Camden, N.J., Apr 23, 2011 (CNA) - St. Mary Magdalen Regional School in Millville, N.J. will finish this academic year with more than a dozen additional Catholic students – but not because of a surge in enrollment.
The increase is due to 13 of the school’s 29 non-Catholic students joining the Catholic Church.
“It is very unusual,” said Sister Rosa Maria Ojeda, the principal. “Usually we have two or three, or at most four.”
It’s too soon to know if this year’s sharp increase in conversions is the beginning of a trend or is just coincidental. Sister Rosa Maria said there is no formal program to encourage the conversions. It is up to the students and their parents to come forward and make the request.
Mary Boyle, the superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Camden, said she does not have statistics yet for this year, but she isn’t aware of any pattern of increase in the number of non-Catholic students joining the faith.
“Our schools certainly do make an effort to work on that,” she said. “We want them planting seeds but not proselytizing.”
She noted that the diocese views such conversions as a parish event rather than as a school event.
All 182 St. Mary Magdalen students – whatever their faith – receive the same religious instruction as part of the school day. For the non-Catholics who wish to convert, once they get their parents’ approval, one of the sisters works with them individually for an hour after school once or twice a week to prepare.
Six of the students converting this year had already been baptized in another faith. In such cases the process is a profession of faith – a ceremony that includes reciting the Apostles’ Creed – rather than the actual pouring of water and anointing with oil.
Some of the baptisms or professions of faith took place in church after Sunday Mass, while others took place after the weekly Mass in school.
For Steven and Beth Alcorn, it as an easy decision to have their son, Nicholas Alcorn, baptized a Catholic at the end of January even though both of them are Methodists.
Nicholas is in the pre-kindergarten class, while his sister Jordan Caez is in eighth grade at St. Mary Magdalen and his sister Jasmine Caez graduated from the school two years ago. Both of the sisters were baptized Catholic, their father’s religion.
From the years of her daughters’ education there, Beth Alcorn said, she knew that “you become a family within the school. And it’s nice to be able to celebrate each one of these steps with the entire classroom almost as a family separate from your family at home.”
For Dana Durham, it wasn’t her parents, Margaret and Ronald, who decided she would become a Catholic. It was Dana herself.
Mr. and Mrs. Durham are both Presbyterian, and it was the quality of the education that prompted them to send their two daughters to St. Mary Magdalen. Although Dana and her older sister, Emma, were baptized at birth in the Presbyterian Church, their parents believed it was up to the girls to choose their religion once they were old enough.
Eighth-grader Emma remains a Presbyterian, although she plans to go to Our Lady of Mercy Academy next year.
Dana, on the other hand, never wavered about converting.
“Dana – from the time she was a little girl – felt that’s where she belonged,” Margaret Durham said. But the parents wanted to be sure it wasn’t just a case of peer pressure – or peer envy.
“That’s why we held her back,” Mrs. Durham said. “In second grade when all the girls got First Communion, it was a huge deal with the dresses and all. And we felt that that wasn’t the right time to allow her, because we didn’t want her to feel like she just wanted to fit in or she just wanted the dress. We wanted her to be educated and to know when she was personally ready.”
The Durhams never set an age for making a decision about converting. The parents told the girls that when they were ready, they should speak with their teacher and the pastor. Margaret Durham said they told their daughters, “When you’re adult enough to go talk to them, we feel you’re old enough to make your own decision.”
For Dana that time arrived this year. Right after Christmas, her mother said, “She came home one day and said ‘I went and spoke with Sister. I’ve decided it’s time.’” So in February after a regular Friday Mass in the school, Dana made her profession of faith and became a Catholic.
Baptism for Emily and Isabel Kefer took place after a Sunday Mass in February. Emily is in first grade, and Isabel is three years old. The Kefers are relatively new to the area and this is Emily’s first year at St. Mary Magdalen.
Richard Kefer, a Catholic, and his wife, Si, a Buddhist, had talked about having their daughters baptized. Emily started learning about religion at school, he said, and “finally when she asked about it, it was time to do something.”
Some of Emily’s classmates came to the Mass and stayed for Emily’s baptism. It’s a “very supportive community,” her father said.
Joanne Sampson echoes that thought, describing the school as “a big family. The whole congregation is somewhat close.”
An Episcopalian, she has been raising her granddaughter, Trinity Cain, since her son died several years ago. This school year she enrolled Trinity at St. Mary Magdalen and the fifth-grader has made her profession of faith as a Catholic. Joanne Sampson herself is now taking classes to become a Catholic.
