Religious Identity in Catholic Schools: 14 Questions for John Belmonte, S.J.

John Belmonte, S.J., is a Jesuit priest who has served as Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Joliet since 2010. A native of the Windy City, he holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Loyola University Chicago. He also has a B.A. in History from Marquette University, an S.T.B. from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and an S.T.L. in Scripture from Weston Jesuit School of Theology, Cambridge.

While working on his doctoral program, Father Belmonte served as the Director of Pastoral Ministry at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago from 1999 to 2003. He has also taught theology and social studies at the high school level. From 2004 to 2010, he served as principal of Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wis. In 2013 he was elected to the National Catholic Educational Association board, where he now serves as president of the superintendent’s committee. 

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On June 30, I interviewed Father Belmonte by email about religious identity in Catholic schools.

You have served as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Joliet since 2010. How are things going?

Things are going well, overall. Thanks to the hard work of pastors, principals, local and diocesan school boards and my Catholic Schools Office staff we have implemented much of the strategic plan produced by the diocese in 2010. As I like to say, schools that plan, survive and thrive. Schools that do not, flounder. As we have implemented our strategic plan, our schools have become more mission-driven, more fiscally sound and more united across the diocese.

How are the Catholic schools in your diocese a microcosm of larger trends in Catholic education?

The schools in the Diocese of Joliet face the same headwinds that schools face across the country—enrollment decline, transitions in leadership, religious indifference, and the vocation crisis. We should be particularly proud that nationwide our Catholic schools are facing those challenges head on. We have learned to take a data-driven approach that allows us to understand the reality before us and adopt the best practices available in education to address our challenges. As a result, I believe that today our schools are better run while maintaining a vibrant Catholic school culture. 

When it comes to Catholic education, many people talk about religious identity and the decreased numbers of religious men and women teaching in our schools. What does “Catholic identity” mean to you and why is it important?

Another way of talking about Catholic identity is to emphasize mission and school culture. As one privileged form of the evangelizing mission of the church, our Catholic schools integrate our faith within the education of the whole person. Centered on the Eucharist and immersed in saving grace, the hearts of our students grow and mature in the Catholic faith. 

Vibrant Catholic school culture provides stability, fosters certainty and creates meaning for young people and their families. For the Catholic school that means more than schedules and calendars, curriculum and instruction. It means that we provide an environment where ‘the way we do things’ immerses our children in saving grace through prayer, the sacraments, the catechism, the curriculum and anything else that leads them to an encounter with Christ and his church. In our Catholic schools we form disciples. We evangelize. We exercise charity.

Nowadays, many of our Catholic school teachers are not Catholic themselves. What are some positive ways we might strengthen Catholic identity in our schools while still respecting other faiths?

Teach the children to pray! As one of the pillars of the catechism, teaching young people to pray is a fundamental task we have as Catholic educators. Over the past four years, organized by a group of teachers in the Diocese of Joliet, we have taught the children to pray emphasizing the devotional life of the church—devotions to the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Mother, and the saints.

With this devotional project we have followed the lead of the U.S. Bishops, who have emphasized the role of the liturgy and popular piety in the transformation of culture. In their 2003 document, Popular Devotional Practices: Basic Questions and Answers, they said: “When properly ordered to the liturgy, popular devotions perform an irreplaceable function of bringing worship into daily life for people of various cultures and times.” By establishing vibrant Catholic school culture we have the opportunity to create an environment in which the school community “prays without ceasing” (1Thess 5:17) as the apostle Paul teaches us.

Parents continue to trust Catholic schools to form their children. What are some bright spots in the schools of your diocese?

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has always been an immigrant church. The Diocese of Joliet is blessed by many new immigrants. Like many parts of the country, our Latino population is growing but has been underserved by our Catholic schools. I am happy to report that, with the assistance of recruiting best practices taken from the University of Notre Dame’s Catholic Advantage program, we have almost tripled the number of Latino students in our Catholic schools in the last four years. 

As president of the superintendent’s committee of NCEA, you interact with Catholic school superintendents from across the nations. What are some challenges which U.S. Catholic schools are facing right now?

The challenges we face in Catholic education today are many: stable finances, accessibility, rising tuition, low salaries, recruitment and retention, changing social mores, changing educational standards, accelerating secularization. The list goes on and on. We work very hard to maintain high standards in our schools.  

One thing we need to do better is to tell people about our Catholic schools. We should tell everyone about the great teachers and pastors and principals we have—how our students learn more and are treated with respect and as individuals. We should tell people how our teachers know our students for more than nine years, sometimes twelve, during the most formative time of their lives. People should know how our students achieve ahead of their peers. We have students who have perfect ACT scores and test scores above the national average in every category. Our high school students receive hundreds of millions in college scholarships. 

