The Powerful Pillar of Prayer

Kairos retreats — a senior rite at Fenwick for the past 34 years — are life-altering for many students, each of whom has ‘a story.’

By Mark Vruno

Most faithful Friars can recite the four pillars of Dominican life: 1) prayer, 2) study, 3) community and 4) preaching. Fenwick’s Kairos retreats blend together three of these pillars (community, preaching and praying), but it truly personifies prayer most of all. The nationally recognized Roman Catholic program is a two-and-a-half day, off-campus experience designed for high school students.

The word Kairos (from the Greek καιρός) “means ‘God’s time,’ ” translates former Theology Teacher Lucy White, who oversaw the senior retreat program at Fenwick for seven years before retiring in spring 2018.

The Bellarmine Retreat House is situated on 80 acres in northwest suburban Barrington, Illinois.

“It is an opportunity for seniors to go apart and experience God, others and themselves in a new way. Fenwick is unique in that, in keeping with the Dominican tradition of preaching, the students, with adult supervision, are the leaders of the retreat,” Mrs. White continues. “We train the student leaders to give talks, lead small groups and guide the retreat. It is an opportunity for the students to be honest, open and supportive of each other in a safe, prayerful environment. Students open up and are supported by their peers in their struggles, pressures and fears as well as their successes. The senior class bonds as a whole, making life-long friendships. Many seniors say that it is their best experience of Fenwick.”

Young alumnus Kyle Gruszka ’17, from Chicago and now a third-class (year) cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, recounts: “Kairos really opened my eyes and helped me connect to my classmates in ways I couldn’t even imagine.” A graduate of St. Giles School in Oak Park, Gruszka is studying astronautical engineering in Colorado Springs.

Over more than three decades, nearly 10,000 Friar students have embarked on the student-run retreats. “I was on the very first Fenwick Kairos in December of 1985,” recalls former Campus Minister Fr. Dennis Woerter, O.P., D.Min. ’86, adding that fellow alumnus John Quinn ’76 was a faculty team member present at that inaugural retreat. Mr. Quinn remembers Kairos’ roots at Fenwick. “Father Peter Heidenrich, O.P., now deceased, was the driving force/founder of the program [here] ,” reports the long-time history/social studies teacher and former basketball coach.

Spanish Teacher and alumnus Jim Reardon ’86 served as a captain of that first Kairos, which was held at the Dominican House of Studies (Priory) in River Forest. A decade later, ’96 classmates turned Spanish and science teachers, respectively, Samantha Carraher and Brigid Esposito, were among the first female retreatants at Fenwick. Social Studies Teacher Gary Richied ’95 was the rector for that first co-ed Kairos in Fenwick history.

Class of 2020 team-building and bonding at October Kairos.

Fr. Heidenrich sought a spiritual component beyond classroom instruction. “He wanted to create a cutting-edge retreat program,” Mr. Quinn elaborates, wherein students could serve as living examples for each other. He traveled around the United States to different Catholic high schools and conferences, “probing and mining,” according to Quinn. “The vision was to seek out young people of great leadership and faith potential to be ministers of their own.”

With the school being comprised solely of boys during Kairos’ inception, the wise priest thought it was critical to obtain buy-in from coaches at the time, including Jim Nudera (football and wrestling) and Mike Latz ’81 (wrestling) in addition to theology teachers such as Br. Carlos Griego. “Young men were being asked to take on very different roles as faith leaders,” explains Quinn, then the Friars’ head varsity basketball coach. “Bringing in coaches as part of the Kairos leadership team was an integral part of Heidenrich’s strategy.” Strong support from the top down came from then-President Fr. William Bernacki, O.P., notes Quinn, followed later by Fr. Robert Botthof, O.P. and Fr. Richard LaPata, O.P. ’50.

Adds Athletic Director/alumnus Scott Thies ’99, “Kairos is a great tool for breaking down the barriers that often exist among different groups of teenagers.”

