Viva Cristo Rey!

George Weigel

In the 1920s, when the United States had a quasi-Stalinist regime on its southern border, “Viva Cristo Rey!” was the defiant battle cry of the Cristeros who fought the radically secular Mexican government’s persecution of the Church. “Viva Cristo Rey!” were likely the last words spoken by Blessed Miguel Pro, SJ, whose martyrdom in 1927 may have been the first in history in which the martyr was photographed at the moment of death. Today, in the United States, “Cristo Rey” has a different, although not wholly-unrelated, meaning – for it’s the name of an important experiment in Catholic education for poor children.

The Cristo Rey network of Catholic high schools, which began in Chicago in 1996, is something different in U.S. Catholic education today. Many Catholic schools are closing because of decreasing enrollments and financial pressures; the Cristo Rey network is opening new schools. Instead of losing students, Cristo Rey is attracting new students. And the Cristo Rey schools are doing this by serving low-income families in inner-city areas, through a distinctive combination of Catholic educational commitment, partnerships with local businesses, and creative financing.

As a recent report by the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute put it, Cristo Rey schools “are returning Catholic education to urban areas. In its unique model, students receive a college-preparatory education and participate in a work-study program in which they learn employable skills and earn money to help pay their tuition.” And while other approaches to funding Catholic high schools in inner-urban areas – parishioner tithing, soliciting alumni, raising tuitions, and so forth – have had what the report delicately calls “uneven” and “disappointing” results, schools in the Cristo Rey Network are experiencing real success: since the first Cristo Rey high school opened in Chicago twenty-one years ago, thirty-one other Cristo Rey schools have opened across the country, and the network hopes to open eight more by 2020. More than 11,000 students are being empowered in Cristo Rey schools today, and some 13,000 have graduated from the schools in the past two decades.

The local business connection is one key to Cristo Rey’s success. As the founder of this remarkable experiment, Father John Foley, SJ, put it, getting high school kids entry-level jobs as part of their education, was, at the beginning, simply a way “to pay the bills.” But then other factors came into play. To cite the Pioneer Institute study again, over time, “the corporate work study program took on a more meaningful, transformative role. It became a self-esteem builder as teenagers saw they were earning money to help pay for their own education. They learned office skills in environments in which many had never envisioned themselves working. And they developed interpersonal skills with people outside their peer networks including supervisors, company presidents, and coworkers.”

All of this was made possible by local businesses that saw the point of giving impoverished local kids whose parents agreed to pay some tuition a chance at higher education; family financial buy-in is as important to the Cristo Rey model as corporate partnerships. Cristo Rey also works because of a more demanding, and lengthy, high school schedule in which the Cristo Rey students work five eight-hour days per month in their jobs while attending classes during a longer school day (and year), fifteen days a month.

It’s real work in the businesses and hard work in class, yet the demands appeal to students. As Father Foley put it, “When you go to any of our schools and say to the kids, ‘What do you like about our school?’ inevitably it’s the job. The kids feel like an adult. They’re treated like an adult. They feel like they’re part of something and they’re taken into account.” And the corporate partners seem to agree: the partnerships have an 88% retention rate.

This is Catholic social doctrine – which teaches the empowerment of the poor and the unleashing of their potential – in action. Catholic schools in inner-city America have always been the Church’s most effective anti-poverty program. Keeping those schools alive under very different circumstances than those portrayed in The Bells of St. Mary’s means meeting serious challenges through creative educational programs and imaginative funding. The Cristo Rey schools, which are some of the best news in U.S. Catholicism in 2018, are shining examples of both.

Blessed Miguel Pro would approve.

COMING UP: Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

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Q&A: Outcasts documentary a call to action, producer says

Film shows suffering of the poor in five countries, hope brought by Franciscan Friars of the Renewal

Roxanne King

Powerful. Disturbing. Beautiful. Inspiring. That’s how viewers are describing award-winning Outcasts, the latest film by Joe Campo, owner and producer of Grassroots Films.

For mature audiences, Outcasts documents the hard, dark struggle of the poor living in New York and New Jersey, Nicaragua, Honduras, England and Ireland, and the light and hope of Christ brought to them through the ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal (C.F.R.). Seven years in the making, it won “best film” at the Justice Film Festival last fall.

Campo, 65, a Third Order Franciscan, also runs St. Francis House in Brooklyn, N.Y., a home for young men in need of a second chance.

“The film company comes second, the guys come first,” Campo, whose’ Grassroots Films was also responsible for 2008’s award-winning The Human Experience, told the Denver Catholic.

The home Campo oversees was established by his friend, the late Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., who co-founded the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal order in New York in 1987. The friars live in poor neighborhoods around the world and have a two-fold mission: to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the destitute and homeless, and to evangelize.

A July 13 screening of Outcasts at Light of the World Parish in Littleton drew 400 people. Campo recently spoke to the Denver Catholic about the documentary.

DC: Why did you make Outcasts?

JC: I’ve been with the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal since 1988 and I know the work that they do and their great love for the poor, which I share. I thought it would be a call to action — that people would see this film and their hearts would open up. Hopefully, through this film, people will experience things about working with the poor that normally they would never be able to see their entire lives.

DC: What is the film about?

JC: It’s really about the poor. It’s more about the poor than it is about the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. The friars don’t do any preaching in this film, the poor do. You see the friars, but you don’t hear them. The words of people speaking about God are from the poor: the destitute, the drug addicts, those suffering from HIV.

DC: The trailer features a voiceover from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which is incredibly moving juxtaposed against scenes of people suffering. What was the inspiration for using that speech?

JC: We actually had another trailer for Outcasts, but we ultimately couldn’t use it. We were fortunate to be able to get Charlie Chaplin. It was a comedy of errors, really, which proves that God writes straight with crooked lines.

DC: What do you hope people will take away from the film?

JC: An understanding of the poor. I hope that as people are introduced to the friars through this film their hearts and minds would be changed toward those who are poor or destitute and that they’ll see that these people are victims. When you talk with the poor and experience their lives you begin to realize three things: 1) That it could happen to anyone. 2) None of them planned for their life to turn out this way. 3) All they want is to be accepted — not for what they do, the negative stuff, but as people.

Outcasts producer Joe Campo (center) with some of the Fransiscan Friars of the Renewal who appear in the film. (Photo provided)

A lot of people don’t realize this: the poor will always be with us (Mk 14:7, Jn 12:8, Matt 26:11). So, it’s really our duty — and it should come from our hearts — to help those we can help.

Too, there’s not one person that doesn’t need to find a way to forgive someone or to be forgiven. That’s where we start in all of this — in our families and we go from there.

DC: How would you describe this film?

JC: It’s really a work of evangelization, but we never say that in our films. The world is always telling people: don’t age, don’t die and don’t suffer. But we all experience suffering. And we learn from the poor, from people who are suffering, how to suffer.

DC: The screening of Outcasts at Light of the World in Littleton drew a full house. What was that like?

JC: First, I want to thank Kathryn Nygaard [LOTW communications director], Dakota Leonard [who fundraised the $4,000 screening cost], the pastor Father Matthew Book, [parochial vicar] Father Joseph LaJoie and all the people who attended. I was tremendously overjoyed.

The questions people asked at the Q&A after the screening were fantastic. People could sign up for different ministries after seeing the film: Catholic Charities, [Christ in the City] homeless ministry, prison ministry, [Light of the World parish ministries]. Some did. I was overjoyed. You always want your films to be a call to action.

Outcasts

To view the trailer or to schedule a screening, visit: outcaststhemovie.com