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The best thing I learned going ‘back to school’

Msgr. John Enzler gives Communion to a student at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., during the opening school year Mass there on Sept. 8, 2023. Msgr. Enzler, a 1965 graduate of St. John’s, returned there to serve as the school’s chaplain. (Catholic Standard photo by Mihoko Owada)

Years ago, one of my good friends, Father Ray Kemp, ran for the D.C. school board. His bumper stickers and campaign motto always made me smile: “Send Kemp back to school.”

This year, I went back to school. It’s been an exhilarating, exciting and great educational experience being back at my alma mater. My title at St John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., is chaplain, and I am part of the department of mission and ministry that also includes three very committed lay people who bring a wealth of experience to enrich the students’ lives.

As the school year comes to an end, I realize just how much I’ve enjoyed being back at my alma mater. I am energized by the students, who seem genuinely excited to be at school and with each other. I didn’t mind school at all, but I don’t think I looked forward to it my time some 60 years ago as much as young people today love being with their friends, learning, growing and accomplishing all they can through education.

I spend my days at St. John’s and am on staff there, but I am very much aware that every school has its gifts. I am in no way suggesting that St. John’s is the best or has the only right way to do things. I am grateful for all places of education, especially Catholic schools that can also teach faith and values.

With that in mind, here are a few things that impacted me this year, starting with the retreats. All were wonderful, faith-filled experiences. I was personally involved with the freshman, sophomore and junior retreats, and I helped with but did not attend the four-day Kairos retreats for seniors. I know from my youth ministry days how powerful those Kairos retreats are.

We also had a wonderful week of social justice, celebrating the gifts of many different ministries in our area, including familiar agencies like Catholic Charities and SOME (So Others Might Eat). They and others spoke to students about their missions and taking care of those who are less fortunate.

The entire week was well received by the students, who also had opportunities to get involved. Our prayers, Masses and seminars that week all included outside groups reflecting upon who they are, what they do and how their mission is based upon Jesus’ message to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit those ill and in prison. (Matthew 25:31-46)

The third thing that really impressed me is the peer ministry program. All incoming freshmen are greeted and welcomed by a senior who has been chosen to be a peer minister. Each year, St. John’s selects 45 peer ministers to guide the freshmen on their journeys, help them at orientation, plan freshman retreats and plan liturgies throughout the year for all classes.

I was especially impressed by how many people want to be peer ministers. We had about 340 juniors this year, and 150 applied to be a peer minister. This is phenomenal – that nearly half of the rising seniors wanted to play a role in faith formation and leadership for the classes behind them. They want to pay it forward in honor of those who guided them when they came to St. John’s four years ago.

Each applicant writes an essay and has an interview, but I must say that getting from 150 impressive applicants down to 45 available spots is difficult. Every student has gifts and talents to bring to the endeavor, and we are looking for ways to make sure those who were not chosen still have opportunities to lead and guide others during their senior year.

I recently wrote to the parents that I think the peer ministry program is the “secret sauce” that makes St. John’s student body so cohesive. Welcoming and guiding the new students each year undoubtedly helps foster the joy in the hallways between classes, the happiness in the cafeteria during lunch, and the great spirit of camaraderie in plays, sports and leadership programs.

Bringing all that together, I think the best and most encouraging thing I learned as I went back to school is that our young people are real faith leaders. They have gifts to bring, and they are willing to share those gifts publicly leading small groups, giving talks, welcoming freshmen and just having fun in a community that opens God’s ways to others.

There are, of course, differences from when I attended St. John’s more than 60 years ago. The most striking to me is that there are no more De La Salle Christian Brothers at the school. About 16 lived and taught on campus during my time there. I buried Brother Patrick last spring, and he was the last one assigned to the school.

I guess that makes me the “religious presence” – i.e., someone who wears a collar – in the school and at its events and activities. I’m happy to be that and help however I can. I sense God working in the students and staff at St. John’s, and I hope they sense God working in me.

What a spectacular gift from God to go back to both my own high school and my youth ministry days earlier in my priesthood and be able to spend quality hours and days with today’s young people on their journeys finding God and letting God shine each day in the way they live and act and share their faith.

(Msgr. John Enzler serves as the mission advocate of Catholic Charities of The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington and is a chaplain at his alma mater, St. John’s College High School in Washington. He writes the Faith in Action column for the archdiocese’s Catholic Standard and Spanish-language El Pregonero newspapers and websites.)