Rev. John Swope, a 1972 graduate of the St. Joseph’s Prep, is currently the President of Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore, which he founded in 2006. He was recently appointed President of his alma mater, a role he will assume at the close of the 2014-2015 academic year. (see news story).
Fr. Swope, SJ, shared his vocation story with us.
Fr When did you realize you had a vocation to the Jesuits and to the priesthood?
Because of my daily contact with the Jesuits as a student at St. Joseph’s Prep in Philadelphia, the cumulative effect of the “Jesuit atmospherics” made its mark on me. While Jesuit high schools had not yet developed the robust campus ministry programs to which we are so accustomed today, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day silent retreat as a senior. For the first time, I had an experience of Jesus Christ through the scriptures. This stayed with me. However, I did not decide to apply to the Jesuits until my junior year at King’s College, while on a weekend trip during my study abroad program in Grenoble, France. With some friends, we decided to take a long weekend to travel to Biarritz, on the Bay of Biscay in far southwestern France. Serious planning was not our forte; and when we changed trains in Valence, it was standing room only. Unbeknownst to me, it was Pentecost weekend, and pilgrims were headed to Lourdes, which was actually on the way to Biarritz. After standing by the bathroom at the end of the train car for five hours, we basically gave up and stayed in Lourdes for the weekend. I remember being shocked by the many merchants, peddling trinkets of one sort of another outside the shrine, but after entering through the main gate off the Boulevard de la Grotte, the atmosphere changed. We wound up down at the grotto all day on Friday and Saturday with those who needed a little extra help accessing the healing spring water. I had the overwhelming sense that my weekend was not a coincidence. Finally, at the outdoor Mass on Pentecost Sunday, I resolved to become a Jesuit.
What and who were the most formative influences in your life until that point?
Growing up I was loved by my parents. Over the years, I realized that my father is a man of great integrity and inner strength and that my mother was a wonderfully compassionate person. My brothers and sisters have come to say that my mother ran her own non-profit out of the trunk of the car! She was everywhere, being as woman in service to others. Some of whom would inevitably wind up at our Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table! The cumulative effect of their example and their love for me and my siblings was that great influence.
Your life with the Jesuits has centered on education. How do you understand your vocation now?
The old Jesuit adage goes: “The reasons for which I entered the Jesuits are not the same as my reasons for being a Jesuit today”. Of course, this snippet of wisdom probably reflects the experience of many Christian men and women as they renew their faith-driven life commitments on a daily basis. As a Jesuit in leadership, God makes Godself present to me in my mission as a school leader. I see my Jesuit identity as pouring myself out everyday with the sole purpose of creating the conditions so that my Jesuit and lay colleagues can discover and develop their vocation as educators and administrators in service of the Cristo Rey Jesuit mission. I renew this commitment everyday in prayer.
How did you go about establishing Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore?
Believe me, it took a village to raise up our school! From a feasibility study, to the building of a board of trustees, to the final permission to open from Rev. Timothy B. Brown, SJ, then-Provincial of the Maryland Jesuits, we have hit a lot of milestones along the way. We found families clamoring for an alternative form their sons and daughters, yearning for a better future for them. We found men and women from across Baltimore’s faith communities wanting to support the school. I think there is a truth about Cristo Rey Jesuit that is compelling. Before Cristo Rey Jesuit opened its doors in 2007, a Catholic high school had not been founded in more than forty years. Cristo Rey Jesuit was new!
At the end of the day, the Jesuits, the business and philanthropic community, parents and their teenage sons and daughters throughout the Baltimore region seemed to reach the conclusion that what Baltimore needed most in 2007 was not people talking about the Gospel. They needed to see the Gospel. That is the Cristo Rey Jesuit mission, and that is why support continues to grow every year. As I said, it takes a village to raise a child. Baltimore has raised Cristo Rey Jesuit well!
There was an announcement earlier this year that this will be your last year as President of Cristo Rey. How are you approaching this transition?
For a transition you need both a “from” and a “to”. My next mission will be in Jesuit education, and we are close to a decision and announcement. After a couple of ministry transitions, I have slowly discovered with God what is essential and what is peripheral to my identity as a Jesuit in educational leadership. Through quiet reflection on experience, I have come to learn many technical skills, but also, and perhaps more importantly, an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of my own leadership style. I am grateful to brother Jesuit and to lay partners in mission who have helped to learn. This makes me feel confident in the face of a transition.