Two young priests in Sydney’s south are piloting an innovative new program as official school chaplains.
The trial, currently being implemented at Aquinas College in Menai, involves each priest spending a full day each week in the school, either attending classes as guest teachers, being on hand to offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation, answering questions about faith or just being available for any student needing someone to talk to.
Fr Daniel Russo from Menai and Fr Dan McCaughan from Miranda/Sylvania parishes are both really excited to be piloting the program and hope they will provide regular sacramental and pastoral support in Sydney Catholic schools.
Both agree they are “’singing from the same hymn book” and just like the school’s namesake – St Thomas Aquinas – hope to be a source of inspiration and guidance to pupils and staff alike.
“Schools need priests, for many students it’s their central point of connection with the Church, and we need to nurture and encourage that,” Fr Dan said.
“Traditionally, we come in, say Mass and leave, we really don’t have any other interaction with the students at all which is such a shame.
“The kids need to know we are here and available for them, they need to know they can be contemporary and Catholic at the same time.
“We have found already that kids are yearning for something deeper, they are hungry for the meaning of God which we can show them.”
To date, both priests have introduced themselves to all 44 classes within the school and have already seen a marked change in the way the students engage with them and their faith.
After the initial uncertainty and rounds of typical questions, students are now comfortable to question their faith and delve much deeper into its meaning with the chaplains.
“At first we were asked all the usual stuff like why did we become priests, what do we eat, do we swim and how long does it take to button up our cassocks, but once we dealt with all that you could see the shift in their thinking,” Fr Daniel laughed.
“They realised we are just like them, not really that much older, we make mistakes and are human.
“But we also have the answers to many of the questions they have but have not felt comfortable or had the opportunity to ask.
“We are both really thrilled to have this opportunity to get to know the students and just as importantly they get to know us. “
Year 11 student Alana Bewert said her faith had really been strengthened due to the chaplaincy program and that she and her friends actually sat and prayed at lunchtimes together, something they have never previously done.
“Having the priests here has been amazing and not just for me but all my friends,” she said.
“We now sit at lunchtimes and pray together, it really is quite beautiful.
“It has been a great way to link the Parish with the school and is comforting to know they are there if we need them.
“We are so lucky to be selected to pilot this program.”
Aquinas College religious education co-ordinator Steve O’Çonnor said the program was allowing students to see the human face of the clergy.
“Often priests are seen as separated but the project is helping students to see the priests as regular people who have made a life decision to serve God,” he said.
“The project has started well with Fr Dan and Fr Daniel getting around to most of the classes to meet as many students as possible before. They have also supported RE teachers with lessons on Sacraments of Healing and homily writing.
“The project reminds us that first and foremost we are a Catholic School. The presence of the chaplains are a visual reminder of this!”
The program at Aquinas College will run throughout 2018 and after review could be rolled out across all Sydney Catholic Schools.