March 19, 2021

Archbishop’s pastoral high school visits lead to mutual encounters ‘on more relational level’

Providence Cristo Rey sophomore Juniya Hughes shows Archbishop Charles C. Thompson a presentation she is working on for a class. The archbishop visited the Indianapolis private Catholic high school on Feb. 23. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Providence Cristo Rey sophomore Juniya Hughes shows Archbishop Charles C. Thompson a presentation she is working on for a class. The archbishop visited the Indianapolis private Catholic high school on Feb. 23. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

CLARKSVILLE—The advanced theater students were nervous as they took the stage at Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville.

They were anxious for several reasons. It was their first performance of a new play, and their practice time had been cut short by snowstorms closing their school two weeks prior.

Adding to their shaky nerves was the presence of a certain audience member: Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.

“The farther we got in the play, I think the more relaxed we got,” said senior Victor Beeler.

Their performance was part of the archbishop’s scheduled visit to the high school on March 3.

And that stop was part of Archbishop Thompson’s effort to make pastoral visits to Catholic high schools in central and southern Indiana before the end of the 2020-21 school year.

‘Spiritual, pastoral, not business’

Archbishop Thompson was adamant about the nature of the high school stops.

“I’m not coming there for administration,” he said. “I’m not coming there for boards. I’m coming for the students and the faculty. I want to make sure it’s a spiritual, pastoral visit, not a business visit. I want to make that connection as pastor and bishop to the young people.”

He noted that he does meet many youths briefly when celebrating confirmation Masses and at high school graduations.

But these occasions are “more formal,” Archbishop Thompson said. His current in-person visits “are more informal, where I get to actually interact with young people.

“It’s important, I think, for them to have that connection with me. It’s a way of encountering each other on a more relational level—as persons.”

He left it to each school to plan the few hours he would be on site. Consequently, each visit has been unique.

Celebrating Mass, student- and administration-led school tours, in-class visits, questions-and-answer sessions, watching the play at Our Lady of Providence High School—“I’ve done everything,” Archbishop Thompson said.

“It’s good to go into the buildings, too, to see the great things they’re doing. One has a new gym, one has a new chapel, one has a new weight room. So, I not only get to see [their accomplishments] but I get to hear the enthusiasm in their voices.”

Still, he said, “I enjoy most the dialogue with the young people, whether that’s [through questions and answers] or talking to them as they show me around. I enjoy the opportunity to interact with them.”

‘He supports and cares about us’

The students seem to enjoy talking with him as well.

“He made jokes. He was easy to talk to,” said Jacqueline Hughey, a senior at Providence Cristo Rey High school near downtown Indianapolis where the archbishop visited on Feb. 23. The private school offers Catholic education and corporate work experience for students of families with limited incomes regardless of their faith background.

“We’re a smaller school, and nobody really knows about us,” Jacqueline added. “The fact that the archbishop came to our little school—it’s so exciting!”

Her classmate, Alonso Granados, agreed.

“It’s a really big honor for someone like him to come to a school so small,” he said. “It shows he supports us, and he cares about us.”

They were two of a group of students the archbishop spoke with in the school’s chapel after visiting several classrooms. During the small group discussion, he asked each scholar about their faith and their future plans.

Sophomore Florgisel Garcia described the opportunity to speak with Archbishop Thompson as “really special.”

“Not everyone gets a chance to meet the archbishop and actually talk to him,” she said. “He’s a really faithful man, and he believes in us [students].

“When he talked to us about our classes and our plans for college, he was like, ‘You’ve got this. You can do this,’ ” she said.

Alonso nodded, adding, “Yeah, he gave us hope.”

Their words confirmed the opinion of school campus minister Facundo Gonzalez Icardi regarding the archbishop’s visit.

“I think it is really important for our students to interact with the leader of our archdiocese and be able to share their experiences of faith with him,” he said. “Not only this, but they were also able to hear about Archbishop Thompson’s own journey of faith.

“Something that I think resonated with a few of our students was when he shared that he used to study business in college, but he ended up entering the seminary. [He said,] ‘You never know where God is calling you!’ ”

‘The Church is more than school or parish’

Icardi’s thoughts were echoed more than 100 miles away in Clarksville by Our Lady of Providence principal Melinda Ernstberger.

“Anytime that any of our priests—and especially the archbishop—can be involved, the kids need that presence,” she said.

“I think his visit helps them feel connected with the archdiocese. They need the understanding that the Church is more than their parish or our school. The Church is the body of Christ. The archbishop represents that concept of the body of Christ and how we’re all connected.”

Despite the nerves she felt before performing the play for the archbishop, senior Beth Wimsatt appreciated his visit.

“It shows how much he cares, that he chose to go around to the high schools,” she said. “That takes a lot of time, especially since we have a large archdiocese.”

Prior to watching the play, the archbishop met with a group of seniors for a question-and-answer session.

The questions started simple, such as how and when he discerned his vocation. They grew in complexity, ending with one on “how to handle Catholics who don’t abide by all of the Church’s teachings.”

“Dialogue,” Archbishop Thompson answered. “And keep on dialoguing. And put Christ at the center of the dialogue.”

‘A good witness of spirit’

His own dialogue with students at the high schools he’s visited so far has made an impact on the archbishop.

“I’ve been impressed with their enthusiasm, their focus, their demeanor,” he said.

He’s also been impressed with how school administrations, faculty and students have handled the pandemic.

“I have a great appreciation for how well everyone has handled these challenges and how everyone has done their part to make this work. …

“In practically every classroom I went, there were students in-person and virtual. That can’t be easy for the teachers to do day in and day out. They’ve just been incredible in how they’ve balanced all that out.”

As of The Criterion going to press, Archbishop Thompson had been to six high schools, with more visits scheduled in March and April. By the time his tour is finished, he will have traveled more than 625 miles. And every one of them is worth it, he said.

“It’s a breath of fresh air to get out of the office,” he admitted.

More importantly, he added, “It seems there’s been a good witness of spirit in our schools, both among the faculty, the administration and the students.” †

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