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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Kenneth Ortega, Ed.D.

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.

Dr. Knight: Thanks for interviewing with me. I’m happy to do this with you, especially since I’m a really big fan of the RCIA .

Where did you grow up, and what was your favorite childhood memory?

Dr. Ortega: I grew up in Houston, Texas. I am the 6th generation of Ortegas in Texas. We have very little roots in Mexico, and we are now up to 9 generations. We have been Tejanos a very long time. That brings me to my favorite childhood memory, which is making tamales. Unlike most cultures and most families, the men help make the tamales in our family, because we’re predominately boys. My oldest brother is the one who pulled us together, and now my nephew is in charge of ‘us,’ in making the tamales. But what’s more important than the actual tamales is the process. There was a couple of years we didn’t do it, and we missed it. What you miss is telling the stories. So we’ve reinvented ourselves in this tradition, in the telling of the stories, and making sure that even the youngest children are around to hear the stories. Afterwards, we make dozens of tamales and give them away as Christmas gifts. We don’t even eat them ourselves.

Dr. Knight: What is your favorite book of the Bible, and why?

Dr. Ortega:

Actually, there are two favorites. One is the Gospel of Luke. I like Luke because Luke is writing to the Gentiles. He is trying to convince people outside of Judaism to consider following Christ. A lot of the stories he has are the one I like, especially the Centurion, and his parables really speak to that whole idea of inclusion, and especially as someone who is part of a marginal group within our society, that really appeals to me. My second one is an unusual one, and that’s the Book of Revelation. There are so many misconceptions about the book, but one of the best stories I ever heard about the Book was about a group of nuns who were in hiding in World War II, and the only thing they could grab in a scurry to escape the Nazis was The Bible, and they focused a lot on the Book of Revelation, and it became the gospel of some sort of hope for them. It speaks of persecution. For anyone who has gone through any type of difficulty, if you look in the book in that way, it is actually a book of hope.

Dr. Knight: Luke’s one of my favorites, too, mostly because he was a doctor and wrote with precision and clarity. What saint are you devoted to?

Dr. Ortega: St. Teresa of Avila. She’s an amazing woman. When I first came to Chicago, the parish I ended up hooking up with was St. Teresa in Lincoln Park. I got to learn a lot more about her. She was a gusty woman. She is a gusty woman. I love that. I love strong women. I was educated by BDMs in Mundelein College in my Master’s Degree, and they taught me a lot. I am very indebted to them. But Teresa…she went against the social norm, even within the social orders, in thinking, “If you’re going to do it, do it right.” Her reformations, although they may be seen as very austere, were probably truer to the concept of the religious orders, and one of my favorite stories about her—actually two of my favorite stories—is the one where the nuns see her eating a chicken. And she’s just ravishing this thing, and the grease is all over her hands and face and everywhere, and they’re in shock, and they just look at her. And she says, “If you’re going to pray, pray. And if you’re going to eat a chicken, eat a chicken.” [LAUGHTER] And the other story is just the one where she takes a table and starts dancing with the castanets, and I just thought… “Free person!” And to live life to its fullest. All the giftedness, and all the fun, but also the discipline that is required to live life

Dr. Knight: You are new to Holy Name Cathedral Parish. What has been your first impressions?

Dr. Ortega: One thing I have always been impressed with—well, not ‘always,’ but just the last couple of weeks—is that not every Cathedral parish is as vibrant as this one. This is an amalgam. There’s so much going on, and I looked at the website before I even interviewed, and I thought, “Oh, okay…” The website doesn’t do it justice. We need to look at that.  It’s an amazing parish, it’s diverse, the social/economic variants, the demographics on so many planes is amazing. And the acceptance of people from where they come from is admirable. I have found…my first impressions to be that it is a vibrant community, not sitting on its laurels, but looking forward to where it wants to go.

Dr. Knight: What drew you to this parish? What drew you to here??

