October 28, 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas pastor hopes his sabbatical will help school children learn what it means to be truly Catholic

Roncalli High School freshman football team members, from left, Ethan Briggeman, David Schott, Tyler Schoettle, Joe Gervasio and Eli Smith participate in the 40 Days for Life youth rally on Oct. 15 in front of the Planned Parenthood abortion facility in Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

Roncalli High School freshman football team members, from left, Ethan Briggeman, David Schott, Tyler Schoettle, Joe Gervasio and Eli Smith participate in the 40 Days for Life youth rally on Oct. 15 in front of the Planned Parenthood abortion facility in Indianapolis. (Photo by Mary Ann Garber)

By John Shaughnessy

The destination seems unusual—especially compared to the other places that Father Steven Schwab plans to visit during his four-month journey to renew his spirit.

Spending three months in Rome is an obvious choice for Father Schwab, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Indianapolis, who has a love for the traditions of the Church.

So is his plan to visit some of the great cathedrals in Europe.

And his appreciation of history makes a tour of the American cemetery in Normandy, France—to honor the heroes who died there during World War II—a natural choice, too.

Seemingly out-of-place in his itinerary is a journey to Everglades National Park in Florida. But Father Schwab insists that his three days there will fit in perfectly with his goal of spiritual and physical renewal.

“I’ve been to the Everglades many times,” he says. “It’s the perfect place to sit or walk around. You can relax and calm down a little bit there. It’s a great place for prayer and reflection. I don’t see how you can get through a day without prayer and reflection.”

All those destinations will be part of the sabbatical that Father Schwab will take from early September through late November in 2012, thanks to a grant provided by Lilly Endowment Inc. and its 2011 Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations.

“We ask these congregations and ministers to consider this question, ‘What will make your heart sing?’ as they devise their plans,” says Craig Dykstra, senior vice president for religion at Lilly Endowment. “Their time away frees them up to pursue personal interests and needs in ways that give them new energy for ministry—and the congregations discover while their pastors are away that they too experience refreshment and a newfound sense of their own strengths.”

Father Schwab plans to use his travels as an educational opportunity for the students at St. Thomas Aquinas School.

During his journey, the 64-year-old priest hopes to use Skype computer technology to communicate with school children about some of his adventures. The students will follow his trips on a large map of Europe that will hang in the school. Upon his return, Father Schwab will also present a slide show of his journey for junior high students.

“It’s getting harder and harder for our children to hold onto our history and tradition. And we suffer because of that,” he says. “Whatever Catholic schools did right or wrong in the 1950s, they gave a sense of what it means to feel Catholic. When I was 12, I knew what it was to feel Catholic. I’m not sure our kids have a sense of that today.”

Father Schwab hopes his travels will help to lead students closer to that feeling.

“I hope to give them a sense that the Catholic Church is bigger than they’ve experienced so far, that they’re part of a universal Church,” he says. “God speaks to us through our religious identity, history and tradition so I think it’s important for them to understand that’s who we are. I think kids need to be told the Catholic stories. They need to have their religious imaginations sharpened.”

He believes he will have that same experience when he visits the great cathedrals in Europe—in Chartres, Mont Saint Michel, Amiens, Rheims and Cologne.

“These are places of enormous significance in the Catholic heritage,” says Father Schwab, who was an attorney and law school professor before he was ordained a priest in 1990. “They’ve been part of generations and generations and generations of people who have found God in these places. I pray when I go to these places.”

He expects to feel a similar impact when he visits Normandy.

“I’d like to pay my respects to the people who died there,” he says. “That’s a very significant part of our history. It cost a lot of good people their lives.”

Father Schwab is also looking forward to his three months in Rome, including a return visit that he hopes to make to the Abbey of Tre Fontane, the site where St. Paul was executed for his belief in Christ.

“That’s a place where I got goose bumps, and I’m not a goose bumps guy,” says Father Schwab, who also serves as chaplain for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

While much of his sabbatical will focus on places that are significant in the heritage of the Church, his journeys will also take him to places of personal significance. Among his visits to friends and family, he has set aside time with his best friend of 46 years and his 88-year-old mother, who both live in Florida.

“Spending time with my mother is important,” he says. “Since my father died two years ago, I have only been able to visit with her once a year. She’s in good health for her age. She still drives—not that she should—but everybody drives in Florida.”

It’s a key part of a journey that he hopes will be spirit-renewing—a result he’s experienced from previous sabbaticals.

“They’ve been re-energizing experiences,” Father Schwab says. “Sometimes you just have to get out of your routine and do something different. I think it will be wonderful.”

(Father Thomas Clegg and Father Rick Ginther were also awarded grants through the 2011 Clergy Renewal Program for Indiana Congregations, which is funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. Father Clegg was featured in a story in the Aug. 26 issue of The Criterion. Father Ginther was featured in a story in the Sept. 23 issue of The Criterion.)

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