Viva Cristo Rey!

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: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.