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Catholic Education

Jesuit high schools aim for heaven, with fewer Jesuits

NCR Staff
San Jose, Calif

It’s not what parents paying $5,100 a year in tuition for Loyola High School freshmen expect to hear. At their introductory session with the Los Angeles Jesuit prep’s lay principal, Bill Tomason, he tells them, “We think our mission is to get your sons into Heaven, not Harvard.”

In San Jose, at a Jan. 11-13 faculty and staff gathering for the California Jesuit Province’s five prep schools -- four in California, one in Arizona -- Tomason told NCR that pushing heaven “really is a challenge, because I don’t think there’s too many 13- to 14-year-olds who walk in our door with that vision in their own mind. We have to instill and cultivate it, nurture it. But when they leave we hope they own it,” he said, “and that’s a much tougher job than teaching them foreign language and science.”

Naturally, Tomason, principal for nearly four years, is not abashed when Loyola’s graduates do head for Harvard and other top Ivy League and Catholic universities. That isn’t his point. Ensuring their faith endures is.

The gathering’s keynote speaker, Jesuit Fr. Stephen Privett, president of the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco, got straight to the point: “Just do the numbers -- whatever else Jesuit schools will be in this third millennium, they will not be schools run by members of the Jesuit order. We’re all concerned about strengthening the Ignatian character of our schools.” And the heart of it, he said, is faculty, staff, students and parents working in partnership “to produce what Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises intends to produce: persons of profound integrity with the courage of their well-tested and tempered convictions.”

Already, each of the five prep schools -- Bellarmine (San Jose), Brophy (Phoenix), Jesuit High (Sacramento), Loyola (Los Angeles) and St. Ignatius (San Francisco, the only coed prep) -- has a lay principal, though all still have a Jesuit president and up to a half dozen Jesuit faculty and staff.

The California province, in gathering its schools together as a unit, is picking up on a process successfully inaugurated a couple of years ago by the Oregon province, said Gail Harrison, California province’s coordinator for secondary education.

The tradition continues

Under these circumstances, how do Catholic schools founded by religious orders “pass it on”?

Jesuit Fr. Ed Fassett, a fulltime administrator and admitted “nerd” at St. Ignatius, explained: “Jesuits started out with our first school in Messina, Sicily, in 1548. As Jesuits we’re formed in the Spiritual Exercises, the heart of the Ignatian way of teaching. As our numbers have diminished and more and more lay people join us in this work,” he said, “there’s been one thing missing all along. We’ve kind of relied on osmosis for the Ignatian spirituality we share to enliven our staffs. It’s important we give them a kind of Jesuit mini-formation.”

Faculty and staff, Catholic and non-Catholic, engage in “evenings” using Ignatian heritage videotapes produced by St. Louis University. Plus, “this year, for the first time,” said Fassett, “we had a one-day seminar for new faculty: Ignatius in the morning and pedagogy, why we teach the way we teach, in the afternoon.”

Loyola’s Tomason tells new faculty members, “We’re not hiring you just to teach. You have to get deeper than that: How is this experience going to change [the student] as a person, to be more open to growth, to develop as a leader?”

NCR asked Bellarmine principal Mark Pierotti why non-Catholic administration people and kitchen staff would even care about the school’s Ignatian heritage. “They know it’s part of the mission of the school. Many have been here a long time. They remember when the place was filled with Jesuits, and now we’re some Jesuits and a majority of lay people. They understand the culture from earlier days and see it changing, and see the lay people being asked to take a more hands-on approach.”

The culture of a Jesuit school centers, Pierotti said, on the “value of reflection -- taking time to think back on what is happening in your own life and in the life of the community, as St. Ignatius would do, and then to set a plan for the future -- here are the things I’ve done well, here are some things I need to work on.”

“Another value of reflection,” he said, “is that often in life you’re faced with a lot of good options. Rarely does evil confront you. You have to choose among many goods to find God, to find what you’re supposed to be doing.”

It goes beyond prayer, said Pierotti. It has to do with “being inspired through prayer to work for others -- as in social justice ministry. All our schools do that. We’re witnessing to the community in very practical ways that keep the charism alive and the school alive, keep us centered.

“These kids today, compared to the mid-’80s, are more socially responsible. I’ve found that not only here in the West but in the East, too, at Georgetown Prep and Loyola in Baltimore,” where Pierotti previously taught.

They’re more politically aware, too, he said. “We’ve students who’ve gone to Fort Benning [Ga.] to protest, students who spend weekends in homeless shelters -- you would not have seen that 15 years ago, and not 25 years ago when I was in high school. There was talk of community service then but it wasn’t given this practical reality.”

“It’s a different kind of political acuity than in the late ’60s, early ’70s,” said Kim Cavnar, who has been in Jesuit education for 24 years -- the past six at Brophy in Phoenix where she’s taught theology, and is a campus minister and administrator. “In the ’60 and ’70s, they were much more aware of things going on in the country. These kids think globally. Credit the teachers for that.”

Cavnar added, “Our kids are concerned about how they can both make money and make a difference. They’re trying to do both -- and that’s a constant tension in them. They’re not anti-capitalist like the ’60 and ’70s, but they’re certainly savvy about seeing the loopholes and problems in the capitalist system.”

