Catholic schools look to the future

Karna Swanson

Nearly 200 teachers, principals, pastors and archdiocesan leaders gathered with Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila at the Radisson Denver Southeast Oct. 5-6 for a two-day symposium to discuss the challenges currently facing Catholic schools in northern Colorado. According to Kevin Kijewski, the superintendent of Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools since July 1, the discussions focused on three key areas: “forming disciples, filling desks and fundraising dollars.”

In the following interview with Denver Catholic, Kijewski elaborates on why Archbishop Aquila convoked the symposium, as well as the archbishop’s desire to renew the commitment of all Catholic schools to form intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.

Q: Why did you convoke a school symposium, and why now?

Kevin Kijewski is the Superintendent of Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools.

Kevin Kijewski is the Superintendent of Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools.

Kijewski: Archbishop Aquila asked me to organize a school symposium to discuss multiple challenges facing our school system and identify possible solutions for implementation. For far too many years, our Catholic school system has suffered from enrollment declines and financial challenges. We believe that solving these problems is terribly important, as Catholic schools are essential to a vibrant future for the Church in Denver. The symposium provided the archdiocese with an opportunity to constructively and effectively address challenges facing our school system. At his December 2009 press conference that introduced Brian Kelly as the University of Notre Dame’s new head football coach, Kelly indicated that a timetable for turning around the football team’s direction cannot be made too long term. “We don’t have a five-year plan,” Kelly said. “We have a five-minute plan and we’ll start to work on it immediately.” Like Coach Kelly, our Catholic schools in Denver need to directly and quickly tackle challenges, and I hope to see our schools performing at the highest levels in the near future.

Q: What challenges did you want to address?

Kijewski: The symposium addressed three key challenges that have faced our schools for the past several years: forming disciples, filling desks and fundraising dollars.

Q: What was the format of the school symposium and who attended?

 Kijewski: The symposium was meant not simply as a chance to frame problems, but more importantly to serve as an opportunity for stakeholders to share and discuss possible solutions. All priests were invited to participate, along with archdiocesan leaders, school leaders, parish staff and school benefactors. The symposium lasted two days and fostered a lot of great discussion and feedback regarding how to solve these three challenges.

Q: Who presented on forming disciples and what was discussed?

Kijewski: Regarding the challenge of forming disciples, Archbishop Aquila presented his vision and expectations related to Catholic schools. Specifically, he stated that Catholic schools exist to form intentional disciples of Jesus Christ and create saints. He discussed how Catholic schools should be the premier method for transmitting the faith from one generation to the next. He charged the Office of Catholic Schools with the responsibility to conduct a visitation of all six Catholic high schools in the archdiocese, with the goal to ensure faithfulness to the Church’s Magisterium. He also asked the stakeholders to present their ideas about how schools could bolster their current efforts to form disciples.

Q: What was discussed regarding the challenge of filling desks?

Kijewski: Addressing the challenge of filling desks with students in our schools, I presented along with Congregation of the Holy Cross Father Joseph Corpora from the University of Notre Dame. Specifically, I discussed with the audience various models of school governance. Research has indicated that effective school governance leads to consistent enrollment growth and financial viability of Catholic schools. In addition, I engaged the audience about how our schools may compete with public and charter schools by offering new academic specialty programming or tracks. While our primary goal will always be to form intentional disciples to Jesus Christ, our schools need to examine ways to offer supplemental value by offering specialty programs in the sciences, technology, performing arts and foreign languages.

Father Corpora was able to discuss the importance of serving the Hispanic population in the archdiocese. As an expert working at the University of Notre Dame in the field the recruitment and retention of Hispanic students in Catholic Schools, he shared insights into why it’s critical to focus on serving this population and methods that schools could employ to increase their enrollment in our schools. To illustrate the importance of this issue, 51 percent of the people in the pews at Sunday Mass every week in our archdiocese are Hispanic. However, just about 20 percent of students enrolled in our Catholic schools are Hispanic.

Q: What was discussed about the last piece, fundraising dollars?

Kijewski: To ensure that our schools are able to form disciples and enroll students, it’s also critically important that we address tuition and the financial health of our schools. Keith Parsons, the Chief Financial Officer of the Archdiocese, discussed the current state of school finance. He also presented multiple approaches to ensuring the long-term financial viability of our schools. Stakeholders were asked for their input for how the archdiocese should finance Catholic schools to ensure their long-term viability.

Q: What changes can we expect to see in the short and long term?

Kijewski: Our office will be working with a team to review the feedback and ideas gathered at the symposium. In the short term, we expect to formulate and announce a strategic plan to address and solve these three key challenges. In the long term, we will be implementing strategies that will foster growth, innovation, and effective leadership in our schools.

COMING UP: Why icons still matter to a modern world

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Icons have existed from the time of the early Church and grew in popularity over the years as an aid in prayer and worship — but today, icons are often seen as irrelevant to our modern world because of their perceived rigidity and austerity.

But it hasn’t died out, and there’s a reason.

In Denver, instructor Laurence Pierson, a former nun in the Community of Beatitudes, teaches a course at the Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways — Byzantine Iconography,” which is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro.

