By Michelle Castleman
NEW HAVEN — Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades celebrated Mass and visited St. John the Baptist Catholic School in New Haven on Friday, Feb. 21, as he continued his ongoing pastoral visits in 2014. He opened his visit with what he feels is the “greatest way to start the day” — Holy Mass.
During his homily, Bishop Rhoades, on the feast of St. Peter Damian, encouraged the 361 students to remain united with Jesus and stay close to Him. He used Jesus’ beautiful imagery of a vine and its branches to explain that the faithful must receive the life of Jesus in their lives to produce good fruits.
When quizzed, students answered that one can receive His grace through Baptism, Holy Eucharist and prayer. Bishop Rhoades gave examples of how one can live out the greatest commandment of love by showing kindness and patience to one’s brothers and sisters and honoring and respecting parents.
In closing, Bishop Rhoades challenged students to think about how they can become more united to Christ and bear good fruits in their lives as they prepare for the season of Lent.
Next on the itinerary was the classroom visits. As he walked across the parking lot from the church to the school building, the bishop was greeted by student council members and introduced to three students who will be joining the Church at Easter under the direction of Father William Sullivan, pastor, and Deb Painter, the pastoral associate and director of religious education for the school and parish.
Spending time in each classroom during his visit, Bishop Rhoades started off by asking what the students were learning in their religion class. In the fourth-grade room, students were studying the Ten Commandments and figures from the Old Testament like Sampson and Ruth, while the energetic sixth-graders were learning the Beatitudes. The seventh graders were examining virtues and vices. In their extra special sacramental years, the second and eighth graders were busy preparing for their upcoming celebrations.
With each comment the bishop took an opportunity to give mini-lessons on the topic and shared his personal experiences like how the Beatitudes are the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount — the greatest of all sermons ever preached. And he had celebrated Mass on the very same hill in Galilee while visiting there. He also explained to the third graders about his visit outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane, which tied into their study of the details of Jesus’ agony in the garden and the events of Holy Thursday.
He asked the eighth graders about the patron saints they chose for their Confirmation names and told why he chose St. John the Apostle as his because of John’s deep devotion to the Lord until the end.
When eighth-grader Grace Wharton shared that she had chosen St. Maria Goretti, the bishop told of how he used to visit and pray at her tomb before swimming at the Nettuno Beach during his years in Rome.
After learning what they were covering in religion class and asking the students questions, the bishop opened the floor to questions for him.
The young preschoolers and kindergartners “baa-ed” like sheep when the Bishop Rhoades explained his role as bishop, and how he was the shepherd and leader of all Catholics in 14 counties in northeast Indiana.
The seventh graders asked about war and if killing is a sin against the fifth commandment. The impressed bishop went on to explain the differences between intentional killing and killing in self-defense and the criteria for calling a war just.
The many signs of a bishop — the miter, pectoral cross, ring and crosier — fascinated students in every classroom. And several students asked how the bishop gets his cap (zucchetto) to stay on, how he discerned his calling to the Priesthood and where he grew up, which led to a discussion of the sweet smell of chocolate as Lebanon, Pa., is very near Hershey. The students asked about everything from his favorite color — green — to his favorite countries he has visited — Italy, Spain and Greece.
Students also wondered about famous people the bishop has met. He detailed that he had the opportunity to meet both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI several times over the years and is hoping to meet Pope Francis some time very soon. When asked if he had met the current president, the bishop said no, but that when he was at Mount Saint Mary’s in Maryland he celebrated Mass at Camp David for the troops and met President Bush on several occasions.
As he departed each grade, Bishop Rhoades gave the students his blessing and prayed a new prayer that they had learned this year with them.
The tour ended visiting with the adults in the building and enjoying one of their delicious Friday carry-ins provided by Principal Janice Comito and her dedicated staff.
Comito has been at St. John for over 30 years and served as a teacher before becoming principal. They told of their upcoming science fair and on-site, home-cooked lunches, showed off their computer lab and raved about their drama club that will be performing “Annie Jr.” this spring.
Finally, Jay Crisp, eighth-grade social studies and religion instructor, summarized what sets St. John’s apart, “We have great families here at St. John and a strong Catholic identity. We do more than teach the minimum. We strive to get the students to excel.”
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