Fr. Woerter continues: “We all have an inherent desire to be and feel loved. Despite what may be going on in a student’s life, Kairos is an opportunity for him or her to simply experience love. Love of God and love of neighbor are two elements of the Great Commandment,” notes Woerter, who left Fenwick this past spring to become associate pastor with the St. Paul Catholic Center (Newman Center) at Indiana University. “Kairos allows the student to feel loved by both God and neighbor. I have witnessed the life-changing effect of Kairos, not only for individuals, but for entire classes.”

Embracing emotions

In mid-October, 51 members of the Class of 2020 — 25 boys and 26 girls — bused to the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, IL, some 50 miles northwest of Oak Park and Chicago. Fenwick facilitates six such retreats each school year, explains Math Teacher Maria Nowicki, who is in her second year of directing Kairos, which falls under the Campus Ministry umbrella. Two similar groups had their Kairos this past June and September, and three more will occur in December and next January and March.

“Our hope is that these young people grow stronger in their faith, get closer to God and actually feel His love during their time at Kairos,” Mrs. Nowicki says, emphasizing that the program is run by the students. A core team of 10 seniors, “who have made their own Kairos,” lead each retreat, she points out, while two others serve as rectors. “These students put on the retreats for their peers,” Nowicki notes, “and are assisted by a team of six adults.”

Kairos days and nights are rich in personal, heart-felt reflections and intimate sharing. More often than not, hearing their peers open up emotionally forges bonds and strengthens connections between classmates. What does it mean to Fenwick students chosen to be retreat leaders?

Joe Zawacki ’20, one member of the current senior leadership team, shares: “The opportunity to be a Kairos leader has to be the blessing for which I am most grateful in my life right now. The chance you have to preach God’s love and then witness it in action among the retreatants as they learn to embrace Kairos is indescribable,” says Zawacki, a musician and soccer player who hails from Oak Park and is a member of the Fenwick Math Team. “I don’t see anything better in life than this retreat and its power to bring our grade together, from one retreat to the next.”

Classmate Kennedy Berschel ’20 adds, “As a Kairos leader, I have never grown more respect or appreciation for the people I surround myself with every day at Fenwick. The overwhelming sense of trust, vulnerability and love displayed on every retreat is something that can only be described as God’s presence.” Berschel plans to study and play women’s soccer (she is a midfielder) at the University of Illinois next year.

Fellow senior and soccer defender Joe Sedlacek asserts, “The Kairos retreat has by far been the highlight of my four years here at Fenwick as I have actively been part of a life-changing program that unites an entire class into one, loving family. It taught me that no matter how different we may seem from each other, we are similar in a multitude of ways and can build lasting relationships.” Sedlacek, who grew up in La Grange Park and attended Park Junior High School, adds, “I am eternally grateful for the Kairos experience and hope every student feels the same.”

October Kairos participants were comprised of 25 boys and 26 girls.

What recent alumni are saying

Young alumna Meredith Kisla ’15, who graduated from high school four and a half years ago, relates, “Leading and rectoring Kairos was my greatest experience at Fenwick. I had the opportunity to deepen my relationships with my classmates, myself and my faith over the course of three days, and truly believe it has shaped the way I carry out my life.”

Kisla, who hails from Western Springs (St. Francis Xavier) and graduated from Saint Mary’s College (Notre Dame, IN) added, “Kairos is such a wonderful experience, and I am forever grateful for the many lessons, friends and memories I gained from each retreat.” This past spring, she began a career in public accounting in London, U.K.

Peter Salvino ’15 graduated this past May from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Her 2015 classmate Pete Salvino, a former Friar football player and recent neuroscience/electrical engineering graduate of Johns Hopkins, “was lucky enough to take part in Kairos twice; the second time as a leader. It really was unlike any other experience I had at Fenwick and gave me new appreciation for the type of people my classmates are.” Salvino grew up in River Forest and went to Roosevelt Middle School.

