Growing as a Faith Community

About this article

This article details one school's journey in becoming a faith community. Greg Richard, of Saint John's Jesuit High School, gives a profile of the all-boys' school and describes the growth of the school's campus ministry, retreat, faculty-staff formation, and service programs. Specific ideas and anecdotes are scattered throughout the article. The programs described are collaborative in nature and indicative of a community committed to bringing forth the Kingdom.

Over the past nine years as a campus minister and theology teacher at Saint John's Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio, I have witnessed and been part of the growth of our school toward the ideal of being a Christian faith community. We have not yet become all that we could be, but we are in process, and that is most important. I would like to give you a picture of how we have developed and how we hope to grow. First, however, let me tell you a bit about Saint John's.

A Profile of Our School

We are a school in the Jesuit tradition. We have eight hundred students--all boys--and 40 percent are non-Catholic. About 20 percent are on a scholarship of some kind. Academics are taken very seriously, with lots of competition in the classroom. Sports are also a big part of school life. Many students are involved in our strong music program, as well as in a variety of clubs.

Three departments specifically address the faith-life of the students: theology, campus ministry, and volunteers. I like to think of these departments as representing respectively the head, heart, and hands of Christ, though of course they overlap in their emphases. The theology department, for instance, uses affective methods such as journal keeping to make cognitive theological material come alive for the students personally. The volunteer department aims not only to give students opportunities for service but to help them reflect on the Christian meaning of that service. Our departments are fortunate to be working closely together, now more than ever before, to integrate our efforts and to nurture the faith of the entire school community.

Today we can say we are at least trying to be a vibrant faith community--students, faculty, and staff. But this has come about through a patient process of building over a period of years.

First Masses, Then Retreats

Nine years ago campus ministry did not have a great deal of student involvement. Our monthly Masses were not well attended. We required retreats for all four grade levels, but most students were choosing to do a one-day renewal retreat rather than a longer, small-group retreat in which more can be accomplished. For the first two years we worked hard at getting students involved in planning Masses; we tried to make the Masses more meaningful to them. We wanted each Mass to be a real community celebration that the students would be drawn to out of a sense of community, a desire to be with their classmates. We let them know that we really wanted their presence at the Masses. I remember roaming the halls between classes, asking for volunteers to do a reading, help with a skit at Mass, or help with the music. All this personal contact led to the formation of a Core team of students to help us with campus ministry projects. The team is now an essential part of our program. (Today, the Masses that are open for voluntary attendance draw from 250 to 400 students. We also have three mandatory Masses each school year.)

The third year, with the Mass celebrations now more spirited, we undertook the task of reworking the retreat program. We wanted more students to attend the overnight retreats, and we knew we had to improve these experiences. With a track record of enhanced, better-attended Masses and successful renewal days, I approached the school administration with a vision of what could be done if we had the time and the staff for campus ministry. It was a long list of exciting possibilities, and convincing enough that the administration decided to expand the staff beyond me. (At this point the department has two and one-third staff persons.)

The Kairos Retreats

By the fourth year, the retreat program was getting into full gear. That year we began the Kairos ("the Lord's time") retreat for the seniors, an intensive experience offered in many Jesuit schools all over the country. These three-and-a-half-day retreats are student-led by those who have been on a Kairos retreat already, with a campus minister or other faculty or staff member acting as the adult director. And there are other adult team members who support the student leaders.

The Kairos retreats have had a powerful effect on our students as a time of experiencing Christ and Christian community in an alive, real way. Young people come back from Kairos changed--more open to God and to deeper values in their lives, and able to interact with their peers at a more intimate level. Some students are affected more dramatically than others, but the change seems to persist. Amazingly, 85 to 90 percent of our seniors (including Jews, Hindus, and even atheists!) sign up voluntarily to go on one of the several Kairos retreats offered during their final year of high school. These retreats are a highlight of senior year and of their entire high school career. The anticipation of going on a Kairos retreat gives students a sense of the importance of the spiritual in the whole life of the school.

More Retreats

After the Kairos retreats began, we added a freshman retreat, a one-and-a-half-day program, again run by seniors. This retreat sets a tone of expectation for the rest of one's high school years. Freshmen come to expect that spiritual values and experiences will have great priority in this school, and that older, respected students can be spiritual guides and nurturing friends. During the retreat the student leaders tell their small groups about their own faith journeys, and the freshmen get a chance to talk about their faith as well.

Another major retreat we later created was the junior Christian Leadership retreat, a one-and-a-

half-day program. We also offer other kinds of retreats led by various faculty and staff members--such as an outdoor retreat and a retreat for the band given by the music director. The renewal days (the first form of retreat we offered in the early years) are still given as an option for juniors and seniors; however, most prefer to go on the more intensive overnight retreats available to them.

The Key: Student Involvement

As is evident from all that I have described, the ingredient of student involvement is essential to our efforts to build a faith community. Our retreats, Masses, and other prayer services are planned, organized, and executed by students. Campus ministry staff spend a great deal of time meeting with students to form retreat teams, train them, and give them ongoing guidance and support.

Besides the student retreat teams, we have a Core team of ten to twelve students who meet to organize and carry out our school Masses and all other liturgies. (Incidentally, other students regard Core team members as highly as student council members.) We emphasize to the Core students that each Mass is a chance to put what all of us in the school are doing into a spiritual perspective. The school may have just won the big game, put on a successful play, or had some great academic achievement, but all this can be put into a spiritual, Christian perspective at a well-planned Mass. The Mass may be the occasion for great thanks to God for all these blessings, but it may also be an opportunity to bring to God problems that the students and whole school are facing.

