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: Healing hatred and anger after Charlottesville

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The confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the nationwide reaction to it are clear signs of the tensions simmering just below the surface of our society. But we know as people of faith that these wounds can be healed if we follow Christ’s example, rather than the path of revenge.

It was with a heavy heart that I learned about the Aug. 12 clashes between white supremacists and counter protesters in Charlottesville that resulted in the injury of around 34 people and the death of Heather Heyer. It was an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” melee.

These events remind me of Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message, in which he pointed out that “Jesus himself lived in violent times. Yet he taught that the true battlefield, where violence and peace meet, is the human heart: for ‘it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come’ (Mk. 7:21).”

What we witnessed in Charlottesville was an outward expression of hundreds of hearts, and as a shepherd of souls, I cannot stand by silently while people allow hatred toward others rule their hearts. Particularly reprehensible were the derogatory words the neo-Nazis and their white supremacist allies shouted toward African Americans, Jews and Latinos. This is not how God sees his children!

Every human being is bestowed from the moment of conception with the dignity of being made in the image and likeness of God, and we are all loved by him, even amid our sin and brokenness. Satan seeks every opportunity to twist these fundamental truths in the hearts of human beings and we can see the devastation it brings throughout history.

It can be tempting to respond to these attacks on our fellow man with violence, just as the members of the Anti-fascist movement (known as “Antifa”) did in Charlottesville. But this is not what Christ taught, since it allows hatred to gain a foothold through a different avenue. It is worth repeating: the human heart is the true battlefield.

Jesus’ response to violence and persecution stands in contrast with the way of hatred and anger. Instead, he taught his disciples to love their enemies (Mt. 5:44) and to turn the other cheek (Mt. 5:39). Christ’s radical answer is only possible because God unconditionally loves every person and is ready to forgive us when we repent. God’s love is the only thing that can cut through the hatred that is bringing people to blows, heal the human heart and form it after his own. As people of faith, we are called to bring the truth of love to these festering wounds so that hearts may be healed by Christ.

Joseph Pearce, the Catholic convert and former white supremacist, is a perfect example of this. In a recent article for the National Catholic Register, he recalls how it was his encounter with the objective truths of the faith that demolished his race-centered identity and seeing his enemies love him when he confronted them with hatred that changed his heart. We must pray for the grace to love as Jesus loves, to love as the Father loves.

“The way out of this deadly spiral,” Pearce says, “is to go beyond the love of neighbor, as necessary as that is, and to begin to love our enemies. This is not simply good for us, freeing us from the bondage of hatred; it is good for our enemies also.”

May all of us follow the great example of Mark Heyer, the father of the woman who was killed after the white supremacist rally. His daughter’s death, Heyer told USA Today, made him think “about what the Lord said on the cross, ‘Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.’”

Jesus desires that every person have a heart that is whole and free from hatred, anger and pride. He desires to form our hearts, and that only comes about when we are receptive to his unconditional love, for only in receiving his unconditional love will we be able to give it to others. I pray that all the faithful will be instruments of healing for our country by bringing Christ’s forgiveness to their neighbors and their enemies.