Other recent Fenwick graduates echo Salvino’s praise for the retreats. Daniela Echiveste ’16 credits Kairos as the one Fenwick experience that changed her the most. “The experience made me realize how blessed I am and to always keep in mind what other people are going through in life,” says the native Chicagoan (John Spry Community School) who is majoring in advertising management at Michigan State.

“Kairos really helped each person become closer to those around them and helped us realize that everyone has a story, and we don’t know what others have been through,” adds Elmhurst native and fellow alumna Margaret McLean ’16, now a senior nursing student at Saint Louis University. “Showing kindness to someone who is secretly going through a rough time can make a world of difference to them. I am going to carry this with me through my nursing career and offer love and kindness in all that I do.”

Jakarie Gates ’16 is a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia.

Jakarie Gates, their 2016 classmate and a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, notes, “Kairos taught me not to take the important things in life for granted: love and appreciation. Kairos made me appreciate time more.” Gates, who aspires to work in public relations/social media after graduation, also grew up in Chicago and attended St. Malachy Catholic School. He has been active in the North Lawndale Reads project through the Steans Family Foundation.

Anastasia Velliotis, another ’16 classmate, notes, “I absolutely loved Kairos because I feel that is when our class really connected the most. Being able to hear everyone’s story was incredibly inspirational and something that I will truly cherish and remember forever.” Velliotis, originally from Western Springs (La Grange Highlands Middle School), now is a senior in the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business.

Adds Lina, Anastasia’s mother, “I do believe the Fenwick Mission that inspires excellence and educates each student to lead, achieve and serve resonates with Friars long after they graduate. Fenwick should be proud!”

“The Fenwick Mission — that inspires excellence and educates
each student to lead, achieve and serve — resonates
with Friars long after they graduate.”

— past parent

So what goes on at Kairos?

There is an air of mystery surrounding Kairos. Seniors sort of know what it is, but they are not truly certain of what happens at the big retreat. There are wake-up and clean-up logistics, of course. “Kairos is simply something which needs to be experienced,” stresses Brother Joseph Trout, O.P., Chair of Fenwick’s Theology Department. “Knowing the sequence of events does not tell you what Kairos is any more than outlining a married couple’s daily schedule really tells you what it is like to be married.”

Alumnus Charlie Myers ’17 reflected on his own retreat experience three years ago. “Kairos was hands down the Fenwick experience that changed me most,” concludes Myers, a junior marketing major at Bradley University in Peoria, IL, who was raised in Chicago (Catalyst Circle Rock Elementary School). “But I won’t say too much — to not spoil it for the younger Friars.”

Classmate Lauren Lombard ’17, of Western Springs (St. John of the Cross), perhaps says it best. “Kairos at the beginning of my senior year showed me the love that surrounded me at Fenwick and allowed our grade to unite around each other for the remainder of our time together.” Now a college junior, Lombard is a chemical engineering major at the University of Notre Dame.

The environment of Kairos is extraordinarily supportive, explains Isabelle Bucolo ’20, a senior retreat co-leader for the 2019-20 school year. “Because of this, most people have found it to be a comfortable outlet for them to open up to others and to themselves. I am typically an open book,” admits Bucolo, an Elmhurst resident and accomplished alto singer (All-District) in the Fenwick Choir, “but Kairos has given me even more of an opportunity, and a great platform, for me to tell my story in order to help others. Kairos shows us that we have our own built-in support system. I think Kairos is incredible for this reason: not only are you helping yourself, but you are helping others.”

Amen.

More praise for Kairos

Kairos alumna Erin Kulik ’16 now is a senior at the University of Illinois.

“I would love to relive Kairos,” admits alumna Eryn Kulik ’16, a senior advertising major at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. “Kairos is a retreat that will bring classmates together to form life-long friendships. It is also a way for students to get to know God and themselves. Through Kairos I have learned to love and appreciate everything and everyone around me in a more positive way!” says Kulik, a double Friar (St. Vincent Ferrer) from Elmwood Park.

