It’s a “big year” for the Watson family. This is the second – and last – year that our five children will be at the same school, with the same hours, holidays and drop-off and pick-up times. Of course, next year will be another “big year”, with our oldest high school and our twins receiving the Eucharist for the first time.
The truth is that each year marks milestones for our students, families and schools in South Jersey, as it brings the promise of new beginnings and the continued journey of our children through Catholic education.
For example, Holy Spirit High School in Absecon is beginning the celebration of its 100th year of providing excellent Catholic education and training to high school students in Atlantic County. In Cherry Hill, management at Camden Catholic High School has been busy upgrading classrooms to support new offerings in genetics, analytics and cybersecurity. Saint Margaret Regional School in Woodbury Heights is starting a television studio. Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Atlantic City officially opens a Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math (STEAM) lab, joining 12 other Catholic schools in South Jersey that already have such labs in place, and four additional schools building programs this year.
A century of Catholic education in this region, combined with last-minute innovations, illustrates why our schools are sometimes referred to as “century-old start-ups”. South Jersey Catholic schools have deep roots in faith, roots that have helped them weather challenges and change for over a century. Over the past two years, we have seen the value of our unwavering commitment to Catholic faith and values. This foundation has enabled our schools to avoid the worst effects – educationally, socially and physically – of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Catholic school communities share the belief that we are all created in the image and likeness of God. They help each student form and develop an ongoing relationship with Jesus, through which they discover who God created them. The successes of the past two years, and the academic excellence for which Catholic schools in South Jersey are well known, follow because all of our actions are directed toward this mission and purpose.
Of course, none of this happens automatically. Students in Catholic schools do not succeed individually or collectively because we say we are Catholic. None of us can expect to enjoy the full benefits of Catholic school communities by participating only at the margins. It takes work for each of us to enter into a relationship with Jesus that is confirmed in our relationships with each other. This is why we pray together; this is why we recognize and accept the presence of God as the motor of what we accomplish together.
The most important way to pray together in Catholic schools is to attend Mass. We have just begun the first of three years of a national Eucharistic revival. The Eucharistic revival is an invitation for all of us to grow in our understanding and devotion to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
One of the most notable elements of our participation in revival is the planned teaching of Masses this year, where students will learn in greater detail that the Catholic Mass is not simply a Sunday service, but a spiritual exercise where each element from beginning to end is rich in meaning. Through our participation in the Eucharistic Revival, our students have the opportunity to understand more deeply the nature of the Mass. It is certainly not something they can expect to learn in a standard public school curriculum.
High school students will have the opportunity to attend a mini-retreat with a national Eucharistic preacher who will visit us this spring. All students will participate in special lessons, events and activities that emphasize the Eucharist as the Word of God made flesh through the Incarnation at Christmas; the Eucharist in sacrifice during Lent; and the Eucharist as a celestial banquet during the Easter season.
Through these and other experiences, along with the Catholic school curriculum and the testimony of principals and teachers, we will come closer to Jesus individually and as school communities. The Eucharistic Renewal reminds us that no matter what we are going through – be it a challenge or a celebration – when we draw closer to Jesus and stay close to him, we grow in wisdom to know God’s will for us and the courage to pursue it.
Indeed, we are entering a “great year”. Please join me in praying for all Catholic school administrators, teachers, staff, students and families as we embark on another year amid a rich curriculum, diverse extracurricular activities and strong spirituality. .
Dr. Bill Watson is Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Camden.