By Mary Stadnyk | News Editor
The vibrancy of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton and an overwhelming love of Catholic education were unmistakable as representatives from Catholic schools around the diocese joined in the celebration of the second annual Catholic Schools Mass March 19 in St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Trenton.
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Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., and several dozen priests, most of whom were pastors of parishes with Catholic schools, marked the occasion with a crowd of 800 energetic students, along with their teachers, school administrators and parent chaperones, all of whom were very excited to be part of the celebration.
“As your bishop here in the Diocese of Trenton, I am so happy to be with you and to welcome you to our cathedral,” Bishop O’Connell said to the gathering of plaid and primary-colored uniform-clad students who were seated in the pews before him.
“Although you are all from different parishes and schools around our great diocese, this Church in Trenton, because it is the bishop’s Church, belongs to everyone no matter what your parish is or where you go to Church on Sunday.
“So welcome!” an exuberant Bishop O’Connell said.
A Communal Celebration
Hosted by the diocesan Office of Catholic Education, the Mass featured participation of students representing a number of schools from around the diocese. The music ministry from Red Bank Catholic High School, under the direction of Shawn T. Mack, led the assembly in the singing of familiar liturgical hymns including “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” and the resounding “God We Praise You.” Two solemn meditation pieces that the choir sang after Holy Communion were “Ave Verum Corpus” in Latin and “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”
There were many student smiles coming down the aisle at the start of the entrance procession as representatives from each of the diocese’s 44 Catholic schools (36 elementary and eight secondary) carried their school flag or banner which led the entrance procession. A contingent of students also served as readers, greeters and ushers.
In his homily, Bishop O’Connell noted how fitting it was that the second annual Catholic Schools Mass was held on the day the universal Church observed the feast of St. Joseph, husband of Mary, Mother of God, and foster father of Jesus.
Bishop O’Connell drew a connection between the life of St. Joseph and Catholic education, noting that although there is very little information about St. Joseph found in the Gospels or in the New Testament, Joseph is an example of an educator who dedicated his earthly life in providing for Mary and Jesus.
The bishop said, “Just as Jesus learned so much growing up at the feet of Joseph and Mary who cared so much for him, so too we learn so much in the schools of our Catholic Church which, through the example and help of Joseph and Mary in the Holy Family, cares so much for us. (Catholic schools) teach us, guide us and send us on our way through life, living the way Jesus lived and following him.”
“St. Joseph was a ‘just man’ who did what God asked of him,” Bishop O’Connell emphasized.
“We learn from his example to be ‘just people’ who do what God asks of us. That is what justice means: doing what is true and right and compassionate because that is what God asks of us through our Lord Jesus Christ,” said Bishop O’Connell.
Catholic schools, the bishop said, “bring the ‘Good News’ of Jesus into the classroom so that we can bring the ‘Good News’ of Jesus outside the classroom into the world in which we live.”
Though Catholic schools educate their students in math, English, science and other subjects, the main difference a Catholic education provides is teaching students about “God and the Church,” said Bishop O’Connell.
“We learn what it means to have faith and to share faith,” said Bishop O’Connell. “We learn faith values and those things that make us good people, loving people, grateful people, compassionate, generous people throughout our lives.”
“Yes, we learn what every other kid learns but we learn it in a different way and for a different reason,” said Bishop O’Connell.
“Catholic schools teach us that everything is a gift from God: our lives, our minds, our souls, our hearts, our emotions, and every gift has a special purpose also given to us by God,” the bishop said. “We celebrate our Catholic schools because they are God’s gift to us, they are the Church’s gift to us and we, in turn, are God’s gift and hope and blessing to our world!”
At the end of the Mass, Bishop O’Connell presented Donna Urmey, an eighth grade teacher in St. Joseph School, Toms River, with a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the diocese in recognition for being named the Region 3 2012 Distinguished Teacher Award recipient by the National Catholic Educational Association.
Urmey will be presented with the NCEA award during the association’s annual convention which this year will be held during Easter week in Boston.
JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, announced that Urmey was one of 12 teachers across the country to receive the award. Urmey was chosen from a possible pool of more than 10,000 Catholic school teachers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Tier explained that Urmey was chosen as an NCEA award recipient based on an essay she wrote about her “most rewarding experience” as a Catholic educator.
In her essay, Urmey recalled how she helped “Jenna,” a student “with overwhelming learning issues.” Tier said that Jenna’s mother had been a drug addict and by the time Jenna was in fifth grade, she was reading only at a second grade level.
While Jenna had learning disabilities that “could cause teachers to lose hope and see this child as a victim who simply didn’t have a chance in life, Donna invested in this child,” Tier said. With Urmey’s encouragement and persistence, “Jenna” went on to graduate from high school with honors and eventually earn both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree.
In the teaching profession, Donna Urmey represents “hope and the belief that all things are possible,” Tier said in her congratulatory remarks. “Donna never doubted that Jenna could learn and you supported her through a painstaking process. Donna gave of herself selflessly and without condition.”
A ‘Cool’ Event
Father Douglas Freer, who attended his first Catholic Schools Mass since he was named diocesan vicar of Catholic Education, said it is an event that gives “kids from all over the diocese a chance to come together to hear beautiful music, to raise their voices in praise” and the opportunity to interact with Bishop O’Connell.
“The Catholic Schools Mass is a great opportunity for the bishop to speak directly to them and also to inspire vocations” to the priesthood and religious life, said Father Freer.
“Overall, today was a very inspiring day.”
While many of the students and their teachers said that they had met Bishop O’Connell on previous occasions, such as when he visited their schools, they were excited for another opportunity to see him again in the diocesan cathedral. Many of the students remarked on how “cool” it was to see so many students from other Catholic schools around the diocese at the Mass.
“It’s like we are all connected” and form one community, observed CJ DeMille, a member of St. Mary Parish, Bordentown, and a senior at Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville.
DeMille noted that he had attended a public grammar school and how much he appreciates the opportunity to receive a Catholic education in high school.
Cassidy Terracciano echoed DeMille’s remarks as she talked about how her Catholic education experience in Holy Family School, Lakewood, allows her to “live my Catholic faith with others without being judged.”
After making the point that she thought that Bishop O’Connell came up with a pretty “good idea” to bring Catholic schools together for a Mass each year, Jess Kimball, a sixth grader in St. Mary School, Bordentown, took an opportunity to talk about what she enjoys most about attending a Catholic school, especially having opportunities to participate in religion projects and reading various stories in the Bible.
Diane Huth, a fifth grade teacher in Sacred Heart School, Mount Holly, smiled as she reflected on visiting the cathedral and participating in the Catholic Schools Mass for the first time.
“This is a beautiful tradition,” Huth said, as she noted special highlights of the Mass – the high school music ministry singing a hymn in Latin, the large representation of parish priests who concelebrated the Mass with the bishop and seeing so many students coming together for this diocesan celebration.
For kids to have an opportunity to receive a Catholic education “is so important,” Huth said.
“It breaks my heart” that there are so many Catholic school closings in other dioceses, said Huth, and while there are parish religious education programs doing a “wonderful job” in educating young people about their Catholic faith, “I hope that in our diocese, we are able to keep Catholic (school) education going strong.”
For the second year, Linda Pesce, principal of Holy Family School, Lakewood, was excited to accompany a group of students to the Catholic Schools Mass.
“It’s a shame that the schools can’t bring all of their students to this Mass,” Pesce said. “But the kids who are here today will definitely take back their experiences and share them with their classmates. There will be follow-up discussions about today’s Mass” in the days to come, Pesce said.
“It’s gorgeous,” said a wide-eyed Melanie Bennett, a junior in St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, as she observed the beauty and splendor of the cathedral.
Sharing how much it meant for her to be at the Catholic Schools Mass, Bennett said that she appreciates how her Catholic education allows her to acquire faith-based values that she knows will serve her well “for the rest of my life.”
Bishop O’Connell divulged that the next Catholic Schools Mass will coincide with the diocese’s first-ever Eucharistic Congress in October in the PNC Arts Center, Holmdel. The tentative date he set for the Mass will be Oct. 12.
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