A Shepherd for the School

One of the great joys of pastoring a parish with a school, such as here at Holy Cross Parish and School in South Bend, is the opportunity to interact with the students in a variety of ways.  It is certainly one of the highlights of my ministry as a priest and pastor.  In fact, while the teachers and administrators are enjoying a well-deserved and greatly anticipated summer vacation from the students, I’m already missing my interactions with them.  

After morning prayer each day, and before morning Mass, I greet the students entering the school.  While some of the students, especially the junior high ones, are still waking up, I usually receive a nice greeting back from them.  At least once a week I spend about an hour and a half visiting the students during their lunch periods.  I’m usually able to get to all the tables during each lunch period to ask how they’re all doing.  It can be a challenge to break away from the tables of the younger students, while the junior high students are usually content with a quick hello. At times, however, I can get into a good conversation with them! 

If I’m not visiting them during lunch periods, I might end up getting into conversations with the younger students in the playgrounds or the older ones running around the parking lot during their recess.  We have the most racially diverse, or I prefer the term “balanced,” student body of any school in the diocese, approximately 40% Hispanic, 25% African American, 25% Caucasian, and 10% multi-racial.  Whether at lunch or recess periods, it brings me great joy to see these students enjoying each other’s company and friendship regardless of their ethnicity.  Many parents send their children to Holy Cross School specifically due to the racial diversity of our student body.  There are times when I’ll simply observe their interactions and find great satisfaction in what our school is offering them.

I will also regularly visit the junior high Religion classes and on occasion the elementary level Religion classes.  While the younger students are always interested in my favorite color, food, snack, or sport (which helps them to see me as a regular person), I have also received some surprisingly profound questions from these students.   The junior high students often have some very serious and thought-provoking questions in areas such as, but not limited to:  sexuality, Jesus’ nature, death, heaven, the devil, my life and vocation as a priest.  I have even been asked by one student what my greatest fear is and, after quickly thinking of my slight claustrophobia, the answer that popped out of my mouth was, “Not going to heaven.”  I assured them that I believe I’m living a life worthy of heaven but used the question as an opportunity to talk about eternal salvation as our ultimate hope and destination.  

I’ve been pleased with the opportunities we’ve taken in the past couple of years to educate our students about Blessed Basil Moreau, Saint Andre Bessette and other important Holy Cross figures. Knowing these figures helps explain our charism to and helps them understand the world-wide nature of the Congregation of Holy Cross. It also gives them an opportunity to appreciate what it means for them to be a Holy Cross school.  I’m looking forward to when our U.S. province inaugurates a Holy Cross Heritage Month in January 2025, in conjunction with Father Moreau’s feast day and Catholic Schools Week, which will offer us some great resources to continue to educate and form our students in our Holy Cross pedagogy and charism.  

Our weekly School Mass on Friday morning is an important opportunity to preach a homily that will speak to and challenge the students.  My homilies are almost always interactive, eliciting the student’s thoughts on the scripture readings – and then being ready to take whatever they give me and working it into the theme and content I’ve already predetermined for the homily!  The younger children are most eager to answer our questions due to sitting in the front of the church and the enthusiasm of their ages.  We also have a monthly Adoration for the older students, offering them the opportunity for quiet prayer and reflection in the church before the Blessed Sacrament.  

Our school week ends each Friday afternoon with a school assembly at 2:15 pm for the junior high students and at 2:45 pm for the younger students.  At the junior high assembly, I review the homily from the morning school Mass by asking a question based upon the homily and having three rounds of the 6th, 7th and 8th grade classes answering the question.  I have often been quite impressed with their answers.  On occasion I will give a brief presentation on some topic, although the principal usually has something she wishes to discuss with them.  I will then close the assembly with prayer.  In the time between the two assemblies, I’ll visit with the younger students who have entered the gym for their assembly, where I might do a brief presentation, if time permits. After a closing prayer, as the students leave at the end of the school week, I’ll exchange a lot of high fives and fist bumps with them as I wish them a good weekend.  What a great way to end the week with our students! 

 Fr. Jim Fenstermaker, CSC

Published June 12, 2024

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