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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with David Palmieri




Gordon: When did you attend Colby College, what degree did you earn, and what is one of your favorite memories when you were there?

 

Colby is a small New England college in Waterville, Maine. I was a student there from 1993-1997. I started as a biology major, which I chose because of the positive influence my high school science teachers had on me. Looking back, I think I chose that path of study out of loyalty to those mentors, rather than discerning what was a better fit for my heart and mind. After my first year of college, it was clear that the sciences weren’t my calling.

 

I eventually chose Religious Studies as my major, which fit well with my Catholic upbringing and Catholic high school experience. This course of study allowed me to cultivate my knowledge, skill, and endurance in reading and writing. While the program introduced me to a breadth of religious experience, my passion grew for biblical studies. The guidance of my advisor eventually led me to continue this pursuit in graduate school.

 

Two formative experiences I had during this time of my life were competing on the men’s indoor and outdoor track & field teams and working as an office assistant for the Catholic chaplain on campus. The athletic commitment gave my life order and discipline (and great joy) for four years. The religious commitment kept me connected to my faith during a time when it would have been easy to fall away.

 

Gordon: What degree did you earn from Harvard Divinity School, and what was the greatest challenge you faced? What was one highlight?

 

I earned a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1999. My area of concentration was New Testament and Early Christianity. As a full-time student, these were the two most difficult years I’ve ever lived through. I still have the three-inch binder I filled with all of my academic writing from my courses. I was also working two jobs to pay my tuition and my rent. I worked part-time doing clerical work for a startup company, and I also coached two years of indoor and outdoor track & field as an assistant coach for a local college program.

 

During my time at HDS, I had the opportunity to learn from a number of highly respected  professors, but my favorite teacher was Dr. Ellen Aitken. She was my NT Greek professor. She was exceptionally kind, and her style of instruction made me feel known and successful. I respected her so much that I asked her to supervise an independent study during my second year. My research question focused on the Blessed Virgin Mary in both canonical and extracanonical sources. While Dr. Aitken was not Catholic, she helped me learn to think and write like a scholar. Within the last three years I looked her up to send a thank you for her mentorship, but I discovered she passed away in 2014. That was a sad moment, although it reminded me of the share we all have in handing on the gospel.

 

Gordon: When did you attend Boston College, what degree did you earn, and what was the most important thing you learned?

 

When I started at Harvard Divinity School, my thought was to work toward a PhD in New Testament studies. God said No. I was depleted after two years of intense rigor in work and study, so I needed to change the plan. This is how I ended up teaching Theology at the Catholic high school I attended from 1989-1993. For a kid who had an extreme fear of public speaking and no teacher training, here is evidence of God’s sense of humor. Ever read the story of Jonah? I’ve been a classroom teacher now for 25 years.

 

To help build my confidence as a teacher, I enrolled at the Boston College Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry for a Master of Education degree. As a part-time student, I was able to take classes (nights, weekends, summers) and complete my degree in 2005. It was during this time that I discovered my vocation as a teacher and discerned my philosophy of education.

 

Teaching (and coaching) is a ministry of learning, faith, and service. It requires flexibility and self-reflection in order to embrace the gospel that we exist for our students. An artful teacher does not deliver content as much as that teacher uses content as a vehicle to challenge students in useful ways. What does this mean for me?  Why does it matter?  What am I going to do about it? Those are questions that sit at the heart of meaningful teaching and learning; they take place in a public forum where we are not alone to encounter the world.

 

Learning is an adventure in the discovery of God, self, and others; it is a journey toward human fulfillment – to know, to love, and to grow. It opens doors of opportunity, but it also opens hearts and minds to discover Jesus Christ and the person God is calling us to be. One of the most important lessons we can teach is that respect and opportunity are not earned by diplomas, transcripts, and resumes, but by conduct and effort in the building up of God’s kingdom.

 

Gordon: You currently attend The Catholic University of America. What  degree do you plan on earning, and what is one of your favorite courses to date?

 

During my 25 years as a Catholic educator, I guess I never gave up on the dream of earning a PhD. Every time I searched, though, I faced a major obstacle. Full-time programs require full-time residency, and that is not a sacrifice I am able to make—to pursue dreams at the expense of my family.

 

March 2019 brought the COVID pandemic and a new wave of personal discernment. I was looking for something to complement my evolution from “desk-bound theology” to “field hospital ministry,” and I discovered that Catholic University offers a part-time Doctor of Ministry program.


