“I am very happy to be here,” Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades told the students of St. John the Baptist School in South Bend. Even though there are 39 Catholic grade schools in our diocese, the bishop chose St. John the Baptist for his first school visit of the new academic year. “I know you are a small school,” he told the 66 students in pre-K through eighth grade, “but you Spartans are big in spirit and enthusiasm.”
The day began with Mass. Led by a student choir, bishop noted how well the entire congregation sang. Student lectors and servers also ably assisted him, Father Glenn Kohrman, pastor, and Father David Violi, parochial vicar.
In his homily, Bishop Rhoades zeroed in on one line from the epistle: “This is the will of God: your holiness. (1 Thessalonians 4:3) That sentence encapsulates what’s distinctive about a Catholic school where you pray together, worship God at Mass, learn about Jesus’ love for you and about how to live as His friends, how to live the Gospel, and how to become saints.”
At the end of Mass Father Kohrman asked the students, “Why do we pursue perfection?” They called back, “To achieve excellence!”
“And what happens when we achieve excellence?” Everyone knew the answer: “We glorify God!”
Since Sept. 1 was the 60th anniversary of the opening of St. John the Baptist School, students went from the church to the cafeteria for cake.
Leon Baker, the school’s new principal, asked if there were any changes in the lunch room. One observant student noticed that an icon had replaced a non-functioning thermostat. The principal pointed out other religious art on the walls, including an icon where the Trinity seem to be sitting around a lunch table. He encouraged junior high students to research details about the art.
Many paintings have been rescued from a former convent at the parish that is now being used as a residence for nine Franciscan Friars Minor, who mow the parish’s 10 acres and interact comfortably with St. John students. Hanging the pictures in the school hallways is a practical way to help students pursue beauty and faith as well as goodness and truth.
Baker told the students that human artists work in honor of God and the beautiful world he created. Whereas truth and goodness may seem abstract, we can experience beauty with our senses.
On visits to every classroom, Bishop Rhoades posed for pictures, asked students what they were learning, especially in religion, and invited them to ask him questions. He asked the “smart class” of kindergarteners and pre-kindergarteners to introduce him to their teacher, Joann Johnson.
Classes of seven-12 students, many combining grade levels, facilitate active learning at St. John the Baptist. As Bishop pointed out to Joany Zielinski’s fifth graders, “You’re learning so much! You can’t hide behind anyone in this class.” The diverse student body responded enthusiastically to Bishop Rhoades’ questions.
With the recent feast of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, many classes told the bishop they’ve been studying their patron saint. He joked with Diane Kreager’s third and fourth graders about eating locusts and honey for lunch. Genevieve Nield’s class of sixth graders, who have been learning about creation, aptly answered Bishop’s question, “What did God create the world out of?” with “Out of nothing!” Shannon Jones’ seventh and eighth graders told him they have begun studying the virtues.
Several students were curious about the Bishop’s zucchetto and crosier. One wanted to know how many buttons were on his cassock (33, for the years of Christ’s life). One drew a chuckle when she asked, “What made you want to be Pope?” Another asked, “Do you have a limo, or a bullet-proof car?” When he told one student he was a priest for 21 years before being named a bishop, they whistled. “That’s a long time!” Bishop pointed out that being a priest is a lifetime vocation, not a job one does until he gets tired of it.
At the end of every classroom visit, Bishop Rhoades invited the students to join him in praying one of the prayers they’ve been learning. Rylen Jacobsen was bold enough to recite the Prayer of St. Francis. Three members of that third and fourth grade class were also proud to tell him they were baptized last year. That confirmed what Bishop said at Mass about the value of a Catholic education.
“Of course you study and learn a lot of lessons. The most important is how to become a saint.”
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