Chicago has a rich history of multicultural and religious backgrounds, with one of the largest Catholic populations of any American city. With a third of Chicagoans self-identifying as Catholic even as religious affiliation has dwindled in recent times, the Catholic Church has a strong presence in many facets of Chicago. One such area is education. Private Catholic schools from elementary to postgraduate levels are common alternatives to Chicago Public Schools. I had the pleasure of speaking with Fr. Stephen Katsouros, a Jesuit priest at Loyola University Chicago, who is working to change the affordability of and access to private Catholic schools. He shared the origin story of the Jesuits, a religious order founded by Saint Ignatius, as well as his current work as an author and founder of the new Aruppe College at Loyola University Chicago.
To understand his passion for education, you really have to understand the Jesuits, officially known as the Society of Jesus. It’s a big name to live up to and one that has caused controversy for hundreds of years.
Because probably 3% of you reading this know what a Jesuit is, here’s the Cliffnote version from Fr. Stephen:
Saint Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish priest born in the late 15th century in Basque Country, Spain. The youngest of thirteen children (talk about a stereotypical Catholic family), Ignatius was a soldier with a penchant for romance and fame in the Spanish court. This all changed when he was hit in the leg by a cannonball. Yikes, that would require major surgery now, just imagine sustaining that injury in the 1500’s!
It’s no wonder this experience changed his outlook on life and made him turn to religion for comfort and meaning. While recovering in his family’s castle, yes, castle, Ignatius’s only reading materials were the Bible and Lives of the Saints by Piotr Skarga. He took particular inspiration from Saint Francis of Assisi and soon wrote his own prayer book titled Spiritual Exercises. Controversial at the time, the book is still used in Jesuit retreats today due to its focus on meditative reflection.
Ignatius enrolled in the University of Paris, the top school of the time, because he believed people following the Catholic Church deserved to have well-educated spiritual and community leaders guiding them. In 1540, the Pope approved Ignatius’s creation of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. The name, like its founder, was extremely controversial because it was seen as arrogant to so closely align oneself with Jesus. The Jesuits owned this “arrogance” to a certain extent while quickly making a name for themselves as excellent teachers because of their extensive educational and theological training.
Religious leaders encouraged Ignatius to open schools for lay people after seeing the Jesuits’ success with educational training. Thankfully, after initially refusing, the first Jesuit school opened in Messina, Sicily in the 1540’s. Today, there are over 200 Jesuit colleges and universities around the world with 28 in the United States.
Besides education, the most important takeaway from Jesuit history is their open minded appreciation of foreign cultures. I think we, as Americans, can really learn something from the methods used by these Medieval missionaries.
Ignatius sent his friend and fellow Jesuit, Saint Francis Xavier eastward to India, China, and Japan to evangelize Christianity with a new, respectful twist! Instead of treating native people like barbaric sinners and ignoring their existing culture, Francis Xavier learned the people’s language, culture, and customs. Ignatius and Francis Xavier wanted to send a message of tolerance, as they believed Jesus would have. In Fr. Stephen’s words, Ignatius’s philosophy was, “not this top down, we have all the answers and we’re going to enlighten you, but rather, let’s learn from each other.”
This tolerant and vanguard approach to ministry, to me, really circles back to Ignatius’s passion for education. All people, especially religious leaders serving as community spiritual guides, should be in a constant state of learning both from the wider world and each other. A conversation is always better than a declaration.
Fr. Stephen is no stranger to this thorough Jesuit training, beginning with volunteer work during college. He volunteered as a layperson throughout college and after completing his English degree. After a few years of familiarity in the organization, the society approached him to “try out” the next step toward Jesuit religious life….and he’s remained with them for 30 years.
After decades of working with American students, Fr. Stephen Katsouros took on his biggest project yet: Arrupe College at Loyola University Chicago. It’s impossible to understate the current college tuition crisis at American universities. The internet is rife with stories of underserved high school valedictorians achieving perfect SAT scores and receiving acceptance letters from Ivy League schools. They are truly extraordinary young people who will go on to achieve great success. But what happens to students who graduate high school, but are from low income families and aren’t at the top of their class? They too, are extraordinary young people who can go on to achieve great success if given the chance to flourish in higher education.
The first of its kind for Jesuit colleges, Arrupe College offers a debt-free, two-year Liberal Arts Associate’s Degree for Chicago’s hardworking, but underserved students who too often “get lost in the shuffle.” Loyola University Chicago costs $55,000-$60,000 per year which is daunting even for most middle class families. A large chunk of this hefty sticker price comes from room and board which Arrupe College bypasses by being a commuter only campus. All in all, the operating costs per student come out to $15,804. Unless they are undocumented, students receive $10,000 in financial aid and only pay $1,200 per year. The rest is fundraised.
The goal of the college is to put students in a position to pursue a 4-year degree. Arrupe College administrators have built relationships with many universities to increase acceptance and scholarships of their graduates. For example, Arrupe graduates who transfer to complete their Bachelor’s at Loyola receive university assistance for their room and board.
The Jesuits have undertaken a groundbreaking experiment to expand access and affordability to underserved young adults over the past few years. Similar programs have been implemented at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Christ the King, and Chicago Jesuit Academy and opened twenty years ago in the Pilsen and Austin neighborhoods of Chicago with great success. At Cristo Rey, Spanish-speaking students with limited finances get a quality education from a private school without the price tag. Enrolled students participate in an innovative Corporate Work Study Program to offset the cost of their tuition. This high school work study program has since been implemented in 32 schools nationwide.
Outside of these pilot programs, organizations, like the Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund, fund deserving students the opportunity to attend private Jesuit institutions. In fact, over 100 Murphy Scholars are attending the prestigious Jesuit schools of St. Ignatius and Loyola Academy. So Chicago was already primed with many successful experimental education examples paving the way for Arrupe College.
How does Fr. Katsouros ensure success among his students at Arrupe? It’s simple: make them feel wanted, supported, and engaged in their college community. He explains that the college’s focus on an immersive summer orientation dramatically increases retention. They meet their classmates, professors, advisors, and learn the layout of the campus to make their transition to college as painless as possible. No one’s getting lost in the shuffle with Fr. Katsouros on duty!
He personally gives each accepted student a picture frame, telling them to put a picture of themselves in it for the time being. “But,” he continues, “hang onto this frame because two years from now, in this frame you’re going to put your diploma from Arrupe College of Loyola University.”
Watch the entire interview: