By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor
Motorists traveling on the southbound side of the bustling Route 130 the morning of Jan. 30 couldn’t help but notice the large, brightly lit sign near the entrance to Holy Cross Academy, Delran, declaring “Welcome – Bishop O’Connell – Catholic Schools Week.”
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Energy was high around Burlington County’s only Catholic high school as the community prepared to begin their observance of Catholic Schools Week with a visit from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M.
The Bishop was invited to celebrate Mass for the students, faculty and staff, as well as for the busloads of grammar-school students from Burlington and Mercer Counties who were asked to join in the day’s festivities. Also present were a number of priests from area parishes who concelebrated the Mass, diocesan officials including JoAnn Tier, Margaret Boland and Daniel O’Connell from the Office of Catholic Schools, parents, grandparents and graduates who were proud to return to their alma mater.
“Today, every Diocese in the United States begins the celebration of Catholic Schools Week,” said Bishop O’Connell in his homily. “For our Church, Catholic schools are an important part of its ‘Good News.’ Catholic schools enable all students, some of whom are not Catholic, to encounter the Lord Jesus Christ, to learn about him, to read and hear the Gospel, to learn how to pray and love him, to grow in faith and to see how faith in the Lord Jesus can make a great difference in our lives and in our world. Those are the things that make us unique among schools in our country, things that fill us with joy and peace as a Catholic school community. ”
Bishop O’Connell acknowledged how sometimes it’s hard to appreciate the message, “the ‘Good News’ of faith in the Lord Jesus because of difficult circumstances that come our way, especially during the high school years.”
After listing a host of challenges that can limit one from recognizing the Good News – family life and economic hardships, peer pressure, temptations that “can make life really tough,” as well as “the lack of respect we show or are shown by others, relationships that have gone bad and loneliness that we may feel because we are different,” – Bishop O’Connell urged the students to remember what they heard in the day’s Gospel Reading.
“It’s Good News,” Bishop O’Connell said. “Jesus met the demons and defeated them, cast them out. We are his followers and he loves us … We need to turn to him, to seek his presence, to invite him into our lives, to ask him in our prayers to cast out our own demons. That’s why we are in a Catholic school. That’s what a Catholic school offers. We are not alone, ever. The Lord Jesus loves us.”
After Communion, Dennis Guida, principal, addressed the gathering and spoke of Holy Cross’ Catholic Schools Week tradition in which faculty and staff are recognized for their milestone years of service to the school. Having Bishop O’Connell present added to the significance of this year’s recognition, Guida said. Those recognized by the Bishop were: Paula Nolan, 10 years; Debra Williams, religion department, 10 years; Patrick Mulvaney, guidance department, 25 years; Theresa Ritter, science department, 30 years; Penny O’Neill, related arts department, 25 years, and Jennifer Kelly, director of guidance 15 years.
As Bishop O’Connell headed to the cafeteria to have lunch with the Holy Cross students after the Mass, visitors lingered in the auditorium, happy to share sentiments on the start of Catholic Schools Week and all that a Catholic education can offer.
Tier, who is diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools and a graduate of Holy Cross, spoke of the “honor” it was to have Bishop O’Connell celebrate Mass for the students of Holy Cross Academy and neighboring schools, which included all Catholic grammar schools from Burlington County and Mercer County’s St. Raphael School in Hamilton, which has students who are planning to enroll in Holy Cross in the fall.
“Today was a community celebration,” Tier said. “HCA has provided a proud Catholic education and molded students in the faith throughout 60 years. The joy and support of the community was indeed a tribute to a school that has long served Burlington County and its residents.”
Father John Testa, smiled as he spoke of how Corpus Christi Parish, Willingboro, where he serves as pastor, shares a campus with Pope John Paul II Regional School and the opportunities his parish has
“This was a very special ceremony as we were celebrating the beginning of Catholic Schools Week,” said William Robbins, principal of St. Paul School, Burlington, who accompanied 18 seventh-graders. Noting that he had prepared the students by explaining the “hierarchy of the Catholic Church” and how the Mass was going to be celebrated by the Bishop and concelebrated by other priests including their pastor, Father Christopher Picollo, Robbins said that “Catholic Schools Week is an excellent opportunity when we are encouraged to ‘show off’ those things that make our school very special.”
Noting that 16 seventh and eighth graders from St. Raphael School were present for the Mass, faculty member Cecilia Chludzinski said, “I personally love any opportunity we get to spend some time in the company of the Bishop, because he makes you proud to be a Catholic school student and teacher.”
The Bishop, she continued, “raises you up and makes it cool to be a Catholic! He is an excellent speaker who radiates his positive attitude to all of us about his faith. The students see this, and they then feel really good about being in a Catholic school.”
Grammar school students expressed how happy they were to meet Bishop O’Connell and their excitement about the start of Catholic Schools Week.
Mary-Katherine Pabalan, a seventh-grader in St. Paul School, described Bishop O’Connell as being “very welcoming and kind” and then went on to tell how he “preached a very meaningful homily, which struck me and made me think about issues that teenagers face in a different light.”
She was especially struck by Bishop O’Connell’s saying that “the true reward in life is being happy.”
“He presented to me that happiness isn’t a destination, it’s a way of life,” said Pabalan.