After decades of playing its own executioner, perhaps it has come to this for the generally infertile American Catholic education system: it will be only the finger of God working through heroes that will come to the rescue of its lost children. As we enter “Celebrate Catholic Schools Week,” it would be good to find such a hero.
In these days, these movements of grace will be led purely by those educators suffused with devoted prayer, the sacraments, Adoration of the Real Presence of Christ, and regular fasting and penances. The sacramental energy pouring forth from this small set may be likened to the keeper of an isolated lighthouse; one tasked with guarding the imperiled against the darkness of the night. These hero-educators burn with a Marian ferocity to guard small souls against the pounding waves of societal modernism, paganism, and an embrace of perversions that have entered even into Catholic schools, including a growing number which have embraced students “transitioning,” and identifying as transgender.
Ali Ghaffari, who opened Divine Mercy Academy in Anne Arundel County, Maryland, offers a disparate approach to handling the collision of Catholic education with a rebellious world. Three years ago, the one-time self-proclaimed atheist and Navy F-18 Hornet fighter pilot felt an interior command from God to form the next generation of saints—and equip them to fearlessly confront, heal, and catechize an increasingly pagan society that is hostile to the God they represent.
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Here is Ghaffari’s story. Although its details are distinctive, hero-educators like Ghaffari are now emerging in various places throughout America as small bonfires of hope.
Ghaffari was a boy raised in chaos. As an 8-year-old, he spent much of his time in a bar frequented by heavy drinkers with dead dreams. The low-ceilinged bar in the back of Wesson’s Diner was a forgettable and dark place off the main road, a few hundred yards from Lake Champlain. Ali’s mother was barely old enough herself to be in a bar, but after a divorce she was forced to pour drinks and pull taps to feed her small, poor family. She was forced each month to choose to either feed her children or pay the rent on their South Burlington, Vermont apartment.
Night-in and night-out, the boys watched hard-luck divorcees play pool, brag about better days, and stub out cigarettes before making out in a corner. Ali’s memories of the lonesome place are a beery cacophony of smacked billiard balls, lonesome jukebox ballads, and hoarse laughter. Then the choruses of demons came. Turnstiles of wretched men came into and out of his mother’s life. Mom became an addict, and attempted suicide before entering a rehabilitation clinic. He and his brother moved in with relatives.
Mom, though, came back. Where once she had shown her love for her sons with handfuls of quarters to wile away the night in front of the bar’s pinball machine—in rehab, her love for them intensified. She battled and vanquished her demons, found God, got a good job working at a car dealership, and fell in love with a sturdy man—a skinny, moustached mechanic who couldn’t be caught without his black Dale Earnhardt cap. They married.
By that time, though, Ali had fallen in with kids who, within a few years, became drug dealers. He had become an atheist. His new step-father stepped in, moved Ali into sports, and demanded intense academic effort and results. Ali obliged—but his hatred for God became immoveable.
Fortunately, Ali was a bright kid and earned a scholarship to attend one of the finest prep schools in the world—Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He lived and studied beside princes, heirs to fortunes, and future professional athletes. 36 members of his class attended Harvard. Schoolwork was a nightly avalanche, but he soon realized he could keep up with it. His confidence grew, and he began to envision himself as an atheist hockey player who was on track to be a world-class brain surgeon.
After graduating Andover as a top student, he attended Colby College and studied pre-medicine. He fully embraced the atheism of the majority of his instructors; their worldview conformed to his increasingly pagan lifestyle. Throughout college, when he wasn’t buried in books, he fixated on comfort, future wealth, and worldly pleasures.
One summer evening, on the front porch of his home that overlooked the rolling green mountains of Vermont, everything changed. Ali was eavesdropping on a conversation his step-father was having with a blue-collar Catholic friend named Paul. Eventually, Ali was brought in to shoot the breeze with them. Paul asked Ali how he was spending the summer. Ali told him he was performing organic chemistry research on compounds called carbenes—but that he likely wouldn’t understand any of it.
“Try me,” said Paul, a man who barely graduated from the local high school and had never considered college.
A question or two deep into that conversation—into trying to answer Paul’s questions—it became very clear that I didn’t know what I was talking about,” Ali said. “I had become so good at the game—memorize surface-level knowledge, regurgitate for a test or quiz, dump, move on, that I never really learned or understood anything at a deeper level. I had built this little box around me where I was a god unto myself. I was so impressed with my knowledge and abilities and Paul came in and bulldozed it.
