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Keith Jiron, executive director and co-founder of the Evangelium Institute, leads a faculty formation session on reconciliation at St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic School in 2017. ANDREW SCIBA

Evangelium Institute to take over forming teachers as leaders in faith

“It was eye-opening, the freedom you could have in a school and the conversations I could have with my students,” said Carly Mendlik, a fifth and sixth grade English teacher at St. Patrick School in Elkhorn. 

Mendlik is one of hundreds of teachers across the Archdiocese of Omaha whose ability to communicate the faith and a love for Jesus has been enhanced through a special program she has taken part in through her school. 

St. Patrick is one of 65 urban and rural schools in the archdiocese that, for the past five years, has provided faith formation and catechesis for its faculty through the Holy Family School of Faith Institute. 

According to its website, the School of Faith, a catechetics and discipleship apostolate based in Overland Park, Kansas, “exists to instill the Christian DNA in all people by inviting them into friendship with Jesus in daily deepening prayer, inspiring them to personally invest in friendship with others through meaningful conversation, and equipping them to invite others into this way of life.” 

The formation School of Faith provides in the Omaha archdiocese is funded by Ignite the Faith, a capital campaign conducted by the archdiocese from 2011 to 2012 with long term goals of improving faith formation and Catholic education, among other things.  

“When I first found out that there was School of Faith, I was really excited because this is one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to switch to a Catholic school, because I wanted to grow in my own faith,” Mendlik said. 

This past school year was Mendlik’s first teaching in a Catholic school, and it surprised her how much she was able to infuse faith into her instruction. “It was uplifting because the conversations could be pointed towards Christ and I think any conversation about him is uplifting for students,” she said.

In a Catholic school, Christ guides students’ academic growth as well as their social and emotional development, said Mendlik, a former public school teacher who was not allowed to share her faith in the classroom. “He’s at the center of all of it.”

MOVING FORWARD 

With most Ignite the Faith funds having been spent, School of Faith decided not to renew its contract with the Archdiocese of Omaha for the 2019-20 school year. However, due to the pressing need for this apostolate, two School of Faith instructors, Keith Jiron and Deacon Omar Gutiérrez, have decided to continue essential portions of the program under a new name, the Evangelium Institute. 

“We started to feel a nudge by the Holy Spirit to spin off and begin our own nonprofit sometime last fall,” said Jiron. “It just seemed to be kind of a natural transition as the local needs have come more to the forefront, and Deacon Omar and I were sensing that,” he said.

One of the goals of the Evangelium Institute is to continue transitioning the School of Faith’s formation from purely informational sessions to more small group discussion. Personal conversations help further the archbishop’s pastoral vision of equipping disciples, Deacon Gutiérrez said. 

As a new teacher at St. Patrick, these small faith sharing groups provided Mendlik the opportunity she needed to grow spiritually.

“I helped out with the youth group at my church and I was leading a Bible study, but I didn’t feel like it was helping me in my own faith,” she said. 

When she started taking formation classes through School of Faith, she started moving forward again. The small group discipleship helped her find new ways to give and receive Christ’s love more fully. 

Last school year, Mendlik was part of a School of Faith trial program called CRUX, a small group discipleship program with other staff members at St. Patrick. Deacon Gutiérrez led group catechesis. Afterwards, Mendlik and a few of her peers gathered to discuss what was on their hearts.

“We sat there and broke down Bible passages. Every time we met there were tears and hugs, crying and laughter,” Mendlik said. 

The group discussed serious issues such as struggles with relationships, terminal illness and dealing with loss. “Anything that Christ touches in our lives, we talked about,” she said.

EQUIPPING DISCIPLES

The increased emphasis on small faith sharing groups is a continued effort by Evangelium Institute instructors to form teachers intellectually and spiritually, said Jiron. 

“We’re evolving into more small group discussion and formation so they (the teachers) can get more intimate and real about what’s going on in their lives instead of just delivering the information,” he said. “We really believe they need to come to know Jesus better, so that they’re longing more to know what it is that they believe.” 

Mendlik’s experience with School of Faith underscores the importance of forming Catholic school teachers in faith. Through her formation, she is better equipped to have conversations with her students about their lives as Christians. Teaching fifth and sixth graders, she knows how important it is to be ready to respond. 

“They are at the stage of their life where they just want to know everything that they’re getting themselves into,” she said. “They’re asking all these questions and you have to be prepared to answer them.” 

As she helps her students to know Christ, Mendlik has strengthened her own faith as well. “I’ve grown in relationship with Christ in the fact that I spend more time in prayer, and prayer with purpose too,” she said. “I also have grown in relationships with others around me, and in turn, I think growing relationships with your coworkers helps you form a relationship with Christ because you see Christ in them and in the beauty of their own lives,” she said.  

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