Nativity of Our Savior Stars and St. Casimir Bruisers connected with Bishop Robert J. McClory over important matters of faith, as well as lighthearted stories about toys and favorite sports teams, when the diocese’s leader celebrated Mass and met students and faculty at the Portage and Hammond schools.
The March 21 visit to Nativity and March 23 visit to St. Casimir represent a couple of the final few school stops that Bishop McClory has sought to make to complete the initial circuit of personal visits to the 17 diocesan elementary/middle schools and three diocesan high schools.
After his Feb. 11, 2020 installation, the bishop made school visits before the pandemic shutdowns, and later presided at school Masses and multi-school gatherings at the high schools that featured various coronavirus mitigation protocols. Recently, he has made personal classroom connections as schools largely adjusted to more flexible health safety policies.
“It’s a beautiful visit here; it’s always inspiring to be with young people whose eyes are opening to the world around them and to the love that God has for them,” Bishop McClory said at Nativity.
To start his visit, the entire student body, faculty members, Father Kevin McCarthy, pastor, and Deacon Dennis Guernsey joined Bishop McClory, who presided at Mass in the spacious Portage church.
Bishop McClory captured the attention of students during his homily by describing the functions of a classic toy that the youths were surprisingly familiar with. A din of discussion arose among the children and teens when the jack-in-the-box was mentioned.
Speaking about details of the wind-up music box that plays a tune until, at a certain point, a clown doll pops up from under a lid, the bishop said the Lord’s ways can be mysterious and not to be manipulated as by a youngster who discovers the latch that controls when the figure appears.
"(We) open our eyes and hearts to see new and unexpected ways God can heal us, touch our hearts and can give us His love," Bishop McClory said.
Playing her acoustic guitar, fourth grade teacher Beth Franzen led a small group of students who sang hymns such as "Somebody’s Knockin’ at Your Door” and “Gracious God” during Mass. “My students were really excited, and they wanted to make sure Father Kevin (McCarthy) was proud of them and that I was proud of them,” said Franzen.
Later, in her classroom, she welcomed Bishop McClory, who stopped in to ask students questions such as “What do you like best about Nativity school?”
Meg Bretana, one of Franzen's students, said the bishop made her feel comfortable talking to him
“I was a little nervous, but I learned the bishop is nice,” Bretana said.
In his sixth-grade classroom, Kallin Smith asked Bishop McClory a question, learning that the diocesan leader has met Pope Francis, and that periodic meetings allow groups of bishops to gather with the pontiff in Rome.
Twelve-year-old Smith was the cross bearer earlier that morning at Mass. He said serving the Church and showing respect for others are among those things he considers accomplishments arising from a good Catholic educational environment.
“I learned that you should never put yourself before others and that you should do what Jesus did and put someone else before yourself,” Smith said.
A gathering of part of the school’s nearly 400 students filled much of the ornate St. Casimir church in Hammond a couple days later. Processing with Father Eduardo Malagon, Bishop McClory greeted and later got to know them through an interactive style of homily.
Through a period of questions-and-answers between the bishop and the younger students among the student population, he ascertained that sports play a significant role in the children’s lives.
Responses of, “I like soccer,” and “I play baseball,” provided Bishop McClory the opportunity to connect the Old Testament and Gospel reading of the day.
“So, what happens when someone goes up for a shot (in basketball) and you totally tackle them?” the bishop asked. “Do they let you do that? No. In every sport there is a way that the game is organized, there are boundaries … and those rules help the game run the way it should.”
Bishop McClory said we should strive to be faithful to God’s commandments, just as Jesus was. He spoke of Jesus’ sacrifice that allows us to be forgiven.
“Just like in the game, if you commit a foul, you’re not out of the game forever; the official can say, ‘Come back in,’” the bishop concluded.
A team of six, eighth-grade student ambassadors along with principal Matt Chico and Father Malagon guided Bishop McClory from the church building to the school entrance to begin a classroom-by-classroom tour of the Hammond Catholic school.
Shannon Whelan, St. Casimir middle school religion teacher, noted how Bishop McClory happily fielded all sorts of questions from “Are you Father Malagon's boss?” (to which the bishop diplomatically talked about the jurisdictions of a priest and of a bishop) to “What is that staff that you carry?” (when the diocesan leader talked about the symbolism of his crozier, shepherd’s hook.)
“You can tell these students have had a Catholic education – many since pre-school – and you see how their minds develop and how their faith continues to grow and deeper … the conversations at this level are so much stronger and deeper,” Whelan said.
Student ambassador Jolette Luna, 14, joined the St. Casimir family for her sixth-grade year. “St. Casimir has taught me the faith and prepares me for the future.”
Fourteen-year-old Ian Arnold has achieved academic honor and remains involved with school extracurriculars. Attending St. Casimir since he was in pre-school, he said he was excited to take the responsibility of being an ambassador for the visit of a bishop who he said was, “fun and energetic.”
“It’s an honor; I’ve experienced this before," Arnold said. “I knew I could approach it in a good way.”
Bishop McClory, at points, praised his own Catholic school experience growing up in Michigan. At St. Casimir, he complimented the students’ enthusiasm as well as the “wonderful student choir” that sang at Mass.
“As a bishop, I welcome these opportunities to engage our young people and always find myself inspired by their heartfelt gratitude that they are in a Catholic school," said Bishop McClory.