In the introduction to his framework for forming disciples in Catholic education, “School of the Lord’s Service,” Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila defines the purpose and mission of Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese: “Jesus truly is the reason for the existence of our Catholic schools, and He wants to guide us in everything that we do. We should be able to say to everyone who comes to our schools: ‘Be it known to all who enter here that Christ is the reason for this school. He is the unseen but ever-present teacher in its classes. He is the model of its faculty and the inspiration of its students so that they may become saints.’ Everything we do needs to be Christ-centered, flowing from Him and pointing back to Him. Our schools must be places to encounter Jesus; nothing is more important.”
It should be no surprise then, at Bishop Machebeuf High School, the students’ rich faith lives are palpable and contagious. These are ordinary teenagers whose passionate pursuit of an incarnational faith is anything but ordinary. These young men and women are beginning to understand and embrace the extraordinary call God has placed on their hearts. Their lives of faith are supported and encouraged within the Bishop Machebeuf Family and shared by the joyful faculty and staff.
Senior Donald Gerle described his encounter with Jesus Christ at Bishop Machebeuf High School. “It feels like He is always within arm’s reach with His hand out [to me]. Because the chapel is right in the middle of the classrooms, I’m always passing it. I’m always getting the witness of the teachers, especially the religious — the nuns and the brothers that we have. Christ is just always here. I can see Him, and He’s here. During lunch or in between classes, I can go and sit in the chapel. I know He’s there; He’s with me.”
This article is the second of a 10-part series that seeks to shed light on these and other tremendous things happening at Bishop Machebeuf High School. With the many rumors surrounding what Bishop Machebeuf is and isn’t, it’s essential to set the record straight.
Bishop Machebeuf: Helping Students Encounter Christ
Elias Moo, Superintendent of Catholic Schools, said, “Machebeuf became the embodiment of renewal, a shifting in our understanding of the Mission of the Church, not just in maintaining ‘institutions’ or clinging to just ‘Christendom.’ Rather, we see we have entered a new apostolic age. We want our young men and women to be well-formed, to discover what their gifts are that the Lord has given them, what they have been uniquely created for. That is the highest good for us. Machebeuf [is] the opportunity to build a renewed school program that has as its driving force the most important things. Not the prestige of ‘the world’ but rather elevated things. Human temporal results will exceed what is expected because we are elevating the supernatural.”
Dr. Tony Bonta, President-Principal of Bishop Machebeuf, added, “Faith and our joyful witness to our faith is extremely central to the Bishop Machebeuf mission. We want our students to discover a relationship with Christ by encountering Him here every day. Faith is discovered both through community and personally, and our mission as a school is to witness that relationship in our words, deeds, actions, and programs. Faith formation helps the students discover the gifts and talents they have been given by God and discern their future. That happens in relationship with one another, and relationship with Christ.”
Partners in Faith Formation
Partnerships have led to strong leadership within the Faith community at Bishop Machebeuf High School. “We are blessed to have partnerships with two religious orders, Servants of Christ Jesus and the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia (or, more commonly known as the “Nashville Dominicans” for short), along with Father Julio Amezcua, our Campus Chaplain, and Heidi Grandon, our Campus Minister,” said Dr. Bonta. “All the faculty that serve at Bishop Machebeuf love the students. From their faith and their relationship with Christ comes joy in relating with the students. They witness to the students in the classroom, the chapel, on the basketball or volleyball court, or in the cafeteria. At Machebeuf, we all share and experience faith lived out in everyday life. It’s integrated, it’s holistic, it’s balanced — it’s joyful!”
Father Amezcua is the Bishop Machebeuf Campus Chaplain. He directly serves the faculty, staff, and students in their spiritual needs, offering everything from the sacraments (Masses, Reconciliation), spiritual direction, or simply being available for visits in his office. He sees his role as helping everyone at the school encounter the Lord. Father Amezcua also leads men’s and women’s vocational discernment groups to assist any students actively discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life. Part of the group’s activity includes reading and praying with scripture via Lectio Divina. The group then shares their experiences of prayer and discernment.
