“From whom do you learn?"
That question was posed to me in Theology class some 15 years ago by Mr. Jim Skerl ’74.
It wasn’t a trick question, but it was one of those prompts that you knew Mr. Skerl posed to you for some reflection before you answered. And rather than let students answer the easy way and say, “my teachers” or “my parents” or “my friends,” Skerl would give a knowing smirk and present a lesson on someone from whom a high school student could definitely learn a lot.
I know what you’re thinking: It was someone from the streets, or a person the pallbearers carried at a funeral, or one of the people with a disability from the Cleveland L’Arche community. And sure, the students probably thought that was to whom Jim referred—hence his warm grin.
But it was Jesus.
Indeed, it was Christ from whom Skerl wanted his students to know and to learn. No doubt Mr. Skerl figured out that a compelling way to do that was to let students encounter Him through the people on the margins with whom Jesus most identified. It was for these reasons that Jim co-founded the Saint Benedict Joseph Labre Ministry to the Homeless, the Saint Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer Ministry and Friends with L’Arche. It was the reason that he formed the largest organization of students within the school—the Christian Action Team—so that students might learn from their encounters with Christ on the margins.
It was 20 years ago this fall that the seeds of this work were planted. And despite Skerl’s passing in 2014, the work continues to grow and thrive and bring students to Christ. It has evolved to not only draw students into relationships with God, but also to understand their roles as young Christian men who have responsibilities to see everyone as their neighbors and to encounter them with love.
Working as closely together as ever, C.A.T., Campus Ministry and the Theology Department have ushered in a new era of faith, service and justice.
John Gill ’97 has seen a lot in his 17 years at Saint Ignatius High School. The Executive Director of the Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership, Gill’s work has always centered around students and Christian service.
“It’s just a great way to live out the Gospels and practice the Corporal Works of Mercy,” he says. “Helping students to do that is such a gift, and it’s passing along the important lessons of life and faith that I learned here when I was a student.”
Service and faith-based programming has always had a presence on campus, as Gill experienced. The Rini Family Christmas Food Drive and Sophomore Service, plus retreats, mission trips and even the Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership are all longstanding mission-focused initiatives, to say nothing of regular daily Theology classes.
However, the creation of C.A.T and its flagship programs two decades ago changed the definition of service on campus and made Saint Ignatius a leader among Jesuit schools in this approach to faith formation.
“The fact that it was always about relationships—with the students, with the homeless, with the deceased, with the kids from the neighborhood—that was what has made it work for students,” Gill says. “And then, in C.A.T. meetings or Theology class, it was Skerl, helping those kids make the connections, having them take the Gospel and see that they were living it out.”
Gill, alongside a cadre of faculty and staff, has helped maintain that depth of spirit to C.A.T. meetings and all of the 20 Christian service initiatives on campus. Today, he works especially closely with former campus minister Augie Pacetti ’96, who currently serves as Director of Mission. It is Pacetti, whose office is located in the new Companions Center for Faith that Does Justice, whose job ensures the collaboration and connectivity among C.A.T., Campus Ministry and the Theology Department.
“In a way what Jim did so charismatically and with such a deep level of faith by his own example and witness, we are trying to conform our institution so that the integrity that he lived out of in all these different areas is being lived out as a school,” says Pacetti. “He definitely left such an indelible mark on C.A.T., and I always felt like he did kind of bridge areas and kind of helped us to elevate Christ as the reason for this space, Christ as the reason for our work.”
“Synergy” would be a corporate word to describe what’s happening among the three groups, who previously were often physically separated on campus. However, through Vision ’30, the latest strategic planning process led by President Rev. Ray Guiao, S.J. ’82, “spirit-led” is a much more accurate way to characterize how the mission has been made new among them.
Just look at the new Companions Center, home to weekly C.A.T. meetings, daily Sophomore Service classes, Ignatians for Peace & Justice planning sessions, service fairs and other theological programming.
“We are just crossing paths in a way we haven’t before,” says Pacetti, whose office is located in the back of the Center and sees all of the activity firsthand. “It kind of helps us to run into each other and to have conversations. All of these relationships that were kind of existing somewhat in the same building but apart from one another are intersecting in a more intentional way.”
Pacetti, a natural coalition builder, has worked to facilitate dialogue among service moderators, Theology teachers, and the Campus Ministry staff. The idea is that with increased communication can come greater collaboration as the faculty and staff discover opportunities for partnership.
This year, Catholic Social Teaching and senior English classes have an interconnected curriculum as the school works to infuse faith across the curriculum—another component of Vision ’30. That’s been happening for years with an Environmental Science course that also has English and Theology crossovers.
