Written by Mary Beth Peabody
It takes about six minutes to get the entire Camden Catholic High School community assembled in the school auditorium. That is where they go on Wednesdays for Convocation, right after first period. It’s like an all-school homeroom, starting with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Next up is the news team, delivering in person the announcements, weather and sports recap that are otherwise broadcast during homeroom.
When school Father Joseph Capella, rector of the Cherry Hill School, gets up and says, “God is good,” students reply in unison, “All the time,” without missing a beat. To his “All the time,” they proclaim, “God is good.”
Introduced by Father Capella during Catholic Schools Week 2019, Convocation lasts 20 minutes most weeks; a bit longer when the program includes Mass. “My vision was to build on our sense of family and unity, for everyone to be in the same room at the same time hearing the same message,” he said.
Father Capella admits that when he initiated the program he didn’t have a long-range plan for content. But creating an agenda hasn’t been a problem. He and principal Heather Crisci have mapped out a schedule for the remainder of the school year. Where they once hoped they could get enough students to lead some of the presentations, they are now getting as many as three requests a week from students who want to play an active role. By all accounts, Convocation has exceeded Father Capella’s expectations.
On a recent January Wednesday, sophomore Gabe Tillman accepted Father Capella’s invitation to speak about a major health challenge he faced freshman year and how it ties to the pro-life movement.
“Wow. That’s a lot of people,” said Gabe from the podium, looking into the sea of students, teachers and administrators.
He spoke about the craniopharyngioma — a benign brain tumor of the pituitary gland — that kept him out of school for more than a month during the second semester of his freshman year.
“When you normally think about pro-life you think about the war on abortion,” said Gabe. “Well, this may be a very important issue but it’s not all [the pro-life movement] stands for. To be pro-life is to be supportive of all people in need.”
Gabe expressed gratitude for his good health and for all the support he received from the Camden Catholic community. He also announced a toy drive he is initiating for other patients at CHOP. “I wanted to help the place that helped me,” he said later.
“Every step we take is a pro-life movement if we treat people with charity, with love. Pro-life is how we interact with one another,” said Father Capella to the community after Gabe spoke. “Gabe is going to do something with his experience to help other kids. That’s being pro-life.”
Father Capella also reminded students about the importance of self-care and seeking help from others. “Be pro-life by caring for yourselves so that you can give to others what God has given to you,” he said.
Father Edward Kennedy, Director of Catholic Identity for the school, ended Convocation by blessing the approximately 50 Camden Catholic students who planned to participate in the National March for Life in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 24.
Student body president Harry Keller sees Convocation as a positive new tradition at Camden Catholic. “It’s all-encompassing for students. It brings everyone together … helps the student body recognize each other,” he said. Harry used Gabe’s presentation as an example. “I didn’t really know Gabe’s story until today. I wouldn’t normally get to see sophomores.”
Principal Crisci explained that, in addition to adoration, benediction and Mass, Convocation is a great forum for previewing plays and concerts, welcoming outside speakers, and celebrating cultural events like Black History, Hispanic Heritage and Women’s History months. The topics are lined up in advance, and students can ask to present on a given topic. “It’s a great opportunity for public speaking, presentations and performance,” said Crisci.
She and Father Capella agree that recognizing students’ accomplishments is particularly special at Convocation. “When someone in a family accomplishes something, all in the family should share it,” said Father Capella.
Crisci added, “That is how we live as members of the Camden Catholic Community.”