Students at St. John the Baptist School in Fort Wayne welcomed Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades to their first all-school Mass of the year during his pastoral visit April 27. Principal Mary Keefer said she was overjoyed that the entire school was able to celebrate Mass together at the start of the day. “We spaced today — had space between — but we did it. That was an accomplishment,” she said.
During the Mass, Bishop Rhoades invited the student body to offer congratulations to the eighth graders he had confirmed about a month prior, and to the second graders who received their first Communion a couple of weeks ago.
Bishop Rhoades’ homily centered around the readings from the Gospel of John from the previous Sunday, in which Jesus refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel for Tuesday, Jesus reiterated His role as a shepherd to His flock.
“You’re the sheep. Jesus is the shepherd. And Jesus says that no one can take His sheep out of His hands,” he emphasized. “It’s kind of amazing, because it means that Jesus protects us, that Jesus cares for us, that He holds us in His arms.”
He went on to speak about the Acts of the Apostles, one of his favorite books of the Bible, he said. The bishop encouraged the newly confirmed to read from it daily. He then gave a brief history of the early Church and how the faith spread to the gentiles, particularly in the city of Antioch, where they were first called Christians. He also shared with the students the meaning of being a Christian.
“Christ means ‘the anointed one’ — God’s anointed one. And we who are Christians are all anointed.” He explained how Christians receive this anointing at baptism and confirmation. “So, if we’re Christians, if we’re anointed ones, that means we’re anointed with the Holy Spirit; that we are temples of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit helps us and guides us to live as faithful followers of Jesus. That’s what it means to be a Christian.”
Bishop Rhoades exhorted the students to “take seriously the name of ‘Christian’” by imitating Christ is their daily lives, especially through reception of the Eucharist, where Jesus “nourishes us and feeds us with His body and blood so that we can be like Him.”
He concluded, “We are blessed to be Christians, to be united to Jesus, our good shepherd who laid down His life for our sake.”
In light of the ongoing pandemic, St. John the Baptist School was blessed to have the bishop visit every classroom in the school after Mass. Keefer maintained a tight schedule to ensure that this could happen. “Everyone wanted to meet him, everyone wanted to have him chat with them and we did it. We were really lucky,” she stated.
While visiting the younger grades, Bishop Rhoades inquired whether the students had learned any new prayers during the school year. A few students were brave enough to demonstrate their newfound knowledge by leading the class -— and the bishop — in one of those prayers.
In some of the older classes, Bishop Rhoades elaborated on his homily by using classroom maps to teach the students a bit of the history and geography of the Holy Land and the spread of Christianity. At the middle school level, topics such as St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body and having a well-formed conscience were discussed as part of the religion curriculum they were studying.
Many of the school’s students kept Bishop Rhoades busy with questions regarding his journey to becoming bishop, as well as the meaning behind the garments a bishop wears — most notably the zucchetto and miter. One boy asked why he took the miter off and put it back on several times during Mass, and the bishop guided him in answering his own question: The miter comes off out of reverence to God when the bishop is praying to Him. Bishop Rhoades was clearly impressed by the students’ engagement and the thought-provoking questions they put to him.
In Cindy McAfee’s second grade classroom, one girl asked the bishop if he would bless a rosary for her. One boy showed the bishop the cross he wore, which previously belonged to the late Father Phillip Widmann. The fourth grade classes requested of him a blessing upon the scapulars that their teachers were going to distribute to each student. The bishop did so, explaining how he himself began wearing the scapular many years ago. He also shared the meaning behind it.
Admiring the students’ work displayed in the hallways, Bishop Rhoades advised the parish’s pastor, Father Andrew Budzinski, to watch for potential candidates from among the students for possible vocations to the priesthood in the future.
A testament to the early parishioners’ priority of educating their children, St. John the Baptist School was constructed in 1930 in the historic Southwood Park neighborhood a year after the parish was formally established and prior to the construction of the church itself. Today, the school has 230 students in its K-8 program. It is a Title I school and receives educational assistance for students who need remediation. There are a wide variety of extracurricular programs offered to the students, including Catholic Youth Organization sports, Chess Club, Boy Scouts and a yearly theatrical production. Keefer said that the school’s piano class is a popular option taught by two teachers and offering two concerts each year.
After four years of retirement and roughly 20 years serving as principal at nearby Bishop Luers High School, Keefer is in her second year as principal at St. John the Baptist. She believes it is a special place, largely due to the dedication of the school’s staff. “I am blown away by how professional they are. Anything that is asked of them, they step up,” she said.
Keefer commented that even Secretary for Catholic Education Carl Loesch, who was also present during the bishop’s visit, noticed that her teaching staff was so “joy-filled.” And regardless of the age of their 90-year-old building, the school is pristine, bright and welcoming — due to the diligence of the teachers and maintenance staff, Keefer said. The support of Father Budzinski and the parents are also essential to the school’s family atmosphere, she said.
Spiritual life is the heart of the school. During this year’s Catholic Schools Week celebration, St. John hosted a virtual rosary, in which the bishop led a decade. The school focuses on kindness toward each other, and that was clearly seen in many of the students’ responses during conversation with the bishop. Service to others plays a large part of showing kindness to others, and St. John has acted on this, completing three community service projects this year.
Keefer is honored to be a part of a school that she boasts is “a good place for kids. They’re loved, they’re cared for, they’re known. If somebody needs a little extra something, our teachers are on it. The whole place is a blessing — it just is.”
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