In a whirlwind of an hour, scores of students from dozens of Catholic schools across Arizona efficiently — and publicly — demonstrated the uniqueness and effectiveness of their learning environment.

A lunchtime Arizona Catholics Schools Rally Jan. 29 at Wesley Bolin Plaza marked the midpoint of a nationwide Catholic Schools Week celebration and unpacked a full schedule. It formally began with the National Anthem and prayer, then interwove remarks from bishops, students and state legislators with musical and spiritline performances. St. Mary’s Columbian Squires — a youth organization affiliated with the Knights of Columbus — were on hand managing drink and dessert tables and modeling the quiet service aspect for which Catholic schools are known.

It’s all par for an average day of learning and activity at any of Arizona’s 49 elementary schools and 13 high schools covering the state’s three dioceses: Phoenix, Tucson and Gallup. Representatives from each were there. They gathered to showcase their musical and spirited talents, hear about the value of their school experiences and thank legislators for keeping tuition programs that help keep their school dreams achievable.

Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, the public policy agency for the state’s Catholic bishops, told the crowd that several local Catholic schools would not be open today without them. He also expressed gratitude for Arizona’s top legislators who shared some words of inspiration with the students.

President of the state Senate Karen Fann from Prescott told students that an important part of their work is making sure parents have a choice for their students to be career or college-ready or both. “Every single bill down here, you can go on the computer, you can register your name, and you can mark whether you like them or don’t like them,” Fann said. She encouraged teachers to engage students in the legislative process.

Johnson said a goal of the current legislative session is to maintain the current tuition tax credit laws. “We are the envy of every state in regards to school choice laws and ESAs,” Johnson said. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts use tax money to provide educational options for qualified Arizona students.

The students, largely part of their campus student councils, were all ears when State Speaker of the House Russell Bowers from Mesa spoke. Bowers not only encouraged them to protect their ability to make the right choices in education and beyond, but shared gratitude for laws that allowed him to be the father of three adopted daughters.

Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico — which has half of its jurisdiction in the northeast corner of Arizona — also touched on pro-life topics. He explained the popular culture of death and his opinion that the young generation will be the one that changes the culture regarding it.

“You have the strength, courage and knowledge to do so. Have courageous hearts and do all things in the name of the Lord,” said the bishop who spent two years as an East Valley Catholic school student and almost 11 years as a Phoenix priest before being named bishop of Gallup.

Gathered en masse for Mass

Earlier that morning as homilist for the statewide Catholic Schools Week Mass, Bishop Wall reviewed four key ways Christ is made known to His people in the liturgy. He reveals Himself through the assembly — wherever two or three are gathered in His name — through the celebrant — in persona Christi capitis — in the Word of God and in the Eucharist.

The bishop, whose primary role is to teach, encouraged students to be “the good, fruitful soil” that the Gospel spoke of by preparing themselves to hear the Word of God at Mass. Read it ahead of time, he recommended, so that when it’s proclaimed at Mass, the heart’s soil can be better tilled.

He also instructed the elementary and high school students in reverent reception of the Holy Eucharist. They heeded his word as they came forward for Communion or a blessing. Some wore veils, some focused on the crucifix while in line, but all of them knelt in silent prayer afterwards.

Before the final blessing, Harry Plummer, superintendent of Catholic schools, honored 10 faculty and staff members from various schools who have served in local Catholic education for 25 years. It’s the teachers who toil that fertile soil of knowledge, which nurtures the soul of a nation, he said.

Student witnesses

Back at the rally, a one high school student each from the dioceses of Tucson and Phoenix shared the impact they’ve seen their Catholic education have on them so far. Benjamin Henderson, a student at St. Augustine Catholic High School in Tucson, transferred there as a sophomore after being homeschooled.

“We are able to practice and form the faith that has been a constant throughout most of our lives,” Henderson said. The aspiring chemical engineer also lauded the availability of dual enrollment courses that challenge them academically and offset up to 36 hours of college courses.

With two-thirds of his peers receiving need-based scholarships, it makes high school and college attainable, he said.

Joseph Saltonstall, a St. Mary-Basha alumnus and junior at Seton Catholic Preparatory, both in Chandler, touted the availability of retreats and the strong community feel among students, staff, parents and alumni among the benefits of a Catholic education. It “creates a welcoming environment where we can share our feelings without being judged,” Saltonstall said.

Beyond that, Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson, said the choice of Catholic education in Arizona is a treasure. It doesn’t happen everywhere nationwide. Catholic schools are more than standard academics, however. “We give you information, but we’re also forming you as that saint God wants you to become,” the bishop said.