More than 700 gather with Bishop for annual Catholic Schools Mass

By Rose O’Connor | Correspondent

Students from St. Catharine School, Spring Lake, carry their school banner Oct.11 during the procession into St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, for the annual Catholic Schools Mass. Craig Pittelli photos

Wearing bright smiles, students representing 40 Catholic schools from around the Diocese processed down the center aisle of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral Oct. 11, proudly carrying their school banners at the start of the annual Catholic Schools Mass.

“All I can say is, ‘Wow!” Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., said as he welcomed more than 700 schoolchildren, educators and volunteers to the Freehold church.

Though the church was a sea of different reds, blues, greens and plaid-colored school uniforms, a sense of unity was felt among those gathered.

“It feels like one family. I feel very welcomed here,” said Joseph Russo, an eighth-grade student from St. Rose of Lima School, Freehold.

Eighth-grade student Nicole Villano of Holy Innocents School, Neptune, agreed.

“Many schools and students don’t have the opportunity to practice their faith in public. So to bring everyone together to learn about our faith is a larger environment is a good thing; I feel very honored to be here.”

The atmosphere was indeed cheerful. “It’s so great to see and to be with you, to pray and to celebrate our Catholic schools. Today I brought my squad,” Bishop O’Connell joked as he gestured toward the more than 50 priests who concelebrated the Mass.

In his homily, Bishop O’Connell spoke of gifts. “When I think of Catholic schools, and I think about them a lot, a saying that I am very fond of always comes to my mind: ‘What you are is God’s gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.’”

“Catholic school helps you recognize God’s gifts, helps you take God’s gifts and make something beautiful with them for God,” he continued. “No one who has a gift wants to hide it, ignore it or throw it away. What a waste that would be! That’s true for all of us. At the same time, everyone who gives a gift to someone else wants that gift to be something special and important and meaningful to the person to whom we give it.”

Indeed, students shared their God-given gifts during the Mass. While representatives from Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, were altar servers, students from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing, and Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, participated as readers. Students from St. Leo the Great School, Lincroft, and St. Joan of Arc School, Marlton, presented the gifts. Music was provided by the choir from Red Bank Catholic High School.

A highlight of the annual Catholic Schools Mass each year is the congregation hearing from a missionary speaker who shares his or her experience of serving in a mission land. This year’s speaker was Sister Lisa Valentini, a Missionary Sister of the Most Sacred Heard of Jesus, who spoke about the blessings she encountered during her travels to Peru, Mexico and Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Father Peter James Alindogan, diocesan mission director, presented awards to Catholic elementary and high schools that made significant financial contributions to missions through Holy Childhood Association.

Prior to the Final Blessing, JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, acknowledged the five schools in the Diocese that were recently recognized as Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Education: St. Leo the Great, Lincroft; St. Dominic, Brick; St. Jerome, West Long Branch; St. James, Red Bank, and St. Catharine, Spring Lake.

“It is a great day to be part of Catholic education,” she said to a round of applause.

Each pastor and principal of the Blue Ribbon School was called forward to receive a special gift from Bishop O’Connell.

Bishop, too, spoke on what distinguishes Catholic schools from other schools.

“In a Catholic school we learn about God and the Church; we learn what it means to have faith and to share faith; we learn faith values and those things that make us good people, loving people, grateful people, and compassionate, generous people throughout our lives,” Bishop O’Connell said in his homily. “Yes, we learn what every other kid learns, but we learn it in a different way and for a different reason. That is why we say, ‘Catholic Schools Have it All.’

“Catholic schools teach us that everything is a gift from God: our lives, our minds, our souls, our hearts, our emotions, our talents, and every gift has a special purpose also given us by God,” he concluded. “We celebrate our Catholic schools because they are God’s gift, the Church’s gift to us, and we, in turn, are God’s gift and hope and blessing to our world!”

After Mass, students reflected on the gift of gathering for the annual celebration.

Eighth-grader Charlize Kepler from Holy Innocents School, said, “When all of the schools get together and you see your faith being practiced all together in a larger community, it makes you appreciate it more.”

Anna Forsman, a senior from St. John Vianney High School who served as a reader for the Mass, expressed her appreciation for having participated for the second year in a row.

“It’s important to see all of the other Catholic schools in the community and to come together to celebrate Mass with the Bishop,” she offered.

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