The opportunity to attend daily Mass is a blessing for the community. “Everyone can attend Mass,” says Father Amezcua. In addition, he begins the day at 7 a.m. with adoration, followed by morning prayer. “I also prepare the prayers together with the students to begin the day by praying through the intercom. I also offer confessions every day during lunch.”
Students emphasized the impact and importance of the availability of the Eucharist. Junior Katie Harakal said, “I love having access to the Eucharist whenever I need it. [The Eucharist] is the food I need every day to be the loving woman and the engaged student the Lord wants me to be. Adoration, Mass, Eucharistic processions, and the chapel at Machebeuf give me ample opportunity to encounter Jesus. I have grown in my faith in so many ways since coming to Machebeuf. I have learned how to love being Catholic. My life has been changed.”
Heidi Grandon is not only the current Bishop Machebeuf Campus Minister but also a 2014 graduate. Since her conversion, she developed a passion for being with, serving, and loving high schoolers. Her initial conversations with President Dr. Bonta about serving as the campus minister were, in her words, an “answer to prayer.”
“Through the tumult of the last few years, through the shifting of the curriculum, what has remained true at Bishop Machebeuf is faithfulness to the Gospel,” Grandon said. This faithfulness played a considerable role in her decision to come back to serve the student body.
Grandon credits the faithful presence of the religious on campus as playing a significant role in her journey of faith into a deeper relationship with Christ when she was a student. Her passion for rebuilding the campus ministry program comes from her recognition of the beautiful things she experienced firsthand as a student and carrying “the torch” of those experiences into the present and future.
Bother Thomas Gonzaga of the Servants of Christ Jesus teaches Latin and Theology at Bishop Machebeuf. Along with his brothers and brother priests, he also leads class retreats and an Ignition Spirituality retreat each school year. He said, “The retreats are an opportunity for the students to encounter Jesus. And they do! Which shows me that they have such open hearts. Many students here grow up with faith, but it is not yet personal. So, frequently, my prayer intention is that the students would encounter Jesus in a personal way. What we’re trying to do here at Machebeuf is help the students know they are loved and ensure they have heard the Gospel preached to them. So ultimately, Jesus is at the center, and everything else — academics, student life, extracurricular, studies — everything has to come under Jesus and the Kingdom of God. I want to form them to be men and women of virtue who know the Lord.”
Machebeuf students cherish the presence of clergy and religious faculty. Gerle says the presence of the religious, the focus on Ignatian Spirituality, and the silent retreat in particular have been “profound” for him. Not to diminish the role of the lay faculty, he added, “The teachers and staff bring everything back to the fruits of their personal prayer,” making it clear that they lead and teach by example and their relationships with Christ have a tremendous impact on students.
Harakal is already discerning a call to religious life at a young age. She credits her growing relationship with Jesus Christ to the example and witness of Sister Mary Gemma Stump. “I have a vocation to religious life, and the Lord has chosen to reveal that to me so strongly through Machebeuf. Sister Mary Gemma was my theology teacher for Freshman and Sophomore year, and I remember there was this really consistent tug in my heart, just watching her and looking at her life and being more introduced to religious life.”
Father Amezcua greatly values the partnership and presence of the religious at Bishop Machebeuf: “What we are doing is not just something from this world, but it has an impact in heaven. So [it is good] for students to see young guys like the Servants of Christ, that they have left everything to join an order and be with the Lord. Also, it helps because they are people of prayer. They are continually praying for the school, interceding for the students, and helping them meet the Lord. They are a visual sign because they wear the cassock or the habit.”
The Eucharist is the architectural and spiritual center
Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist is the beating heart at the center of all the beautiful things happening at Bishop Machebeuf. Its joyful faith community orbits the chapel as it flows and moves through the halls, a powerful sign bearing witness to the reality that Christ is present at Machebeuf. In Him, the school— and everyone within it— lives, moves, and has their being.
