Students from Annunciation Catholic School in Cave Creek pray during the all-school Catholic Schools Week Mass Feb. 1 at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral. It drew students from across Arizona. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

“Astonishing” and “amazing” are two words one of Arizona’s bishops used to describe Catholic school students during a statewide liturgy.

A sliver of the diocese’s nearly 15,000 students — alongside guests from the Tucson and Gallup dioceses — showcased their amazing reverence during the annual Catholic Schools Week Mass at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral Feb. 1 followed by a musical showcase during a lunchtime rally at Wesley Bolin Plaza.

Both events are signature activities that mark the midpoint of Catholic Schools Week in Arizona each year while illustrating something more. They show the key reasons it’s crucial for Catholic education to have the support of both the faithful and the legislature.

“Arizona has government officials who care a lot about you,” Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference told several hundred elementary and high school students at the rally.

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, addresses students during the Catholic Schools Week Rally at Wesley Bolin Plaza Feb. 1. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Johnson regularly networks with lawmakers to affirm and increase tuition tax credit limits that benefit both Arizonans who file taxes and students whose families couldn’t afford a full tuition bill on their own.

Johnson introduced Senate President Steve Yarbrough, who called himself “a relentless proponent of school choice.” Yarbrough went on to acknowledge the sacrifices parents make to afford a private education as well as the “incredible opportunities” students receive as a result.

“When we put great teachers in front of great students, we get great outcomes,” Yarbrough said.

Arizona House president J.D. Mesnard speaks during the Catholic Schools Week Rally at Wesley Bolin Plaza Feb. 1. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard also briefly addressed the students saying legislators always advance policies that help students. He encouraged the young crowd to stick around for legislative visits or to return another time. Some school groups took him up on the offer.

“Everybody stops and pays extra close attention [when a young person visits] because it so rarely happens,” Mesnard said.

Two students shared with the crowd what it meant for them to have the safety net of need-based scholarships from tuition organizations like Catholic Education Arizona serving the Diocese of Phoenix and Catholic Tuition Organization serving Tucson. Catherine Torrie, a sophomore at Bourgade Catholic High School, said a lifetime of Catholic schooling has taught her what “love” truly means — far beyond the world’s tarnished, superficial version. She sees fellow students, faculty and staff “genuinely rooted in the love of Jesus Christ.”

Catherine Torrie, a sophomore at Bouragde Catholic High School, reflects on a lifetime in Catholic schools during the Catholic Schools Week Rally at Wesley Bolin Plaza Feb. 1. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Torrie said she views her school friends as siblings and “never would have met them if it weren’t for the love of God in others,” she said, citing her mom’s friend and complete strangers who faithfully take advantage of the tuition tax credit.

Ana Maria Gonzalez, a student at Lourdes Catholic High School in Nogales, said, “Having God in your studies makes it possible to grow even more.”

Mariachi students from St. Augustine Catholic High School in Tucson perform during the Catholic Schools Week Rally at Wesley Bolin Plaza Feb. 1. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

The rally crowd of students, teachers, school board members and other supporters also saw how Catholic schools support artistic development. A special events choir from St. Mary-Basha in Chandler led the crowd in the pledge of allegiance with Bourgade’s varsity cheer team leading pepping up their peers throughout. A Navajo flute quartet from St. Michael Indian School, which St. Katharine Drexel herself established in St. Michaels performed as did the guitar orchestra from Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale and St. Augustine Catholic High School’s mariachi band from Tucson.

Other students showcased their singing and reading talents during the all-school Mass just before the rally.

Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson even singled out one of them before giving his homily. The conviction and clarity with which Xavier College Preparatory’s Susan Peters proclaimed the first reading impressed him.

“Catholic schools breed champions, would-be saints. Catholic schools form the best on the field, in the classroom, around the neighborhood, in the parish,” Bishop Kicanas told the students.

Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas talks directly with Catholic school students from throughout Arizona during a guest homily at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral Feb. 1. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

He said greatness comes by being an imitator of Christ and truly caring about others.

“If you want to be great, you serve,” the bishop said. “You have to have the endurance of the Christ who stayed the course, who ran the race… that’s the challenge for us in Catholic schools… that we excel in all the gifts God gave us.”