Written by Peter G. Sánchez
Saint John Paul II once called the Holy Eucharist, sacrament and sacrifice,“the source and summit of all Christian life.” And it’s no surprise that South Jersey’s Catholic elementary and secondary schools see frequent participation in the Mass as essential young minds in Christian formation.
“One of the great gifts of a Catholic school education is that we orient everything toward God, and nothing is more oriented to God than the liturgy,” said Bill Watson, Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Camden.
Whether celebrated at a nearby church, or in the school’s chapel or auditorium, “The liturgy sets the overall tone for who we are. It’s the fountain from which the rest of the school’s Catholic identity flows,” he continued.
The Directors of Catholic Identity, serving in diocesan high schools, agree with Watson.
“Mass is the highest form of prayer, and in the Mass, Jesus is truly present in body, blood, soul and divinity,” says Father Josh Nevitt, Director of Catholic Identity at Absecon’s Holy Spirit High School. At the school, he says, in addition to the Masses celebrated during such events as the senior graduation and National Honors Society induction, a liturgy for the entire Holy Spirit community is celebrated at least once a month.
Also, sports teams will gather in prayer and petition during pre-game liturgies.
To encourage participation of his youthful congregation, he says, the liturgies will include contemporary Christian music, and video screens will display Mass responses for students.
At Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, the daily 7:45 a.m. Mass for students and faculty “helps to focus the day, and put one in the right mindset,” says Father Ed Kennedy, the school’s Director of Catholic Identity.
He sees that not only are his students attending the liturgy, but are also embracing it, and taking ownership of the sacrament and of their faith.
“Students want to be a part of the liturgy, whether serving as lectors, altar servers, or assisting with the offertory,” he says.
His counterparts at Paul VI High School, Wildwood Catholic and Gloucester Catholic say the same of their communities.
Father Dexter Nebrida at Paul VI, Haddonfield, hopes to celebrate a Mass for each individual class before the year is out.
In addition to the liturgy itself, students “assist with the set up and breakdown” of the Mass, in preparing the altar or lighting the candles, said Father Steven Pinzon of Wildwood Catholic.
“Students’ participation in Mass is an opportunity for them to connect with God, and thank him for the blessings they receive,” said Father Philip Ramos from Gloucester Catholic.
At the elementary level, the younger students are no less enthusiastic about the liturgy.
“Each month, one of our grades takes charge of the monthly liturgy, and students pick out the theme and the readings, and eagerly sing in the choir, read from the pulpit, or provide the petitions,” said Linda Pirolli, principal at Mays Landing’s Saint Vincent de Paul Regional School.
“These students feel like it’s their own Mass, and they take ownership.”
For Joe Saffioti, principal of Merchantville’s Saint Peter School, “the liturgy is the driving force of an authentic Christian culture … we should try to encounter Christ as often as we possibly can.” To accomplish this, Mass is celebrated every Friday morning in Saint Peter Church.
Watson is pleased with the work the schools are doing in bringing “heaven on earth” to students, as Vatican II called the liturgy.
“We are interested in kids being and becoming who God wants them to be, and the only way they can do that is by drawing close to God, and one of the best ways they can draw close to God is by experiencing His presence in the Eucharist.”
Superintent Watson sees the benefits not only at school, but at home. His 11-year-old son, Owen, has recently become an altar server, which has changed and deepened his appreciation for the Mass. For Owen, there’s no more sleeping in on Sundays.
“He’s never been more enthusiastic about going to Mass, and he’s keeping his family on schedule on Sundays,” the proud father says.