“What do you want to be when you grow up?”  That is the question that Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., asked the more than 400 students gathered Oct. 12 for the 2022 Catholic Schools Mass.

The annual Mass, which was returning for the first time after a pandemic-based hiatus, had the dual focus of celebrating Catholic schools and to honor Blessed Carlo Acutis, whom Bishop O’Connell had named last spring as the patron saint of all Catholic schools and young people in the Diocese of Trenton.  Gathered with the students in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, were dozens of teachers, school administrators and parent chaperones, as well as 25 parish priests who joined Bishop O’Connell around the altar.  

Directing his homily to the day’s commemoration of Blessed Carlo Acutis’ Feast Day, the Bishop observed that “we are remembering a young Catholic school boy, not too much older than (you), who lived not too long ago, (and) from his earliest years had only one thing in mind: becoming a saint!

“He used to say, ‘to always be close to Jesus: that is my life plan.’ And from his earliest days on earth, he lived that way,” the Bishop said. “My young sisters and brothers, Blessed Carlo Acutis inspires us to see that holiness is possible for young people, normal kids like you of a similar age . . . for all of us!

“Today, at this Catholic Schools Mass, let’s make his prayer ‘to be holy’ our own prayer,” the Bishop said.

PHOTO GALLERY: CATHOLIC SCHOOLS MASS

Popular Tradition

Since 2011, the Catholic Schools Mass has taken place most years and remains a popular event for the local school communities. It is also a major initiative of the Diocese, which has bused students from their schools across Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties to participate each year. This year, more than 30 Catholic schools were represented by about a dozen students each.

In keeping with tradition, the event began with the procession of colorful school banners carried down the aisle by students just before the Mass.  Diocesan school officials also took part in the procession, carrying an image and relic of Blessed Carlo and placing them in the sanctuary.

Students representing a number of schools served in various roles for the Mass, including the choir from St. Dominic School, Brick. Other students from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; St. Paul School, Princeton; St. James School, Red Bank; Our Lady of Sorrows School, Hamilton; St. Peter School, Point Pleasant Beach, and St. Mary School, Middletown, contributed to the liturgy.

Sophia Vitanov, a sophomore in Villa Victoria Academy, West Trenton, as well as Brooke Schneider, an eighth grader in St. Jerome School, West Long Branch, were inspired to learn more about Blessed Carlo from the video that was shown Before Mass.

“It was nice to hear about someone from the 21st century who was close to our own age on his way to becoming a saint,” said Vitanov. “He was certainly someone we can connect with.”

“God wanted him to do the best he could in his life and that’s what God wants from all of us,” Schneider said. “I want to follow him and do the best that I can in my life.”

Some Thoughts on Vocations

After Communion, Bishop O’Connell invited Father Jason Parzynski, diocesan director of vocations, to speak about vocation discernment. The Bishop shared his own vocation story, telling of how was in the second grade when he decided to become a priest.

“It’s hard to believe but throughout the years that had always been a thought in my mind and I’m sure that many of the priests who are here today all could tell you a story about their own vocation,” he said.

“Vocations are so very important,” Bishop O’Connell said. “We talk about the Eucharist, but without the priests, there is no Eucharist, and without the Eucharist, there is no Church.”

The Bishop added that many of the priests would not have pursued their vocation had it not been for the “incredible work and good example and witness of religious women, many of whom are here today and who are in our schools.

“We thank them,” he said, as he encouraged the female students to consider their own vocation to religious life.

Diocesan Team Effort

The coordination of the Catholic Schools Mass and student bus transportation was handled by diocesan staff under the leadership of the Department of Catholic Schools. The Mass was livestreamed, allowing hundreds more students to engage in the celebration from their classrooms. 

The event “gives the students from each of our schools the opportunity to see that they are part of something bigger,” said the day’s organizer, Daniel O’Connell, who serves as associate director for curriculum and instruction in the Department of Catholic Schools.

“The Mass offers the young people a chance to celebrate themselves and their individual schools, but it also provides a special moment to celebrate all of our schools and to celebrate everything that Catholic schools mean to the Church.

“Our students are our future, and that is something that they should celebrate,” O’Connell continued. “What better way to that than a celebration of the Eucharist with their Bishop?”

Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt, diocesan superintendent of Catholic education, noted that 2022 marked his first time attending the Catholic Schools Mass in-person.

“This is great, it’s phenomenal,” he said.

Observing that the Mass coincided with Blessed Carlo’s feast day, he added, “We’re celebrating their patron saint today.

“He was someone who looked like them, talked like them and did what they do,” he said. “What better way to bring the Church to our children of this age?”