CHERRY HILL — As Camden Catholic’s Christian Leadership students gathered in class here last month, all eyes were on Father Edward Kennedy.
The part-time Director of Catholic Identity, critiquing students’ recent promotions of their upcoming school retreats (Kairos, a Women’s Retreat, Catholic Performers, and a Catholic Athletes for Christ), explained how one retreat group could have done even better.
“Promise them donuts,” and students will come out, he said half-jokingly, as students laughed and nodded their heads.
“Come for the donuts, stay for the faith” doesn’t sound like too bad a marketing plan for attracting busy high-schoolers to events. And with the endgame being that students are drawn more closely to Jesus and further develop their spiritual life, it’s an idea suited to the work of Directors of Catholic Identity.
Established six years ago by Bishop Dennis Sullivan, the position of Director of Catholic Identity brings “pastors” into the classrooms and sporting arenas of the Diocese of Camden’s Catholic high schools. They teach the faith, lead school liturgies, encourage vocations and serve as a spiritual resource for students, faculty and staff.
This school year, Camden’s priests are serving in five high schools: Father Kennedy at Camden Catholic; Father Dexter J. Nebrida at Paul VI, Haddonfield; Father Josh Nevitt at Holy Spirit, Absecon; Father Steven Pinzon at Wildwood Catholic; and Father J. Philip Ramos at Gloucester Catholic.
“Father Kennedy’s presence here helps us,” said Father Joseph P. Capella, he himself a former Director of Catholic Identity at Camden Catholic, and now serving as the school’s rector. He is also the teacher of the Christian Leadership class which Father Kennedy assisted with.
“His youth, his personality — the students relate to him. He’s a presence in the community, celebrating sacraments with the school and promoting the school’s values,” Father Capella continued.
Their ‘parishioners’ are in the classrooms, hallways and cafeteria
As a part-time Director, Father Kennedy juggles his time between Camden Catholic and his parish assignment at Saint Rose of Lima in nearby Haddon Heights. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he can be found in the school’s green and white hallways, celebrating morning Mass in the chapel for students and faculty, mentoring students in Father Capella’s class, or chatting with students in the Campus Ministry office he shares with Jennifer LaRosa, the school campus minister.
“Father Kennedy is joyful,” LaRosa said. “He’s great with the students, making sure they know he is there for them” in any conflicts they have, be it school-related or personal struggles.
Father Kennedy, in his first year as Director, acknowledges that the students have played a huge part in making him feel welcome and part of the community.
“I’m blown away by their maturity and hunger for the faith,” he says. “These students want to know and find the truth.”
At Wildwood Catholic, Father Pinzon, Director of Catholic Identity for the past two years, sees the importance of “planting the seeds” of spirituality in his students’ lives.
“I’m a visible presence, offering them confession, attending their sports contests, plays and socials,” he says. “Presence is so important, just to be with them, and meet them where they are at.”
He also has a parish assignment at Notre Dame de la Mer, Wildwood, as parochial vicar.
“We have good kids and a good staff” at Wildwood Catholic High School, he says.
Before coming to the Diocese of Camden from the Philippines two years ago, Father J. Philip Ramos, A.M., spent every week teaching the Catholic faith in public schools. Now, the Disciple of Mary is almost finished with his first semester at Gloucester Catholic.
“I’m happy here, being present at the school three days a week,” he says of the time he is not fulfilling his responsibilities as parochial vicar at Saint Simon Stock Parish in Berlin.
During October, the month of the rosary, he invited students to pray with him in the school chapel, and he taught them about the rosary’s origins and connections to the Blessed Mother.
He makes it a point “to involve myself in the school community as much as possible,” be it attending a Friday night football game or visiting a student’s loved one in the hospital.
Over these past three months, he has come to know and love the school community.
“It’s a family,” he emphasizes.
He believes that as much as he brings himself and his work to any interaction with students — be it on the field, classroom or lunchroom — he is learning just as much as they are.
“I learn something new from them every day, and hope they can learn something from me,” he says.