Paul was a humble man who had taught himself how to think, and to question, by reading the classics. He was steeped in Aristotle, Plato, Augustine, the Church Fathers, Aquinas, and Josephus. He had read Tolkien. He knew and loved scripture. His knowledge of the wisdom of the Catholic paragons left Ali speechless and humiliated.
After he bulldozed my little world, he threw me a rope. Paul asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I said, ‘No. There’s no proof.’ Paul said, ‘God is all around us—you just have to have eyes to see.’ The conversation went on into the night. The prestige of academia had been my god. It was torn down in a single night by a blue-collar man who never went to college. It was the first time I had to seriously consider that God existed, and that I might have to change how I was living based upon that fact.
At Colby, Ali became friends with a Navy SEAL named Steven, who was a strong Christian. Suddenly, he had two mentors who were serious about God. He had to reconsider his whole world-view. Prodded by Steven, Ali abandoned his plan for medical school, signed up for the Navy, and set a goal to become a fighter pilot. Upon graduation, he went through Officer Candidate School and became the president of his class.
He began to study the Catholic faith while learning how to dogfight and drop bombs. He earned Master’s degrees in Catholic Theology and Philosophy, and began to teach RCIA and youth group. Today, he is a professor at the United States Naval Academy, where he teaches leadership skills to students and faculty at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.
Divine Mercy Academy’s founder has flown jets at speeds over 1,000 mph and landed them on moonless nights on aircraft carriers. He has been deployed by the Navy overseas multiple times, and has flown more than 20 combat missions over Taliban-held territory in Afghanistan. He has seen the enemies of our country, but considers them inconsequential compared to the darkness coming at our children. This is his war.
“My conversion prepared me to attempt to create a new generation of saint-leaders for our Church,” Ghaffari said;
While everything I did to defend my country was important, there’s a bigger war going on now for the souls of children. It all begins with our educational system, which forms the framework from which they view, understand, and act in life. This system of formation has been corrupted by atheist, socialist ideologies which seek to turn children away from God. And our Catholic schools have watered down our Catholic heritage, leaving our children to wander aimlessly in search of Truth, beauty and goodness in places they will never find it. Children are leaving the Faith in droves because they’ve never actually experienced its full beauty.
Ghaffari’s aim is that Divine Mercy Academy will shape young minds to absorb sacred Catholic heirlooms, the Magisterium, and the storehouses of the dogma and doctrine of the faith. He wants to send children out into the secular world as thoughtful and wise Catholic missionaries. Accordingly, he teaches an Apologetics course at DMA, which has doubled in size over the past two years to over 40 students.
“In today’s roiling culture, I want young students to know and recognize Truth the moment they spot it, and likewise to be able to spot falsity and lies as soon as they see it too,” Ghaffari said.
“Classical Liberal education introduces children to the True, Good, and Beautiful. They are taught to recognize it from the earliest age. After a child has taken in a steady diet of Truth and Beauty, they recognize the fakes and the pretenders right away and don’t waste any time pursuing it.”
Divine Mercy Academy’s K-through-8th-grade students begin each day with the Rosary and Mass. The Angelus, Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Memorare are prayed each day.
“God is the focus of everything here. God is the engine that runs the school,” Ghaffari said. “If He is the center and at the helm, the school can’t help but be successful. God comes up from the moment students walk into school up until the moment the students leave. God is folded into every class and event at the school and every teacher is a serious and faithful Catholic.”
Ghaffari continued: “Classical education is different in that it activates the curiosity and sense of wonder, that sense of why—it fuels that wonder. It fuels one’s desire to learn. It sets the goals so much higher than secular education, because it inspires students to dig deeper; to aspire to be saints, and to dig down to define who they are in terms of their relationship with God.”
Ghaffari said intentionally Catholic parents, who have become increasingly despairing by the crisis of thin Catholic education at schools that purport to be authentic in their teaching, would be wise to consider classical Catholic education. As time moves on, he anticipates schools such as his will be bursting at the seams.
“The old is new again here. We are waking up to the fact that this modern educational experiment has failed and that if we want to find a way out of this disaster, we need to return to the type of education that formed St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and J.R.R. Tolkien—a classical education,” Ghaffari said. “Parents who have experienced this for their children are converts for life. Parents see the immensity of God by seeing their children begin to radiate His Love at home and in the world. They see their kids fully joyful—because they have been set free to become the freest version of themselves.
“This type of child will not only bring light to a darkening world, this child will save many souls.”
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