If my enthusiasm for this Pilgrimage has at least intrigued you, I request that you copy and share this letter and the enclosed itinerary and reservation form with anyone who might be interested. What I have enclosed doesn’t answer all the questions, but may at least spark a desire to inquire further. Email is the most direct way to reach me (thomas.welbers@gmail.com).  Information updates will regularly appear on this website: http://ecwpilgrimage.org.

Thanks very much for your time and attention.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

(Rev. Msgr.) Thomas Welbers

P.S. You’ll note that the Pilgrimage cost of $2,950 does not include airfare. Our experience has been that this allows participants greater flexibility, and many can take advantage of frequent flyer miles or discounted flights.

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