Written By Pete Sanchez & Mary Beth Peabody
Camden- In the shadow of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Shooting in Parkland, FL which left 17 dead earlier this month, Bishop Dennis Sullivan called an unprecedented meeting of student leaders from all nine South Jersey Catholic high schools on March 1.
In his opening remarks, Bishop Sullivan commented on how moved he was by the Parkland students’ firm and public calls for action in the wake of the tragedy. In light of their energy and grace, he asked the same of these high school student leaders from Absecon’s Holy Spirit; Cherry Hill’s Camden Catholic; Gloucester City’s Gloucester Catholic; Haddonfield’s Paul VI; Hammonton’s Saint Joseph; Newfield’s Our Lady of Mercy Academy; Pennsauken’s Bishop Eustace Prep; Richland’s Saint Augustine Prep; and Wildwood’s Wildwood Catholic.
Bishop Sullivan opened the dialogue, held in a conference room in the Camden Diocesan Center, by reaffirming the pledge he, and all bishops, made to provide “fatherly guidance” to his “spiritual children.” Then he let the students know he wanted to hear from them. “How can I guide you, and how can you guide each other?” he asked. “Be honest … there is no agenda here.”
And with that, he turned the floor over to the students, who spent the next hour sharing their thoughts about a Catholic response to the violence afflicting our society.
No topic was ignored. The students shared ideas about mental health and bullying, school safety protocols, gun control and gun education, student walkouts and protests, prayer services and Masses, and symbols of solidarity.
Like the world in which they live, the students did not have identical ideas or priorities about how to respond to pervasive violence. But their conversation was open and respectful. They welcomed suggestions from one another, and they built upon each other’s ideas.
While many schools have considered plans for the March 14 nationwide school walkout, students were particularly thoughtful about ways to make the 17 minutes – one for each Stoneman Douglas victim – meaningful. They see the day as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of prayer and faith in action. And in no uncertain terms, they see in each other hope for the future.
“Our generation is the one’s that going to cause change,” said Bishop Eustace’s Veronica Lucian.
Camden Catholic’s Emily Devereaux noted the need for “students to be examples to others,” echoing her peers’ calls around the room for an end to bullying and violence in the classrooms. “What impact can each of us have,” she asked?
From Paul VI, Grace Narducci said, “We are the future leaders of our church and country. It’s not just about one day. What do we do those other 364 days of the year?” She suggested a program similar to “Friends of Rachel,” a club in her middle school established to make all students feel “secure and wanted.” The club was started in remembrance of a victim of the 1999 shooting at Columbine high school in Colorado.
Dane Crilly, from St. Augustine Prep observed that people still talk about Columbine after nearly 20 years. “There comes a time when remembering isn’t enough,” he said.
Father Michael Romano, director of vocations for the diocese and the moderator of today’s meeting, reminded the students that many people have grown weary of the hackneyed use of offering thoughts and prayers after a tragedy. “But for us, thoughts and prayers are just the beginning. As Catholics, prayer allows us to focus, as we consider what actions to take next.”
In addition to discussions on a walkout or liturgy on March 14, students asked for better security in schools across the country, and expressed a desire to reach out to neighboring public schools, to come together as one.
“How can we keep this conversation going, and make a change for the better?” asked Paul VI’s Gabby Young.
Impressed by their’ “insights, ideas, beliefs, maturity, respect and eloquence,” Bishop Sullivan noted how proud he was of the 40-plus students present.
“These young people demonstrate what Catholic schools are achieving,” he added. “Catholic schools have a tradition that begins with the belief that life is sacred, and a gift– violence is never an acceptable response,” he said.
“We walk by faith, in communion with each other.”