How we face death reveals our love for life

Gary Schaaf is the Executive Director for the Archdiocese Mortuary and Cemeteries.

“Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect” – Pope Francis, Day for Life Greeting, July 17.

As the Executive Director for the Archdiocese Mortuary and Cemeteries, I have a unique vantage point from which I reverently watch people struggle with some of life’s most profound questions, including “What happens when we die?” On almost a daily basis, I see people dealing with the impact of losing a loved one, wondering what happens next. As though life were an ocean, death seems to propel many people into deeper waters.

What strikes me as obvious after watching these families grapple with the death of a loved one is the depth of loss that is felt by all families, regardless of the age of their loved one. Our Catholic faith teaches us about the dignity afforded each and every life, regardless of age. From the widow who has lost her beloved spouse after 50 years of marriage, to the young parents dealing with the loss of their baby only months after conception, we see real loss and real grieving. We are reminded in each of these circumstances that neither the size, condition, nor age of one’s body impacts the reality of their soul.

One day every month, we bury babies who have died in utero. As sad an event as this is, watching the reverence for the lives of these young souls makes me deeply proud of my Catholic faith. Many families participate in this service, which we provide at no cost. It is clear that all present are impacted and that not one of those young souls will be forgotten. It is also clear that the depth of loss is hard to understand for someone who has not experienced it – an observation gleaned from watching the empathetic embraces between mothers who are going through these services at the same time.

Although difficult in so many ways, it is also moving to hear the stories of those who have accompanied a loved one at the end of a long life through the suffering that so often accompanies death. Much more often than not, we see how these difficult trials draw families together in ways that were never anticipated. Frankly, we see pure, self-sacrificing love on display in ways that words can only partially describe.

Observing the sacred moments surrounding the deaths of the faithful departed has only strengthened my faith in our Church and our collective mission to protect the lives of all who are living, from the moment of conception through natural death.

Although I never anticipated my job at a Catholic Cemetery would so significantly impact my perspective on life, I feel privileged to have witnessed people of faith handle with grace and courage the reality of death, and further privileged to share those observations.

COMING UP: New president seeks to advance mission of Arrupe Jesuit HS to underserved families

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The newly-elected president of Arrupe Jesuit High School, Michael J. O’Hagan, will seek to serve students and families in the Jesuit tradition of providing a well-rounded, Catholic formation.

“My vision remains rooted in the original vision of the school, which is to serve families and students who, for many reasons beyond their own control, have been traditionally underserved,” O’Hagan said. “I want to make sure that Arrupe is always connected to its mission of serving young people and families in this Jesuit Catholic tradition.”

O’Hagan was the founding principal of Arrupe Jesuit High School when it opened in 2003 after a lay initiative to bring Catholic education back to the center city of Denver.

Bringing Catholic education back, however, meant new challenges: The area was mostly populated by low-income families who could not afford private education. Thus, the goal of making Catholic education affordable became a primary mission.

The founders took on the work-study model of Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, which allowed students to implement work into their education with a two-fold purpose: Gaining real-life formation while paying for their college prep education.

“It’s a dynamic relationship with the metro area and business community,” O’Hagan said. “Our young people have an experience of the real world that they can connect to their classroom lessons and affords them an opportunity to see a future they didn’t always know existed.”

Arrupe JHS students work 5 days a month and earn a total of around $2.5 million for the school.

My vision remains rooted in the original vision of the school, which is to serve families and students who, for many reasons beyond their own control, have been traditionally underserved.”

The new president’s role will have a greater focus on strengthening the existing relationships with entities that help the advancement of the school through this work-study program. As principal, his responsibility was more internally-focused on faculty, staff and students.

“I’m excited to be able to build partnerships within the business community and benefactors,” he said. “People are drawn to the mission of Arrupe because they’re drawn to our students. It’s the mission of Arrupe that allows us to connect with so many people.”

Over 130 organizations now contribute to the mission of the school, allowing all 420 students to share full-time, entry-level positions in a wide variety of fields including education, health and engineering.

Family-oriented

Other than making sure bills get paid, O’Hagan assured that his responsibility extends to keeping and advancing the Jesuit Catholic identity of the school. This reality calls for a clear understanding of the needs of the students and an integration of families, he said.

Ninety-three percent of students at Arrupe are Hispanic and the other seven percent include African Americans and African refugees.

Some of the challenges that students face on a personal level include being separated from loved ones due to deportation and experiencing trauma and violence due to the realities of the neighborhoods they live in. Nonetheless, O’Hagan assures that the faculty and staff go beyond these facts when defining the kids.

“We’re very aware of the challenges they face, but we’ve made an intentional decision – one that is firmly rooted in the Gospel – to define our kids by their talents and their gifts,” he said. “We often describe ourselves as a school of dreams, the dreams of our kids and the dreams of their moms and grandparents.”

Arrupe JHS takes families seriously. It knows that if the richness given to the students is not shared by the family, it has failed.

For this reason, the school provides many resources for them and also lets them know that they are welcome, highlighting the key role they play in their children’s education.

We’re very aware of the challenges they face, but we’ve made an intentional decision – one that is firmly rooted in the Gospel – to define our kids by their talents and their gifts.”

Families are considered and helped from the application process itself throughout the four years of education by way of workshops and gatherings that help them understand their children’s progress and education.

“We don’t want families to feel like their kids are having an experience of high school that is separate from their families. We want them to have a shared experience,” O’Hagan stated.

After so many years of work in the mission of making the school facilities, staff and mission reflect the dignity and potential of every student, the new president is mostly grateful for the support received.

“I am grateful for the support that Arrupe has received from the community through our first 15 years. We haven’t been successful because we’ve been isolated,” he assured. “We have been successful because of the many partnerships we have built across the city, state and country.”