By Patrick T. Brown, Associate Editor
Throughout the end of May and into June, tears of joy, smiles of pride and cheers of admiration filled auditoriums, stadiums and churches throughout the Diocese of Trenton. Families, friends, teachers and mentors congratulated the Class of 2016 on completing their high school education and continuing on to their future destinations.
To read the homily Bishop O'Connell preached at Baccalaureate Masses, click here.
To read JoAnn Tier's message to graduates, click here.
The graduates will bring along the accumulated growth in wisdom and virtue from years spent in Catholic education to their future college, university, service academy or workplace. And the basic message that Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., conveyed to the Class of 2016? “God goes with you.”
In homilies he preached for Baccalaureate Masses he celebrated for a number of Catholic high school communities around the Diocese, Bishop O’Connell emphasized the importance of faith not only in the weeks and months after graduating high school, but throughout the lives the graduates will go on to live.
“As you celebrate graduation, don’t lose sight of all those things: all that has been in your life and the great sacrifices your parents made to bring you to this moment. And as you celebrate, pray tonight that the Lord will stay with you and help you take your faith into a happy, healthy and wonderful future. And continue to believe that what the Lord has spoken to you will be fulfilled,” the Bishop said. (See homily, page 2.)
This year, some 1,681 young men and women were graduated from the 11 diocesan, parish and private Catholic schools across Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties – Holy Cross Academy, Delran; Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville; St. Rose High School, Belmar; Donovan Catholic, Toms River; St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; Red Bank Catholic High School; Mater Dei Prep, Middletown; Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft; Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton, and Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing.
While each graduating class, year over year, is unique in its right, the Class of 2016 has historic markers all its own. Of particular significance was the arrival of Superstorm Sandy not quite two months from the start of their high school careers in 2012. Sandy affected communities throughout the Diocese, causing school closures; gas rationing, damage to property and the loss of families who had to leave the area. It challenged the Catholic community to respond in prayer and solidarity, assisting those in need and donating necessary goods.
But few communities were as devastated as those that lined the Jersey shore in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. And the arrival of Superstorm Sandy profoundly impacted St. Rose High School in Belmar. Located just blocks from the ocean, the school was filled with five feet of water (and the sea life that came with it), requiring that it be closed for repairs for several weeks.
For the incoming freshman class, their early high school experience offered real-life lessons that blew up the regular curriculum plans, teaching more about recovery and resiliency; taking on difficult challenges and reaching out to others.
History was also made by the graduates of Mater Dei Prep, Middletown, who were the first class to graduate from the newly-minted private Catholic school. The school had been parish-sponsored until June 2015, when it transitioned to its current status.
The ranks of this year’s graduates of Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft also rose to new heights this year. The 264 graduates made up the largest class in the nearly 60-year-history of the school.
The students who collected their diplomas this year also had the opportunity to witness historic events in the Church over their years in high school – the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of the first Latin American pope; the first U.S. visit of Pope Francis; his call for a Jubilee Year of Mercy; the extraordinary synods on the Church’s Pastoral Care to Families resulting in the apostolic exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia” and the papal encyclical on the environment: “Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home.” All of these developments provided abundant teachable moments – both in the classroom and beyond – about the Church and the doctrine of the faith.
Called to Christian Love
The grounding in faith that each high school inspired in their graduates was reflected in the Baccalaureate Masses that were celebrated in advance of each school’s Commencement Exercises. Red Bank Catholic’s Prayers of the Faithful included an intercession asking that “As our time together draws to a close, may our hearts be forever united in faith, with hope for each of our futures and with a dedication that we will bring Christ’s love to whatever we do.”
In the June 2 Baccalaureate Mass he celebrated for the St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, community, Msgr. Michael J. Walsh, episcopal vicar of Mercer County, reflected on the Scripture readings proclaimed, emphasizing to the students to make Jesus a priority in their lives.
“In Jesus, there is peace, love and hope,” he said. Msgr. Walsh also emphasized the importance of giving of oneself to others by showing love, respect and a spirit care.
In his homily at St. Rose High School’s Baccalaureate Mass, Msgr. Edward Arnister, pastor of St. Rose Parish, Belmar, said a sense of community enlivened the Class of 2016. He encouraged the students to continue to rely on the “prayers and support of your parents, family and good and loyal friends.”
Afterward, Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Nace, the school’s principal, praised the students for the family members and friends in attendance, calling them “generous and talented … with a gift of community.”
In Toms River, Father G. Scott Shaffer, director of Donovan Catholic High School and pastor of St. Joseph Parish, said that each class has a unique spirit and identity.
The school’s Class of 2016 has “an abundance of talent – scholastic, athletic, artistic – they are service-oriented. They’ve devoted countless hours to service projects,” he said.
“There’s a real spirit in this class and they are wonderful kids,” said Father Shaffer, who noted that his tenure as pastor of St. Joseph Parish and their high school careers began at the same time. Through all those years, he said, they have “worked to have a positive effect – they supported each other – you could see that at the awards night ceremonies,” he said.
“Kids who didn’t receive any awards were really enthusiastic for the ones who did. It was great to see.”
He made particular note of the fact that many of the students have chosen to pursue their studies at Catholic colleges and universities in the fall including 12 who will be attending The Catholic University of America, Washington.
It’s been especially moving during this, their senior year to watch the students participate in the spiritual and corporal works of Mercy, he said. “We took ‘Love is Our Message – Mercy is the Way’ as our theme in this year of mercy. Everyone worked hard to make this real.”
“My hope for them as they graduate is that they will be people of faith. The seeds have been planted. We’re hoping they will grow and nurture them as they go.”
Jo Ann Tier, superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese, who distributed diplomas to many of the graduating seniors, shared similar sentiments in an address to the graduates of Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton.
“To whom much is given much is expected. How will you care? How will you contribute?” she asked. “So what’s next, Class of 2016?”
Additional reporting from Associate Editor Mary Stadnyk and Correspondent Lois Rogers was contributed to this story.