January 25, 2008

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

A question of faith: Teacher’s assignment connects students and priests

Through a simple yet challenging assignment, Tyler Mayer tries to move his students to a closer relationship with God. (Photo by Kelly Lucas)

Through a simple yet challenging assignment, Tyler Mayer tries to move his students to a closer relationship with God. (Photo by Kelly Lucas)

By John Shaughnessy

As a first-year teacher, Tyler Mayer has already learned that students don’t usually like assignments that force them from their comfort zones.

Still, the 25-year-old Mayer was willing to risk any possible groans of protests for an unusual assignment that he believed would deepen the relationship that his high school freshman religion students have with God.

So, for several weeks in the fall, Mayer gave his students at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis this simple yet challenging task: After you attend Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday, introduce yourself to the priest before you leave the church and ask him one question.

Each week, Mayer shared the question he wanted the students to ask the priest. One week, it was, “How can a high school student best serve God?” Another week, the question was, “What is one piece of advice you have for a high school student to get into heaven?”

The student then wrote the priest’s response on a piece of paper and asked the priest to sign it. To Mayer, the assignment was the initial step in helping the teenagers become more comfortable and familiar with their parish priests. It also addressed an issue that arose during a meeting he attended with priests from the Indianapolis North Deanery.

“They said they don’t know the students. They see their faces, but they don’t know them,” Mayer recalls. “The assignment is something I thought about for a while. One of the missions I was told about when I came here was to have our students become actively involved in their parish ministries. I strongly feel that building those relationships with your parish priest is vitally important to become active members of your parish.”

It’s also crucial in helping students become comfortable in approaching priests in times of need or crisis, he says.

“Ultimately, the priests are there for us, to serve us,” Mayer says. “We need them for the sacraments. They’re a part of our lives in a special way. For us to get to know them makes that interaction even more special. For developing our faith life with God, it’s better when we have that relationship with our priests.”

Mayer knows that reality from his own experience as a high school student growing up in Illinois.

“I became involved in youth ministry between my freshman and sophomore years,” he recalls. “I had no idea what priests were like. A young priest came to our parish, Father Jerry Simonelli. He went on this mission trip with us. He ended up being an awesome guy. He was a mentor to a lot of us.

“I wouldn’t have gone to confession as much or on as many service trips if it wasn’t for him. I went into the seminary for the first year and a half of college. I never would have had the courage to do that if it wasn’t for Father Jerry. I still see him about once a year. I make a point to stop by his parish.”

Mayer’s idea is a good one, says Father Paul Shikany, the pastor of St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in ­Indianapolis.

“For some kids, it gives them an opportunity to talk to a priest and feel comfortable, and it allows priests to interact with the kids,” Father Shikany says. “Anything that keeps open avenues of interacting and connecting with people is good.”

Mayer plans to continue the assignment in the second semester.

“Now they know who their priests are,” he says. “Part of this religion class is to get students to step out of their comfort zone and try new things to get closer to God.” †

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