Praying Together -- Students from around the Diocese pray during the 2017 Catholic Schools Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., Oct. 12 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Craig Pittelli photo

Praying Together -- Students from around the Diocese pray during the 2017 Catholic Schools Mass celebrated by Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., Oct. 12 in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold. Craig Pittelli photo

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

Leaving no doubt about the importance of faith in the lives of young people, Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M., opened his homily at the annual Catholic Schools Mass Oct. 12 with a focus on how three children served as messengers of conversion and peace for the Blessed Virgin Mary in Fatima.

To read the Bishop's homily from the Mass for Catholic Schools, click here.

To view more photos from this story, click here.

His words were directed to an assembly of 750 students from around the Diocese, their teachers, and administrators, parents and friends in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral in Freehold Township, which was hosting the event for the first since its elevation to that status by the Vatican last December.

Placing the focus on the 100th anniversary of the apparitions which would conclude the next day, Oct. 13, Bishop O’Connell asked the young people before him to consider the witnesses to the apparitions. “Can you imagine? For six months, (the Blessed Virgin Mary) appeared to those three young children.”

“The Blessed Virgin Mary,” he said, “came with a message to pray the Rosary … to pray for the conversion of the world.” The Bishop asked the students to recognize the importance of the message down through the years.

“As we begin the homily, I would like to put that out to you, how important it is to pray the Rosary … Today, we pray for our Catholic schools,” said the Bishop, asking the students and all those within the Co-Cathedral to “place prayers” for the schools in the hands of Our Lady of Fatima.’

The Bishop then turned his focus to the importance of prayer and the faith which drives the engine of Catholic schools.

He observed that while everyone goes to school to learn subjects such as math, science and history, “in a Catholic school, we add a subject that we don’t find in public school: religion. And all the other subjects we study in Catholic school, lead us back to God, to our Catholic faith, to our Church, to a community of faith and knowledge and service."

Bishop O’Connell’s points were taken to heart by students who had come to the Mass seeking affirmation that the faith of young people is vital to the Church and its future.

Among them were eighth graders Gabrielle Hodsden and Samantha Turchi, from Our Lady of Sorrows School, Hamilton, and St. Rose of Lima School, Freehold, respectively.

“It’s important to reflect and learn more (about prayer) so that we can share the faith with others,” said Hodsden, adding that she prays the Rosary “at home, in school and church” often offering intentions for the needs of people she knows or in response to the news.

“Sometimes I pray for other people in general or for a specific person. I pray for what I see in the news when people get hurt,” she said.

Turchi reflected that she often prays with her grandmother “when someone is sick. Talking to God is very important,” she said.

Turchi appreciated the Bishop’s emphasis on the importance of prayerful conversation.

“What he said was very familiar,” adding that she and fellow students have been discussing Fatima in religion class.”

Upbeat Mood

The Bishop’s words rode the crest of a wave of excitement that had swept through St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral from the time the doors opened wide for the Catholic Schools Mass til the time it concluded.

The mood had been upbeat from the start as the kids poured out of buses from 41 schools around the Diocese and piled into pews for the Mass in time to see a pre-Mass presentation on the mission fields served by the Church, giving the young people a sense of the global Catholic community.

Father Evarist Kabagambe, parochial vicar in Holy Innocents Parish, Neptune, asked the students to focus on how more and more missionaries from Africa and Asia are spreading the Gospel around the globe. Missionaries, he said, are helping people to “to take up farming, to generate hospitals.” They are, he said, “accomplishing tremendous things.”

His words were echoed in the opening procession as students from the 41 schools carried not only their school’s banners, but cultural symbols from the mission fields all over the world including carved bowls, tapestries and a hand written icon.

In his opening remarks, Bishop O’Connell pronounced it “wonderful to be together” for the annual celebration. He noted “how great it is” to have so many priests – some 45 in number -- in attendance and concelebrate the Mass.

The abundance of clergy, religious, faculty and staff members as well as parents and supporters of Catholic education, added to the joyous atmosphere, he said.

Noting, at one point, that the Mass was being “live streamed” by the diocesan communications crew, the Bishop asked all teachers and administrators to raise their hands as he thanked them for “giving good gifts” to the children and asked the children to wave to the cameras in return so those glued to their iPhones and computers at home could see them.

At the end of the Mass, JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of schools, stepped forward to formally recognize Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River, which has been named an International Baccalaureate World School, and Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft, which was named a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence for the second time.

Reflecting later, Tier said the annual Mass with Bishop O’Connell and Catholic school students “provided a time to celebrate our Catholic schools.

“There is a dynamic energy and commitment evidenced in school communities that provides intangible support to Catholic schools,” she said.

“Today was a time to give thanks for the many gifts and for the many individuals who invest of themselves, their talents and resources in our Catholic schools.”

Meghan Di Mercurio, a junior from Ewing’s Villa Victoria Academy, spoke for many of her peers when she said she had come seeking encouragement for the combined journey of education and faith and enjoyed experiencing the “beauty of seeing all the Catholic schools together, showing unity.”