The Class of 2017 from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, listen intently  to speakers during commencement exercises held June 3 in Brookdale Community College, Lincroft. John Blaine photo
The Class of 2017 from St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, listen intently  to speakers during commencement exercises held June 3 in Brookdale Community College, Lincroft. John Blaine photo

By Mary Morrell, Correspondent

In ceremonies both joyful and bittersweet, heralding the next steps on a journey of faith and hope, graduates across the Diocese of Trenton celebrated the successful completion of their Catholic high school education.

With eyes on the future, 1,684 graduates from 11 schools, were applauded for their accomplishments and encouraged to continue the good work they had begun in their school careers with the help of their families and teachers, and the support of their peers.

As celebrant and homilist for several Baccalaureate Masses celebrated across the Diocese, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., reminded graduates of the importance of their Catholic faith.

“There is a line in St. John’s Gospel that, as your bishop, I want you to remember today, tomorrow and forever. Having spent three years with his disciples (a word that means learners or students) Jesus taught them and showed them what it means to be his followers. He said: ‘In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world (John 16:33).’ Tonight, the Lord Jesus Christ gives that same message to you, the class of 2017,’ said Bishop O’Connell, during the Baccalaureate Mass held May 21 for Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft.

Addressing graduates of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, during their Baccalaureate Mass June 10, Bishop O’Connell reminded them that commencement did not signify “graduating from your Catholic religion or from your Catholic faith and all its awesome teachings and … mysteries.  You are being promoted to a new chapter, a new place in your life, a new awareness of more mysteries and you take your faith with you.  Trust me, sometimes your life won’t make any sense without it.”

Graduates hailed from diocesan, parish and private high schools serving the four counties of Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean. These schools include Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville; Holy Cross Academy, Delran; St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; Mater Dei Prep, Middletown; Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank; Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft; Stuart Country Day School, Princeton; Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing; St. Rose High School, Belmar, and Donovan Catholic, Toms River.

Among the priests also celebrating Baccalaureate Masses was Franciscan Father Gabriel Zeis, diocesan vicar for Catholic education.

In his June 1 homily in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, Father Zeis asked the graduates of St. John Vianney High School to “reflect on the person they encountered in the time of their Catholic education, the person of Jesus Christ, and what he will mean for them as they go forth as his witnesses sustained by faith, hope and love.”

This reflection on Jesus and continuing to practice the faith must be a priority, said Father Stanley P. Lukaszewski, in his homily for the Baccalaureate Mass for Mater Dei Prep held June 1 in Mary, Mother of God Church, Middletown.

“Learning about our faith over these years should make us more and more aware of how important it is to rely on the presence of God in our lives, especially as we will have to make major decisions in life.”

Father Lukaszewski, who is episcopal vicar for Ocean County and pastor, St. Barnabas Parish, Bayville, also advised graduates to stay close to their families. “Seek always their advice. They were once your age and they know how difficult it can be. You have your education, your faith, your family and, with confidence in yourself, you can achieve anything you want,” he said.

During their four years of hard work in their Catholic school community, graduates had the opportunity to excel not only in areas of academics and sports, but to develop their potential in leadership, music, art, theater and the military. Some were recognized for their efforts with notable awards and prizes, others worked quietly and diligently to achieve their personal best.

In addition to the varied successes and accomplishments of graduates in all 11 schools, including grants and scholarships totaling more than $234 million, principals, teachers and students alike noted something extraordinary among this years’ graduates – a strong sense of community and devotion to service.

“Truly a family,” “dedicated to the less fortunate,” “of the same heart,” were phrases used to describe the young men and women who were educated in a “culture of service” and strong community of faith.

Applauding his graduates as having “made a serious commitment to servant leadership,” Holy Cross Academy principal Dennis Guida also highlighted a principal tenet of the 11 high schools which, together, saw the number of service hours undertaken by graduates reaching well beyond 100,000.

Students, some of whom individually dedicated hundreds of hours to serving those in need, including veterans, children, seniors, the disadvantaged, and animals, among others, are committed to taking their faith and their hearts of service into their future endeavors.

“Be true to yourself and stay connected with the people who care about you,” stressed Trenton Catholic Academy valedictorian Chiebuka Okpara. “Everyone in this Church is family. By the grace of God, we are a caring family who looks after one another,” he added, underscoring the shared sentiments of many of his fellow graduates.

At the heart of if all, shared Melanie Rathgeb Brown, a 1999 alumnus of Holy Cross Academy, and mother of a 2017 graduate, are two powerful practices. “We knew our son was going to start every day with a prayer, and the teachers promoted the examples embodied by Jesus Christ,” she said.