Written by Gay Eyerman
Night Theology. It was another “wild idea” from the creative mind of Jim Skerl, the 1974 Saint Ignatius High School graduate who was a beloved Theology teacher for 37 years until his death from cancer in October 2014. Along with other innovative ministries – including the Christian Action Team (C.A.T.), Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless, and the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry – Skerl developed the Night Theology course to engage students in a deeper relationship with Jesus and the Gospels. In Skerl’s alternative version of the Christian Manhood course, seniors could invite a parent to join the class. It became an unusual opportunity for parents to have a deeper experience of the school, their sons and the person of Jesus the Man. After a nearly 10-year hiatus, Night Theology is back — and it’s already getting rave reviews.
The idea to revive the course began as a discussion among Theology teachers and department chair Joe Betz ’01 on how to engage students and their parents more deeply. “As we were all spit-balling ideas we could do or have done, the Night Theology class came up. It was a way to include parents in what their boys experience here, and to invite them into that environment,” recalls Drew Vilinsky ’97, a Theology teacher in his 18th year at Saint Ignatius.
The decision was made to try a “beta test” of a course intended to inspire deep discussions and authentic insights into the kind of manhood lived by Jesus Himself.
Last spring, rising seniors were sent an email inviting them to show their interest in the course by writing a short paragraph on their motivations. Seven students were selected, and Vilinsky agreed to teach the fall semester course on Thursday nights in Loyola Hall, with seniors sitting alongside their mom or dad.
“It’s like a collegiate seminar with group discussions and essays based on films and writings,” explains Vilinsky. “I hand it off to students and parents to share their experiences, each bringing their own perspective.”
As an example, he had the class watch the film “Whiplash,” a psychological drama about a young, ambitious jazz drummer pushed to his limit by an abusive instructor. “It’s a brutal portrayal of manhood. I asked the class, ‘What should the boy’s parent do?’ One student said, ‘Mom, I hope you’d get me out of that!’ and it began an honest conversation about a young man pursuing a dream at the expense of his soul. You could see the student leaning into Christ, considering ‘what does it profit a man to gain the entire world yet lose his soul’? Articulating that to his mom and giving her the space to love him – that’s one of the best moments in class. But I really think the best moments come on the drive home or around the dinner table. That’s the true grace of the course,” says Vilinksy.
Building on the Genius of Jim Skerl ’74
Vilinsky describes creating the “appropriate level of vulnerability” as boys and their parents reflect on what it means to be a Christian man – a skill set he attributes to his former teachers, including Jim Skerl ’74, Rich Fujimoto ’66, Jim Brennan ’85 and Tom Healey ’77.
“This class lets me create that environment with both students and parents. The secret sauce is seeing portrayals of manhood in our culture and juxtaposing them with Christ’s standards of what it is to be a man. We put models of Christian manhood in front of them and ask them to contrast them with the ‘live hard, play hard, party hard’ idea of a man. We look at keystone actions of Christ and see how He invites us to ‘love people and use things.’”
Vilinsky sees parents as models of Christ-like love, often amazed by their commitment to attend the class and their desire to connect deeply with their sons. “It’s like Jesus healing the servant who is sick. He could heal him with just a word, but instead He goes to the guy’s house and spends time with him. That is how Christ shows love, and it’s how we show love to others.”
Deeper Conversations with Parents
Jacob Kucera ’23 is captain of the crew team, is active with the Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless, the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearers Ministry and is a lector at his parish. He applied for Night Theology after a conversation with his former coach, Connor Walters ’09. “He had taken the course as a student with his dad and said it was the best experience of his life!”
While Kucera’s dad couldn’t attend due to work conflicts, he was glad his mom jumped on board: “She became Catholic after they got married and enjoys learning more and spending time with me. She really likes the films and readings and discussing them with me.”
Kucera describes the films as somewhat emotional and meant to stimulate conversations, while the readings present compelling ideas.
“It helps me define what standard I want to set for myself,” says Kucera. “It can be a challenge to have parents and kids in the class but the parents respect what I have to say, and that’s really cool. I think Saint Ignatius is progressive in their willingness to try new things like this, all to form Christian men of the future. They care more about what kind of man I become than what GPA I graduate with.”
Maki Andrich ’23 and his mom Patti come from a devout Serbian Orthodox family and enjoy taking the course together. “It’s so fun to have parents there,” says Andrich. “A two-hour class feels like 30 minutes. It’s more work than my other classes but it helps me think on my own. The best part is learning with my mom. It makes our time together very special, talking about our values and sharing our thoughts.”
His mom is grateful for the experience. “It’s a gift to be invited into the classroom as a parent,” she says. “It’s not typical to sit next to your child like this, to see how your child is thinking and to learn what they are learning. I really enjoy how characters in the films present real-life situations we can look at through the lens of being a Christian man…Having a class like this shows how Saint Ignatius cares about each student being a Man for Others.”
More to Come…
Vilinsky says the Night Theology course will be offered again in Fall 2023, with hopes to expand it. “The school sees an opportunity to evangelize and lead students and parents into the depths of our Catholic thought and experience. Our administration says, ‘yes’ to new ideas and helps to make it work. That’s part of the culture at Saint Ignatius.”