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How a ‘culture of conversion’ transformed a Catholic high school

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by Jonah McKeown

Denver Newsroom, Jun 10, 2021 / 15:02 pm

An all-boys Catholic high school in Tampa, Florida is attracting attention for fostering a faith-filled environment that helped lead nearly two dozen of its students into the Church last month.

“Coming off of COVID, there was really a hunger and an openness and a desire for God that, at least on our campus, we had never seen before,” Jimmy Mitchell, director of campus ministry at Jesuit High School in Tampa, told CNA.

Jesuit High School saw 22 students convert this past year through its RCIA program – making 2020 “one of the most beautiful and fruitful years that our campus has ever seen,” Mitchell said.

The large number of converts has “everything to do with a culture of conversion, brotherhood, and discipleship” at the school, Mitchell said.

He said that as a campus minister he seeks to “infiltrate” every aspect of the students’ lives at school, including their classroom learning and their participation in music and sports. He also seeks to get to know the students and take a deep and personal interest in their lives.

Mitchell said the school seeks to make Catholicism “appealing, attractive, and accessible” for the young men, with a special emphasis on seeking out underclassmen.

“If we can catch them in their freshman year, we’ve got them for good,” Mitchell laughed.

“In a world that has normalized sin like never before, there’s a growing community, a growing brotherhood of young men in Tampa who are normalizing holiness,” he said, reiterating that the increase in conversions at the school is “unprecedented.”

Of the 22 students who entered the Church this year, 14 of them were baptized; many of them had entered high school with no faith at all, Mitchell said.

Toward the beginning of the school year, Mitchell and his fellow campus ministers observed a surge in attendance at daily Mass and confession offered at the school’s recently-renovated chapel.

Mitchell credited much of the campus renewal to the actions of school president Fr. Richard Hermes, S.J.

Under Fr. Hermes’ leadership, the school has been “transformed” in the faith, he said.

Fr. Hermes, who has led the school for the past 13 years, told CNA that the school has devoted much effort to developing the campus ministry program, particularly the retreats it offers.

“As the years went by, we really started to articulate the retreat program better and better,” he said, adding that the retreats and pilgrimages are centered around daily Mass, small group discussions, and participants sharing their faith.

Another of Fr. Hermes’ actions, Mitchell said, was to reshape the school’s theology department where the entire staff not only teaches Catholic doctrine, but has a “zeal for souls.”

Fr. Hermes said he works to ensure that all the school’s teachers are well-credentialed, believe in God, and adhere to the Church’s Magisterium – but also seeks to ensure that they are effective at reaching teenage men.

As president of the school, Fr. Hermes said his role is to ensure that the school has a Catholic identity.

“That’s what motivates us. That’s the heart of who we are and why we’re here,” he said.

Mitchell said a key factor in the campus’ “dynamic, orthodox, authentically Catholic culture” is the availability of the sacraments. Mass is offered daily, along with regular Eucharistic adoration and, on the first Friday of each month, confession is available all day to the young men.

The school also seeks to emphasize beauty, Mitchell said. The school’s setting in the Florida landscape is itself beautiful, he noted, but its crown jewel is the newly-renovated, $10 million Romanesque chapel.

The chapel, dedicated in 2018, was redesigned to encourage devotion to God. The renovation featured a larger space than before, with a clearly demarcated sanctuary, a prominent tabernacle and altar, a large 19th century stained glass window, elegant wooden pews, and numerous references to the Society of Jesus. Father Hermes told CNA at the time of the dedication that he wanted the new chapel to “bespeak the sacred. When you walk in there, you’re gonna know this is a sacred space and a holy chapel.”

“The main vision was sacred space, and nobility, and make it a place where not only Mass is celebrated, but devotions, the rosary or Stations of the Cross,” Father Hermes said.

In addition to organizing 18 annual retreats for the students, Mitchell and his fellow ministers facilitate peer groups among the young men. Groups of eight to 10 students convene regularly during lunch periods to discuss their faith, he said, engaging in vulnerable conversations about their struggles and sharing wisdom and counsel with each other.

He said many upperclassmen commit to acting as “peer ministers,” attending daily Mass and weekly confession, and spearheading the discipleship groups.

One such leader is rising senior Jackson Graham, who serves as president of the school’s peer ministry club. He told CNA that he is considering options for college, as well as discerning the priesthood through the Jesuits.

Though Graham grew up in a Catholic household, he said he somewhat drifted from his faith early in his high school career. Graham said the experience of the pandemic in 2020 helped him realize “how much worse my life was when I was not putting God first.”

Graham committed to daily Mass and daily rosaries to help with conquering vices. He said that returning to school in-person presented him an opportunity for a “new beginning.”

Throughout the rest of his high school career and beyond, Graham said he plans to continue daily prayer and attending daily Mass, and plans to maintain a men’s group where members can discuss the faith and hold each other accountable.

“Don’t be afraid to cast your net out and really start diving into your faith. The Lord gives you the courage you need, and it’s attractive,” Graham said.

Ryan Feocco, a fixture of Jesuit High School’s basketball team, graduated from the school this year and is planning to attend the University of Florida in the fall.

Feocco told CNA that he grew up in a relatively irreligious household, and he largely forged his own religious path. He said that in entering Jesuit High School, he did not at first find the idea of Catholicism appealing but tried to approach it with an open mind. He described his first few years of high school as “a time in my life where I wasn’t really who I truly was.”

Ultimately, thanks in large part to the school’s peer groups as well as to his theology courses, he learned that the moral teachings of the Catholic faith aligned with his own beliefs. Through a series of events, “God revealed Himself,” he said.

Feocco says he prayed for clarity, and asked God to place the right people in his life; a close friend helped him greatly in his faith journey, he said.

He decided to join RCIA during his senior year, and was received into the Church in May. He said his parents were very supportive of his decision.

Feocco said he has several friends and fellow Jesuit graduates who are also planning to attend the University of Florida, and that he hopes they continue to support each other and attend Mass together while in college.

He said he has found prayer to be the key to keeping his faith strong.

“When I first came to school I just recited the words and didn’t think anything of it. But prayer is undoubtedly, in my opinion, one of the most important things in the faith,” Feocco said.

“You spending that time praising and glorifying God through your own words – it shows that you’re willing to give Him all that you have. Building that prayer life aids tremendously in what you can become in the faith.”

For fellow educators seeking to build a similar Catholic community at their school, Fr. Hermes said the first thing is to understand that such an undertaking is the Lord’s work.

Though changing a school’s culture may take time, he urged against discouragement. Teens respond well to seeing adults living their faith, Father Hermes noted.

Mitchell said that Jesuit High School holds the faith in great esteem and seeks to convince students that there is “nothing more exciting than sharing the love of God with others.”

Several young men that Mitchell has counseled have already entered successful college and post-college careers. At the end of the day, Mitchell says his job is “loving them well” and proclaiming the Gospel clearly.

“The Lord does everything else,” he said.

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