A recurring theme for the parents of the new Catholics is that the warmth and educational quality of the school, its mission, and especially the five sisters – members of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary – were all part of the decision.
“I really truly feel that the whole reason that the children find their way is because of the sisters at our school,” said parent Margaret Durham. “They’re astonishing in their faith and their trust and their ability to motivate people. … They are so kind and so gentle and so loving, and they’ve just made these children feel special.”
Sister Rosa Maria is modest about the nuns’ role, saying simply, “We’re very happy and proud of our children.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper for the Diocese of Camden, N.J.
Vatican City, Apr 23, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict said during the Easter Vigil at St. Peter's Basilica this evening that thanks to the resurrection of the Lord, "life remains good."Jesus rising from the dead means “we can and must place ourselves on the side of reason, freedom and love – on the side of God who loves us so much that he suffered for us, that from his death there might emerge a new, definitive and healed life."
Pope Benedict's full homily follows.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The liturgical celebration of the Easter Vigil makes use oftwo eloquent signs. First there is the fire that becomes light. As theprocession makes its way through the church, shrouded in the darkness of thenight, the light of the Paschal Candle becomes a wave of lights, and it speaksto us of Christ as the true morning star that never sets – the Risen Lord inwhom light has conquered darkness. The second sign is water. On the one hand,it recalls the waters of the Red Sea, decline and death, the mystery of theCross. But now it is presented to us as spring water, a life-giving elementamid the dryness. Thus it becomes the image of the sacrament of baptism,through which we become sharers in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Yet these great signs of creation, light and water, are notthe only constituent elements of the liturgy of the Easter Vigil. Anotheressential feature is the ample encounter with the words of sacred Scripturethat it provides. Before the liturgical reform there were twelve Old Testamentreadings and two from the New Testament. The New Testament readings have beenretained. The number of Old Testament readings has been fixed at seven, butdepending upon the local situation, they may be reduced to three. The Churchwishes to offer us a panoramic view of whole trajectory of salvation history,starting with creation, passing through the election and the liberation ofIsrael to the testimony of the prophets by which this entire history isdirected ever more clearly towards Jesus Christ. In the liturgical traditionall these readings were called prophecies. Even when they are not directlyforetelling future events, they have a prophetic character, they show us theinner foundation and orientation of history. They cause creation and history tobecome transparent to what is essential. In this way they take us by the handand lead us towards Christ, they show us the true Light.
At the Easter Vigil, the journey along the paths of sacredScripture begins with the account of creation. This is the liturgy’s way oftelling us that the creation story is itself a prophecy. It is not informationabout the external processes by which the cosmos and man himself came intobeing. The Fathers of the Church were well aware of this. They did notinterpret the story as an account of the process of the origins of things, butrather as a pointer towards the essential, towards the true beginning and endof our being. Now, one might ask: is it really important to speak also ofcreation during the Easter Vigil? Could we not begin with the events in whichGod calls man, forms a people for himself and creates his history with men uponthe earth? The answer has to be: no. To omit the creation would be tomisunderstand the very history of God with men, to diminish it, to lose sightof its true order of greatness. The sweep of history established by God reachesback to the origins, back to creation. Our profession of faith begins with thewords: "We believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven andearth". If we omit the beginning of the Credo, the whole history of salvationbecomes too limited and too small. The Church is not some kind of associationthat concerns itself with man’s religious needs but is limited to thatobjective. No, she brings man into contact with God and thus with the source ofall things. Therefore we relate to God as Creator, and so we have aresponsibility for creation. Our responsibility extends as far as creationbecause it comes from the Creator. Only because God created everything can hegive us life and direct our lives. Life in the Church’s faith involves morethan a set of feelings and sentiments and perhaps moral obligations. Itembraces man in his entirety, from his origins to his eternal destiny. Onlybecause creation belongs to God can we place ourselves completely in his hands.And only because he is the Creator can he give us life for ever. Joy overcreation, thanksgiving for creation and responsibility for it all belongtogether.
