When a Coach Falls in Love with Religion

“Religion was never on my radar,” says Sr. Gianna Marie Webber, OSF. It’s a surprising statement coming from a Franciscan sister in full habit, not to mention the principal of a Catholic grade school, but then Sr. Gianna Marie’s story is full of such surprises.

The third of six children, Sr. Gianna Marie was baptized Catholic, but her family ceased practicing the Faith when she was 6. Athletics became her passion, and she excelled at basketball, which earned her a scholarship to Ohio’s Mount Vernon Nazarene University. “If you can get an orange ball into a basket,” she explains, “it makes education very cheap.”

About the time she finished her education degree and started teaching (and coaching) high-schoolers in Alaska, her mother returned to the Church and started praying for her children to do the same. “Don’t underestimate the power of a mother’s prayers,” Sr. Gianna Marie says. Her mom’s resurgent faith challenged her to take religion seriously for the first time.

Another challenge came by way of Mother Teresa, whose tireless service to the poor regularly showed up in the news. “All that she was doing for the Man on the Cross,” Sister recalls wondering, “was it worth it?” Concluding it was, she decided she wanted to be a member of Mother Teresa’s “team” as a Catholic Christian.

Once back in the Church, Sr. Gianna Marie considered how she could best serve the Lord. One morning she woke with a mental image of herself in habit rather than as a mom with a brood of kids. “You know how it is when you fall in love,” she says of her call to religious life. “You just…fall in love.”

Eventually, she made her way to Mishawaka, Indiana, and presented herself as a candidate to the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration. “I didn’t think they’d take me, but they took me,” she says. “I didn’t think they’d keep me, but they’ve kept me.”

In the course of her formation, Sr. Gianna Marie completed a master’s in educational administration at Franciscan University in 2011. Now fully professed, she serves as principal of St. Matthew Cathedral School in South Bend, Indiana. It’s an assignment that brings together her coach’s enthusiasm, her teacher’s purposefulness, and her Franciscan joy. As Sr. Gianna Marie says, being a principal “takes it to another court altogether.”
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A version of this profile originally appeared in Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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Felicia’s Glimpse of Heaven

In heaven, our seeing will be direct… (Frank Sheed).

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No Apology Necessary: Of Harbors, Harbingers, and Kids at Mass

Suffer the little children, and forbid them not to come to me (Mt 19.14).

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Of Coddling Demons and Auricular Confession

The demons puzzle us. The pigs puzzle us….
We long to read deeper into the mind of our Redeemer.
~ Frank Sheed

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Easter Meditation on a Suicide Averted

Look, here’s a true story. It’s a bit raw, but maybe it’ll help.

I was living in Chicago when I got depressed. Not the bluesy kind of depressed, but the heavy, can’t-shake-it, “drenched wool blanket draped over your thoughts around the clock” kind of depressed.

Sure, I sought out counseling; sure, I attended group therapy sessions and read books for adult children of alcoholics. Nothing was helping, though, and I spent a lot of time going to movies.

By myself.

I was like Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, but without the sexual dalliances, and without the admirable existential yearnings of Percy’s Kierkegaardian hero. I was a kid in his twenties from the Colorado burbs, newly Catholic, and living among do-gooders in gritty Uptown. In fact, the do-gooders were my heroes, and I was trying to become a do-gooder myself.

That’s why the depression was so bewildering. God, went my prayer, over and over again, God, why are you doing this to me?

Maybe you’ve prayed that prayer yourself, and maybe your prayer met with cosmic stonewalling like mine did – or at least that’s how it felt. Regardless, I prayed and prayed, and then I self-medicated by going to movies – lots of movies. Going to movies distracted me from the pain and the endless loops of irrational, self-destructive thoughts, and it was better than drinking – or worse.

