Diocese’s student leaders gather; pledge Christian service
Photo Caption: Before tackling serious topics, students attending Catholic High School Leadership Day mixed it up in a game of “human foosball” on the patio of the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria.
By: By Tom Dermody
Sixteen-year-old pop singer Justin Bieber is a big deal these days, but St. Francis of Assisi has been considered truly great for centuries.
On Tuesday, more than 150 student leaders from Catholic high schools around the Diocese of Peoria were called to greatness.
“Use your tremendous gifts in ways that glorify God and serve one another,” urged Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, during a Mass at the diocese’s first Catholic High School Leadership Day.
The Mass included a commissioning ceremony in which the student leaders pledged to help school officials “build up a culture of love and life” and follow Christ by “reaching out in compassion to fellow classmates, especially those who are often overlooked or rejected.”
“It’s not about us leading the school, it’s about you leading it,” explained Father Patrick Henehan, coordinator of Catholic high school chaplains, in welcoming remarks to students representing Bloomington Central Catholic, Danville Schlarman, Ottawa Marquette Academy, Peoria Notre Dame, Peru St. Bede, Rock Island Alleman, and The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign.
About 20 student leaders from each school were selected to take part in the day of discussion, prayer, and inspiration at the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria. Also attending were high school chaplains and principals.
Guiding the discussion and providing considerable personal energy and humor was Chris Stefanick, director of youth, young adult and campus ministry for the Archdiocese of Denver.
“Lots of people want to be famous who don’t become famous,” said Stefanick, a Christian musician who shared his own unrealized dreams of “success” in that field.
“But everybody is called to greatness,” he added. “Being great is what makes you a Christian leader.”
Stefanick listed characteristics of great Christian leaders, including:
— They lead in small ways. “There are opportunities to do that every day in your school,” said Stefanick. “We have no idea how when we love in a small way how it will have a ripple effect. We’ll never know till we get to heaven.”
— They are fearless. Stefanick told the story of Father Vincent Capodanno, a U.S. Navy chaplain assigned to a Marine battalion in the Vietnam War. During an intense battle called Operation Swift, Father Capodanno went among the wounded and dying, giving last rites and offering compassion to the injured. Wounded once in the face and having his hand almost severed, he went to help a wounded corpsman only yards from an enemy machine gun. Father Capodanno died using his own body as a shield to save the corpsman, and is now a candidate for sainthood.
“He knew death is a comma, not a period,” said Stefanick. “Life doesn’t end here.”
Student leaders, he said, can be fearless, heroic and countercultural by caring less about what people think and more about what God wants of them.
— They have passion. “God can use us despite of what we lack if we have passion,” he said, pointing to the example of St. Patrick who converted all of Ireland though he was not gifted in areas such as writing. “We should never be satisfied until the whole world shares the joy we have in Jesus Christ.”
They inspire greatness in others. “Instead of thinking ‘How can I shine?,’ think ‘How can I make people around me shine,'” suggested Stefanick.
Above all, he said, a great Christian leader is always led by the words and example of Jesus, a point that was reinforced by Bishop Jenky.
“Jesus was not a wimp. In many ways, he was a warrior,” the bishop told the student leaders. While defeated in the eyes of the world as he hung on the cross, Jesus “wielded that cross and destroyed all our enemies,” proving the power of God and love is invincible.
At the close of Mass, the students received wristbands with symbols proclaiming Christ’s death, resurrection, and return.
The Leadership Day also included several lighter moments, including games of “human foosball” and “finish that song” as well as a Catholic trivia contest.
Stefanick, co-author of “Do I Have to Go? — 101 Questions about the Mass, the Eucharist and Your Spiritual Life” — was scheduled to address the full student bodies of several Catholic high schools later in the week, as well as gatherings of parents.