Furthermore, Pacetti met with adults from across several areas of the school at the start of the academic year to review the list of faculty and intentionally invite them to participate in retreats, team chaplaincy or C.A.T. programs. The idea is to help all teachers understand, participate and model what it means to be a community that knows how to live out and talk about their faith.
“We’re trying to really help our students become more adept at coming into a place and lead with their faith in an appropriate way that is inviting and inclusive,” says Pacetti. “We’re trying to equip both our students and our teachers to teach with that lens, that we’re ultimately called to work for peace and justice as one of our five Grad-at-Grad principles.”
That peace and justice component is where initiatives like Labre have recently sought to go deeper with students. While the work of Labre has always been impactful for students, in the past it led to questions in the vans that faculty and students alike weren’t sure how to wrestle with. Why did he say that he doesn’t want to stay in shelters?Where does the money come from to pay for their housing voucher? Why can’t she just apply for a job? What is the best way to eliminate homelessness?
It’s heavy stuff at times, and the issues stretch far beyond just homelessness. But aren’t these the kind of questions that a Jesuit education should be teaching students to grapple with? These young men can learn that solutions are rarely easy, but that fact doesn’t make it any less important to work toward finding them.
On campus, there are a variety of student interest groups that work for peace and justice on everything from the right to life, to race, gender and sexual identity, to immigration and ecological justice. “We’re finding a spectrum of justice-based student interests and support all of them from a Catholic Social Teaching framework,” Pacetti explains.
These interests often emerge from Sophomore Service class, or students’ lived experiences, or topics discussed in any number of classes. Despite the range of topics and varying levels of political potency, Catholic Social Teaching remains the guidepost for how to approach them.
As students learn firsthand through Christian service initiatives at Saint Ignatius, there are human beings with names and faces and stories behind each issue. And, as they learn in Theology class, these poor and forgotten and outcast are the ones with whom Christ most identified.
“Being Christian requires you to have a level of compassion for other people,” says senior Labre leader Owen Czyzynski, who became Catholic last year. “Matthew 25, that’s always the big scripture passage we bring up. That’s kind of our big calling to serve the lowly, and that was just something that I knew I couldn’t be Catholic if I stayed the way I was.”
Under the direction of Theology teacher and Labre co-moderator Amanda Martin, the dozen or so students who serve as Labre leaders participate in a monthly formation program with a curriculum focusing specifically on homelessness. It’s there that they prayerfully discuss the complexities of the issue, challenge their own perspectives and discern what their own Christian response should be.
“Labre leader formation has educated me a lot,” Owen says. “Most of the things we talked about I would never have known. It’s overwhelming almost to look at it, but you got to start somewhere. Obviously we’re doing charity with Labre, but justice is a larger scope.”
For Owen, his now-widespread involvement in various C.A.T. and Campus Ministry initiatives has shaped his faith and even his career path. He plans to apply to Loyola University Chicago’s nursing program because he’s realized he wants to be with people, get to know them and work to heal them.
There are countless alumni whose lives, careers and faith were similarly impacted by the faith and service mission of the school. Gill and Pacetti are wonderful examples of men who have chosen work that passes these lessons on to students, both through structured programming, but also simply through the ways they live their lives as role models for students. This is the type of men and women whom the school seeks to bring in, to carry on and deepen the mission for today’s students.
On a Wednesday morning in late October, 30 minutes before the start of school, 90 students pack into the Companions Center for the weekly C.A.T. meeting. With a new bell schedule, this window of time is one of the few when most other programming ceases to be held, enabling many students to attend.
C.A.T. meetings survived COVID when alternate formats and awkward schedules dampened attendance and the usual pep of the student gatherings. As the boys munch on breakfast, Gill invites students to share their stories from the past week: a tutoring session with a child, the funeral they served, a Kairos retreat, or the latest neighborhood Clean Team trash pick-up. As the boys speak up, Gill invites them to consider where God was in their work.
He does so with a kind smile and jumps in with the assist if a student can’t find the words, or maybe is just unsure of what his peers will think. But in this room, and indeed throughout campus, this is the kind of talk that is not only welcome—it’s encouraged. It’s the essence of how faith and service and justice all are intertwined and growing as the Spirit moves through the halls and malls of West 30th and Lorain.
There are teachers whose lives and whose work continue to bring students closer to Christ as Jim Skerl did throughout his life. They are faculty and staff and administration of the school, to be sure, but also people who exist outside of its walls. They have lessons to teach these young men, and the students are reminded of that daily.
But it is all in service to what they can learn from the greatest Teacher, who invites each and every one of them to Himself.