What it Means to be Christian: An Interview with SICP’s Father Kalenzi

Father Kalenzi joined the Ignatius staff in August 2019. At the end of this year, he will be leaving Ignatius and moving on to new endeavors. Before his departure, we wanted to ask him some questions about his work at Ignatius and how Ignatius has impacted him. 

First, we asked Fr. Kalenzi about his life before coming to Ignatius. He is originally from Uganda, but grew up in Kenya. Fr. Kalenzi attended college in Manchester before beginning work as an accountant in London. He left this job to join the Jesuits and began his religious studies. This included studying philosophy in Zimbabwe, serving as a regent in Kenya, doing theology in France, and eventually being ordained as a priest in Uganda. Now, his work with the Society of Jesus has brought him to St. Ignatius. Fr. Kalenzi has lived in ten countries overall, and visited forty. 

Father Kalenzi said that his extensive travels have taught him that “you can’t be in so many places and remain the same.” He has learned to be tolerant of other people and their cultures, and he does not believe that any culture is superior to another. He discussed how every culture is proud of its own strengths and believes itself to be the best.” It is not worth comparing cultures to determine whose is best, instead “we need to find places of intersection, of unity, of understanding.” At the end of the day, he sees himself “as a human being, as a member of the human race, as an inhabitant of the earth.” 

Father Kalenzi did not have a simple path to his religious vocation. As a child, he read everything he found  in his house, which led him to the Bible. He noted that the Bible read like a novel, and he was fascinated with it. Although he was never formally taught how to pray and never particularly enjoyed going to church during his childhood, he said, “I really loved spending time with God.” He eventually joined the Jesuits when he was 27. He acknowledged that his path to a religious vocation was long and comparatively nontraditional, but he feels that it was beneficial to take time to experience other aspects of life. He also spoke on how he found his faith through his own search for knowledge, and that there is a difference between “absorbing religion by osmosis versus discovering God for yourself.” He said that the latter is a more powerful way of knowing God.

We then inquired about Fr. Kalenzi’s first impressions of St. Ignatius. He remarked that he immediately noticed “how grand it was.” He describes the initial environment as welcoming, and noted that all the students were kind and respectful, contrary to the depictions of American high schools he had seen on TV. The most impressive aspect of the school, to Fr. Kalenzi, were the Catholic ethical values present in both the school’s culture and its curriculum. Saint Ignatius, he says, combines the study of faith with social justice and the Jesuit values. “St. Ignatius can be very proud of the fact that their students know what it means to be Christian,” he says.

Fr. Kalenzi is an empowering and inspirational presence at Saint Ignatius. He has worked on behalf of various social justice causes, trying to stress the values of equality and respect. Students may remember his homily on misogyny and the treatment of women of color, something that stood out to us. Fr. Kalenzi says that in his past, he has been ignorant of his own privilege and of the misogyny in the world. He states that it is “very difficult for people to accept that they have prejudice” and, even moreso, it is “quite difficult to escape that prejudice.” To address misogyny, Fr. Kalenzi says we must experience a conversion in ourselves, recognize our prejudices, and work to combat them. His hope is that we will eventually come to a state where we really love each other, regardless of biases or prejudices. “There’s still a lot of work to be done before we come even close to what Jesus had in mind,” he states, and this is the work he hopes to inspire in his students. 

Father Kalenzi has been an integral member of the Diversity Coalition at St. Ignatius. He noted that the main objective of his work is to “contribute, organize, participate in initiatives that might bring us to change the culture of the school.” Father Kalenzi works closely with the president and offers a unique Jesuit perspective. He said that “all Jesuits must be interested in or involved in these issues that are pursuant to the whole student body. If a part of our body is sick, our whole body suffers.” He emphasized the importance of participation in racial justice work, especially as a Christian, because it is pure hypocrisy to say that you love God and ignore those who suffer: “It’s the most selfish thing you can do — to say you don’t care about the person next to you who is suffering.” 

Father Kalenzi also offered insight into his own experience when he began living in the United States. He said that it was “the first time in my life where I really felt I was black.” Seeing the colorism and racism around him was shocking, and, as a Jesuit and human being, he knew he had a duty to help in any way possible. In the words of Fr. Kalenzi, “the worst form of contempt is to say to someone ‘no, your suffering is not as bad you think it is.’” We must acknowledge the suffering of those around us, listen to their perspectives, and work to support them. Racism is an issue we must confront as a school community, as the suffering of a few impacts all of us. 

Our school community is always growing and progressing, and Fr. Kalenzi has observed some of these changes. Much of his time at the school was during the pandemic, but this has caused a lot of growth within the school. He states that “the moment students were able to come back to school, they were full of gratitude.” Despite all the challenges faced during this time, we have come together and reached a sense of “spiritual solidarity.” According to Fr. Kalenzi, Ignatius stands apart because of how students learn to care for each other. Students’ ability to speak intelligently, practice their faith, and advocate for others is a clear sign of the high level of education available here. 

Finally, we asked Father Kalenzi about the impact of Saint Ignatius. First, he praised Ignatius and its students: “It’s possible to make a school very good for academics. It’s not easy to make sure students have a strong formation as Catholics, as Christians, as simply human beings.” He said that Ignatius has a lot to be proud of and that he will take many of the lessons from St. Ignatius with him on his next endeavors. 

When asked about the lessons he wished to leave with Ignatius, he first said, “very few.” Then, he offered his vision for Ignatius’ future: “Let’s hope for that day where there is something like the Kingdom of God at Saint Ignatius—where it’s easy for a white student to join BOSS, ALAS, Club Asia; where we have people who feel happy in spaces with people who are different; where we don’t see each other primarily as Black or White or Asian or Latino, but as children of God.”