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August 19, 2004 Edition

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Back to School: Still exciting after all these years

photo of Audrey Mettel Fixmer
Grand Mom 

Mettel Fixmer 

Those three little words: Back to School! This is the month when they appear dozens of times in every issue of every magazine or newspaper.

They are little words, but heavy with emotions: relief, fear, excitement. What amazes me is that regardless of what stage in life we are in, we still seem to experience these feelings when August rolls around.

First day of school

Do you remember how eagerly you awaited the first day of school when you were five or six? I wanted to be like the big kids proudly trotting off with their new pencils and notebooks dressed in their spanking new clothes.

They seemed so smart and independent, and that's what I wanted to be, too. I was relieved to be freed from the confines of my home, a little scared that the big kids might pick on me, and so excited to be part of this new world of teachers and books and tablets!

Back to School for the next 11 years carried with it the excitement of moving up to a higher grade, a new teacher, old friends, and the security of a scheduled life. Anyway, summer had become boring.

Despite the excitement, however, I still had some nagging fears. What if the new teacher doesn't like me as well as the last one? What if nobody likes me? What if they find out I'm not as smart as I pretended to be?

Seeing children off

Jump ahead 20 years. Back to School meant sending all my kids off. Strangely enough I continued to experience the same emotions I had as a child, but with a new twist.

I was relieved to have the house quiet down for a few hours each day and to put my children in the hands of priests and nuns who would share my burden of producing God-fearing, moral human beings.

I feared not having enough money to pay for their clothing, books, tuition, and all the paraphernalia they needed. Mostly, though, I was excited for them, marking their growth intellectually and spiritually as well as physically.

Going back

As I was approaching the age of 40, Back to School meant something even more. I went back to school! The same year my oldest son started college, with all 10 kids at home, I went back to school myself to earn my degree.

Again, I was relieved to see a better future on the horizon for all of us, but I feared not only not doing well myself, but having my family suffer by my divided attention.

The excitement of a new start for all of us was incredibly thrilling, however, and we all survived those two years.


Through 22 years of teaching that followed, Back to School evoked those same three emotions: Relief on getting out of the house and earning a paycheck, fear of not doing a good job as both mother and teacher, and excitement of being in my fresh classroom with its newly finished floors and blackboards and meeting my students.

There they were in their new outfits, with their new notebooks and backpacks, grinning happily with their excitement, concealing their fears and relief at being Back to School.

And here I am at the ripe old age of 76 still going Back to School! Still experiencing those same emotions as I prepare to teach another year at a local college.

True, my husband and I teach only part-time, but I am relieved to settle into the routine of a new semester, fear having this old body give out on me, but excited to meet my new students in the three classes I will teach.

Never too late

My experience as a student mother and a working mother helps me to understand the problems of these college students, many of whom are returning to school to make a better life for themselves and their families.

I want them to learn, as I have, one of life's most valuable lessons. It is never too late to go Back to School.

Let's celebrate September!

"Grandmom" likes hearing from other senior citizens who enjoy aging at P.O. Box 216, Fort Atkinson, WI 53538.

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Candidates: Take time to know them

photo of Kathy Markeland
Eye on the 

Kathy Markeland 

Every two years, in anticipation of the fall elections, the Wisconsin Catholic Conference (WCC) prepares resources to educate Catholics on the responsibility to "to become informed, active and responsible participants in the political process." (Faithful Citizenship)

While citizenship is an ongoing responsibility that transcends any given election, elections are "teachable moments" - a time when all citizens are more attuned to the issues facing our country and our communities, and to the voices of those who seek to serve us as elected officials.

With the increasing use of the Internet as a tool for informing and educating the public, the WCC has expanded the voter educational tools and resources available on our Web site (www.wisconsincatholic.org).

Candidate survey

A new addition to our election resources this 2004 election season is a regular update on responses to the WCC candidate survey, which will be circulated to candidates that succeed in the September primary. (For those races in which the September primary will determine the election winner, the WCC is already seeking responses so that constituents in those districts will have the information that they need for the primary election.)

The candidate survey serves a number of purposes: 1) The survey educates Catholic voters about the current issues of interest and concern that have been identified by the bishops; 2) the survey informs candidates about the issues that Catholics are following; and 3) the survey provides a tool that parishes and dioceses can use as they plan candidate forums or seek to provide a quick, handy resource on local candidates' positions on the issues.