One night, I ended up in Water Tower Place. There used to be theater there on the second or third floor – maybe it’s still there. I forget what the first show was, but I recall sticking around for a second because it was too early to go home – too early, that is, to land home and crash without feeling compelled to talk with my roommates. I do remember that second show: Gardens of Stone, Francis Ford Coppola’s other Vietnam film, a stateside gut-wrencher that revolves around the Arlington National Cemetery. It was probably not the best film for me to be watching at the time – hardly the diverting entertainment I was groping for. The film’s bleak fatalism accentuated my despair and underscored my emotional isolation.

After it ended, I trudged over to the Chicago subway stop on the CTA’s Red Line. It was late enough that the platform was sparsely populated – just as well. I didn’t want to talk with anybody; I didn’t want to interact. I was tired and miserable and anxious to get home to bed. My mind was racing with dark thoughts. Sleep, at least, offered the prospect of temporary mental relief.

Relief, I thought – and the thought morphed into a prayer: Please, God, grant me some relief. I was standing at the edge of the platform and looking down the tunnel for the ‘L’ train. There are no guardrails or barriers on the edge of subway platforms. There’s just air – just a drop-off to the rails and rats below. As I heard the rumble of the arriving train and saw its lights, I had another thought: If I just fall forward as the train arrives, I’ll get that relief. A pause – the lights got closer. Just a bit of courage, just a shift of weight, and I’ll fall forward, fall in, fall down. I vacillated at the last moment. No more pain…

Terrified, I wrenched myself away from the platform’s edge, and the train rolled in. I shuddered, backed up, and turned to the pay phone on the wall – no cell phones back then, no universal and immediate connectivity. Instead, my bridge back to safety was mediated by an anonymous operator. “Collect call,” I told her, and she punched in my parents’ Colorado number. One ring, two – then my mom’s voice. She accepted the charges and ventured, “Hello?”

“Mom, it’s me,” I said. “I need to come home. I need help and I need to come home.”

I did move home soon after, started regular counseling, and got on meds. The meds were like a temporary chemical brace for my wobbly thinking, and the counseling offered me long-term mental guardrails to lean on going forward – and here I am, decades later, guardrails in place, and alive.

That night on the subway platform I stared down death, stared it full in the face and slapped it away. In that split second, I was granted a choice – and a clear vision. With God’s grace, no doubt with God’s grace, I looked at self-annihilation straight on, considered it, toyed with it, and sent it packing. “Not tonight, you bastard,” my platform retreat declaimed. “Not tonight, you lousy bastard. Maybe tomorrow, but not tonight.” In that moment of crisis, I clung to the grace and gave in to its tidal sweep. It wasn’t the end of something, but a beginning. There’d be no quick cures, but only daily surrenders. Daily willful surrenders, with no guarantees, and yet each surrender meant living for another day.

And where’s there’s life, there’s hope – the Easter message in a nutshell. He is risen, dammit – risen! He’s alive, and where’s there’s life there’s hope. Hold onto life, no matter what – hold on to life, hold onto hope.

I’m telling you, when your platform moments come, you must back away. Your twisted thoughts will deny your infinite worth as a human being, your ineffable value to the world, to the universe, to those who love you – to us, to me. At those moments – if they come at all, God forbid, and if they do, let them be few – hear my words, let my words ring in your head: Your life is worth living; you will get through this; and don’t you dare, don’t you dare do anything to snuff it out. Don’t you dare.

Back away, and let the metal carnage pass. If I can do it, so can you. We can both refuse annihilation this day, this day! Alleluia.
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For immediate help, call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Of Starbucks, Love, and Anonymous Christmas Cheer

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And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year.
~ Charles Dickens

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Note to Pollsters: What “Practicing Catholic” Really Means

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First consideration is due to the offspring, which many have the boldness to call the disagreeable burden of matrimony.
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By virtue of the missionary mandate, the Church cares for those who do not know the Gospel, because she wants everyone to be saved and to experience the Lord’s love.
~ Pope Francis

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