Story and photos by Beth Donze
God gives his children a wonderful “playground” to enjoy during their earthly lives, complete with “fencing” to keep them safe, secure and deeply happy.
Dan Fitzgerald compared that fencing to the Ten Commandments – safety guidelines God gave his children as a sign of his paternal love – in order that we might have our hearts’ greatest desires.
“God is not this mean ogre who prevents us from having fun,” said Fitzgerald, teaching a religion class of third graders during a portion of his four-hour long visit to Stuart Hall March 29. Throughout the spring semester, Fitzgerald and four other Notre Dame seminarians have been making regular visits to the all-boys’ elementary school to satisfy their field experience requirement, serving Stuart Hall as guest religion teachers, retreat leaders and even lunch buddies.
The visiting seminarians, who were elementary school students themselves not so long ago, cleverly captured their young audience’s attention by sharing anecdotes from their own youth, such as the time Fitzgerald wiped out after ignoring a basic “Commandment” of riding a scooter: Don’t make a sharp turn while goingdownhill. Likewise, just because you love ice cream doesn’t mean you should eat the whole carton, Fitzgerald told the boys.
“It’s going to hurt me if I do that,” Fitzgerald said, again comparing such restraint to the life-affirming guidelines God gives us in the Ten Commandments.
“Has anyone ever had their mom tell them, ‘Don’t touch the stove.’?” he asked them. “Your mom tells you (this) because it’s bad, right? The Commandments aren’t something that God imposes on us to prevent us from having fun. It’s God just showing us how we can be most deeply happy,” Fitzgerald said.
The partnership between Stuart Hall and the seminary developed last year, after Jeannette Dufrene, Stuart Hall’s Lower School religion teacher, took her fourth graders on a tour of Notre Dame Seminary. Impressed by the warm welcome her students received and their positive response to the field trip, Dufrene and members of Stuart Hall’s Spirituality Committee pitched the idea of an ongoing relationship between the two entities to Father Joe Krafft, the seminary’s director of pastoral formation. Father Krafft shaped the program and recruited seminarians for it. His students also can opt to gain field experience in settings such as prison ministry, RCIA and street ministry.
Dufrene called the seminarians’ frequent visits an invaluable “ministry of presence.”
“It’s such a message of what they are living and how they are living it, without their even having to use words,” Dufrene said, noting that her students ask about the seminarians when they’re not on campus, shout out their names when they see them in the hallways and love having older friends to play basketball with at recess. The visiting seminarians have shared their vocation stories throughout the semester and dedicate a morning rosary to Stuart Hall’s student body.
“Sometimes we look at vocations as dwindling, but maybe that’s because they’re not spoken about or brought forth as much as they should be,” Dufrene notes.
“There might be boys who have that seed planted, but they might not be given a way to nurture it,” she added. “It is so important to give them opportunities to see the witness – that this vocation exists, that it is not far removed from reality and that it could be any one of them.”
Dufrene said the fellowship time between her students and the seminarians shows the youngsters that a vocation to the priesthood is not “something that takes you outside of the world but allows you to be in the world – in a role of fatherhood, in a role of shepherd, in a role of service.” The boys get to see the seminarians’ prayerful and faith-formation side, but they also see that they’re “human,” too.
“Not all of (the seminarians) have come from devout Catholic backgrounds and a lot of them have stumbled into their vocation in different ways that have been surprising, and God has acted in sometimes humorous ways to present the calling,” Dufrene said. “It gives the boys something that you could never teach in a classroom.”
Other recent and upcoming ways Stuart Hall students are being exposed to vocations to the priestly and religious life include:
Third graders’ April 5 visit to the Blessed Seelos Shrine, featuring a talk by Redemptorist Father Harry Grile on the history of St. Alphonsus Church and the contributions of the Redemptorist priests to New Orleans.
Second graders’ April 9 retreat, featuring keynote speaker Deacon Andrew Rudman, breakout sessions and activities led by the Notre Dame seminarians, including Gospel skits, breaking of the bread, adoration and benediction.
On April 26, Stuart Hall’s middle school basketball team will play a friendly match against players from the seminary, complete with a pre-game lunch, an opening prayer and group pictures. Parents are welcome.
In addition to Fitzgerald, four other Notre Dame seminarians are assigned to Stuart Hall as visiting religion teachers. They are Charles Deering, Brent Didier, Ismael Martinez and Jedidiah “Diah” Preble.