“You don’t have to be old to be a saint!” Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., said to the nearly 500 high school and elementary school students gathered Oct. 12 for the 2023 Catholic Schools Mass in St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold.
The annual Mass provided the occasion for the Diocese to celebrate both the mission of Catholic schools and to commemorate Blessed Carlo Acutis, whom Bishop O’Connell had named as the patron saint of Catholic schools and young people of the Diocese of Trenton in the spring of 2021.
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PHOTO GALLERY: 2023 Catholic Schools Mass
The Mass was also an opportunity to recognize Lauren-Carmel Sirak, a second-grade teacher in Our Lady of Sorrows School, Hamilton, who was just named New Jersey Nonpublic School Teacher of the Year for 2023. (see sidebar)
A Peer Model
At the beginning of Mass, Bishop O’Connell spoke directly to the students gathered, reflecting on the life of Blessed Carlo, who was born in Italy in 1991, died at age 15 in 2006 and was beatified by Pope Francis in 2020.
“And yet, he was a kid like any one of you,” the Bishop, adding that Carlo enjoyed school, sports, music, telling jokes, having fun with his friends, playing video games and using the computer.
“In fact, he used his computer skills to make a complete list of all the miracles that occurred in the world because of the Holy Eucharist, a list that the Catholic Church throughout the world still uses,” the Bishop said. “He loved the Mass and receiving Holy Communion. He called the Eucharist – the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ – his ‘highway to heaven.’”
The Bishop acknowledged that when “we think of saints, we usually imagine older people we see in paintings or statues or stained class in church.
“Blessed Carlo, however, was your age when he lived his life very close to God, learning and studying his Catholic faith in school … praying and going to Church every day …showing love and concern for others, especially for those who were in need,” he said.
“Today, we celebrate his memory as we travel his ‘highway to heaven’ during this Holy Mass with him,” he said.
The Catholic Experience
Accompanying the students from 33 schools stretching across Burlington, Mercer, Monmouth and Ocean Counties were dozens of teachers, school administrators and chaperones as well as more than 20 priests who concelebrated the Mass with the Bishop.
The Opening Procession included a long stream of students who carried the colorful banners and flags representing their schools down the center aisle. During the Mass, students from St. Mary Academy, Manahawkin; St. Mary School, Middletown; St. Gregory the Great Academy, Hamilton Square; Donovan Catholic High School, Toms River; Our Lady of Sorrows School, Hamilton; St. James School, Red Bank, and St. Joan of Arc School, Marlton, participated in a variety of ways including as readers, choir members; altar servers and gift bearers.
In his homily, Bishop O’Connell asked the students to consider why they are attending Catholic school, why their parents chose to send them and what is the difference that their schools offer.
While everyone goes to school to study math, science, computers, history, English and literature, “in a Catholic school, however, we add a subject that we don’t find in other schools – religion,” the Bishop said. “And all the other subjects we study lead us back to God, to our faith, to our Church, to a community of faith and knowledge and service.
“In a Catholic school, we look at those things differently because we include God and faith and our religion in our picture,” he said. “In a Catholic school, we learn more than just subjects – we learn the reason why life is worth living together, worth sharing together, worth never feeling alone. A Catholic school teaches us the importance of keeping God in our lives because we are important to the God who created us and loves us more than anything he has created.”
Amelia Eilbacher, a senior in Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, and first-time attendee of the annual diocesan Mass, was excited to see so many schools come together and for another opportunity to attend Mass with Bishop O’Connell. She noted that she saw the Bishop in September when he celebrated Mass for Catholic Athletes for Christ student and adult leader representatives.
Katelynn Baban, an eighth grader in Sacred Heart School, Mount Holly, was inspired to hear the Bishop talk about Blessed Carlo Acutis. The Bishop “encouraged all of us to be like Blessed Carlo,” Baban said.
Classmate Odeneho Konado agreed, adding that his school prays the Prayer to Blessed Carlo every morning.
Matthew Lyman, an eighth grader in St. Catharine School, Spring Lake, appreciated hearing Bishop O’Connell note the differences between Catholic and public schools in his homily and how “today, it’s our Catholic faith that unites all of our Catholics schools in the Diocese of Trenton.”
James Gallagher, an eighth grader in St. James School, Red Bank, was impressed to see so many students from Catholic schools hear the same message from the Bishop about why it’s important to make “our Catholic faith a part of our lives.”
Father Scott Shaffer, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, relayed a range of comments he heard while speaking with students from the two schools his parish sponsors -- Donovan Catholic and St. Joseph School. “They said they never saw so many priests celebrating Mass together, they were interested to see the different uniforms worn by their peers from other schools and they were impressed with how big the Church is in the Diocese of Trenton,” Father Shaffer said.
He added that while chatting with his brother priests before Mass, “it was great to hear them talk about how proud they are of the students and the work that is being done in their particular school.”
“Today was phenomenal,” said a smiling Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Education.
“The students heard from the Bishop himself about the investment their parents are making by sending them to Catholic schools,” he said. “Today is a showcase of all the great things that are going on in our schools.
“We are very blessed,” he said.