Father Allain Caparas, Director of Catholic Identity at Gloucester Catholic High School, talks with student leaders of the school’s Liturgy Club, Maggie McIntyre, Brian Bohrer, Kayla Carbonetta and Fran Kinsey, on Jan. 30.
GLOUCESTER CITY – Walking down a hallway at Gloucester Catholic High School here on Jan. 30, just before the start of the dayʼs classes, Father Allain Caparas sees students lined up outside his office.
For the third consecutive day of this week, Catholic Schools Week, Father Caparas has provided hot chocolate and Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins for students. Word has spread about the morning offerings.
Most students, though, come to his office for more than the treats. Since last fall, when Father Caparas first arrived at the school as Gloucester Catholicʼs first Director of Catholic Identity, the students, faculty and staff have come to know a priest who strives to live the message of Christ in his office, in his classroom, in the hallways, and at after-school activities.
Last summer, Bishop Dennis Sullivan created the new position of Director of Catholic Identity and appointed four diocesan priests to serve as “pastors” in Gloucester Catholic, Paul VI High School (Haddon Township), St. Joseph (Hammonton), and Camden Catholic (Cherry Hill), working full-time and teaching religion, leading school liturgical celebrations, encouraging vocations, and serving as a spiritual resource for students, faculty and staff.
What follows is a day in the life of a Director of Catholic Identity.
Today, as most days, he celebrates Mass in the Dominican chapel st 7:20 a.m. for students and staff, assisted by Deacon Kevin Heil.
Just before 8 a.m., he begins his walk to the classroom, greeting school staff along the way before seeing the students gathered in front of his door, waiting for the hot chocolate and doughnuts.
Father Caparas passes out styrofoam cups as students trickle into his office, filling the cups up with hot water from a percolator and grabbing hot chocolate packets. In the next 90 minutes, about 120 cups will have been filled with hot chocolate.
“Father Caparas makes class fun,” freshman Tino Capone, a student of the priestʼs religion class, says as he sips his drink. “Heʼs a good teacher.”
As the first bell rings, marking the start of classes, the students disperse and Father Caparas heads to the front office where he leads the school in a morning prayer, one of consecrating the school to the Blessed Virgin Mary in honor of Catholic Schools Week.
With students occupied in classrooms, the priest returns to his office to prepare his day, which includes class, creating lesson plans, meetings with students and teachers, blessing the schoolʼs classrooms and offices, and attending a boysʼ basketball game.
“I have to be disciplined, yet flexible,” he says of his full days.
Teaching in a school is not a new experience for Father Caparas. Before entering the seminary, he taught religion for three years at Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington.
“More and more, the outside culture is hostile to the Catholic faith,” he says, explaining he tries to teach his students the “skills and abilities to love and defend our faith.”
“I want the best for the students. I want them to be happy. They know I care for them, for their soul and salvation,” he says.
Father Caparas’s office includes chairs and a couch; a confessional for any student desiring the sacrament of reconciliation; and reproductions of two paintings. Caravaggioʼs “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” depicts Jesus and his apostles during a furious storm. Although his followers are afraid, Jesus reassures him that he will keep them safe from harm. “It reminds me that, in the midst of the storm, there is Christ,” Father Caparas explains.
The second painting is Rembrandtʼs “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” an artistic recreation of Jesusʼ parable in which a father forgives his wayward son. “This one reminds me of who I am as a priest, reconciling others to God,” he says.
As the next bell rings, Father Caparas heads to his first class of the day, a junior religion class, where he splits the class into groups to discuss morality, values and character.
“Character is a ʻyesʼ or ʻnoʼ to Christʼs invitation to friendship. Every choice we make forms character, and every bad choice, weakens character,” he tells the class.
Virtues, he says, are “healthy, good habits that help us do good and empower us to become what God wants us to be.”
During class he throws out jolly rancher candies to eager students who answer his questions correctly.
“This is one of the best classes Iʼve had,” student Jeremy McVey says.
After class, Father Caparas rushes to the junior high classroom of teacher Krista Glassman, where he instructs the students once a week.
Eighth grader Kaitlyn Allison is glad to see Father Caparas. As a former student in public school, she didnʼt have the opportunity to learn the Catholic faith or talk about it with teachers. “Here, itʼs a different feeling,” she says. “I know I have a priest to talk to.”
Next, the priest puts on a stole and takes out his bottle of holy water to go around and bless the classrooms for Catholic Schools Week.
As he walks the halls, a student stops him and asks him to officiate at his uncleʼs upcoming wedding. Father Caparas smiles, and tells the student he will help in any way he can. He believes his ministry is not only to students and staff, but to their families as well.
After blessing each office and classroom, Father Caparas joins his colleagues for lunch in the faculty lunchroom (pizza, salad and mozzarella sticks).
Cara Buckland, guidance counselor and English teacher, notes the joy and humor that Father Caparas brings to the school. “He has the best laugh in the diocese,” she says.
English teacher Sharon Zuccarelli says that Father Caparas “sets the tone” for the day when he walks into the building singing an occasional tune, probably from the musical “Brigadoon.”
After lunch, Father Caparas returns to the classroom and teaches his freshman class about the Ten Commandments and the parables of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Unforgiving Servant, and the Prodigal Son.
“Jesus challenges listeners with these parables,” he tells the class. “All of us are required to love and forgive and not just do the minimum requirements.”
The Liturgy Club is a student-led organization which helps Father Caparas organize school Masses. The club members serve as lectors, altar servers and gift-bearers in Eucharistic celebrations.
Member Kayla Carbonetta, a junior, believes the club “makes the school a family” with the monthly Masses, and thanks Father Caparas for “making us feel like we belong (to the Catholic Church).”
Junior Brian Bohrer says Father Caparas’ involvement has made “more kids excited about going to Mass. They want to get involved in the liturgy.”
Just before 3 p.m., Father Caparas meets with a teacher. His day will conclude with a junior high basketball game.
Ed Beckett, principal, said the priest brings “a transparent witness to Gospel values, as well as a genuinely pastoral style in all his relations with faculty, staff, and the community.”
“We live in a culture where kids donʼt always feel listened to and understood. He lets them know that they are created in the image and likeness of God, and that we want and need their participation in the church,” he said.
“Itʼs important to have someone focused entirely on our Catholic mission and identity. He is a credible witness to teenagers, who know that he is genuinely there for them, and open to minister to them. They are deeply appreciative of that.”