Catholic schools look to the future

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”