Father Butler greets graduating parishioner Francisco Espinosa. Mary Stadnyk photo
Father Butler greets graduating parishioner Francisco Espinosa. Mary Stadnyk photo
In southern coastal Monmouth County, a dozen or so churches compose the Manasquan Area Ministerium that has worked to successfully sustain a 136-year-old annual tradition. Every year during graduation season, the ministerium invites all graduating seniors from Manasquan High School to attend a Baccalaureate Service where they are prayerfully acknowledged for their academic achievements.

“It’s unique,” Father Bill Lago said of the ecumenical Baccalaureate Service. “It may be the only one of its kind certainly in the wider region, if not only one of a handful in the country.”

Along with having a public high school that’s willing to host a religious service, Father Lago, pastor of St. Denis Parish, Manasquan, said “It’s pretty powerful” to see students, who are of different faiths all wearing their graduation gowns and participating  in the Baccalaureate Service, and having people come together “to pray for the graduates.”

“Talk about the strength of prayer and being able to share faith,” he said.

The theme of the 2021 service was “Redemption in Light of the Pandemic” and some 60 students attended, including 12 from either St. Denis or St. Mark, Sea Girt. Three St. Denis parishioners had a part in leading the prayer service, which included a few students sharing their witness of how they relied on their faith during the pandemic, Father Lago said.

In his address during the service, Father Lago reminded the students that, while they will continue to grow intellectually, they should also continue to grow in their respective faith traditions.

“I want them to remember that wherever they are, God will be right there with them,” he said.

While the Baccalaureate Service is a community-wide event held for students of all faiths who are graduating from one particular high school, there are a number of parishes from around the Diocese that celebrate Baccalaureate Masses for graduating parishioners, whether they attend Catholic school or public school. The Masses are both a time for the communities to pray with their graduates and send them forth with blessings as they prepare to embark on new journeys in their lives. The Masses serve to remind the graduates to stay close to their faith and foster their relationship with God.

Up the coast in Long Branch, St. Michael Parish is one of a number faith communities that hold a Baccalaureate Mass with parishioners who are receiving diplomas or degrees.

“The graduates have put significant effort and time into their studies and activities, and it’s very fitting to recognize that effort and express appreciation,” Father John Butler, pastor, said. This year, there  were eight graduates of the parish at the Mass on June 19, he said, noting that, with the exception of last year because of the pandemic, the annual Baccalaureate Mass has been celebrated since 2018.

“The recognition and expression of gratitude, we hope, will encourage these graduates in the future and also encourage their younger siblings and others to put their talents to work in the classroom and extracurricular activities,” Father Butler said. He added how “amazed” he has been by the ability of this year’s graduates in having successfully lived through and excelled during an entire school year “in which every aspect of their lives was disrupted by the pandemic.

“I’m awed by the graduates’ resilience and accomplishments,” he said

In attendance at the Mass were twins Nora and Liam Stewart, both graduates of Mater Dei Prep, Middletown, who are preparing for their next academic step in Brookdale Community College, Lincroft.

“It’s an honor to know my parish sets aside time to recognize the academic [achievements]of its parishioners,” said Nora, who will pursue nursing studies.

“I am grateful to St. Michael Parish, St. Jerome School (West Long Branch, where she and her brother attended elementary school) and Mater Dei Prep High School for the opportunities provided to me throughout the years to develop and strengthen my Catholic faith.”

Her brother Liam added that in having his parish and fellow parishioners “recognize me for my high school achievements really made me feel at home because it’s going to push me to strive even harder to achieve my goals.”