By Peter G. Sanchez and
Mary Beth Peabody
CAMDEN — In the shadow of the recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead, Bishop Dennis Sullivan called an unprecedented meeting of student leaders from all nine South Jersey Catholic high schools on the morning of Thursday, March 1.
As he welcomed students in the Camden Diocesan Center, Bishop Sullivan commented on how moved he was by the Parkland students’ firm and public calls for action in the wake of the tragedy. To South Jersey’s Catholic school students, he reaffirmed the pledge he, like all bishops, made to provide “fatherly guidance” to his “spiritual children.”
He asked them, “How can I guide you, and how can you guide each other? Be honest. … there is no agenda here.”
And with that, he turned the floor over to the students, who spent the next hour in conversation about a Catholic response to the violence afflicting American society.
In their opening statements, the students acknowledged fear — the reality that a school shooting could happen anywhere. They addressed bullying and the undeniable role they believe it plays in acts of violence. They spoke of the need for better screening and treatment of mental illness. Some tiptoed and others charged at the need for gun control reform. They expressed gratitude for the invitation to share their voices and a belief that whatever actions they take should be rooted in Catholic teaching.
The students’ opening statements gave way to a spirited exchange of ideas about mental health and bullying, school safety protocols, gun control and gun education, student walkouts and protests, prayer services and Masses, and how they can be symbols of solidarity.
While they did not have identical ideas or priorities about how to respond to pervasive violence, their conversation was open and respectful. They welcomed suggestions from one another and built upon each other’s ideas.
Many schools have considered plans for the March 14 nationwide school walkout, and students were particularly thoughtful about ways to make the 17 minutes – one for each Stoneman Douglas victim – meaningful. They see the time as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of prayer and faith in action. And in no uncertain terms, they see in each other hope for the future.
“Our generation is the one that’s going to cause change,” said Veronica Lucian of Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, Pennsauken.
Emily Devereaux of Camden Cathlic, Cherry Hill, noted the need for “students to be examples to others,” echoing her peers’ calls around the room for an end to bullying and violence in the classrooms. “What impact can each of us have,” she asked?
From Paul VI, Haddonfield, Grace Narducci said, “We are the future leaders of our church and country. It’s not just about one day. What do we do those other 364 days of the year?” She suggested a program similar to “Friends of Rachel,” a club in her middle school established to make all students feel “secure and wanted.” The club was started in remembrance of a victim of the 1999 shooting at Columbine high school in Colorado.
Dane Crilly, from St. Augustine Prep in Richland observed that people still talk about Columbine after nearly 20 years. “There comes a time when remembering isn’t enough,” he said.
Father Michael Romano, director of vocations for the diocese and the moderator of the meeting, reminded the students that many people have grown weary of the hackneyed use of offering thoughts and prayers after a tragedy. “But for us, thoughts and prayers are just the beginning. As Catholics, prayer allows us to focus as we consider what actions to take next.”
In addition to discussions on a walkout or liturgy on March 14, students asked for better security in schools across the country, and they expressed a desire to reach out to neighboring public schools to come together as one.
Students left the meeting with plans to provide their respective school leadership and administration with a recap of the conversation and discuss next steps.
“How can we keep this conversation going and make a change for the better?” asked Paul VI’s Gabby Young.
Impressed by their’ “insights, ideas, beliefs, maturity, respect and eloquence,” Bishop Sullivan noted how proud he was of the 40-plus students present.
“These young people demonstrate what Catholic schools are achieving,” he added. “Catholic schools have a tradition that begins with the belief that life is sacred, and a gift — violence is never an acceptable response,” he said.
“We walk by faith, in communion with each other,” he said.