Leadership Training for Young Catholics

A grounding in the virtues is a basic component of this fast-growing area of Catholic education.

Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza meets with the Gregorian Fellows at Benedictine College.
Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza meets with the Gregorian Fellows at Benedictine College. (photo: Benedictine College)

HUNTINGTON, N.Y. — Along with acquiring practical skills, such as how to produce a radio spot or write a letter to the editor of a publication, Catholic high-school students at a leadership training seminar on Long Island, N.Y., later this summer will receive a stack of writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

“The Angelic Doctor” may seem an odd choice for a leadership seminar, but Father Peter Stravinskas, executive director of the Catholic Education Foundation, and philosopher Peter Redpath, executive director of the Adler-Aquinas Institute, have designed a course that relies heavily on the saint.

“Aside from being a brilliant human being and a person of sanctity,” Redpath said, “Aquinas was one of the greatest organizational geniuses and educational leaders the world has ever known.”

According to its brochure, the seminar has two goals: “The short-term goal of the seminar is that its participants will return to their Catholic high schools to share the insights they have gained, especially within student government and various aspects of student life; the long-term goal is that participants will feel confident in their future respective spheres of influence to be a competent and positive voice for Christ and his Church.”

“We’re trying to develop leadership for the lay apostolate,” said Father Stravinskas. “It is what the Second Vatican Council had in mind in terms of the laity being the leaven in society, the salt, in their fields, precisely as laypeople — the world of culture, the arts, politics, education, so that who they are at the deepest core of their being carries over into their work week and is not something left at the door of the church on Sunday.”

The course will be offered Aug. 3-8 at Immaculate Conception Seminary, Huntington (Long Island), N.Y. College credit is available in some cases for the seminar.


Burgeoning Field

The Aquinas-based leadership seminar is just the latest in what seems to be a burgeoning field in Catholic education in both high schools and colleges. Catholic leadership training comes with a twist — it’s not simply designed to instill skills needed to succeed, but includes grounding in the virtues.

“Most people hear the word ‘leadership’ and assume it is simply a neutral process. They bypass the discussion of ends — who the human person is, what the good is, etc. If you don’t get that right, you could end up with an understanding of leadership that is solely utilitarian,” said Joe Wurtz, dean of students at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.

Benedictine puts a strong emphasis on developing leadership. One of Benedictine’s leadership seminars is designed for students elected to offices and in other formal leadership positions on campus. It deals with everything from time management to acquiring humility and other Benedictine values. “For us, leadership training starts with personal formation,” Wurtz said.

Benedictine College is also home to the Gregorian Fellows, a program named after the first Benedictine pope. It is open to 25 students each year who show exceptional leadership potential. They attend workshops where practical skills are taught and attend a fellows-only retreat.

Prominent speakers, such as author and Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculée Ilibagiza, constitutional law professor Hadley Arkes and Princeton professor Robert George have spoken to the Gregorian Fellows as part of the college’s “Distinguished Speaker” series. “Our mission is to promote Catholic identity in public life,” said Wurtz.


Catholic Virtue

Jesuit Father John Belmonte, superintendent of the Catholic high schools in the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., said that Catholic leadership training is especially important in light of the prominence of Catholic politicians who do not adhere to the teachings of the Church.

“Catholic politicians,” said Father Belmonte with a sigh. “In many cases, it’s not easy to put these two words — ‘Catholic’ and ‘politician’ — together. Honestly, it is quite shocking.” Father Belmonte has what some might consider a novel approach to leadership training: School professionals in Joliet attend Ignatian retreats, which Father Belmonte regards as a form of leadership training.

Ronald McNamara, who is coordinator of student leadership development at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, said that his university’s program grew out of a question asked by Franciscan Father Michael Scanlan. Father Scanlan is Franciscan’s revered president emeritus.

“Father Scanlan’s question was this: If we aren’t producing leaders at Franciscan, where are Catholic leaders going to come from?” said McNamara, who is a veteran of more than three decades in Washington, where he served as a Senate aide and legislative assistant.

Franciscan’s leadership training combines such purely practical activities as working on a good résumé and public speaking with grounding in Catholic teaching. “I’ve encountered people who have the skills to get things done but are not necessarily grounded in the virtues,” recalled McNamara of his Washington years.


Catholic-Anchored Leadership

Marian Catholic High School’s leadership training grew out of a concern similar to Father Scanlan’s. “Our leadership training program began with people sitting around a table in 2004 and asking what Catholic leadership would be like 10 or 20 years into the future,” said Bobby Lambert, who teaches music and handles the leadership program at Marian, a co-ed school founded by Dominican nuns in Chicago Heights, Ill.

“We wanted to ensure that future leaders have a Christian and Catholic anchor,” he said. “We knew that some of the most effective leadership skills were exhibited by the saints, the disciples and Christ himself.”

The leadership program at Marian Catholic is a mix of grounding in virtues and practical experiences. “When we talk about responsibility, we do a food drive,” Lambert explained.

Seniors are expected to develop the skills they need to teach freshmen leadership classes. They talk about how to deal with hot-button issues such as abortion or suicide and videotape themselves to see how they come across while talking about emotional issues.

“We try to get them to a place where they can feel strongly about these issues but talk about them in a way that is not accusatory [towards others],” he said.


‘Eight Essentials’

While many Catholic schools use specifically Catholic material or a traditional list of the virtues, Karen Skoog, who teaches leadership at Eastside Catholic High in Sammamish, Wash., said that her classes develop a list of “eight essentials” for being a good leader out of discussions of such figures as Christ, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. Kindness, honesty, love, humility and patience almost always make the list, she said.

“Our goal is that when we put on an activity,” Skoog said, “we do it with these qualities in mind. If we don’t clean up after an event, it means that the custodians have to do it, and we aren’t leading with kindness.”

Skoog thinks that the leadership training has had a profound effect on the student body. “One of the things I notice is that teachers who come from other schools always comment on how kind our kids are,” she said.

“The question of leadership is wrapped up in the question of vocation,” said Michael Adkins, academic dean at St. Agnes School, a K-12 school in St. Paul, Minn. Adkins considers taking St. Agnes students to Rome or other holy sites as part of leadership training because it can instill a love of the Church and Church teachings. They also deal with practical matters such as how to build teams and often have students who have graduated come back and speak about their own experiences as leaders.

“It is powerful when somebody can come back to St. Agnes and can stand before our students and say, ‘I was captain of the football team at my college, and when there was lewd language in the locker room, I could stand up and say something about it,’” Adkins said.

Adkins compares this kind of leadership to that of such leaders as U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Joseph Biden, who come from Catholic backgrounds yet do not stand up for what the Church teaches. The right kind of leadership training, Adkins and others say, can help the Church foster truly Catholic leaders.


Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.



For more information on the Aquinas-based leadership seminar in August, contact Father Peter Stravinskas at (732) 914-1222 or [email protected]