'The Homily of Saint Peter' by Artist Lorenzo Veneziano via Wikimedia Commons

Beacon in a Darkening World

Facing the “weight of the culture” head on, maverick champion of Catholic education Keith Kiser describes a path of learning that begins with “a humanity renewed from the inside out,” with an attention to the desires of the students.
Chris Bacich

St. Joseph Catholic School has been nationally recognized for several years as one of “America’s Best Catholic High Schools,” with a 100% college acceptance rate, outstanding SAT/ACT and AP scores, and an unprecedented number of National Merit Finalists, with all sports teams reaching playoffs and many winning championships. The community in Greenville, South Carolina, attributes this school’s success to the faith and commitment of its Headmaster since the year 2000, Keith Kiser, who has grown the school from 164 to 650 students. What is at the heart of his work in a society that conspires against the recognition of the true value of the person? Traces caught up with this father of ten at the frenetic outset of the academic year to explore his unique approach to education–and life.

Your school of 650 students plus staff must present so many challenges. How do you as Headmaster face the daunting task of attending to each and every person without being overwhelmed?
The education of my students begins with my own education. I want to make a proposal to my teachers that they can pass on to their students. But, like my teachers, I feel the weight of the culture in which we live, a culture that at every turn suffocates the true nature of the person. This is why I go to School of Community each week: to be educated to my true need as a person and to hear the witnesses of those who experience that need fulfilled in Christ. Without this education, I succumb to the same reductions that everyone else does. What good am I as a Headmaster if I don’t daily remember that I belong to Another who is making me now and whose presence in the here-and-now (and often difficult) events of daily life awakens me to what I truly desire? When I hear Fr. Carrón tell us that “the time of the person has come,” I see this as a summons to a greater personal certainty that Christ is the answer to the need that I am. Without this certainty, I have very little to offer my school.

What goals do you identify as the most urgent for the individual student who attends St. Joseph’s?
I want my students, first and foremost, to be human. Our school is located in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Many of our students come to us already polite and pious. This is not a bad thing, but it’s not enough to adhere to Christ for a lifetime, let alone for the rest of high school or college. I was very much like many of our students in this respect when I was growing up. While I walked and talked the Christian message, Christ had very little to do with fulfilling the true needs of my heart. Frankly, I did not know what I wanted at all. I just thought I had to be good to please God–again, not a bad thing but a reduction that kept me from a greater happiness. Speaking from my experience, I think the most urgent need is for my students to know just how big their desire truly is–so big that nothing finite can satisfy that desire. I watch athletes spend countless hours in the weight room and see how they train year round for the opportunity to be champions or to be able to play sports in college. I also see how hard many of our students work at their academics in the hope that they might be accepted into an elite college. While not wishing to reduce these desires, I want them to judge from their own experiences that not even the greatest of successes will ever be enough to satisfy their infinite need for happiness. Most urgently, I want my students to experience, through a firsthand encounter with Christ in the communion of His Church, that they have definitively met the true match for their heart’s desire.

As a Catholic educator, are you concerned about the dominant mentality of the society undermining the maturation of faith in your students?
It might be naiveté on my part, but I am less concerned about the threat of cultural hegemony “from the outside” challenging our faith than I am about the cultural hegemony that we carry “on the inside” of each of us. The more successful and established the school becomes (we are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year), the more I worry that our success could reduce the vibrancy of our expression of the faith. In the early days of the school, all we had was faith. Our school was started by a handful of lay women who had $800 in the bank. These women took one “leap of faith” after another in the school’s first decade. Now that we are successful and being recognized locally, regionally, and even nationally, I am concerned that we will become like everyone else. We will lose our prophetic voice if we give in to the common mentality. This is another reason Fr. Giussani’s charism is so vital for me. It educates me to the needs of my heart for Christ, needs that are there whether we as a school are struggling or successful.

How do you evaluate the impact of the HHS mandate that could force the closings of Catholic institutions, such as your own school?
It seems to me that it has roused us to the realities that we are facing in the current cultural situation. There’s a pernicious evil in our midst called positivism that has been eating away at the definition of the true nature of the person for some time now. As the Holy Father said in Porta Fidei, we can no longer assume a common Christian understanding of man and things. When the meaning of the person is devalued, as it surely is in the positivistic mentality that produced this mandate, the powers that be assert themselves with greater control over even the most intimate aspect of our lives. Much is at stake here politically, but even more is at stake for the individual person. This is why Fr. Carrón’s rallying cry that “the time of the person has come” should catch our full attention. To rediscover ourselves, we need to rediscover Christ, the One who reveals man to himself. It’s not a matter of simply getting our philosophical anthropology correct or of knowing who our political enemies are. It’s a matter of allowing Christ’s gaze to show us our true nature, dignity, and grandeur as children of God. We can’t win the political battle without a humanity renewed from the inside out. The evil is too great.

Are you concerned about your students, growing up in this environment?
I have a lot of hope for my students in the face of this threat. When I introduce my 9th grade Religion class to the “truths of the ‘I’” that Fr. Giussani teaches us in The Religious Sense, I see that it instantly corresponds to them. I also witness how generously they respond to those teachers who unashamedly witness to and present them with the Christian ideal with all the personal sacrifice and commitment this entails. I have watched the transformative power of various small, ad hoc Christian communities that pop up from time to time in the school around a certain teacher or coach. Furthermore, I am watching the CL student group GS take deeper root, witnessing to the liberating power of this communion in Christ. I am also beginning to see how our graduates continue to adhere to Christ in His Church even when they leave us and go to the university. My experience shows me that they need a teacher who makes a clear proposal with his or her life as well as his or her words. Part of this proposal needs to be an invitation to a life of communion in the Church, an invitation to a lifelong companionship like we experience in the CL Movement. Christianity reduced to ethics and doctrine, as important as these are, won’t be enough to sustain their faith as they enter society as young adults. Only Christ judged present in their reality can sustain them when everything in the culture points in the opposite direction.

Do you see this drama played out among your students?
I see the impact of the culture I referred to earlier in the lives of several of my students, particularly in the breakdown of their parents’ marriages. The insecurity that results from this situation can leave the students unaware of their true value and worth and therefore deeply angry. The number of 13-, 14-, and 15-year-olds in counseling and on anti-depressants and anxiety medication is staggering. Thankfully, I have been educated through the Movement to realize that even the most difficult circumstances can be a call from the Mystery to a deeper self-awareness–circumstances are “a vocation.” Time and again, I’ve seen students from “broken homes” respond with steadfast adherence to the Gospel. Perhaps these students respond vigorously because they are deeply aware of their need for unconditional love and belonging. This is the opportunity my teachers and I have: to continually remind the students to Whom they belong. The history of the past century shows us that it is precisely those (such as Blessed John Paul II, Blessed Mother Teresa, St. Maximilian Kolbe, and Lech Walesa) who have an authentic self-awareness in Christ who are able to not only survive in the midst of an ever tightening grip of a hostile society, but truly thrive as beacons for others in a darkening world.