The central message of the creation account can be definedmore precisely still. In the opening words of his Gospel, Saint John sums upthe essential meaning of that account in this single statement: "In thebeginning was the Word". In effect, the creation account that we listenedto earlier is characterized by the regularly recurring phrase: "And Godsaid ..." The world is a product of the Word, of the Logos, as Saint Johnexpresses it, using a key term from the Greek language. "Logos" means"reason", "sense", "word". It is not reason pureand simple, but creative Reason, that speaks and communicates itself. It isReason that both is and creates sense. The creation account tells us, then,that the world is a product of creative Reason. Hence it tells us that, farfrom there being an absence of reason and freedom at the origin of all things,the source of everything is creative Reason, love, and freedom. Here we arefaced with the ultimate alternative that is at stake in the dispute betweenfaith and unbelief: are irrationality, lack of freedom and pure chance theorigin of everything, or are reason, freedom and love at the origin of being?Does the primacy belong to unreason or to reason? This is what everythinghinges upon in the final analysis. As believers we answer, with the creationaccount and with John, that in the beginning is reason. In the beginning is freedom.Hence it is good to be a human person. It is not the case that in the expandinguniverse, at a late stage, in some tiny corner of the cosmos, there evolvedrandomly some species of living being capable of reasoning and of trying tofind rationality within creation, or to bring rationality into it. If man weremerely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of theuniverse, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance ofnature. But no, Reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine Reason. Andbecause it is Reason, it also created freedom; and because freedom can beabused, there also exist forces harmful to creation. Hence a thick black line,so to speak, has been drawn across the structure of the universe and across thenature of man. But despite this contradiction, creation itself remains good,life remains good, because at the beginning is good Reason, God’s creativelove. Hence the world can be saved. Hence we can and must place ourselves onthe side of reason, freedom and love – on the side of God who loves us so muchthat he suffered for us, that from his death there might emerge a new,definitive and healed life.
The Old Testament account of creation that we listened toclearly indicates this order of realities. But it leads us a further stepforward. It has structured the process of creation within the framework of aweek leading up to the Sabbath, in which it finds its completion. For Israel,the Sabbath was the day on which all could participate in God’s rest, in whichman and animal, master and slave, great and small were united in God’s freedom.Thus the Sabbath was an expression of the Covenant between God and man andcreation. In this way, communion between God and man does not appear assomething extra, something added later to a world already fully created. TheCovenant, communion between God and man, is inbuilt at the deepest level ofcreation. Yes, the Covenant is the inner ground of creation, just as creationis the external presupposition of the Covenant. God made the world so thatthere could be a space where he might communicate his love, and from which theresponse of love might come back to him. From God’s perspective, the heart ofthe man who responds to him is greater and more important than the wholeimmense material cosmos, for all that the latter allows us to glimpse somethingof God’s grandeur.
Easter and the paschal experience of Christians, however,now require us to take a further step. The Sabbath is the seventh day of theweek. After six days in which man in some sense participates in God’s work ofcreation, the Sabbath is the day of rest. But something quite unprecedentedhappened in the nascent Church: the place of the Sabbath, the seventh day, wastaken by the first day. As the day of the liturgical assembly, it is the dayfor encounter with God through Jesus Christ who as the Risen Lord encounteredhis followers on the first day, Sunday, after they had found the tomb empty.The structure of the week is overturned. No longer does it point towards theseventh day, as the time to participate in God’s rest. It sets out from thefirst day as the day of encounter with the Risen Lord. This encounter happensafresh at every celebration of the Eucharist, when the Lord enters anew intothe midst of his disciples and gives himself to them, allows himself, so tospeak, to be touched by them, sits down at table with them. This change isutterly extraordinary, considering that the Sabbath, the seventh day seen asthe day of encounter with God, is so profoundly rooted in the Old Testament. Ifwe also bear in mind how much the movement from work towards the rest-daycorresponds to a natural rhythm, the dramatic nature of this change is evenmore striking. This revolutionary development that occurred at the very thebeginning of the Church’s history can be explained only by the fact thatsomething utterly new happened that day. The first day of the week was thethird day after Jesus’ death. It was the day when he showed himself to hisdisciples as the Risen Lord. In truth, this encounter had something unsettlingabout it. The world had changed. This man who had died was now living with alife that was no longer threatened by any death. A new form of life had beeninaugurated, a new dimension of creation. The first day, according to theGenesis account, is the day on which creation begins. Now it was the day ofcreation in a new way, it had become the day of the new creation. We celebratethe first day. And in so doing we celebrate God the Creator and his creation.Yes, we believe in God, the Creator of heaven and earth. And we celebrate theGod who was made man, who suffered, died, was buried and rose again. Wecelebrate the definitive victory of the Creator and of his creation. Wecelebrate this day as the origin and the goal of our existence. We celebrate itbecause now, thanks to the risen Lord, it is definitively established thatreason is stronger than unreason, truth stronger than lies, love stronger thandeath. We celebrate the first day because we know that the black line drawnacross creation does not last for ever. We celebrate it because we know thatthose words from the end of the creation account have now been definitivelyfulfilled: "God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was verygood" (Gen 1:31). Amen.