Positions on issues

The surveys cover a broad range of issues, including candidates' positions on such issues as abortion, cloning, defining marriage, death penalty, health care, and treatment options for prisoners.

Ideally, the questionnaire responses provide voters with a window into both the broad principles of a candidate, as well as the ways in which the candidate applies these principles to specific pieces of legislation that he or she may face in the coming legislative session if elected to serve.

Catholics are encouraged to pose these questions to their local candidates. The WCC hopes that parishes use the questionnaire as a resource for hosting candidate forums in local communities.

In addition, as the November election approaches, the WCC asks Catholics across the state to encourage their local candidates to respond to the survey. The more numerous the responses, the more valuable the survey will be for all Catholic voters in the state.

Voting responsibly

There is no question that the Wisconsin Catholic vote is being heavily courted this election season. On the one hand, this may introduce more pressing discussions within our parish communities regarding the appropriate means for the church to participate in the electoral process.

On the other hand, this attention provides a tremendous opportunity for Catholics to witness to the depth and the beauty of the Catholic social teaching tradition and to call on candidates to respond to our fundamental values by protecting human life, promoting family life, pursuing social justice, and practicing global solidarity.

Voting responsibly is one way that we witness our beliefs to the world. Take the time to review the questions, to seek your candidates' responses, and to educate your fellow parishioners about the issues this election season.

Kathy Markeland is associate director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference.

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Father Vakoc: A Catholic hero

photo of George Weigel
The Catholic 

George Weigel 

Columnist Mark Steyn aptly describes film-maker Michael Moore, of Fahrenheit 9/11 fame (or infamy), as a "crockumentarian." Here's an Iraq story that wasn't in Mr. Moore's crockumentary and hasn't broken into the mainstream media, either.

Fr. Tim Vakoc was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis in 1992; he then joined the U.S. Army Corps of Chaplains.

In an interview earlier this year with the National Catholic Register, Major Vakoc - Father Tim - described his work as a "ministry of intentional presence." His job was to be present to the soldiers who were his ecumenical and interreligious "parish": to share their lives, their fears, their mission. If you think that's an easy or safe billet, think again.

Awarded Purple Heart

On May 29, Father Tim was in a Humvee in Mosul when a terrorist bomb exploded nearby. Thanks to an enemy with no sense of honor, Major Vakoc suffered brain damage and broken bones in his face; he also lost his left eye. Since then, Father Tim has been in Washington's Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

There, on July 14, Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman presented Father Tim with the Purple Heart. The wounded chaplain, who has been slipping in and out of a coma, awoke during the brief ceremony and grasped Senator Coleman's hand.

Military chaplaincy

An intriguing, recently published book, The Sword of the Lord: Military Chaplains from the First to the Twenty-First Century (University of Notre Dame Press), explores the idea of the Christian military chaplain from the days of antiquity through the Middle Ages and down to our own time. The military chaplaincy, it turns out, is one of the most enduring institutions of our civilization, stretching back for more than 1,600 years.

Some pacifists argue that the military chaplaincy is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, a way of "doing ethics for Caesar." They are mistaken. Military chaplaincy is an entirely legitimate exercise of priestly ministry.

The chaplain is an essential part of a rightly-ordered military force: not because he conducts seminars in just war theory, but because he puts himself in harm's way for the sake of others who are doing just that.

We owe our chaplains a great debt of gratitude; it's a shame that it takes a case like Fr. Tim Vakoc to remind us of that.

Pastoral purpose

Father Vakoc saw American forces in Iraq from a different vantage point than a besotted ideologue like Michael Moore. Perhaps, like Chaldean Catholic Bishop Rabban Al-Qas of Amadiyah, Father Tim believed "what the Americans did was truly a liberation, the liberation of Iraq . . . ." I expect he did.

But I also expect that, like most chaplains, Father Tim's focus was on the personal and the pastoral, not the deep-think or the Great Issues.

The chaplain sees individuals, men and women, each of whom has an immortal soul, an eternal destiny, and some very serious "real-world" problems. Being "present" to each of those individuals is what the chaplaincy is for.

In the line of fire

And the cost? The risks? During a previous deployment in Bosnia, Father Tim explained to his sister: "The safest place for me to be is in the center of God's will, and if that is in the line of fire, that is where I will be."

Men like Father Tim Vakoc are pastors. Their work honors the priesthood. We should honor them for it.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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