Students from across Arizona filled Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix Jan. 30 as part of the nationwide Catholic Schools Week celebration.
The colorful Mass drew all five Arizona bishops and eight priests. Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, who spent his first 11 years of priesthood in the Diocese of Phoenix, drilled the four-part process of evangelization — encounter, evangelization, communion and solidarity — into the hearts and minds of students.
He emphasized the importance of encountering Jesus personally and communally, which then leads to a conversion of heart.
“We see time and time again throughout the Gospel how people encounter the living Christ and when they went away, they were better for it,” Bishop Wall said.
Those encounters draw believers into greater communion with God and their brothers and sisters, and into solidarity with them. That includes love, concern and care for the poorest of the poor.
Sr. Joan Fitzgerald, BVM, principal of Xavier College Preparatory, recalled the earliest Catholic Schools Week celebrations, which began 40 years ago.
“I remember a sense of togetherness and the excitement, but mixed with that a sense of wonder and awe — the sense of unity that we’re all one,” she said.
Sr. Joan noted an inspiring commitment from faculty at many schools. She often sees them return year after year. MaryBeth Mueller, superintendent of schools for the Phoenix Diocese, honored eight of them from five schools for 25 years of service to Catholic education.
Mueller also acknowledged Loreto Sister Raphael Quinn, principal of Ss. Simon and Jude, for her half-century of service to the cathedral school. Also celebrated was Sr. Rosa Maria Ruiz, CFMM, for her 53 years in the Diocese of Tucson, including 17 as superintendent. She is retiring this year.
The search for dedicated teachers is part of what sent Adriana DeAlba, a senior at St. Mary’s High School, seeking other education options after eighth grade. She described being in class with a fraction of students paying attention and her teacher reacting with, “I don’t care if you guys learn or not, at the end of this week, I still get a paycheck.”
DeAlba felt something better awaited her. She shared her journey with some 1,000 Catholic school students during a lunchtime rally on the lawn of the Arizona Capitol following Mass.
The rally featured a mix of speakers, musical performances and student testimonies. Catholic Education Arizona sponsored the rally as a way to bring individual and corporate donors together with lawmakers who supported the tuition tax credit — including Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker Andy Tobin — and students who benefit from it.
DeAlba is one of 5,552 students who benefited from need-based scholarships this school year.
“What our donors have given us goes beyond monetary,” DeAlba said. “Teachers, administrators and classmates are a second family.”
Paul Mulligan, president and CEO of Catholic Education Arizona, said the rally was a great opportunity to focus attention on Catholic schools and the value they add to the whole community.
“We’re so grateful to the tax credit supporters who were both present and absent for the opportunities they have created for these students who are on a path toward graduation, college and service to society,” Mulligan said.
Kaitlynn Williams, a student at St. Augustine Catholic High School in Tucson, raised the bar for herself after entering the Catholic school system as a freshman. The experience woke her up to the gifts of the faith leaving her to crave daily chapel time, start a pro-life group and discern majoring or minoring in theology. Williams said she’s striving for sainthood.
“There’s something so distinct and so worthwhile about Catholic education,” Williams said, hinting at the “Communities of Faith, knowledge and service” that guided Catholic Schools Week celebrations.
Members of the community know that, too. Corporate and individual donors, some present at the rally, support Catholic education because they know the system produces well-rounded students ready for the workforce.
“The number of people who believe in the tax credit has grown throughout the years. You can see all of the good that it does,” said Ron Johnson, executive director or the Arizona Catholic Conference.
Johnson works with Arizona’s bishops and legislators to support tuition tax credit legislation. He coordinated a meeting between Arizona’s bishops and Governor Jan Brewer Jan. 28. They relayed similar information about the benefit the tax credit provides to the state and students.
Some 12,800 individuals sent $12.8 million to Catholic Education Arizona last year and received all of that back in the form of tax credits. Another 15 corporations kicked in $2.8 million.
While Johnson called it one of the best Catholic Schools Week rallies in terms of turnout, performers, weather and the number of elected officials who came by, his work is far from done. There is still some $15 million in unmet need for tuition assistance. One proposed bill in the Senate now would expand the eligible donor base under Arizona’s corporate tuition tax credit law to also include S-Corporations.
According to the Catholic Education Arizona website, state law allows taxpayers to make individual charitable contributions to school tuition organizations by redirecting State of Arizona tax liability on a dollar for dollar basis. Single filers can redirect any portion of their tax liability up to $1,031; married couples who file jointly can redirect $2,062.
The annual Mass and rally are just two ways that Arizona’s 21,000 Catholic school students and the community participate in the national Catholic Schools Week celebration, which ran from Jan. 26 through Feb. 1. The week was filled with fun events, open houses, the Diocesan Spelling Bee and other activities for students, families and the community at large.
Students of every age at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Tempe, with the help of a social studies grant from SRP, presented their “Passport to the World” projects Jan. 29 for school families plus guests from SRP and the Polish community. They dressed in cultural attire to showcase what they learned about their respective country and share traditional food.
Junior high students at St. John Vianney in Goodyear presented their National History Day exhibits, research papers and websites to family members and independent school-level judges during an open house Jan. 27. Eighth-grader Roberto Huerta admitted the project involved a lot of work and sacrificing sleep and time with friends, but said it was worth it to prepare him for high school and college. Huerta, a first-year Catholic school student, finds his new school worthwhile.
“It gets you closer to the church because you get to go to confession once a month and Mass once a week,” Huerta said. He found it harder to make time for such sacraments on his own in the past.
“Catholic Schools Week is a time for our families and educators to celebrate the integration of our faith with our high academic standards,” said Mueller. “Our schools and students are committed to service, and make a significant contribution to Arizona and America.”
More than 14,000 students attend one of the Diocese of Phoenix’s 29 Catholic elementary schools, six high schools and seven stand-alone preschools. Students receive rigorous, faith-filled education that prepares them for the challenges of higher education and a competitive world. An estimated 99 percent of students graduate high school; 97 percent go on to college.