New Florida Catholic schools superintendent: ‘Our schools will continue to be known as the best schools anywhere’

Chicagoan Father John Belmonte comes to his new post with years of experience in Catholic education.

The Catholic Diocese of Venice, Fla., has a new superintendent.

Father John Belmonte, SJ, will oversee the diocese’s Department of Education, which consists of 15 schools and 4,777 students. Additionally, he will be responsible for the Office of Religious Education, which supports 61 parishes within the diocese, and the Institute for Catholic Studies and Formation.

redefinED interviewed Belmonte to learn more about his thoughts on the new school year, his own education and role models, and his vision for Catholic schools in Florida and beyond. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q. Brick-and-mortar schools reopened in your diocese five weeks ago. How did things go? What was the best thing that happened that day? What has proved most challenging?

A.  Our principals and teachers worked very hard to prepare for the reopening of school. Their preparation has really paid off. The reopening was very smooth.  Our students and parents have also cooperated with the safety measures put in place. I visited one of our schools on the first day. The best thing that happened was that one of our first-grade girls very proudly showed me her new unicorn backpack, complete with reversible sequins! Beyond unicorn backpacks, the best thing was seeing all the students and teachers very happy to be back in school. The biggest challenge for the teachers has been providing in-person and online learning simultaneously. They are doing outstanding work keeping students engaged in both formats. 

Q. What was your own education like as a child? Do you think it adequately prepared you for life and a career?

A. I like to tell the elementary students that I completed the 27th grade. That comment is usually met with gasps as they consider going to school for decades! I went to public schools in suburban Chicago through high school, then Catholic universities and seminaries through doctoral studies. My suburban public-school experience was different from the public-school experience today. Public schools today tend to be more politicized with curricular initiatives and programs that indoctrinate rather than educate. The education and formation that I received as a member of  the Society of Jesus has been outstanding. The spiritual and intellectual formation I received from truly brilliant Jesuit priests and professors prepared me not only as a priest but also as a classroom teacher and school administrator.  Also, the opportunity to study overseas changed my view of the world and the church.

Q. Other than biblical figures and saints, who has been the biggest influence on you? What did they teach you?

A. I have been inspired, challenged, supported and loved by some of the best and greatest men I have ever known, Jesuits all, and masters of the spiritual life remarkable for their holiness. Professors and teachers in various fields remarkable for their intellectual honesty and brilliance. Administrators remarkable for their prudence and skill. Men of the church remarkable for their devotion and dedication. Superiors remarkable for their patience, courage and steadfast support. Companions remarkable for their friendship and loyalty. Undoubtedly, I consider myself to be a better Catholic, Jesuit, priest, and man because of so many good Jesuits. My parents, of course, top any list. My father, Joseph, instilled in me an appreciation for family, faith and fun. My twin brother, Joe, younger brother, Matt, and I benefited from his love of sports, family activities, a good sense of humor and lots of friends. The influence of my mother, Suzanne, over my vocation to religious life and the priesthood could not be more significant. She is a model for me of someone who faced a lot of adversity with faith, grace and determination.     

Q. What is your vision for the future of the schools in your diocese? What changes do you plan to make to help further that vision?

A. The Catholic schools in the Diocese of Venice are places where we have fostered faith, created self-confidence, supported good decisions, promoted enduring values, nurtured good habits, revered virtues, honored self-discipline, safeguarded emotional and physical health and prized academic achievement and hard work. There are, of course, many alternatives to Catholic schools, but there is no substitute. We need Catholic schools now more than ever. I am fortunate to now serve as superintendent in a diocese with excellent Catholic schools. We do plan to improve by growing our enrollment, enhancing the Catholic school culture across the diocese, and developing our curriculum with Catholic curricular standards and innovative programs.

Q. In the wake of the pandemic, all schools – public, private secular and private faith-based – are facing challenges, including some that threaten their existence. The New York Times recently published a story that said 150 Catholic schools nationwide have closed and that a growing number are in danger of shutting down forever. How do you perceive the landscape for Catholic schools in Florida?

A. Different from other parts of the country, Florida is fortunate to have a well-established Tax Credit Scholarship Program that provides significant funding that makes Catholic education available to families that would not otherwise be able to afford it. Even more important to the future of Catholic schools in Florida are the strong Episcopal and Catholic school leaders who provide authentic Catholic school culture and maintain the highest educational standards. The performance of Catholic schools during the pandemic in the spring as well as this school year with our successful reopening is evidence of the great leadership we enjoy in our Florida Catholic schools. 

Q. What do you think can be done to make sure Florida Catholic schools are able to survive, both over the short term and long term?

A. When was the last time you heard of the best school in the area having to close due to lack of interest? As long as Catholic schools provide authentic Catholic school culture with a relentless focus on mission, we will have places where children are introduced to the truth, beauty and goodness that is the foundation of our faith and our future. Our schools will not simply survive but thrive. Our schools will continue to be known as the best schools anywhere. 

More about Father John Belmonte, SJ

A native Chicagoan, Belmonte earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 1985. Upon graduation, he entered the Society of Jesus in St. Paul, Minnesota, and pronounced vows in 1987. Two years of philosophy and humanities studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, followed. 

In preparation for ordination to the priesthood, he completed his theological studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, graduating with the baccalaureate in sacred theology in 1995. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1996 in Milwaukee. In 1997, he completed a licentiate in sacred theology with a concentration in sacred scripture at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

In 2006, Belmonte completed the doctoral program in educational leadership and policy studies at Loyola University Chicago. While working on his doctorate from 1999 to 2003, he served as the director of pastoral ministry at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago. From 2004 to 2010, he served as principal of the Jesuit college prep high school in Milwaukee, Marquette University High School. 

He served as superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Joliet from 2010 to 2020 and in 2013 was elected to the board of the National Catholic Educational Association, where he served until June 2020. From 2011 to 2018, he served as a chaplain at Wrigley Field. If pressed, he does take some credit for the 2016 World Series Championship.

You can follow him on Twitter @Father_Belmonte. You can download, Created in Your Image, the Catholic photo sharing app he created with a marketing team in Chicago to (re)engage young Catholic parents.