It was an early Wednesday morning at Marian High School in Mishawaka, and a handful of students and faculty could be found pacing the lobby at the school’s front entrance. The group was awaiting a very special guest: Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, who was traveling from Fort Wayne to celebrate Ash Wednesday Mass and conduct an annual pastoral visit with students and staff.
“This is an event that our students look forward to each year, because they get the chance to experience the love of Christ from the shepherd of our diocese on a very personal basis,” Principal Mark Kirzeder said.
“Meeting him is an experience every time,” said Makaila Ranges, senior class president, as she awaited him in the lobby with senior Grace Dennis, student body president, and junior Jorge Campos. “He’ll come and he’ll actually remember people from eighth grade when he confirmed them,” she said.
What unfolded after the bishop’s arrival was a vibrant celebration of Catholic sacramentality and examples of its relationship with art, academics, saints, service, and young adult formation. Bishop distributed ashes, confirmed two Marian students into the Catholic Church, witnessed the revealing of the names of the graduating class’s valedictorian and salutatorian, visited an earth science classroom to discuss “Laudato Si,” and even ate his one permissible meal of the obligatory fasting day with members of student council — all within the span of the school day.
With confirmation candidates Jillian Baker and Aubreigh Morgan in the front row with their sponsors, the student body and staff heard Mass readings that included Joel’s evocation from God for the faithful to “even now, return to [Him] with your whole heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning” (Joel 2:12), a line to which the bishop referred in his homily.
“How do we do this ‘with all our heart?’” he challenged the students. “Is such a return to God possible, a real conversion of our thoughts and feelings, our choices and actions?”
Before revealing the answer, he reminded them that “Lent is a battle. The enemy is sin, and that enemy is within us. What we do for Lent — prayer, fasting, and almsgiving — those are our weapons.”
Everyone is a sinner fighting this battle, Bishop explained. He recounted how Pope Francis said “I am a sinner,” when asked to describe himself to a reporter. “In coming forward to receive ashes today, this is what we also are admitting and saying: ‘I am a sinner,’” Bishop explained.
“The return to the Lord ‘with all our hearts’ is possible for sinners,” he explained, but it cannot be effected merely through our human efforts. “It is not possible if we just rely on a power that resides in our hearts, but it is possible with a power that springs from God’s own heart. That power is what we call ‘mercy.’”
Our human actions can work in concert with God’s mercy to promote our hearts’ conversions, he continued. “Our Lenten penances, our acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, are concrete ways for us to return to the Lord with all our hearts, allowing Him to transform, renew and convert our hearts.”
As Christians embark on this Lenten journey, Bishop Rhoades recommended they repent individually, but also that they embrace fellowship. “The whole community is called to return to the Lord. This dimension of community is an essential part of our Christian faith and life,” he said. In addition to community, he encouraged the congregation to draw upon Mary and upon the communion of saints.
Bishop ended the homily by meditating on two saints in particular: St. Teresa of Kolkata and St. Maximillian Kolbe, the confirmation saints of Morgan and Baker, respectively.
“Aubreigh chose as her confirmation saint one of my favorites, St. Teresa of Kolkata, whom I met several times,” he said. Bishop Rhoades celebrated Mass with the Missionaries of Charity several times in Rome as a young priest, and he never knew when Mother Teresa might attend. “When I would see her when I’d start Mass, I would think, ‘Oh my goodness, how do you preach a homily to Mother Teresa?’”
He also spoke of attending the canonization of Maximillian Kolbe, and connected both saints to the call to love, which he identified as the heart of the Christian life.
After administering the sacrament of confirmation to both students, the bishop also imparted ashes then celebrated the Liturgy of the Eucharist. He ended Mass with a blessing and compliments for the choir, after a moving performance of “De Profundis” featuring soloist Chase Eggeman. “I would like to give a special thanks to what I think must be one of the best choirs in the whole diocese,” Bishop said. “Really, I think you should go on tour. I’d like to go with you! I wouldn’t sing, but it would be fantastic.”
At the conclusion of the Mass, Kirzeder announced the names of salutatorian Katherine Henry and valedictorian Alyssa Grzesiowski, who each had the opportunity to take photographs with Bishop before he began his next portion of the itinerary: viewing student artwork.
As he was led through the halls by four students, he stopped to peer at each painting and ask about the artists and their creative processes. One student had produced a portrait of her mother on her wedding day, with the stained-glass windows of St. Bavo in Mishawaka illuminated behind her smiling face. Another student’s work reflected a passion for veganism.
“Would you say it’s more natural talent or learned artistic skill?” Bishop asked at one point. The students concluded that their art reflected a combination of the two. They praised their teacher, Kathryn Gunty, under whose direction Marian won 99 awards in the community’s 95th annual Scholastic Art and Writing Competition — a number highly disproportionate for a school of Marian’s size.
Studying the work of another student, which referenced a verse from Corinthians, Bishop asked, “Do you think he has a vocation to the priesthood?”
According to Baker, Catholic spirituality at Marian is strong. When asked how she decided to enter the Catholic Church, she cited the student body:
“When I received first Communion, I just started bawling. The experience and the Eucharist there, and all of my friends with me — it was so amazing,” she said. “My friends here showed me the Catholic faith. I was baptized Catholic when I was younger, but not raised Catholic. But then coming to Marian and having friends here — everyone has inspired me with their faith. I joined campus ministry and it’s been great.”
Next month, Bishop travels to Ethiopia for a trip with Catholic Relief Services, an organization for which he serves as a board member. He takes with him prayers from students like Baker, and this year will also travel with a collection of blue and green handmade rosaries from a group of Marian students.
“Our students are eager to follow [Bishop] on social media as he makes his upcoming trip,” Kirzeder said. “This is a great opportunity for our students to learn more about the country and the work that CRS is doing there.”
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