The Chance to Serve

At Saint John's, juniors and seniors can choose to do volunteer work at nursing homes and other health-care facilities, soup kitchens, inner-city schools, and food pantries. Most of them spend their volunteer time after school and on weekends; if they volunteer during school time they have to make up the class work missed, and this is always difficult. This past fall we had 130 students volunteering. The whole effort is organized by our volunteer department, composed of two faculty members and assisted by a Core team of ten students (a different group than the campus ministry Core). The students also plan hunger awareness days and other school-wide service activities throughout the year.

Empowerment of the Whole Community

Although the theology, campus ministry, and volunteer departments are particularly responsible for nurturing the faith-life of the whole school community, increasingly our departments do not see that as our task alone. We are spiritual leaders of the school, but our role is to form leaders beyond ourselves as well as to be leaders. We are trying to empower the whole school to grow spiritually, because God acts through us all.

We need to use all the talents that God has given our school's members--students, faculty, staff at all levels, alumni, parents--in order to build the faith community.

The Kairos retreats are a good example of empowering many members of our school community to be spiritual leaders. We are to the point now that we do not need a campus ministry staff member to fill the role of adult director of the retreat. Last year for one Kairos retreat, our director of alumni development and annual gifts filled that role. In addition, we have had a variety of people as team members on Kairos. Secretaries, maintenance workers, counselors, and administrators have all been a part of Kairos teams, along with many faculty. The fact that our students can hear these people whom they see every day give witness to their faith is very powerful--empowering both for our staff who participate and for our students.

Here is another instance of spiritual leadership beyond our three departments: Last year the entire school went to see the movie Schindler's List, an activity planned by our student council. (Although the logistics of such a school-wide outing are difficult, we have done this kind of activity three times before, and it has always worked well as a great unifying event for our school community.) After the movie, faculty members led small-group discussions about it. Then the day ended with a prayer service--planned and led by one of our social studies teachers. Such examples of leadership strengthen our conviction that every member of our community is responsible for our school's faith-life--that spirituality is not just the province of the theology, campus ministry, and volunteer departments.

Nourishing the Spirituality of Adult Members

In the past three years campus ministry has worked hard with the school to encourage spiritual development for the adult members of our community. If the faculty, staff, and administration are to minister in a faith-filled way and witness to students and one another about the deeper values that motivate them, they need to be nurtured spiritually. So at many faculty in-services we have included extended prayer experiences, especially based on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint
Ignatius Loyola. Last year we acquired grant money from the Detroit Province of the Jesuits to take the faculty, staff, and administrators to a state park for an overnight retreat. We prayed together. We ate and socialized. And we thought about and discussed important issues, such as why we chose this mission of teaching in a Christian school.

During Lent, campus ministry offered morning prayer services for anyone who wished to attend. We asked faculty, staff, and administrators to volunteer to lead a service. We received great support, and once the schedule was set, the services happened--led by members of our community.

In the past year we also began a Christian Life Community prayer group for the adults of our school community. These CLC groups have been forming at many Jesuit schools to support one another in living a faith-life. They follow a model of focusing first on building group identity, then on spirituality, and finally on mission. Our group met every two weeks at lunchtime; we shared prayer and what was going on in our lives. It was a chance to complain about stress, ask the group to pray about a sickness in the family, or thank God for all the good things given to us. Often we heard from one another about neat experiences we had had during the day or week that made us aware of Christ's presence in our lives. We always came out of this short lunch prayer session feeling closer to God and to one another, and a bit more spiritually motivated to do our jobs and witness Christ to the students in the school. This year the CLC groups are growing; we now have two adult groups and one student group. The student group is being led by our music director.

Three Departments Working Together

The three departments of theology, campus ministry, and volunteers have been working more closely together than ever before. We realize that our students need to see us working together so that they will not compartmentalize their own spirituality. They need to see that when they volunteer, they are living out their faith; when they are on a retreat, they are experiencing Christ in one another; and when they are learning in theology class, they are also experiencing Christ. The head, the heart, and the hands must work together.

To move us in the direction of working even more closely together, our departments have decided that we want to move our offices together sometime in the future. The three departments would remain separate, but we would be able to talk daily and have a space to meet, work together, and pray together.

We also see more possibilities for integrating the activities of our departments. For instance, when we have school reconciliation services during Lent and Advent, the theology teachers can prepare students for them in class. If campus ministry is giving a junior retreat, perhaps the theology department can do some reflective follow-up in their classes. A member of the volunteer department could visit the theology classes to talk about the connection between serving people and Jesus' servanthood. This year we may also work out our sophomore retreat through the sophomore theology classes.

So many areas still need work, and we are excited about the possibilities. For one, we want to reach out more to parents, making them a real part of our spiritual community. Our alumni are involved with us in this way, too, helping to give retreats, but we could involve them more. We have taken initial steps here at Saint John's to build a community of faith, but we have a long way to go. Yet the way has already been full of grace beyond our imagining.

Greg Richard has been teaching theology for nineteen years. He was the chair of campus ministry at Saint John's Jesuit High School for eight years, and now teaches theology there and works as a member of campus ministry.


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Published February 1, 1995.