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24 years in, retreat director still ‘doing what He wants me to do’

From left, faculty members Courtney Shriver DeNegri, Mark Blaise and Phil Farnan, along with seniors Hunter Noravong and Lance Meade, of Overland Park’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School, participate in a “hands meditation” during a Kairos retreat at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Moira Cullings

OVERLAND PARK — “This is the best thing I’ve ever done, without a doubt in my mind,” said Phil Farnan.

The teacher of more than 50 years has spent the past 24 leading Kairos retreats for seniors at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park.

“I’m convinced that I’m doing God’s work,” he said. “I’m doing what he wants me to do.

“And so, I continue to do it.”

Farnan is an English and theology teacher who’s been at Aquinas since it opened in 1988.

He became a leader on the school’s fifth Kairos (K-5).

“The rest is history,” said Brian Schenck, president of Aquinas.

“He is a giving man,” said Schenck. “He is genuinely there to set the example of Christ for the leaders and the seniors.”

‘He taught me how to pray’

It’s been two decades since Courtney Shriver DeNegri attended Kairos.

“I still carry around a little prayer card that [Farnan] gave me on K-33,” she said. “It’s still in my wallet.

“I brought it out my first time I came back as an adult [leader], and I said, ‘This is what Kairos is.’”

Seniors at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park participate in a “hands meditation” inside the Savior Pastoral Center chapel in Kansas City, Kansas. The prayer service is one of many elements included in the school’s Kairos retreats. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

DeNegri is now the department head for business and technology at Aquinas and serves as a faculty leader for the retreat.

Held multiple times each school year at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas, Kairos is led by faculty, as well as students who attended a previous retreat.

Although its details are kept private to protect the experience for future participants, its purpose is threefold, said Farnan.

“It’s to hopefully improve their relationship with God, their relationship with each other and their relationship with their families,” he said.

The school’s 150th retreat was held in February.

Phil Farnan, English and theology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, leads a “hands meditation” during a February Kairos retreat. Mark Blaise (left), director of campus ministry for Aquinas, and Hunter Noravong (right), a senior at the school, participate. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Mark Blaise, a 2009 graduate who attended and led Kairos as a student, said it wouldn’t have made it this far without Farnan, who’s shaped his own life.

“I listened to him when he told me that it’s my job to make a relationship with God,” said Blaise, “and that it needed to change. It needed to evolve. It’s not like the old man in the clouds.

“He taught me how to pray.”

Blaise is now the director of campus ministry at Aquinas and a faculty leader for Kairos. He believes Farnan is “the ultimate anchor for the retreat.”

“And the kids respect him and his faith to know he’s not just pulling their leg or telling them what they want to hear,” added DeNegri.

‘God spoke to me’

“I was reluctant,” said Farnan of his first Kairos experience. “I had heard a little bit about it, but I didn’t really want to go.”

After enough nagging from his fellow staff members, he agreed to give it a shot.

“I went, and it was amazing,” he said. “I can’t even begin to explain to you.”

Multiple moments from all those years ago still spark emotions.

“God spoke to me while I was there and said, ‘Farnan, this is where you’re supposed to be,’” he said. “And ever since then, my life’s been different.”

Phil Farnan has been a Kairos leader for Overland Park’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School since 2000. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

As for the effect Kairos has on students?

“For the most part, you never get to see the results,” said Farnan. “And to be quite honest, the results for most of the kids that go on Kairos is temporary.”

But witnessing teens who are positively impacted months after it’s over has been a lesson in letting go.

“I have to do my part,” said Farnan, “and if it works, it works. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I can’t control it.”

Although he’s been on nearly 150 retreats, “it never gets old,” said Farnan. “Every one of them is different — for a lot of reasons, but mostly the kids.”

‘Positive impact’

Barb Loughman noticed changes in her oldest son after he attended Kairos.

“Afterwards, he had an appreciation for our family, his faith [and] basic values we want our kids to have as Catholics,” she said.

Each of her nine children attended the retreat while at Aquinas, and a few were also student leaders.

Now a theology teacher at Aquinas and a Kairos leader, she again experiences its fruits firsthand.

“As a faculty member, it allows you to see kids in a different way than just in a hallway or in a classroom,” said Loughman.

Phil Farnan talks with Barb Loughman, right, at the Savior Pastoral Center chapel in Kansas City, Kansas, during a February Kairos retreat. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

Blaise sees the retreat as a “rite of passage” for students.

“I think Kairos is an important part of the spiritual development of kids on discovering there’s more to life than the here and now,” he said.

“But you have to take yourself out of the here and now to find God,” he added.

Leaders believe the retreat has a ripple effect on the school community.

“The kids come back,” said Blaise, “and they’re not dreading senior year. They’re much more focused on the here and now and making the best of what they have for the last year they have together.”

Kairos has also touched the lives of its leaders.

For Farnan, his spiritual life changed the moment he led K-5.

“I had a pretty good faith life before that,” he said, “but not like this now.”

His goal as a leader is simple.

“I hope and pray that I’ve had a positive impact on some of the people that I’ve been in touch with,” he said. “That’s my hope.”

Recipe for success

Brian Schenck, president of St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, and Ryan Best, theology department chair, brought Kairos to the school in 1999.

“In the tradition of passing it from school to school, our leadership team attended the retreat as a participant [at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Missouri] to get an idea of how it works,” said Schenck.

Since then, Aquinas has passed it on to St. Teresa’s Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park and Dowling High School in Des Moines, Iowa.

Kairos is an optional experience designed to bring students closer to their classmates and help them build a personal relationship with Jesus.

Aquinas holds its retreats at Savior Pastoral Center in Kansas City, Kansas, and they last three nights and four days. During that time, students are away from their cellphones and other distractions.

Phil Farnan, the school’s Kairos director, encourages all schools to consider the retreat as an option, but he admits it takes dedication.

“To start, it takes some commitment from some adults,” he said. “Once you get started, the key is student leadership.

“If the students take ownership of the program, it’s going to succeed.”

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage its website, social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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  • As a retired faculty member at STA and an adult member of several Kairos teams I’m so happy to hear the program is still thriving- of course it would be! God’s work is being done! “In God’s time”. Thank you Phil an Brian!!💖🙏