The program requires summer residencies but allows students the ability to complete the rest of their studies remotely. I was accepted in early 2021 and I finished the coursework in August 2023. Now I need to implement a Project in Ministry and then write my treatise (like a dissertation).

 

The last three years have been intense, but they’ve also been beautiful. The courses have challenged me at the highest level both professionally and personally, and I’ve had the opportunity to read, write, and talk about Catholic faith with an amazing community of instructors and classmates.

 

One of my favorite courses was also one of the first. It was called “Caring Conversations for Pastoral Ministry,” a demanding course on the theory and application of pastoral strategies in difficult conversations. The major assignment for this course was to “write a research paper on any topic of pastoral challenge in your current ministry.” It’s this assignment that changed everything for me.

 

Gordon: Tell us about Without Exception.

 

In early 2021, I had an upsetting conversation with a young adult who told me he was gay. During our talk, he shared that he was struggling with self-worth and self-respect. I pressed him on this statement, asking, “What makes you say that?” His answer was jarring.

 

“Because I tried to kill myself.”

 

I thank God he lived to say those words, but it took my breath away. I had over 20 years in the classroom at this point, but I wasn’t seeing the trauma hiding in some students’ lives. It was at this moment when I decided, “That’s it. No more.” It is intolerable that any beloved child of God could feel worthless in a Catholic community. I was being called to do something. But what?

 

Within a month of this experience, I started the DMin program at Catholic University. The assignment to “write a research paper of any topic of pastoral challenge in your current ministry” was an invitation from God. I knew right away my research question was going to be “What are Catholic high schools doing to accompany students with questions of sexuality or gender?” I dug into the reading and research, but it’s a Valley of Dry Bones. There are over 1200 Catholic high schools in the United States, yet—aside from a few outliers—there was very little evidence of pastoral care for students with these questions. It became my goal to change that by helping adults gain confidence in why and how our schools can do better.

 

This is how Without Exception was born. The name comes from entry 478 in the Catechism, which states that the Sacred Heart of Jesus loves all God’s children “without exception.” We are a grassroots network of Catholic professionals (educators and those in related fields of ministry) looking to share support and resources on this journey toward opening wide the doors for Christ in our Catholic high schools. This group exists not to challenge the teachings of the Catholic Church but to learn what it means for every person to feel welcome and cared for in Catholic schools. Through a mailing list and other means of networking remotely and in person, Without Exception tries to build knowledge and skills in Christ-centered Catholic ministry to students who have questions about their sexuality or gender. As of February 2024, the network has almost 500 members from most US states and 7 additional countries.

 

Gordon: What are some of the lessons learned in sports that are helpful in life?

 

I appreciate this question because I don’t often have the opportunity to talk about my life of coaching. I’ve been involved with the sport of track & field every year since 1987 (the first 10 years as an athlete, and the last 27 as a coach). I’ve coached 72 different seasons of cross country and track, which has been a hidden blessing in my life. I get to be outside almost every day and I work with young people to help them chase their goals. What could be better?

 

My philosophy of coaching is that we should have a place for everybody on our team—no matter the age, shape, size, speed, or strength. We will accept any athlete who is willing to make a commitment to our team culture and principles: commitment, sacrifice, sportsmanship, and resilience. If athletes respect those principles, then I’ll find a place for them. If not, then they should find a different activity because God seems to be calling them in a different direction.

 

I group the important lessons in sports into three categories.

 

The first category is the relationship with God. Sports offer us a chance to take part in the beauty of God’s creation—the perfection of our own bodies, minds, and spirits. God has blessed each person as unique, gifted, and loved, so sports provide an opportunity for meditation on these graces.

 

The second category is the relationship with others. Sports are an opportunity for solidarity—to compete together or against others with mutual respect. Despite winning or losing, the most wonderful gift of sports is the chance to grow in friendship.

 

The third category is the relationship with self. The root meaning of athlete is “one who competes for a prize.” But the prize is not external. The real prize is the attainment of virtues in response to adversity or challenge. If done well with good coaches, then sports cultivate gifts like faithfulness, humility, self-control, joy, kindness, perseverance, and wonder.

 

The most extraordinary achievements in sports are not measured by results but by the growth we achieve as persons working to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48).

 

Gordon: Thank you an exceptional interview.

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