On the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, AKA “The Jesuits,” it seems fitting to look at one of the many ways the men (and women) who have come after him and his first group of followers have continued to serve God’s people – bringing the fruits of their experience of God’s presence in our world (a contemplative experience) into the messiness of everyday active life. This approach has been called “contemplation in action” and is a fundamental of Ignatian spirituality.
Ignatius and his friends, like many young men of his day, thought it would be a great idea to go to the Holy Land and convert all to Christianity. They had taken the standard vows of poverty, chastity and obedience that are common in religious orders. But they also took a vow to do whatever the Pope needed them to do. They suggested to the him that they go to the Holy Land on this mission and he turned down the offer. Instead, he asked them to preach and teach in Europe. It was a time of much upheaval in the Church. The Reformation/Protestant Revolution was in full swing. The Church was divided. Much of what we would call faith education was needed, along with basic education in reading, writing, mathematics and the other classical subjects. So the Jesuits got started in the education business and have continued their schools and universities to this day!
Then as now, people with money can afford excellent schooling for their children. People with fewer resources have fewer choices. Recently, members of various provinces of the Society in the United States have embarked on a program to provide high quality Catholic education for children of families whose income is under 75 percent of the median per-capita income of their city. These children would not ordinarily have the option of attending a private high school or even dreaming of attending college. Yet in 22 schools around the country, the dream is being realized.
The schools started in 1996 with Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago. The great challenge for any private school is how to fund the costs of providing the educational program. How can the faculty be paid? Where will classes be offered? How can the rent be paid? At Cristo Rey, a unique solution was proposed. Corporate sponsors would provide entry level pay for students that would cover about 70% of tuition. Four students would share each job – each working one day per week. The other days the student would attend classes. Class days would be a bit longer than normal and the students would have a longer school year, but they would get a full year of education that way. Families that could afford to pay some tuition would do so. Others would receive additional financial aid to make their education possible. Students would also receive intensive training in the basics of functioning in the corporate world during the summer before their first year in the school, so they could be successful in their work. The combination of academics and real-world work experience in meaningful jobs has proven to be a key to the success of the school. It has been so successful, in fact, that other schools have been opened in other cities.
In 2008-09 the Cristo Rey Network included 22 schools. Another two are opening this fall. In cities across the country, young men and women who would not have had much of a chance even to finish high school, are not only graduating from high school, but most of them are going on to colleges and universities. From there they are going out into the corporate world and entering successful careers in business, science, education, etc. The Ignatian charism (vision) of education of all students, both rich and poor, continues to bear fruit in our day.
Cristo Rey’s story has been told in a new book, More than a Dream: How One School’s Vision is Changing the World.
Cristo Rey and other schools in the network are also featured in the Summer 2009 issue of the Jesuit magazine, Company, the world of Jesuits and their friends. The Summer issue is not online as of this date, but it should be there within a few weeks.