Leadership Voices: A Lenten Message


This blog post was originally published by Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School on February 14, 2018.

Dear Friends,

Today, as the western Christian world celebrates Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the season of Lent, we are confronted with one of simplest signs left in our common life: that dark smudge of ash on our forehead.

The very idea of a sign, a thing that is used to signify something else and make it present to us, is a difficult concept.  Signs explain and establish relationship.  We know this when we use words like a subtraction sign or an addition sign.  They are words the point to a new value based on the relationship of what they mediate.
Many of us will observe this Lent by the sign of subtraction – we will choose not to drink or look at social media or eat chocolate or eat meat.  Some of us will observe this Lent by the sign of addition – we will be more diligent in prayer or we will read spiritually edifying books or we will be intentional in giving to the needy.
However, at their root, these are signs of conversion and anticipated transformation.  These signs are to indicate the relationship between who you are now and who you might become. They are signs of a change of heart and a change of mind. We are to fast, to pray, and to do righteous work; visible reminders that call us to examine ourselves and to make amends for the sinful and broken areas of our life, to move beyond self-righteousness and self-sufficiency, and to reconcile those areas of our life where we have not accepted God’s grace.
These are not the only signs of transformation in our lives and that of our communities.  Education, too, is a sign of transformation; it points to a new future different from the past.  That is our goal at Holy Family Cristo Rey Catholic High School: to be a sign of new and flourishing relationships for our students and our community.
With my prayers for a peaceful and productive Lenten season,
Fr. Jon Chalmers


This week’s post comes from a guest writer, Rev. Robert J. Sandoz, OFM, President of Christ the King Prep in Newark, New Jersey.

Recently I had dinner with a good friend of mine and we were talking about this year and how eventful the year has been.  We spoke of movements large such as the “Arab Spring.”  We remembered a year filled with natural calamities: tsunami in Japan, volcano eruption in Brazil, floods in Pakistan and earth quake in Turkey.  Of course, we decried the financial scene unfolding across the globe.  On the plus side we both were happy over advancements in peace between India and Bangladesh and the celebration of World Peace Day in Assisi, Italy in October.  We smiled as we acknowledged that the world never tires of a beautiful love story such as that of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.

This friend knows my belief in the spiritual wisdom contained in the Serenity Prayer.  I’m sure that many of you know it: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”  He asked me if I had difficulty this year with the first part of this prayer.  I quickly answered that the first part was not an issue. The second part of the prayer is what motivates me and keeps me on focus. I told him about my ministry here at Christ the King Prep and that I am convinced every day that we need to change the educational success rate of young urban students. It takes courage to enter upon such a mission as this.  Many people will say, “It can’t be done.”  Others will suggest that we need to wait until there are better times than now to be committed to  such a project.  Still others will say that I should let others “deal with that problem.”

I am inviting you to join me in a very courageous mission: “Transform Urban America One Student at a Time.”  This is the motto of the Cristo Rey Network of schools, now numbering 24 schools across the United States, with more in feasibility.  We believe that we do not have to accept the fact that only 10% of urban young people complete a college education.  We have the courage to change that.  We believe that we do not have to accept as unchangeable that the United States has fallen to #15 in the production of college graduates worldwide.  We have the courage to change that.  We believe that we do not have to accept that in less than 10 years more than 20 million jobs in this country will go unfilled because the new jobs require college talent.  We have the courage to change that.

As we bring this year to an end, let us end on a renewed commitment to courage and to a future of hope.  We have the courage to change; join us in this mission.

A Good Year

Some of the statistics from this past school year are very encouraging. Right now there are 24 schools who are all members of the Cristo Rey Network. Those schools are up and running. This year they enrolled a total of 5,892 students. (When we began the first school 14 years ago, we had to continually postpone the first day of classes because we didn’t have enough students!) Literally half of the schools have yet to complete their twelfth grade. They are still working toward their first graduating class. 

Besides the 24 schools in operation, there are six more in some stage of development.  They probably will not all conclude in the opening of a school; that is precisely why we do a feasibility study.  Sometimes the school is simply not feasible.  It is interesting to note here that we have never taken the initiative in the opening of any of our schools.  They are all the result of a group interested in having a school getting in touch with the Network.  They call us, not vice versa. 

We have begun to track our graduates in college.  The National Student Clearinghouse tracks high school graduates, and, of the ten Cristo Rey Network schools who had graduates in 2008, 81% of the students are currently enrolled.  The national average is 61% and the average of students from the center city is 41%.  We are very happy with those first results.

I am saving the best stat until last:  this year in the whole Network the students have earned nearly 30 million dollars for their own education.  We may be on to something!