“My Kairos experiences shaped who I am today,” reveals Katie Vulich ’15, a former college swimmer at Bellarmine University in Louisville. “I learned something different as a retreatant, leader and rector. The retreat that stands out the most was my final Kairos and helping Fr. Dennis navigate the process. I owe that retreat for making me believe in my leadership skills,” recalls Vulich, a La Grange Park native (Cossitt Elementary and Park Junior High); she now is a Wellness and Recreation Graduate Assistant at St. Ambrose University in Iowa.

“The Fenwick experience that changed me was Kairos,” says Lorenzano Blakeney ’18, who plays football with his twin brother, Lorente, at Trinity International University in Deerfield, IL, where he is majoring in health science. “Before attending the trip, I had my doubts on whether I would even enjoy myself. I ended up reconnecting with a lot of people I used to talk to and meeting people who I’d never had a conversation with before.” The Blakeney brothers grew up in Chicago and attended Washington Irving Elementary School.

Rachel McCarthy ’17 is a junior at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington/Normal.

Rachel McCarthy ’17, an English literature/psychology double major at Illinois Wesleyan University, adds: “To me, Kairos was a powerful experience of acceptance and healing.” Ms. McCarthy grew up in Riverside and attended St. Mary School there.

Teaching Morals and Values to Teenagers

The theology curriculum at Fenwick brings together all students to ponder important issues.

By Brother Joseph Trout, O.P.

Determining the “best” is a notoriously complicated task. Is the best team the one with the most wins? The one with the most potential? The one that wins the last game? The one that won the most consistently?

This is no less challenging in classes. Are good students the ones with the best scores; with the clearest understanding of the material; or with the most original thought? What of those who ask the best questions? The list goes on. 

Brother Joseph Trout, O.P. engages junior theology students in a morality discussion.

As a teacher of morality, the task becomes even more complicated. Some students are standouts, not because they always get the questions right on the tests, but because they have lived through difficulty and grasp immediately the significance of moral issues. Others have a deep, personal commitment to faith and justice: They innately grasp what it means to be good and raise the level of discussion, but can’t always explain their convictions perfectly. Others still have a nuanced grasp of ideas and ace the tests but demonstrate no real commitment to enacting justice in their lives. Which of those is the best?  

The great equalizer

Dominican Spirituality: Mr. Patrick Mulcahy instructing senior theology students last March.

All of this is to say that a theology class remains a great equalizer in Catholic education. Everyone, regardless of personal beliefs and upbringing, needs to wrestle with the big-picture questions of life. Does God exist or not? If so, who or what is God? What is a just world? What counts as a life well lived? No one can afford to live the “unexamined life.”

Because the subject matter is usually beyond all of us (God), everyone needs to reach beyond themselves and question their assumptions about reality. Yet it is also deeply personal — who am I? What does it mean to be me? What is my relation to God, neighbor, society? How will I know that I have lived well? Some of the highest achieving students struggle tremendously with that kind of introspection, while some of the lowest achievers soar. 

Father Thomas Saucier, O.P. holds “court” with Class of 2020 theology students.

At the end of the day, theology is an excellent subject to help develop humility because you face an unconquerable task. Calculus and grammar can be mastered, but not theology. Its subject is a transcendent God who is infinitely more complex than the human mind can understand. We can learn many truths about God and come to a deep understanding of and relationship with God, but we cannot tame God. No matter how brilliant, good, insightful, original or articulate we are, we remain equal as short-lived creatures before the one who simply is.

Perhaps the students who grasp this, who know precisely what it is that they do not comprehend, are the best ones of all.

Fostering moral servant/leaders

All Fenwick students, regardless of religious affiliation, study four years of Theology:

  • Theology I: Scripture
  • Theolgy II: The Mission of Jesus Christ and Sacraments
  • Theology III: Moral Theology
  • Theology IV:  Interreligious Dialog (may be taken for college credit) and Dominican Spirituality

READ ALSO:

“How Fenwick Students Minister to Others” (Fall 2018 Friar Reporter, beginning on page 6).