Everyone should know how generous our parishioners are. In our diocese, they invested more than $14 million in Catholic education last year. Everyone should hear that our graduates change the world. They are leaders in every field. Our graduates are pastors of our parishes, the mayors of our cities, the leaders of our businesses.

Most important of all, we should tell everyone about how, at our Catholic schools, we encounter Jesus Christ in his church. We meet him every day. Our students become lifelong friends with Jesus Christ. We celebrate more than 2,000 masses in our Catholic schools in my diocese each year. Our students meet our Lord when we pray in class together and when we learn the catechism. Our schools offer more than 400,000 hours of religious instruction every year. We meet our Lord when we serve the poor and the community in the 175,000 hours of service we offer through our schools. Our Catholic schools are one of our great treasures. We should not bashful about letting people know about it. 

Pope Francis, our fellow Jesuit and a former high school teacher himself, has spoken often about the gift of Catholic education. What message do you take away from him?

Pope Francis, who is clearly a master teacher, has spoken of his own experience growing up in a Catholic school: “The school created, through the awakening of the conscience in the truth of things, a Catholic culture.” The Holy Father emphasizes over and over the need for renewal in the life of the church. Our Catholic schools should play a key role.

The New Evangelization happens every day in our Catholic schools. Where else in a diocese can a young person foster, on a daily basis, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, in an unapologetically Catholic environment led by pastors, principals and teachers who themselves bear witness to the Gospel? 

Some U.S. bishops have reformulated teachers’ contracts in an effort to preserve religious identity in their Catholic schools. As a Catholic schools superintendent, how do you feel in general about efforts to preserve Catholic identity by reworking employee contracts?

Given the amount of confusion one finds related to church teaching and practice, efforts to clarify contract language for employees in Catholic schools have become necessary.  Some dioceses have focused on contract language. Others have emphasized the teaching magisterium through professions of faith. 

In the schools in our diocese we have tried to clarify the expectation for our teachers to support our Catholic school mission. Catholic school teachers are expected to speak and act in a way supports the church and her teachings, especially our belief in the life and dignity of every human person, regardless of age, status, or condition; in the value of the family and Christian marriage defined as the union of one man and one woman; and in the rights and responsibilities that protect the values of religious freedom and the ability to express the Catholic faith in public dialogue.

How have you grown or changed personally in your role as a superintendent of Catholic schools?

My experience of the local diocesan church in this role as superintendent of Catholic schools has truly been grace-filled. Not only do I have the opportunity to witness the beautiful examples of faith in our school children and families, teachers and administrators, but I also have the privilege of serving the diocese as a priest in one of our parishes. For a Jesuit priest who has dedicated his life to teaching and school administration, diocesan life has been much richer than I would have ever imagined.

I have grown in my esteem for the tremendous service that my brother diocesan priests render to the church. One aspect of parish life has been particularly enjoyable—the pastor in the parish where I reside and serve happens to be my classmate from kindergarten, grade school and high school! 

As a Jesuit, how does Ignatian pedagogy influence your approach to being a superintendent?

As part of my Jesuit formation, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius have helped shape my worldview. To praise, reverence and serve God our Lord, as Ignatius says in the Exercises. Last year I gave all of the elementary school teachers in the diocese the opportunity to make the Spiritual Exercises during the school year in the format called the 19th Annotation or the Exercises in Daily Life. I introduced the Exercises to them and provided them with a handbook and resources to pray individually and participate in small group discussions. This year we plan to do something similar adapted for our school children.  

In your view, what does U.S. Catholic education need the most right now?

Strong leadership—first from our bishops, then from our pastors and finally from our lay brothers and sisters. We need well-formed leaders who truly love the church. Our Catholic schools have to focus on the cultivation of leadership at every level – administrators, teachers and parents. As Pope Francis says and exemplifies, the joy of the Gospel attracts people to the Lord and his church. 

Your job keeps you pretty busy. How do you pray?

Since I drive around the diocese quite a bit, I have actually been helped by technology in my prayer. Believe it or not, I can pray the daily divine office, the Rosary, litanies, and do my spiritual reading using Catholic apps and MP3 files. There’s no excuse for missing prayer even when you’re traveling from meeting to meeting or school to school. Parish life has also been a great opportunity to celebrate the Mass, hear confessions and celebrate the other sacraments with parishioners as well as, of course, our school children. 

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

Mark 10:45. “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” As I have told my students over the years, in those words lay the key to life. We devote ourselves to others because Jesus Christ did it for us.  

What are your hopes for the future?

Our Catholic schools filled to capacity, many new vocations to the priesthood and religious life, a boom in Catholic baptisms and marriages. Also, a World Series for the Chicago Cubs. I’m a chaplain at Wrigley Field during the summer. I say Mass on Sundays for anyone working at the stadium before the game. Prayer may be the only and best answer.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America. 

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