Catholic school students speak freely

Photos by Mike Walsh
Bishop Dennis Sullivan tells students from Catholic schools in the Diocese of Camden that the church needs to hear from them. The gathering was held Oct. 18 at the Camden Diocesan Center, Camden.

“We need saints with jeans and tennis shoes. We need saints that go to the movies, that listen to music, that hang out with their friends.”

Those words, from a poem read by Pope Francis at World Youth Day 2013, seemed to resonate with student leaders from South Jersey Catholic Schools during their recent meeting with Bishop Dennis Sullivan.

Attending the meeting were student representatives from the nine Catholic secondary schools in South Jersey.

The words of the poem were reinforced by Bishop Sullivan’s opening remarks. “Don’t think you haven’t something to offer,” he told the students. “Please speak freely. I need to hear you. To listen to you. The church needs to hear from you now.”

The Oct. 18 meeting with Catholic school students came on the heels of a similar listening session with members of parish youth groups. In preparation, participants were given a series of questions developed specifically for the National Dialogue — conversations occurring with youth throughout the U.S. in conjunction with the Bishops’ Synod on Youth in Rome.

The questions explored such issues as what brings them joy, their hopes for the world and future, perceptions about the church, ways the church can be more welcoming, and how the church has influenced their lives. Students met within their schools in advance to discuss the topics and develop an opening statement, which was delivered at the meeting. An open dialogue followed.

In their opening remarks, nearly all participants said true joy comes from relationships with others, especially family and friends. They expressed appreciation for authentic relationships, where they are free to be themselves, but felt they were not always able to do that in the eyes of the church.

“We need to know the [priest’s] door is always open and we can ask any question. We need to feel like we’re not judged,” said Gloucester Catholic’s Lenny Testa.

That sentiment was echoed by students who seek more spirited discussion and exploration in school religion classes.

As they referred to themselves as “the future of the church,” Father Robert Hughes, Vicar General, asked the students, “Do you feel you belong now? Is there a place for you right here and now in the church, and in your parishes and schools? And how are you making a difference because of that?”

Students expressed a desire for inclusion and said they were not always sure about where the church stands in a changing world.

“For the world we want equality, inclusion, and the basic human right of living a fulfilled life,” said Alexandra Bisignsaro from Our Lady of Mercy Academy, Newfield.

Antonio Talotta from Saint Augustine Preparatory School, Richland, had similar thoughts. “The church is not only a shared belief in Christ, but it’s a shared system of values and morality that’s applicable to all people,” he said.

In addition to their experience attending Catholic school, many students identified worship music and Kairos retreats as positive ways to grow in and express their faith. They also pointed to service as a cornerstone of their Catholic faith and a way to make a difference in the lives of others. And they expressed gratitude for the invitation to be heard.

“We feel the church is taking the right steps in speaking with youth in the Catholic faith to determine what we can do moving forward to continuously develop our journey of life and faith,” said Wildwood Catholic’s Lena Cassidy.

Bishop Sullivan thanked the students for their candor and willingness to share. “Let your faith grow because of your questions,” he said. “Doubt is very helpful. Use it to grow in faith.”