“It’s inspirational to me to see our students go into the chapel — which is open all day,” says Dr. Bonta. “Before school, during school, after school, it’s inspirational to see the students go in there for morning prayer or quiet prayer or to pray the rosary together. It’s inspirational for me to see their faith lives and to see them in quiet ways practice and live out their faith.”
Grandon also spoke about the passion for the faith among the lay faculty. “There’s something to be said about going into the chapel at the beginning of the year and having it full of young adults who are sold out for the gospel in every category that we have. For example, Mr. Niemaszyk is one of our math teachers. I can go in to teach my church history class and know across the way Mr. Niemaszyk is sold out for the same gospel I am, and he’s teaching that in whatever way he can in his math class in a way I could never do. I’m surrounded by a crowd of witnesses who are bringing these kids in every class to the greater good of the Gospel … no matter what the subject matter is.”
Harakal also recognized this reality that faith and academics are genuinely integrated at Bishop Machebeuf. “The way that Machebeuf teaches is so real to the human experience. Especially in our Humanities classes, we get to the root of what it means to be human and who the human person is. We are able in our everyday classes to talk about the aches in our hearts that exist in all of us. All of our desires that are natural to us as human beings, and so many things that are good about us, like our sexual nature. All of these different things that are not so often talked about, and we are able to talk about those things and learn about ourselves in a new way.”
She added, “In Hamlet, there is this line about turning mirrors. At Machebeuf, we can turn a mirror on our own hearts and discover our own hearts more fully through our Humanities classes because of how we read and how we seminar about it. We talk about it, and we say, ‘this is what this is bringing up in my heart.’ and ask, ‘What does this mean?’ In the context of seminars, we actually ask those questions, and we hear about one another’s lives and one another’s hearts, and we relate to each other, and it’s all through the lens of Christ and through the lens of literature.”
Making discipleship a reality
Father Amezcua spoke of how Bishop Machebeuf measures success. “The success I hope the students achieve is whatever they do, they put God first. I continually say to them, ‘it’s not important what you end up doing as long as you meet Jesus Christ. Because that means you have a mission. And the mission is unveiled when you meet the Lord first, and he can give you the place to go.’ And that every time they choose something, they should put first what God wants to do with them. ‘If you are going to go to Harvard. Fantastic. If you are going to meet Jesus Christ there, and you think that’s the place that Christ is sending you to encounter Him, go for it. But if not, it’s better that you stay in a different place.’ Success for me is not measuring academics or the many activities they do or if they become famous. Success for me is that they continually seek for the Lord and always stay close to the Church.”
Superintendent Elias Moo added, “Machebeuf is for everyone. This is the Church’s vision lived out in a renewed way, a way that we hope will enable more young men and women through their Catholic education to experience a transformative encounter with Jesus Christ. This is at the heart of the Archbishop’s, the office of Catholic Schools’, and my desire for all of our Catholic schools: to engage in a community-based process where we are looking at the Church’s understanding of education and asking ‘what more can we do?’ or ‘how can we renew this for the time and space that we’re in with the families and children that we are working with?’”
Father Amezcua has lived in Denver for the past 20 years and has been a priest for the last three, so he is no stranger to the rumors and misunderstandings surrounding Bishop Machebeuf High School.
“When I arrived here two years ago, the school had this stigma. People were like, ‘oh, the school is this way or this way.’ And even I, myself, came with my prejudices. But when I arrived here, I realized many things. Especially now, I think they are doing a great job. What amazes me about the school is the communion with the archdiocese. Being diocesan is a gift because it means that we have the blessing of the apostle. In this sense, I see that the Holy Spirit flows in a very easy way in the school. That has always been the beauty of the school, I think. The Lord is acting, and the Holy Spirit is present.”