Ballarmine’s Pierotti said, “Ignatius would say wealth is not bad as long as it’s used for good purposes. I hope we provide them with a moral compass so that if by chance they are wealthy, they’re not owned by it.”

“More and more,” Cavnar said, “I notice that our kids, by the time they leave, have the notion they’ve been fortunate. Quoting scripture, they know that of those who have been given much, much will be asked. They really believe that that’s true, that they’re really going to be asked. Plus, by the time they’re juniors and seniors, they’re starting in leadership roles very seriously.”

Diversifying student mix

Though markedly upper middle class, all five preps have concerted outreach efforts to attract a diverse student mix. At Brophy, for example, where 25 percent of the students benefit from some $750,000 in annual financial aid, they’ve created a program to assimilate into the school “kids relatively new to that culture,” said Cavnar.

Sixty percent of Brophy’s 1,200 students are Catholic. A further 20 percent are mixed Christian faith, with one Catholic parent. The others are primarily Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu.

Of the Catholics, she said, “about 20 percent are hard chargers -- their relationship with Jesus is central to who they are. They tend to be very service-oriented, very involved in the worship community as leaders, leading retreats -- key positions in Christian service.

“The other 60-80 percent, the Catholic/Christian kids, are really searching to make sense of the teachings of Catholicism. Within a Jesuit high school they probably know everything inside and out about St. Ignatius, about the Spiritual Exercises. They might hesitate to name themselves Catholic, but they have a very strong religious identity that they cherish and claim.”

At this first gathering of all five schools, Cavnar said, “we’ll go back and forth a lot on how do we minister in our schools: Are we Jesuit schools, Ignatian schools, Catholic schools?”

Cavnar said she “detects less and less interest in a traditional religious vocation, but more and more are empowered to take roles and responsibility in their church/parish.” The majority of the Catholic/Christian kids “are a sort of puzzle, they’ve got the zealous attitude, got the desire, love the retreats, love being part of prayer groups. It’s almost this fine line of adolescence, being afraid to name themselves. They’re very spiritual, and very tolerant.”

In an all-male school of 1,200 boys, they may not be quite as tolerant as their peers regarding homosexuality. “I’m not certain how I feel about this,” she said, “but at Brophy a number of them at the adolescent level have come out naming themselves as gay. Because relationships have already been established, their friends and their peers are less willing to walk away and say I don’t want anything to do with you -- they’ve already come to care for them, and respect them as friends.”

They all question a lot, about birth control, abortion, vocations. “That you need to be a celibate male is a hassle for them,” Cavnar said. “They don’t understand that, challenge it. And they say, in terms of a commitment to the sacraments, ‘I don’t need to go to church on Sunday to be a good Catholic.’ ”

Yet “they’re very proud to be Christian,” she said. “The semester has just started -- everyone in class has to take turns, come up, state a belief about anything, what has brought them to that belief, and give us an example.

“The first volunteer said: ‘I believe in God and this is why.’ Second kid, ‘I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, here’s why.’ They could have chosen anything. When I asked them why they’d share this with their classmates, they said it was because ‘I’ve really been grappling with this. I’ve really come to this conclusion.’ I said to myself, this is amazing.”

At Jesuit High, 80 percent of the students are Catholic, and preference is given to Catholics and Catholic feeder schools. “As Catholics,” said Joanne Castronovo, at Jesuit High in Sacramento for 16 years, “they’re questioning the difference between what the church tells them and what life tells them. As a Catholic institution, we’re counter-cultural. We’re fighting the tide. These kids watch MTV, they’ve got really easy access to drugs, alcohol and sex. Then they go to a church or school that says abstinence is better, or that’s sinful behavior. They’re questioning religion. But I don’t see many of them questioning God.”

Castronovo, who taught English until five years ago, now teaches a social justice class, arranges service projects for all 1,000 students, including “urban plunges” -- overnight weekends in homeless shelters -- and trips to Mexico and El Salvador.

This generation finds priests somewhat amazing, she said. “They see clerics as making the supreme sacrifice. They can’t have sex, they can’t go where they want to go. They’re giving all this up for us.” These kids also ask, “Why would anyone want to live that lifestyle?” Castronovo said she provides the larger context, that many lay people -- such as their parents -- may be making all or many of the same sacrifices to have and raise families. She finds some students “less tolerant -- of race, of sexual orientation -- than in my generation, but then we have a school that is all male and typically upper middle class,” she said. “Your hope is that they’re going to college, into the bigger world, and that we’re laying the foundation for change and tolerance.

“Ambitious for money? Some are,” she said, “but a minority -- which is different than when I started. It was much more middle class, kids coming there because it was the ticket to the right university and the right job. Somewhere about 10 years ago it was the faculty that started grumbling -- that we would rather have less top-notch kids who were more open to growth and faith to work with. And we had a principal who reached out for diversity.”

Castronovo also put into words what others had said about the Millennial Catholics, that generally, “these are really nice kids -- very trustworthy, honest, doing the best they can.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 30, 2001