“The Myth of Science vs. Religion”

“Summer of Service”

Freshman students from the Class of 2023 get a lesson on scripture.
Continue reading “Teaching Morals and Values to Teenagers”

What a Father Means to Me

In a post-Father’s Day reflection, a Fenwick senior remembers his late father – and thanks his big brother.

Fenwick soon-to-be senior Patrick Feldmeier wrote this essay for the Illinois Fatherhood Initiative. Patrick was honored, along with his older brother, Danny (Class of 2018), on June 6 at the Union League Club in Chicago.

By Patrick Feldmeier ’20

“One, two, three: Hi Daddy, we love you and we miss you.” (Mom always adds, ‘You’re in my heart, Sweetie.’)

Patrick (left) and Danny Feldmeier with their Dad, Bob, before his untimely death seven years ago.

These are the words my family says after grace every time we sit down for dinner. And simultaneously look at the open seat at the head of the table. Our hearts yearn for the man that God called up to Heaven seven years ago: Dad. It sends a shiver up my spine saying the word out loud, yet his presence still resonates in my family.

Every once in a while, his cologne can be smelled from his closet. His faded blue Ralph Lauren hat still hangs on the wall in my mom’s bedroom. His 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee may have finally been towed, but his K-Swiss “dad shoes” rest untouched in our mudroom. To say that Bob Feldmeier is a role model to me is an absolute understatement. Words will never express how much I miss him; how much I need him in my life; or how much I love him. Through my actions, I attempt to be like him every day.

Their father’s faded cap and “dad shoes” still can be found in the Feldmeier’s Western Springs home.

As a partner at Schiff Hardin, long hours seemed to swallow his work-week. Yet, somehow, someway, he always had time to play catch or take us to watch a White Sox game. After little-league games, my dad would take my brother and me out to “men’s dinners,” where he would teach us lessons such as, “It’s ok to admit it is cold, but it is not manly to complain about the cold.” He was also an avid Notre Dame alumnus and taught us the essence of hard work. The impression he left on me is what is most important. Through watching the way he treated my mom, my siblings and me, and kept God as a focal point in his life, I truly learned what it meant to be a father. His etiquette, manners and gentlemanliness are values I strive to model because I want my children to look up at me the way I look up to my Dad.

My father’s ultimate goal was for his family to live a life like his, which includes strong family bonds and an excellent, Catholic education. He continued to set an example of how to be a father and how to find strength through tragedy by protecting us until the very end.

Dad’s Gift of Peace

Robert Feldmeier
(1965-2012)

When he was first diagnosed with melanoma, he told my mother, “Do not tell the kids about my disease. I want to give them the gift of peace.” He truly was the perfect role model for a dad. It was more important to him to keep us happy and successful in life than for us to crumble under fear. His ultimate goal was for his family to live a life like his. Instead of succumbing to anger after his death, I honored his memory by achieving goals and setting the bar high for myself. I aspire to attend the University of Notre Dame, like him, and to provide for my family the same way that he did. His spirit lives on in my heart every day, and every day I thank God for one of the greatest gifts He has ever given me: my Dad. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my Dad was that a man is not solely defined by his career and accomplishments, but by his display of love to his family. Perhaps that was why he was able to stay strong during his last days, because he truly had reached his ultimate goal of success in life: to love and be loved by his family.

Continue reading “What a Father Means to Me”

Who Is God? Perhaps More Importantly, Who Isn’t He?

“Though they use the same word ‘God,’ they really have no idea what Aquinas means when he uses the word ‘God.’”

By Brother Joseph Trout, O.P.