Pierson attributes the long-surviving tradition of icons to the same reason the Church still exists.

“Tradition has great value, and if it’s an art that’s survived so many centuries, that’s because there is a great value to it, and it’s not only the tradition, it’s that mainly, it’s rooted in the Gospel,” Pierson said.

In an article called “Sacred Icons,” painter Aidan Hart quotes John of Damascus, who said of icons, “What the written Word proclaims through letters, iconography proclaims and presents through colors.”

Laurence Pierson, left, is a former nun of the Community of the Beatitudes who has been teaching an iconography class at Denver Botanic Gardens called “Sacred Doorways.” It is the only icon painting class in the greater Denver metro area. (Photo provided)

It is the same story of the Gospel, presented in art rather than word, and as the Gospel is timeless, so is the art of icons. And while they may look austere, that’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it irrelevant in our modern time.

“Even though an icon might look austere, it actually drives us beyond superficial emotions — they want us to go deeper. It’s a deep joy,” Pierson said. “I think you have to be quiet and go deeper. In the spiritual life, our ascetic aspect doesn’t have to be forgotten, and sometimes there is an ascetic aspect, and our human condition needs to be redeemed.”

“It’s a medium that has to be rediscovered, and there is so much potential,” Pierson added.

Sacred doorways and symbols

The deep spirituality of icons is part of what has preserved them throughout the roughly 2000 years that they’ve been around. Hart explains that icons are “not just pictures to look at, but are a door to heaven, a way of meeting those who dwell there.”

Hence the name of Denver’s class, “Sacred Doorways.” The material use of the paintings are a way for us to pass through the material world and into a knowing of the holy people depicted. This is just the tip of the spiritual meaning of icons.

The specific look of the icons: the elongated nose, the wide eyes, the dimensions and perspectives, are all intensely symbolic.

“Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this,” Hart said.

“An artist isn’t just someone who puts colors [on a canvas],” Pierson said. “An artist reveals the reality of this world, which sometimes isn’t possible to see. And icon painting is revealing this invisible reality and making it visible with lines and colors.”

Icons do not depict outward appearances, but reflect something of invisible, spiritual realities. In fact, all good art does this.”

So what are icons revealing through their symbols?

Here are just a few insights from Hart:

– Inverse perspective: “There is a number of perspective systems used in icons. With inverse perspective, the lines converge on us, the viewers. This serves to include us in the action depicted,” Hart said. “A sacred event in the past is still acting on us today, ‘Today Christ is risen.’”

– Flatness: “It helps us pass through the icon to the person and events depicted. The aim…is not to replace the subject depicted, but to bring us into living relationship with them,” Hart said.

– Anatomy: “The eyes and ears of people are often enlarged, and the nose elongated. This is to show that the saint is someone who contemplates God, who listens to him, who smells the fragrance of Paradise,” Hart said.

The spiritual process

Pierson has been painting icons for 25 years and teaching for 18. Following the rich tradition of the painting style is the first step of entering into the “spiritual journey” of painting an icon, Pierson said.

“It’s very important for me to get rooted in Byzantine tradition, especially because it’s an art that comes from the Eastern world,” Pierson said. “You have to be very careful not to distort ancient tradition but also find a way to speak to our modern world, so it’s a very delicate balance. For me, that’s crucial, to find this balance.”

“[Painting] has to be a solitary experience because you have to pray, but for me, it’s important to be anchored in a community and liturgical life,” Pierson said.

Pierson, who is commissioned to paint icons for the community often, begins with research and prayer, both to whom the icon is depicting and for the person who will receive the painting. Then the painting begins, which is an intense, multi-layered process.

The art of painting icons is far more than just a creative process; it’s a deeper spiritual journey that requires a lot of prayer, Pierson says. (Photo provided)

First, a binder, which is what the pigment adheres to in order to stay on a board, is created. The binder consists of egg yolk mixed with an equal part of water. This is mixed with the paint pigment and a few drops of water, creating the egg tempera medium with which icons are traditionally painted.

Next, guiding lines are traced into a gesso-covered wooden board and then engraved with a tool. Then, paint is added, layer by layer, beginning with dark colors and finishing with lighter colors. “It is as though the iconographer begins with darkness and death, and ends with light and resurrection,” Hart said.

The final stage is writing the saint’s name; then the icon is blessed by a priest and venerated. The working time varies, but it is a very long process, taking up to a year.

Revealing a Presence

The act of painting is something Pierson discovered she needs for her life to flourish — “essential,” even.

With icon painting, it “combines art and the vertical connection to God,” Pierson said.

And the connection to God is experienced deeply throughout the painting journey.“There is a journey — there’s a time you feel discouraged or bored. Even though you don’t feel it, you live by faith, trusting what you do has meaning and will bear fruit,” Pierson said. “With iconography, there is a Presence.”

“This whole painting journey teaches you about yourself, it takes patience — it takes time. You cannot finish an icon painting in a few hours. You have to trust the process. You have to trust someone else is inspiring you, even though it might not perfect. It’s all very like our spiritual life. It teaches us all that in a very practical way,” she added.