It’s difficult to pinpoint what has made the Catholic school graduating classes of 2023 so resilient and forward-thinking.
Maybe in part it was living through the pandemic, its associated shutdowns and mental health challenges. Maybe it was battling negative social media influence and school violence nationwide. Or just maybe it was the influence of their Catholic faith-based environments, encouraging them to embrace the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, the lessons of love and Christian charity.
Whatever the reasons, graduating seniors throughout the Diocese of Trenton consistently expressed a desire to learn from their experiences, not to dwell on the mistakes and disappointments of the past, to seek purpose and help others, and to hold on to their faith.
In his Baccalaureate Mass homilies to the high school graduates of St. John Vianney, Holmdel, and Red Bank Catholic, Red Bank, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., offered reminders of the power and importance of the Catholic faith, lessons that are relevant for all graduates.
“Whether you go to college or some other path, take your faith with you,” the Bishop said. “Go to Mass. Receive the Sacraments of Confession and Communion. Remember your Confirmation promises to God and his Church. Do all these things, even though there is no one who tells you to. Do all these things, even though you will meet people who tell you not to bother. Don’t believe them. They do not know the truth or, worse, they don’t care about it.”
As the St. John Vianney community mourned the recent loss of senior Lauren Hewski, the Bishop noted that their celebration was marked by both joy and sorrow.
“All of us wish she were here tonight … In the midst of what should otherwise be a joyous occasion, there is a hole in our hearts,” the Bishop said. “Yet, through our sadness we know, in faith, that she is with God and that she is with us here in loving memory. If we could ask her, I am confident, after all I have learned about Lauren in recent weeks, she would say, ‘go on, live beautiful and fulfilling lives as you take your leave of our school. You deserve that.’”
Gratitude and Tradition
While the almost 1,230 graduates of 10 parish, diocesan and independent high schools in the Diocese found their four years of high school to be a rollercoaster of secondary-school experience, the students will enter college and careers with more than $200 million earned in academic scholarships, demonstrating the quality of education they received through these exemplary institutions.
Their performances on school stages and athletic fields drew loyal fans, as these and other extracurricular activities helped them develop areas of strength and set goals for high achievement. Despite their rigorous schedules, they exemplified Christian concern for others by completing tens of thousands of hours of community service. Through it all they were cheered on by those who shepherded them through the ups and downs: their parents, pastors, chaplains, school faculty and administrators.
The Class of 2023 students hailed from Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River; Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville; St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel; St. Rose High School, Belmar; Red Bank Catholic High School, Red Bank; Christian Brothers Academy, Lincroft; Holy Cross Preparatory Academy, Delran; Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Princeton; Trenton Catholic Preparatory Academy, Hamilton; and Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing.
Many traditions accompanied the varied commencement exercises, notably that of legacy families in several schools – those who have attended the same Catholic school for multiple generations – who presented diplomas to their graduating children or grandchildren. In both Holy Cross Preparatory Academy and St. John Vianney High School, members of the Class of 1973 were on hand to welcome the Class of 2023.
As the graduate speakers offered heartfelt thanks to the faculty and administrators for their high school years, and their parents for the sacrifices made to carry them through, they emphasized the tools with which they had been equipped to make their mark in the world.
“As we prepare to leave the comfort we have grown so accustomed to, it’s time to take what we’ve learned and apply it to the world around us,” said Veronika Baskht, salutatorian for Red Bank Catholic. “Some of us will continue our education, others will pursue careers, and some may choose to explore uncharted territories. We must embrace the unknown with confidence and be open to the endless possibilities that await us.”
Parents of graduates acknowledged that the decision to send their children to Catholic high schools was highly influenced by the presence of faith-based curriculum. With religion as a core curriculum subject and Catholic values embraced in the classroom, students were instilled with the ability to recognize God’s working in their present and future.
“It was very important that our children receive a quality Catholic education,” said Jenn and Rich Cucarese, mother of graduate Adrianna Cucarese, Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing. She and husband Rich “wanted the kids to have a strong spiritual foundation that would help … prepare them for life after school. We preferred a smaller school where they could maintain positive relationships with their teachers and build strong friendships with their peers.”
In his homily for the June 2 Baccalaureate Mass he celebrated for the graduating class of Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, Father Jason Parzynski, school chaplain, reflected on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity and the relationship between the three persons – the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Then likening that relationship to those whom the graduates will encounter in future endeavors, Father Parzynski said, “As you are going out into the next phase of life, you are going to be making new friendships, new relationships, and it’s going to be important for you to reflect on what those relationships mean and how they contribute to you becoming what God called and created you to be.”
During the June 1 Baccalaureate Mass for St. Rose High School, parochial vicar Father Christopher Dayton shared the wisdom of Pope St. John Paul II with graduates.
“Pope St. John Paul II was known famously for his quote ‘Do not be afraid.’ Although there are many unknowns in life, we don’t have to be afraid,” Father Dayton stressed. “We have the Church, our families, and our friends that are here for us.”
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