Who is God? Much of theology at Fenwick revolves around this question. Who is the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God-man Jesus? What does it mean to interact with this God? They are big questions, and the answers have significant impact on our lives of faith. It makes a big difference if we think that:

  • A) God tested Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac just to see if he will do literally anything God asks no matter the cost, or
  • B) God tested Abraham to develop Abraham’s confidence in the true goodness of God who will honor his promises (descendants through Isaac) even when it seems completely contradictory to present experience.

Is God demanding beyond our comprehension, or good when it seems impossible? Is faith about blind obedience or profound trust in goodness? Personally, I find hope in the latter and not the former. Most times I read the news I need to be reminded that God truly is good though it just doesn’t seem to be the case in the world.

Christians need to wrestle with these kind of questions both for our relationship with God and our proclamation of Christ. Who is this God we stake our lives on? Who is this God that promises to save us?

However, there is perhaps a more fundamental question for today’s world: Who ISN’T God? What is God not? These are essential questions for a scientific age that dismisses God as superstitious explanation for inexplicable realities by our inferior ancestors. Is God really just our answer for what we don’t understood? Aquinas’ proofs are actually the opposite: God is the explanation behind what we do understand. God is the grounding of science beyond science itself. He is the logos — the very meaning of all existence and truth.

This topic pervades the videos of Bishop Barron. Many conflicts over science and religion come from people using totally different definitions of God. He astutely points out that the God rejected by Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins is also rejected by Aquinas and the wealth of Catholic history. We simply don’t mean the same thing when we talk about God.

Click here to view one video where Barron jumps straight into the issue.

As the season of Lent is kicking off, one spiritual purification to consider is not a moral one, but a theological one. Watch some videos by Barron or other Catholic theologians to get rid of the “Golden Calves” we build up. They aren’t just money and power but misunderstandings of the Way, the Truth and the Life. Ponder again what God we don’t believe in, and look again to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ to see exactly what God we cling to in faith.

This is the third post in our series of reflections on the work of Bishop Robert Barron, upcoming recipient of the Lumen Tranquillum (“Quiet Light”) Award. You can find the first and second posts here:

Continue reading “Who Is God? Perhaps More Importantly, Who Isn’t He?”

Advent Has Come!

Bishop Barron tell us, “The only way up is down.”

By Brother Joseph Trout, O.P.

Welcome to Advent! This is one of my favorite seasons of the church year, though it can easily get lost, sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That really is a shame because of how odd this season is: We begin by thinking about the end of the world. Yes, the Catholic Church begins its new liturgical year and the build-up to Christmas by pondering the end of time.

Of course, we claim the return of Christ in the last days truly is what we all want because he will put an end to suffering and injustice, so it’s not exactly a doomsday message. However, it is still sobering to ponder where all of life is going and to wrestle with the truth that we don’t live in a particularly just world now. I don’t know about you, but I would love for a world without “harm or ruin,” as the prophets promise. I’d also love to live in a world where I don’t make any mistakes that cause pain around me. Alas, that is not this world yet.

That is why advent is a season of hope — hope for the coming of perfect mercy and justice. It’s a gritty virtue for people in need, not the fluffy one often imagined. It’s the virtue of being on a journey towards God and trusting goodness really will reign one day. It’s for those who don’t have everything they want and know they need something more. We need Christ, the light who shines in the darkness. We also need to ponder the darkness if we want to appreciate the light.

Though it says nothing about advent or Christmas, I find Bishop Barron’s video, “Dante and the Spiritual Journey,” a great way to get this season of hope started. Dante’s Divine Comedy tells of the life as a pilgrim and the ways we can get lost on the journey. Barron’s line that catches me every time I watch the video is: “The only way up is down.”

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron

Without spoiling the video for you, Barron reminds us that we have to wrestle with the reality of our sins, the limits of earthly life and finite creation if we ever really want to find joy. We can’t receive the love of God and others this season if we don’t let go of selfishness first. After all, ’tis the season of paradoxes where we begin at the end and embrace the omnipotent God of justice in the form of a defenseless child. So why not go down to go up first?

Continue reading “Advent Has Come!”