“You are helping others, but at the same time you’re finding who you are as a person.”
Tess Riley has found that her junior year theology program at Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford is taking her far beyond the school walls and beyond simply studying about her faith. Riley, fellow junior Cindy Jin and other students are growing in their calling to catalyze their Catholicism into what they will do in their lives through the school’s new Faith in Action course, offered within the honors program.
These students are encountering their faith in the faces of people whom they have often perceived as different due to religion, race, or life experience, but with whom they find deep commonality simply because of their moments of encounter.
“We were always taught that our faith is about serving others,” said Jin. “We had the foundation of what we were supposed to do, and this – of course – allowed us to go out and do it.”
The class, co-taught by School Minister, Fr. Alessandro Giardini, and Director of Christian Service and Formation, Christopher Allen, is not exclusive to Pope John Paul II High School within the Archdiocese. Students at Bishop Shanahan, Cardinal O’Hara, and Lansdale Catholic also experience this course offering designed “for students who want to do more for Christ, who want to sustain their prayer and sacramental lives, and who want to become the Christ-like leaders our society needs” as the Pope John Paul II course catalog describes.
“First semester is the Sacraments, and it invites the students to just kind of look at the Sacraments, grow a little bit deeper in their understanding of them and the grace that flows from them,” said Allen.
“The second semester is Catholic social teaching,” Fr. Giardini added. “How do I live out my faith and in a social setting, in the sense of living out the call to help the poor and the marginalized, and to be an active member in society, while still abiding by my faith?”
To Allen and Fr. Giardini, leaders in Pope John Paul II’s Office of School Ministry, the entire concept of the class is truly about teaching students to go far beyond sitting in front of computers and typing research papers offering up what they learn about God.
“The attraction of the course, to the administration and really to our office, is that students are doing more than just passively learning about their faith, they’re actually acting on their faith,” said Allen. “They’re going out, and they’re spreading their faith that they’ve learned through the action component of the course.”
“The hope with this course is by showing that they have an active role in the life of the Church and in their own faith life,” Fr. Giardini said about experiences such as visiting elderly and homeless people at the Patrician Society in Norristown among a list of interpersonal encounters of their faith. “They see themselves as being involved here, so that when they do move on from these walls, from the school walls, they believe and put into action that belief that they do have a role.”
Yin and Riley each found capstone experiences this semester that put faces, names, and experiences to their teachers’ hopes, as they shared reflections of seeing Christ in others.
“One of the big things we did was interfaith dialogue between the (Jack M.) Barrack Hebrew Academy,” Riley explained, describing how those conversations not only gave her a window on her own faith, but on finding commonality across religious lines.
“Today in the world, there’s a lot of differences and division between people. But that was extremely moving to see how two groups of kids from different religions could come together and exchange the similarities between the two.”
“A few students would go and they would make the meals and then serve the homeless people with the meals,” said Yin about a program they joined in Northeast Philadelphia. “We actually went out to the community, outside of our school community…seeing their joy when they receive, our gifts to them.”
Fr. Giardini and Allen said that in these experiences, beyond giving a tangible item like sandwiches on the street for homeless Philadelphians and casseroles they make for St. John’s Hospice, they build a living example for their classmates.
“It’s not like they’re just collecting food, or they’re just going and volunteering and we’re having a one-off and done,” said Allen. “They’re encouraging. They’re drawing other students in our school community into this volunteerism.”
“The light bulb moments happen when they finally get out of the classroom, and they like go face to face with [moments where they realize] ‘I can no longer try and fake by writing an essay, or I can’t like fake by just memorizing stuff and putting on a test…when I’m out face to face with another person, whether in the street corner, whether in helping out the homeless shelter, whether it be interacting with people of other faiths, whether it be putting on a retreat, I am forced to give an account of my faith,’ and so it helps them to learn more,” said Fr. Giardini.
Allen said these students are also involved in building opportunities for others to grow their faith, such as planning and coordinating the school’s freshmen and sophomore retreats along with parish confirmation retreats.
The class also includes programs like a faith-centered entrepreneurship program connected with Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and opportunities to participate in the life of the Church at a diocesan level and discover the city’s Catholic heritage that makes their faith even more real.
“Taking them to the Shrine of St. John Neumann,” Allen added, “there he is in the glass altar, right up front. There’s his body…the Saints aren’t just like somebody way, way off in the distance or from all this time ago. No, here’s somebody from Philadelphia, who, you know, we go to this church, and we participated in his feast day Mass.”
“It’s going to get them out of just the passive learning,” said Fr. Giardini, ”and it’s going to get an active learning going to get them closer with their faith in a creative way.”
Riley and Yin said this creative experience of making faith real and tangible has changed them.
“Before this class, faith was all just learning about it. And it was just like notes and textbook reading and taking tests and all that,” said Yin. “We still take tests. That’s our learning part. But then we get to put our learning into action.”
“You know that serving others, you have an unlimited opportunity to do so. That’s cool, because there’s so many ways you can see Jesus in that,” added Riley.
“Jesus is all around us, if we really take the chance to look for it.”
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