Nearly 1,200 seniors will graduate this year from the seven Catholic high schools within the Diocese of Phoenix in ceremonies more reflective of traditional events but still carrying many of the trademark signs to protect the public’s health during the novel Coronavirus pandemic.

Annual commencements kicked off May 13, when Notre Dame Prep graduated 204 students, and will conclude May 22 with the largest single class – 327 young men – receiving diplomas at Brophy College Prep.

Xavier College Prep saw 261 girls graduate May 15, a day after St. John Paul II, the diocese’s newest high school, recognized 37 students, its first graduating class.

Others handing out diplomas include: Seton Catholic, to 122 students May 18; St. Mary’s to 108 students May 19; and Bourgade to 107 students May 20.

“At every turn, there were questions and uncertainties, and rarely were there any obvious answers,” wrote Bourgade Director of Advancement Bryan Burgoz in an email several days before the school’s ceremony. “Our students, parents and faculty embraced an unprecedented hybrid… model that accommodated both online and in-person learning. We can’t help but feel pride in the work (our seniors) have done and their ability to remain focused on their hopes and dreams,” he continued.

Four Xavier grads pause for a photo after graduation at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church Saturday, May 15, 2021. (DOMINIQUE PAPLACZYK/XAVIER COLLEGE PREPARATORY)

“This graduation personifies the resilience of everyone involved — parents, students, faculty and health professionals,” said Xavier Principal Sr. Joan Nuckols, B.V.M. “Everyone kept a positive, can-do attitude throughout the 15 months. The willingness on the part of each person to do what is best for the common good was commendable.”

Beyond kudos from administrators and faculty, the seniors heard words of inspiration from their colleagues during their final minutes as official class members.

Reid Perez, a Notre Dame graduate who was a one-time atheist, recalled anger over his grandfather’s death and eventually surrendering to God’s call, allowing Him to fill his life with joy. “Faith is a call to rise above who we are. We will lose sight of it now and then, but it is important to always come back to it. Always search for it during the darkest moments. Allow it to light up your life,” he said.

Indeed, the hurdles for the classes of 2020 and 2021 were unlike any faced before them.

Online and in-person learning were often combined, challenging teachers to become creative multitaskers and students to a new measure of self-discipline. If health and safety were the building blocks, faith was the cornerstone of the schools’ efforts.

“Prayer was an essential part of the process,” said Xavier’s Sr. Joan. “Being able to continue with our all-school Masses through live stream, the adapted Kairos retreats, daily prayer, and the realization of God’s love helped the entire community grow in love for each other.”

Diocese of Phoenix Catholic Schools Superintendent Domonic Salce presents a diploma to one of the graduates during commencement for St. John Paul II High School at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Avondale Friday, May 14. (JEFF GRANT/CATHOLIC SUN)

Graduation ceremonies still involved masking, social distancing, and other health measures. But with the number of COVID-19 cases remaining low and more and more Arizonans getting vaccinated, schools were able to return to in-person events albeit with limited seating in many cases.

“The crowd will be smaller than usual, by design,” stated Brophy Director of Communications Kathy Mabry in an email. “Everyone will be in masks, but we’re anticipating a joyful occasion. We believe reaching this milestone demonstrates faith, solidarity, resilience, patience and a willingness to make personal sacrifices to protect the greater good.”

The 1,166 students graduating this year is a number not heavily influenced by enrollment losses tied to the pandemic.

While figures are off in most parts of the United States, decreases have been far more acute at the lower elementary levels and in prekindergarten.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) reported earlier this year enrollment across all grades throughout the U.S. dropped 6.4 percent from the previous academic year – the largest single year decline in nearly 50 years. Pre-kindergarten enrollment alone declined by 26.6 percent from 2019-20 to 2020-21, indicating high schools may not face the full effect for years.

For now, high school administrators – like their junior high and elementary colleagues, were forced to develop methods of engaging students safely and effectively.

“We knew the biggest challenge was going to be creating a sense of community within a virtual space. To overcome this, we implemented a program that segmented our student body into small groups, combining students from all grade levels,” stated Bourgade’s Burgoz.

The program included having set times where students could interact with each other, discussing areas of interest and spirituality.

At Brophy, the entire health and safety program was modeled after the school’s motto, “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam — for the greater glory of God,”

If health, safety and flexibility were the building blocks of learning in the pandemic, faith was the cornerstone of those efforts. Students were reminded at their graduation to remain faithful, loving God and their neighbor.

Notre Dame Prep Mater Dei Award winners pose with Principal and President Jill Platt following graduation at the school’s Bemis Field in Scottsdale Thursday, May 13, 2021. (KIMBERLY HAUB/NOTRE DAME PREPARATORY)

“What does the Lord require of you?” Notre Dame President and Principal Jill Platt asked graduates.

“In (the Book of the Prophet) Micah (Chapter 6, verse 8), it says that you must only ‘seek justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.’

“This simple message written 2,500 years ago reminds us that real success isn’t found in moving faster, living shallowly, or judging others. It reminds us of the gift of slowing down, recognizing what really matters and embracing the awesome gift that is this life.”