By Dr. Margaret Boland | Associate Superintendent of Schools
Currently in the Diocese of Trenton, 1,700 student athletes in seven Catholic high schools are participating in the National Catholic Athletes for Christ program. Originally a college program, the CAC premise was adaptable to secondary schools, and we are the first Diocese in the country to implement the program on a secondary diocesan-wide level.
It has been and continues to be a wonderful faith-filled journey for all who are involved. The purpose of CAC is to ignite the athletes and coaches to embrace the Catholic faith while being involved in athletics through prayer, community meetings and living charity.
In 2011, Father Alberto Tamayo, then-secretary to Bishop David O’Connell, C.M., approached me about researching and implementing the CAC program in our Catholic high schools. Bishop O’Connell had experience with the program at the Catholic University of America in Washington when he was president of the university and felt it had made an impact on strengthening students’ Catholic faith, especially in the university’s sport programs.
After consulting with one of the national founders of the program, Ray McKenna, we decided as a Diocese to institute the program in all secondary schools and had an initial meeting with administrators, athletic directors, coaches, campus ministers and guidance counselors in March 2012.
During the following school year, the large committee facilitated by myself and Father Tamayo, now pastor in St. Anthony Parish, Red Bank, designed a program that would work in all the high schools. Given the diversity of our schools, this was a difficult task but incredibly energetic for all. The committee designed two documents: Governance and Coaches Clipboard, a collection of special prayers written by diocesan clergy for coaches and students.
McKenna asked us to share the program and materials with the national CAC organization and attended the first diocesan meeting introducing this program to the members of our Diocese. Our committee’s documents have since been shared throughout the country. A member of the diocesan committee, Daniel Duddy, a former head football coach at Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, serves on the national committee.
The CAC program in the Diocese of Trenton is an outstanding model for the implementation of the concepts of evangelization and a national model for any Diocese to encourage in their respective secondary schools. The ultimate purpose of evangelization is to guide each person to recognize and embrace their personal relationship with Jesus. As members of the CAC program, every student participates in prayer before and after athlete practice as well as participation in the monthly Cathletes meeting.
Along with this is the concept of Living Charity that all members are called to fulfill. Living Charity encourages every student to commit themselves to service to the broader community. This is living their Catholic faith in “ACTION.”
Four years ago, the first leadership summit was instituted by the CAC diocesan committee. The CAC committee along with the Department of Catholic Schools invited the student Cathlete leaders from every high school to a meeting at the Chancery, Lawrenceville, along with the schools’ administrators, athletic directors and coaches for a leadership summit. The support of Bishop David O’Connell has made this all very possible.
The leadership day traditionally includes prayer, a video highlighting athletic activities from each high school, small group discussions of future ideas, lunch and a guest speaker.
The next leadership gathering will be Sept. 19, which is scheduled to include a presentation from the Office of Communications and The Monitor, the diocesan newspaper, on expanding social media. There is always much excitement as the students realize they are coming “home” and meeting Bishop O’Connell.
September 2016 saw the implementation of the first diocesan-wide Catholic Athletes for Christ board with representatives from seven high schools: Holy Cross Academy, Delran; Notre Dame, Lawrenceville; St. Rose, Belmar; St. John Vianney, Holmdel; Donovan Catholic, Toms River; Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, and Red Bank Catholic, Red Bank. Dennis Guida, principal of Holy Cross Academy, represents the secondary principals on the advisory committee; I co-chair the board.
The board oversees the ongoing planning of events, the Cathlete process and ensures that the bylaws are developed for the continuation of the program. This year, the hope is as the program is strengthened on the high school level, middle school students will be engaged to understand the concepts of the CAC program. Representatives from each secondary school will be visiting Catholic middle school students to share the program specifics with incoming ninth-graders.
The excitement that is being generated for the 2017-18 school year is that the CAC is developing a new brand, developing a presence on social media and continuing to strengthen the leadership of the advisory board. It is the vision to follow the Lord and learn to connect the athletes’ love of sports to their love of Jesus.
Living Charity is important to the program, and the board will continue to make recommendations for service projects. Father Tamayo continues to serve the CAC program as its chaplain and adviser.
We are very grateful to Bishop O’Connell for guiding us toward the Catholic Athletes for Christ program, for Ray McKenna for sharing the program, our secondary principals and athletic directors for embracing the program and for the faculty and students who decided to embrace the journey connecting their Catholic faith and their participation in athletics.