By Father Peter Pilsner, Director of Spiritual Activities/Administrator, Cardinal Spellman Catholic High School, Bronx, NY

Cardinal Spellman High School’s year opened with a mass offered by our Archbishop, Timothy Cardinal Dolan. Just before the dismissal, he had a few final words. “Before I go, I have to say something. I have a feeling that things are working here at Cardinal Spellman High School. Something’s clicking!” 

I had a hunch about what he meant, and later I had it confirmed. What had struck his Eminence by the end of the mass was that Cardinal Spellman felt Catholic to him. Maybe it was the prayerfulness of the students, or the enthusiasm of the choir, or the students he met afterwards, but whatever it was, our Catholic identity in that moment had become tangible to him. 

This quality of “feeling Catholic” comes from Catholic school culture. It arises when certain elements of a Catholic school gel, such as the faith witness of the teachers, Christian leadership from the upperclassmen, seriousness in the liturgy, and faithful theology in the classroom. When these and other elements of Catholic identity combine and reach a certain level of strength, school culture shifts and faith becomes tangible. You can “feel” it. 

How did this happen at Spellman? I could point to a few key hiring decisions and other factors. But most of all, I attribute it to Divine Providence. Christ, in his mercy, has brought together the right people and empowered them to bring his light into our school in a way I have not seen in my twenty-six years here. This tells me two things. First, we cannot take this blessing for granted. If we have received a gift of providence, we now have a duty to take hold of it and make it intentional. Second, if this is what Catholic culture looks like, we want more of it! 

But let me take you back to August of 2021, before we got to this point. That month I was making a retreat with Fr. Robert Spitzer. In one of our spiritual direction sessions, I related some of my frustrations about improving Catholic identity at Spellman. His advice was straightforward: “Call Rich Meyer and Pat Reidy at JSerra Catholic High School.” As Fr. Spitzer continued to tell me more about JSerra, my interest grew. Rich and Pat were successfully doing at JSerra what I was trying to do at Spellman. I needed to talk to them. Once home in the Bronx, I contacted Rich, who told me that JSerra was part of a larger organization that shared my passion for strengthening Catholic identity and mission – Duc in Altum Schools Collaborative. He arranged a zoom meeting with Kyle Pietrantonio, and by that meeting’s end I was eager to attend the 7th Annual DIA Schools Summit in Nashville, Tennessee.  

I went to Nashville accompanied by Spellman’s President, Dan O’Keefe. Three things impressed me about that Summit. First, I was uplifted to visit a school, St. Cecilia Academy, which had a strong Catholic culture, where faith was infused into every dimension of its mission – worship, academics, clubs. It exemplified what a Catholic school could and should be. Second, the presentations – especially on questions of race and gender ideology – showed me that DIA did not shy away from the difficult issues that all Catholic schools face. The experts they brought in (such as Dr. Heather Thomas) understood both contemporary culture and the demands of fidelity to Catholic teaching. They could critique trends such as DEI, while helping us find the positive alternatives we needed. Third, the Summit was designed to meet our needs as Catholic administrators and teachers. The presenters understood our challenge to make the truth of the gospel more attractive and compelling to the students than the “shiny objects” and fake joys of the toxic culture. They helped us find new ways to reach our students and to lead their eager minds, good will, and open hearts to Christ and his Church. With all of this, I left Nashville convinced that (1) I had to come to next year’s Summit, and (2) I had to bring other people l with me. 

The 2022 DIA Schools Summit in Orange County, California, at JSerra Catholic High School fulfilled my hopes. I was accompanied by two colleagues, Emily Bradley, our Assistant Principal for Academics, and Caleb Buchanan, our Director of Catholic Mission and D.E.I.B. Initiatives. They experienced everything I did in Nashville and more. We liked seeing the students at JSerra on a normal school day and interacting with them. We were impressed with the devotion and demeanor of the students when we joined them for the weekly mass. We saw names of virtues everywhere – “faith” on lamposts and “affability” on white boards. This virtue-positive messaging was explained at the keynote presentation by the sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist on “virtue of the week.” We were so inspired by what we heard and saw, we made plans to institute “virtue of the month” at Spellman. Emily and Caleb left the Summit excited to have shared resources with other administrators and teachers who are as excited about Catholic identity and mission as they are. And they were convinced that more people from Spellman needed to experience the DIA summit the following year.

Hence, last October, the Spellman team went from three people to six at the 9th Annual DIA Schools Summit at Catholic University. Together with Emily, Caleb, and myself, we had Lauren Gentry, our Director of Campus Ministry, Jocelyn Vallejo, Spanish teacher and choir director, and Dr. Sean Nolan, English teacher. The plenary sessions were inspirational – Fr. Spitzer and Helen Alvare were our favorites – and the breakout sessions helped us grapple with the practical challenges we all face. Back in the Bronx, we have been talking about what we gained and what we can implement, asking especially how we can bring Catholic identity to every subject area in the school curriculum. 

How we were able to get the time and resources to attend the Summit was rather simple. We had full support from Spellman’s President, Dan O’Keefe and our Principal, Ms. Jeri Faulkner. Catholic mission and identity is important to them, so they were willing to allocate the funding and arrange for us to take the time. Being away for three days was a sacrifice for Spellman and for each one of us, who are busy people dedicated to the formation and education of our students. But it was worth it, because what we brought home will help us keep Cardinal Spellman High School “feeling Catholic” for a long time to come. We hope to be back next year with our team, and (if I succeed) with another school. 

Watch: “The Catholic Ethos is Alive” with Caleb Buchanan, Chief Diversity and Catholic Mission Officer, Cardinal Spellman High School