University Partners

In these days graduations across all the Network schools will be turning out close to 700 alumni:  all from low-income communities and all now college-ready.  Universities throughout the country are interested in having these young people at their institutions.  We calculate that in another three years the number of graduates will be 1,300 and it will only grow from there.  Universities want to grow in their student diversity but often it is so difficult for them to find high-school graduates who are prepared to do the work.

Three years ago Georgetown University hosted a meeting where colleges and universities gathered to discuss how they could best serve the graduates from Cristo Rey Network schools.  At that meeting, Dr. Jack DeGioia, president of Georgetown, said that he was interested in these young people not because they were philanthropic or some sort of do-gooders, but because if a university is going to be true to its calling, it must include students who represent the face of America.  A university should reflect all sectors of the population it is trying to serve, not just those who can afford it.

Consequently the dialogue with our university partners continues.  Many of them want our students and we in turn see the universities as a rich resource for success in our work.  We need them and we think they need us.  Hopefully our relation will be mutually beneficial.  Cristo Rey is about filling the gap, serving those sectors of our society that are traditionally left behind.  As we say so often, it’s about leveling the playing field and giving everyone a chance in the lottery.

Dream On!

I had the wonderful experience of seeing The Providence Effect a few days ago.  It is about Providence St. Mel High School on the west side of Chicago.  The creator of the school is Mr. Paul Adams.  He says that when the schools, Providence High School and St. Mel High School, were to be closed by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1969, he decided to merge and maintain the names because of their long and rich tradition in the city.  He went to the Sisters of Providence and asked if he could rent their building to house his new school there.  The Superior General said no, but that she would sell it to him.  He thanked her but said he did not have the money and she answered, “I know, but you will.”  That was a lady who was not held back by the facts.  She was right.

The Provincial of the Jesuits of the Chicago Province said that when he was proposing the foundation of a new school (which was later to become Cristo Rey Jesuit High School) in the Pilsen area of Chicago, his official advisors pretty much opposed the idea.  It was just too much risk; there is a severe manpower shortage; everyone else is moving out of the Pilsen area.  He heard their advice and pushed ahead anyway because, he says, he was convinced that the idea was from the Holy Spirit. 

When one of the original administrators of the same school was being interviewed by a rather skeptical reporter on a local radio station before the school opened, the reporter asked “Tell me, Father, what kind of chance do you think the school has of succeeding?”  The priest answered without losing a beat, “Oh, I think about 110%!” 

There is a fine line between “the facts” and our ability to dream.  The school depicted in The Providence Effect is successful precisely because Mr. Adams refuses to submit to the majority opinion that says that “these kids have no future.”  It helps to have a little dose of naivete in our following the lead of the Holy Spirit.  Some years ago Walter Brueggemann, a theologian, asked if we Christians had “lost our ability to dream of an alternative.”  Great question.  May it not be true.  May we be consummate dreamers; may we get better every day, by the grace of God.

How do You do?

Christ the King Jesuit Preparatory School, the Cristo Rey Network school on the west side of Chicago, had a fund-raiser a few days ago.  Someone wrote the President of the school the following commentary:  “I walked up to the student at our table, stuck out my hand and introduced myself.  I got a FIRM handshake.  ‘Outstanding!’ I said.  ‘Who taught you that, your father or the school?’  She said, ‘last year as a freshman they taught us to give a firm handshake and look the person in the eye.’  I told her that handshake and that advice were the first steps to success.”

That story was told about the west side of Chicago.  It is typical, though, of what happens at every one of the schools in the Network.  We help all these young people discover their own potential and who they really are.  From freshman year they realize that they are special, that God has made them for nothing small, and that they and their lives are filled with great possibilities.  That’s what they are showing with that firm handshake and that look in the eye.  Something as simple as that can change a young person’s whole perspective.  There is no limit to what can come from a new “How do you do?”

The Cristo Rey Network Logo

Logo designIt’s kind of fun to recall history! Part of our history is our logo, both the logo of the original school and the one that the Network uses today. Some 15 years ago when we were still organizing the first school, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Pilsen area, we knew we had to come up with some sort of symbol. None of us had ever done that before. One morning Preston Kendall came to school with a drawing, the one still used at the Pilsen school. It is a different type of crucifix, one where the arms of the corpus are really the cross bar of the cross, tilted at a curious angle. We loved it right off the bat. We asked Preston where he got it and he said that his ten-year-old daughter Maeve had come up with it the night before while they were watching television. That was the origin of the logo of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. It’s a great message to remind people that the King we follow is unique; He was overcome and the forces of evil did Him in. The mission of Cristo Rey is always counter-cultural.

The logo of the Network is simply a detail taken from the crown in the school’s logo. It’s the crown on the head of the King who was crucified. The hope is that the Cristo Rey Network may be worthy of reminding the world how much our King loves us, even to death.