Chaplains are ‘pastoral presence’ at high schools

Two new chaplains will be on-hand to welcome high school students when classes begin Aug. 27. Father Michael J.R. Kelly, who spent two years as parochial vicar of St. Mary Church in Alexandria after his 2010 ordination, will replace Father J.D. Jaffe at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax. And Father Bjorn C. Lundberg, most recently parochial vicar of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg, will take over for Father Matthew H. Zuberbueler at Pope John Paul the Great High School in Dumfries.

For the chaplains, who join Father Edwin E. Perez at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria and Father Phillip M. Cozzi at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, their main goal is to be a "pastoral presence" for students, faculty and staff at their respective schools, said Sister Bernadette McManigal, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools. This means celebrating Mass and listening to confessions, but also attending football games and plays.

"No one talks to anyone they haven't seen before," Sister Bernadette said. "If you have a concern, you don't go up to someone that you don't really know. It's the informal times that a student will talk."

Father Kelly is particularly suited for high school chaplaincy from his time volunteering with NET Ministries, a national youth ministry program, after graduating from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. While he's looking forward to providing the sacraments, counseling and organizing retreats, his ultimate mission, he said, is to show young people the love of God in their lives.

"If my job is just to dispense sacraments, then I've fallen short of the goal," he said. "They need to know who Jesus is."

This means he will encourage students to attend Mass every Sunday, to develop a prayer life and to grow in their understanding of Scripture, especially the Gospels.

"I also want them to know that God is here, God is present, God is living, and He is in their lives," Father Kelly said. "I'm excited to do the will of God. I'm glad to do it."

As of mid-August, Father Lundberg already had hit the ground running by going with John Paul the Great students on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic and attending football camp in Front Royal.

Those opportunities, paired with attending last year's World Youth Day with the students, reinforced Father Lundberg's positive opinion of the students and John Paul the Great as a whole, he said.

Throughout the school year - which encompasses the Year of Faith, scheduled to begin Oct. 11 - Father Lundberg will help spread the message of faith to students, faculty and staff. He also will teach freshmen religion.

"I've taught before, but this is taking it to a different level," he said.

Being the new face on campus, he realizes he has a lot to learn. Every time he meets a freshman, he tells them he's a freshman too, he said.

Like Father Kelly, Father Lundberg said he just wants to help the students become closer to Christ and, especially, to discover God's will for their lives.

"(The goal is) that they have an encounter with Christ, and that they discover His love for them and find their vocation," he said.

To help facilitate that, Father Lundberg knows he will have to be around the students a lot - almost like a "spiritual dad."

"Hopefully it will be a positive experience for the kids, that they understand that you love them and want them to fall in love with Christ," he said. Ultimately, "that helps them pursue everything they do with excellence."

Father Cozzi, who will begin his second year at Bishop O'Connell this fall, also stressed the importance of spending time with students. The best thing he learned in his first year? "Go to everything," he said.

"The ministry of presence is huge in high school," he said. "The kids just want to see that you care about them. You don't necessarily have to have the right thing to say all the time, you don't necessarily have to be the cool guy, you just have to be somebody who shows up. They see you care, and they trust you."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2012