Dr. Ortega: Well, first of all, there’s the Cathedral. That is the one thing. But I also would think that the Cathedral is going to do things that are going to be avant garde. Things that people are going to be looking to the Cathedral to promote and set examples. I am proud, or happy, to say that is the case. Even in the areas of struggle, the struggle focuses on what’s best for the community, and how does the community live the commitment of discipleship for others. That has been impressive. At the interview, I was impressed by the people who were present. The questions they asked were good questions, and gave me a true sense of what their expectations would be, and eventually their invitation to be part of that journey with them.

Dr. Knight: Your ministry includes RCIA. What is special about that ministry?

Dr. Ortega: Of all the ministries I have done—and I’m not trying to be biased—RCIA is probably one of the most rewarding that I have ever encountered. I am so happy to be part of [it]. The fact that you walk the journey with these people who are searching for things, some things they know they’re searching for and some things they don’t, to challenge them, to get them to think beyond their normal mode of thinking, to see how God becomes part of their life, and everything that they do…and to see them have the courage to make that profession as an adult, whereas most Catholics were born into their traditions and baptized into their traditions, these people are choosing to do it as adults with full knowledge of what it is. One of the comments that I made as I left the parish before, one of the things I admired was that you can’t help but feel like a proud parent as these young men and women, older men and women, make these professions. The other thing we did at St. Walter that we were happy with was that we actually had moved to the year-round Catechumenate.

Dr. Knight: Some of my friends seem to hold onto some of those past symbols and signs that need to be left behind as God continue to reveal himself to us at this present day. I try not to say to them, “Well, in the past, we didn’t…” Because they weren’t there, so why even bother with those issues? Your work with Faith Formation is so important to Holy Name Cathedral. What directs you, and what do you think it takes?

Dr. Ortega: I work off of two major paradigms: one is lifelong formation. I know a lot of people say it, but I hope that I am doing it. It is in everything that I try to do. The other is the journey, which I’ve alluded to already. In all the faith formation, I would like to see a common thread occurring from the moment of baptism to children to even youth, if we can try that, young adult to people who are settling into whatever lifestyle they are choosing, to points of retirement, to death. At all times, we are learning. To think that we know it all is, to me, a terrible sin. I said this with the RCIA the other day: if a Catholic tells you that they know it all, they need to go to confession, because they just sinned. No one knows it all. And so the fact that we’re constantly learning is what we should do. I would like to say an emphasis in practical learning and reflection in all ages, and that would include the baptismal classes: children’s Faith Formation, Religious Ed, as they call it here. It is active learning, and not passive learning.

Dr. Knight: What other ministries have you directed or worked on?

Dr. Ortega: I did a lot with men’s groups and women’s. We  started a men’s  group trial that we called “Men of Faith .”at St. Walter’s. It’s a possibility at Holy Name.  The women were interesting. They have a women’s tea that had about 200. They capped every year. But the important thing I learned from those experiences was to always go back to the mission of both ministries and to stay true to those missions, which is always a concern of mine.

But some other things: we had a movie club, a book club…even though they were clubs, I don’t like to use that word, because the purpose of their meeting was to inadvertently bring in church teaching and church discussion, so any book we did in book club had a moral dilemma. Any movie we did always required us to meet afterwards and discuss the film, and how does it make us a better person. I believe in using any medium possible as a teaching tool.

We have even done things like have a theater group that did a puppet thing, and we have 75 parishioners who spent the entire day working with puppets and putting on a show, and we had a group of women come in and do nothing but a drum session with people. We’ve done spiritual jazz. We’ve done a lot of things. There’s a lot of possibility using everyday experiences and giving them a little bit of church. And sometimes you don’t even have to say ‘church.’ It’s just there. And sometimes I don’t want to use the word ‘church’ so that people can discover it for themselves. I have a lot of ideas and again, part of being here at this stage is to meet the leaders, meet the people, as I have to people before, to affirm what you do very well. To applaud that. To find out…

Father Greg asked me at my last interview, “What do you bring to Holy Name?” Some things that I said already, I mentioned at that time. But one thing that I…and it’s hard to say, because by saying it, I contradict it: but I work out of humility. I am never going to be happy with what I do. It can always be better. But I do it out of a sense of servitude. I don’t need to be the center of attention. Let the others, and their success, and their effectiveness, be my people and come to see me as the root and the part of their journey. But God is the center of all that we do, and I cannot lose sense of that.

