By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent
Graduating students from Catholic high schools across the Diocese of Trenton took a monumental step toward their futures, saying goodbye to the familiar while anticipating the possibilities to come.
The Class of 2018 celebrated with Baccalaureate Masses and commencement exercises to mark the end of a 12-year journey and the beginning of another.
Hailing from 11 Catholic diocesan, parish and private high schools that serve Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean counties, the graduates numbered 1,535. Schools included Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville; Holy Cross Academy, Delran; St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; Mater Dei Prep, Middletown; Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank; Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft; Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton, Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing; St. Rose High School, Belmar, and Donovan Catholic, Toms River.
Combined, the graduates garnered more than $225 million in college scholarships. As family members, friends and faculty looked on proudly, students received their diplomas and words of encouragement as Mass celebrants, homilists, commencement speakers and educators challenged them to take their faith on their new voyage.
Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., was principal celebrant and homilist for Baccalaureate Masses for Christian Brothers Academy, Trenton Catholic Academy, Red Bank Catholic High School and Notre Dame High School. In his homily message, the Bishop said, “God’s first message for you as you leave your familiar surroundings is simply this: ‘Have faith’ … always approach your uncertain future with faith in the God who created you and loves you as you are.
“‘Have hope.’ Hope is confidence and trust that God ‘has your back.’ ... ‘Have love.’ The whole of Jesus’ life was one of love and mercy, freely given, no strings attached, unconditional ... God’s three messages to you are an invitation, an encouragement, a challenge, a comfort, a goal presented ‘special delivery’ through Christ Jesus, Our Lord.” (To read the Bishop’s full message to graduates, see page G2.)
Notable accomplishments for this year’s graduating class included: first-time dual enrollment with Mercer County Community College and Brookdale Community College for two schools; several students earning perfect SAT scores and AP test scores; multiple graduates will attend the United States Military Academy at West Point; students over four years of high school earned more than $150,000 for charities worldwide and completed countless service hours; TCA earned its largest total scholarship money to date, while Villa Victoria garnered an average of $200,000 in scholarships per graduate.
Having faced a year of particular hardship, NDHS graduates emerged as one of the most resilient, faith-filled classes, according to school administrators. Their spirit of perseverance through tragedy was illustrated in a poem by senior Maura Breth, “Today Means Hallelujah”:
“You, a teacher, a dancer, a firecracker alight in every movement ... You, whose voice is someone’s favorite symphony, whose face is their favorite work of art, You, whose light is a beacon, not to guide the way home but to pave the way into a great unknown and illuminate the night ... Because you have been led here by the grace of God for just this moment.”
As homilist for the Baccalaureate Mass of Mater Dei Prep, held in St. Mary Mother of God Church, Middletown, Msgr. Leonard F. Troiano, diocesan episcopal vicar for planning, recalled how one seminary professor teased the students about the beauty of a book’s cover, joking, “Isn’t it beautiful? Maybe one day you’ll use it.”
“You might think you’re done with books for now,” Msgr. Troiano said. “But the first place you go on a college campus is the bookstore. Books will be important as you go to college – but one more book should remain important: the Book we use here – the Sacred Scriptures.
“It will not only change your mind,” he continued. “If you let it, it will change your heart. And it will do great things for people, in terms of helping them and bringing to life the message of Jesus Christ.”
Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan episcopal vicar for education and chaplain of The Aquinas Institute, Princeton University, was homilist for the Baccalaureate Mass in Holy Cross Academy. As the occasion coincided with the Feast of the Visitation, Father Zeis compared the graduates’ readiness to go out into the world to that of the Blessed Mother’s.
“Mary was introduced to Jesus through the message of an angel,” he said. “You have been prepared by your Catholic education, and are ready to do what Mary did: go forth in service, bringing Jesus into the world. By your faithful ‘yes’ to God, you have accepted your call to be missionary disciples in the world.”