It’s not very often that an interview begins with a subject intentionally deflecting my attention, but that’s exactly the tactic that Dr. Gracjan Kraszewski, Director of Intellectual Formation at the St. Augustine’s Catholic Center at the University of Idaho, is choosing to employ.
“There are two people in particular that need to be put into the spotlight,” he begins. “Fr. Chase, the pastor here at St. Augustine’s, and Amy McNelly, our Director of Development.”
Such an opening statement takes me by surprise, but by the end of our conversation, it will seem a fitting start to our dialogue, reflective of this historian’s deep humility and collaborative spirit.
“Fr. Chase is the active ingredient of the whole thing,” Gracjan goes on to say. “He’s a brilliant guy. And Amy makes sure all the pieces fit together. I can’t sing her praises enough.”
Gracjan’s contribution to the team, “is more the professoriate, the intellectual or academic side of things.”
But that isn’t to say that he doesn’t have fun. His courses, open to the public and free of charge, have ranged in topic from a Catholic survey of history, to architecture, and even to heroes and hypervillains!
“Right now, I’m teaching a class on Catholicism and Film,” he reveals. “We’re going to be watching Napoleon Dynamite.”
That juicy little tidbit is thrown out as nonchalantly as a fisherman might cast a lure, but it has the same effect – instantly piquing my curiosity. Gracjan, sensing my interest, immediately extends an invitation to join in.
“There’s so much available on Zoom! Anyone who’s interested can click on the link on the Vandal Catholic website and be connected to what we’re doing.”
If the idea of committing to a university-level course seems too daunting, Gracjan also delivers a monthly lecture via Zoom.
“I’m always so amazed,” he says of the audience participation. “It’s so touching. These lectures are forty minutes in length, so at that point, I’m thankful they’ve come out because they could have been doing whatever else. But then people will stay and ask questions for an additional half hour because they want to know more and learn more!”
And that is truly the objective of Gracjan’s work – to reach out to his students and inspire them to ask questions and go deeper in their experience of the Catholic Faith.
This is perhaps encouraged most strongly through what Gracjan calls the Great Debate – an annual debate that he writes and moderates between two notable figures in society.
“Last year, it was on the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin,” Gracjan relays.
“Everyone had to be masked and stay six feet apart, but we got to do it in person, and about 250-300 people showed up!”
This year’s debate, scheduled for September 23, 2021, will be on Capitalism vs. Communism, with Fr. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute arguing for the capitalist position, and Dean Dettloff of America Magazine fame arguing for communism. But even with such headliners, Gracjan is aiming even higher for next year’s debate.
“I’m thinking of something like, The Meaning of Vatican II, or The State of the Church Now,” he muses. “My dream debate team would be Bishop Barron vs. Taylor Marshall.”
The passion and zeal with which he speaks about such topics makes me wonder about his faith journey, but Gracjan assures me that his story is no, “Road to Damascus.”
“I had your stereotypical good Catholic upbringing,” he reflects. “I’m unabashed fans of my parents – I love them.”
But even having been raised in such a dynamic Catholic household, Gracjan was only skimming the surface of what it means to be a Catholic – until he left home for college.
“It was the first time I was away from home, and one day, I walked past this convent. I walked in and I honestly said, ‘Hey, I want to pray the Rosary. I’ve done this with my family sporadically, but I want to do more.’”
“I went in that moment from someone who fulfilled all the Catholic responsibilities but didn’t really have much of a personal prayer life to being a more involved Catholic. I was praying the Rosary, becoming more involved with Bible studies, and attending Mass more regularly thanks to them.”
As he shares his story, I can’t help but suspect that this critical moment in Gracjan’s life might be the fuel that both motivates and inspires him now.
“It’s about evangelization,” he says of his work.
“Maybe we have students who are lapsed Catholics, and by taking these courses or attending the monthly lectures, it’ll be the first time they’ll come to the Catholic center. It works beautifully, right?”
I would certainly say so. When asked about his next steps and the plans he has for Vandal Catholic Intellect, Gracjan is quick to reply.
“Right now, we’re working to get these courses accredited, so that way we can reach out to even greater numbers of students – even students abroad thanks to technology!”
But this would only be step one in Gracjan’s ambitious master plan.
“Honestly, the past two years that I’ve been here have been heavenly,” he smiles. “The people here are wonderful, and it’s been great. But,
“I would love for this to go as far as it possibly could.”
That includes not only course accreditation, but also hiring more faculty and extending the reach of the Vandal Catholic course offerings.
“I’ve talked to fellow colleagues throughout the country who do what I do, and they believe this might be the future of Catholic education.”
A future that Gracjan is remarkably comfortable moving into.
“I hope I die in this position,” he laughs, only half-joking. “Professor emeritus, eighty years old.”
And what might Vandal Catholic look like then? One can only imagine, but the spark in Gracjan’s eyes hints that he might be on to something extraordinary.
“Come see what we’re doing,” he grins in reply. “Come and see what the future holds!”
And with an offer like that… how can I refuse?
Gracjan’s class is streamed live on Zoom every Thursday from 7:30-9AM PST
Gracjan is also an accomplished author. His books are available for purchase on Amazon