Snail-like speed limits, polished uniforms and backpack sightings signaled the start of another school year in Arizona this month.
For Catholic school students — those who returned to campus, transferred in or began anew in preschool or kindergarten — the new academic year goes far deeper than that. So deep that it reaches the soul.
Diocese of Catholic Schools
“It’s not education only. It’s formation,” explained Enrique Diaz, principal at St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix’s Maryvale community. Even the teachers went on an annual retreat under the guidance of the Daughters of Charity who sponsor and help run the school. Staff reflected on the themes of “Welcoming the Stranger” and “Christ among us.”
“It’s here in a Catholic school where you can make a big difference in the life of the kids and the life of the parents.”
Not all enter as Catholic, but students certainly graduate with a solid academic and spiritual foundation. Four grades have waiting lists at the 610-student school.
Parents often report back to Diaz with comments such as, “I am learning more about God through my child when he or she gets home” and “It’s my child who first says, ‘Let’s say grace.’”
“We’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re getting kids excited about being Catholic and taking it home,” Diaz said.
In the case of Seton Catholic Preparatory in Chandler, “home” is now also at school with the implementation of a student-designed “house system” Aug. 9. Catholic school students often speak of their campus community as being like family, anyway. Their school family includes 40 students per grade level in 15 “houses” each with a respective crest and patron saint. They meet regularly.
It’s a similar system Most Holy Trinity and others in Minnesota and on the East Coast already use. The houses remain intact through graduation giving students the chance to grow together across the grades through house activities: prayer, healthy competition, community building activities, social nights and service opportunities.
“Students were involved in creating the Seton House System every step of the way,” said David Sorkin, assistant principal.
The system also multiplied student leadership opportunities with two house leaders per grade level and two speakers of the house.
Part of the morning routine at the newly renamed Immaculate Conception School in Cottonwood has two older students leading a decade of the Rosary. By Friday the K-8 students have prayed an entire Rosary without impeding on class time.
“As an educator, I want my students to know Christ and have an ongoing relationship with Him,” explained Jackie Kirkham, principal, who sees her role as an ambassador of Christ. “When our chance comes to meet Him, it should be a familiar embrace and not one that is awkward or novel.”
Antonio Hernandez, who has two children at Immaculate Conception, said he appreciates a Catholic education for his children because he knows they are free to bring their discussions of God from home into the classroom, and their Catholic values will be upheld while their children are at school.
“It is what we believe,” Hernandez said of a Catholic education. “It is what we grew up with and what we want for our kids — our foundation of faith started with Catholic formation.”
At Xavier College Preparatory back down in Phoenix, it’s select seniors who have a particular responsibility to facilitate an encounter with Christ: the 50 who felt called to be extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at the monthly school-wide liturgies. The young women gathered at Mount Claret Retreat Center Aug. 7 to focus on their leadership in the community — a new tradition for the nearly 80-year-old campus.
Congrats- all serving as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion for this year. We are excited for you! Steadfast Love/Freedom of Spirit pic.twitter.com/ek5Tbvvu5h
— XCP Gators (@XCPGators1) August 16, 2017
“As seniors, they’re leaders on campus anyway, but in particular, these girls are up front, visible,” said Fr. Kevin Grimditch, chaplain and retreat facilitator.
They reflected on the importance of the Eucharist and how it transforms lives plus how they can speak of that to students. They also reflected on being “women of faith pursuing excellence,” particularly in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
“Additionally, we spoke to them about how to engage in conversations about faith, how to lead small groups and how to draw other people into speaking about their own experiences,” Fr. Grimditch said.
Serving locally, abroad
That’s something Chris Dominguez, a 2013 graduate of Brophy College Preparatory, plans to do a lot of. He returned to the Jesuit high school this month to serve in the Office of Faith and Justice. Four fellow members of the Alumni Service Corps will either serve alongside him this school year or teach at Loyola Academy, a junior high school for boys on the Brophy campus.
“What a noble vocation it is to be a Catholic educator, to assist young people in discovering who they are and for what they are made,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted wrote in his apostolic letter, “Evangelizing through Catholic Schools,” this past spring.
The letter outlines five key ways Catholic campuses help the church in its evangelistic mission. Part of it is forming missionary disciples. The schools do that well through service projects with many optional experiences abroad in high school.
Leslie Gjerstad, director of Christian Service Learning and theology instructor at Notre Dame Preparatory in Scottsdale, constantly reminds students that the experience is about being Christ’s hands and feet. Whether serving locally or abroad, they must return having personally engaged someone they served by learning basic info about that person.
Among the other ways Catholic schools support evangelization: by being a place of encounter and a Spirit-filled community with a Catholic worldview through the curriculum.
Dylan Benvenuto, a sophomore in his second year of Catholic school, can see those at work at Notre Dame. He finds that the students genuinely want to be there and be surrounded by God with chances to explore the faith inside and outside of class. Students also study paired charisms exemplified by the Blessed Mother: sacrifice and joy, humility and wisdom and courage and love.
“Those all give you good standards to try to live by for sure,” Benvenuto told The Catholic Sun.