Archbishop Nelson Perez walks with students through the halls of Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County, which he visited April 26. (Photo by Olivia Cunrod)

The shepherd of the Philadelphia Archdiocese got to know the youth of his flock Monday, April 26 as Archbishop Nelson Perez toured Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County for a pastoral visit.

The 400 students present, along with faculty and staff, were about half the total student enrollment due to the A/B scheduling of hybrid instruction offered by archdiocesan schools during the COVID pandemic. But even those students at home participated in the liturgy via livestream video from the school’s gymnasium.

(See images from the visit in our Photo Features section.)

The large gym accommodated the students spread out for social distancing, along with a 60-voice choir arrayed on the gym floor in front of the altar. Music director Jeff Braconnier led the choir’s soaring musical selections that moved the young congregation and prompted a favorable response by the archbishop.

After the proclamation of the first reading by student Katelin Cunningham and of the Gospel, which presented Jesus as the Good Shepherd, by campus minister Father John Masson, Archbishop Perez told the students the story of a group of actors who recited beautifully Psalm 23 (“the Lord is my shepherd…”).

One old man wanted to join in, and he began but recited badly, remembering few of the words. Nonetheless his devout faith moved the actors, who said that they knew the words, but the old man knew the shepherd, and had a relationship with him.

“Sometimes we want to turn our faith into a set of rules,” Archbishop Perez said, and people may believe that “to be a Christian is that you follow these rules. That’s a very shallow understanding of our faith because our faith is not just about rules. Every group, every family has rules but your family is not about rules, it’s about relationships with each other.”

The Christian faith “is really about a relationship with the shepherd, with Christ, to the point that our relationship is so intimate that we hear his voice deep within our souls,” he said.

He pointed out that there are voices “around us and inside of us … that tell us this is the way to happiness or to fulfillment. Some of those voices have truth to them, some don’t,” he said.

“But in the midst of all those voices there is one voice, and it’s the voice of the shepherd who calls you and calls me to deepen our relationship with him, Archbishop Perez said.

The Lord’s voice at times competes with other voices and with one’s own, “and you have to make a choice whether you will listen to the voice of the shepherd or your own voice or those around you,” the archbishop said.

“But make no mistake, Jesus is clear in what he said. Ultimately he is that gate through whatever we human beings aspire to, for fullness of joy and happiness and peace, he is that gate.”

After the homily and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the choir performed the contemporary hymn “Amazing Love” led by soaring soloist Raynetta Nah, a senior who ranks her music classes as one of the highlights of her years at Cardinal O’Hara.

Also high on her list of positive experiences in high school before she graduates this spring are Kairos, the senior spiritual retreat, and the school’s Science Department, which built her confidence and “changed my perspective on what science is, and not think that I’m just bad at it all the time,” she said.

The experience had such a positive effect that Nah plans to major in biology in college.

Senior class president Liam Walsh also called Kairos “an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life,” and he noted the importance of his theology classes.

“Every theology class that I have had here taught me how to pray, how to read Scripture, how to interpret it,” he said. “They taught me how to use those words and live the Gospel.”

In college he plans on studying risk management and insurance. By calling Archbishop Perez “the pinnacle of Catholic leadership,” Walsh reflected a new thrust of Cardinal O’Hara in Catholic leadership development.

Jennifer Tuberosa, vice president of development for the school, said the program aligns with the school’s mission to form leaders. The nascent program for which she is seeking grant support is already taking off with a speakers’ series in which local leaders, including alumni, discuss their life stories.

School president Michael Connor said it was “great for the kids to see” the archbishop’s spontaneity and gregarious demeanor as he greeted many of the students before and after Mass.

“It’s uplifting to everyone. You could feel the energy in the room,” he said, adding that after more than a year of restrictions and a most unusual high school experience, the administration was “thrilled and excited to have a sense of normalcy.”

During his tour of the school Archbishop Perez visited art, social studies, theology and English classes, plus the Regina Chesterton honors program of classical and literature studies.

As he passed by one classroom, he heard the instruction of teacher and program director Andrew Youngblood discussing Aristotle, virtue theory and how “this philosophy relates to daily life.”

Junior Erin Lynch said the “community” feel of Cardinal O’Hara helps students “to grow together with your peers, and in your faith,” she said.

The member of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lenni noted the Discipleship Now theology class allows her “to dive deeper in my faith,” she said.

In addition to enjoying history classes, she is a member of the Community Service Club and Students for Life. She is also looking forward to the school’s upcoming 12-hour dance marathon to benefit childhood cancer and the Catholic Charities Appeal.

The character and positive activities of the O’Hara students seemed to give hope to Archbishop Perez, who said the world is being handed on to them.

“Hopefully you can improve on the good things (my generation) did, and fix the things we messed up,” he said. “I believe in you, and in the dreams of your heart.”