Dr. Knight: How do you use social media for the parish understanding of faith?

Dr. Ortega: You have to. Facebook,with young adults, is the thing; also Twitter…I’m not a big Facebook person. Because of my profession, I try not to interact too much on it. Nonetheless, I think other modes of learning, of getting messages out there, is great. And I do find that Holy Name, as is probably consistent with other parishes in the city, uses more social media than printed. That was one of the first things I noticed. We have to stay on top of that. Whatever means is necessary is good. But you have to be careful, how you use it. The other challenge with social media, though, especially with being on the phones a lot, is the lack of conversation. That is becoming a skill again, an art.

There was an incident out in Roselle, when you put in an initial Sacrament, you still have to write it out, and I asked that question, “Why can’t we just use a spreadsheet?” And they answered, “This is just the way we do it.” And I said, “There was a time when we used a feather, but we use a ballpoint now! So how far is that argument going to go?” So, you know, you need to look at things and think, “There’s probably a better way of doing this.” It’s like the story about the turkey legs for Thanksgiving. “Why do you take the turkey legs off before putting it in the pan?” “Well, that’s the way my mom did it.” “That’s the way my mom did it!” Finally, you go down the line and talk to great-grandma, and great grandma says, “Well, I didn’t have a big enough pan, so I had to take off the legs in order to stick it in there!” Find out the reason. Social media is wonderful. We all work the Internet. Just think of all the wonderful things we can do now that we couldn’t have done before. Remember researching? Remember going through…spending your weekends going through the stacks and looking up…

Dr. Knight: Based on your past experience, why do you think so many young people are leaving the church today?

Dr. Ortega: I think because they realize that God loves them, and I think they’re comfortable with that. What we have not done well is give them a good reason why they should belong to the church. We have not fed them correctly. Even in regards to religious education, I am a strong advocate to say that the school model is not the way to go.

It’s been an uphill battle for me for many years. I am far from gaining any major ground with it, though we have looked at alternatives in Roselle…we use the same old model, like social media, and it’s based on the Catholic school model. But if you’ve been going to school all day, the last place you want to be is in a classroom, with a dry book. That’s why I’m saying, faith formation needs to be engaging. It needs to be an experience. Who wants to be part of a dead tradition? And our tradition is not dead! It’s vibrant, it’s living! But we don’t do that well with young people. We also assume that young people don’t have anything to do, and yet their lives our much busier than ours were at their age. Their lives are more scheduled than we ever have been. The assumption that they are free to clean grandma’s house or garage or something of that nature is an insult to them. I think we need to give them respect, I think we need to give young people an opportunity to voice their opinions, and to listen to them and to allow them to implement them.

Dr. Knight: Sherry Turkle talks about that—she’s an expert.  At first, she was strongly in favor about media, and now she said we need to limit it and find ways of communicating other than just social media.

Dr. Ortega: I remember one time I took my brother and sister-in-law on the Odyssey for their anniversary. Next to us was a couple, and they spent the entire evening on their phones. I just looked at them and said, “That is so sad. You spent this money to come on this little dinner, and you aren’t even talking to each other.” I’m one of those people who says, “If you’re going to sit down with me for lunch, you’re not going to be on your phone.” I’ve actually pulled a phone from friends’ hands at dinners. I quietly take it away, and tell them later: “You don’t do that when someone is entertaining you. It is the biggest insult.”

De. Knight: Any final comments?

Dr. Ortega: I am very happy to be here at Holy Name at this part of my journey. …I just can’t explain it, and my friends could not be any happier for me right now. For some reason, it’s almost as if I’ve come home.

God has directed me in everything. I love my relationship with God. I had the wonderful opportunity of studying under a Jewish Rabbi, and he taught us how to have this very personal relationship with God. There are days when I am laughing with God, and days when I am having a conversation with God, and there are days when I say, “God, I don’t care, you can talk to me, but I am just not listening to you today. “Nonetheless, I think that my relationship with God, especially in the last couple of years, has become one of true personal relation, and not one based in fear. In awe of God, yes, but not out of fear.

Dr. Knight: Thank you for this inspiring interview.


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