Story and Photos By Christine Bordelon | CLARION HERALD
Additional Photo | COURTESY THE ROCA FAMILY
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” was the Gospel reading Dec. 6 at a Mass at Archbishop Rummel High School celebrating the 20th anniversary of the death of Jesuit Father Wayne Roca, the school’s chaplain for 11 years.
Rummel graduate and current chaplain Father Kurt Young concelebrated the Mass with other Rummel graduates.
The Gospel perfectly describes the Jesuit priest who embraced a school affiliated with the Christian Brothers and how the school embraced him, said Father Tim Hedrick, the 2000 Rummel graduate who delivered the homily.
“Father Roca, daily, laid down his life for the people that he served,” Father Hedrick said. “He was a kind, faithful, loving, father-like figure to many. He had a peace and a joy that was contagious. He helped transform the Catholic culture at Archbishop Rummel High School. … He truly was the face of Jesus to this school community and led us all closer to Jesus.”
A Raider for life
It was David Hardin, former Rummel principal, who invited Father Roca to become chaplain. They became acquaintances when Hardin taught at Jesuit.
“It was the first time a Jesuit priest had been in an archdiocesan school,” Hardin said. “Within a short time, students flocked to him and would run up to him and say, ‘Father, would you give me a blessing, I have an exam.’ He had a lot to do with the spirituality here,” celebrating 6:50 a.m. Mass daily and encouraging juniors and seniors to pray the rosary during lunch.
The students’ love for Father Roca prompted many Rummel graduates to invite him to celebrate their weddings and baptize their babies.
Father Roca worked with Gayle Camet, former religion department head and campus minister at Rummel.
“He was a lover,” she said. “That’s what the boys said. He loved everybody and everybody loved him. He brought spirituality to this school, and I think he made it acceptable to be religious because the boys liked him so much.”
Father Roca was embraced almost immediately at Rummel after transferring from teaching at Jesuit High School. He made a clear show of his allegiance by cheering for Rummel against Jesuit in a championship football game only months after becoming chaplain. After Rummel beat Jesuit, football players carried Father Roca off the field on their shoulders.
Eleven years later, when Father Roca’s illness forced him into hospice, “the boys stood outside his room and prayed the rosary,” Camet said. He requested football players be his pall bearers at the funeral Mass held in Rummel’s gym.
Rummel graduate Vincent Impastato was one of them.
“He loved Rummel football,” Impastato said. “But, besides his love for Rummel football, there was an ease in which you could talk to him about anything, good or bad, and know that no judgment was going to come across. I often would go to him with problems.”
Father Roca coined the phrase, “Thank God Almighty, I’m a Raider!” – used at the conclusion of Lasallian prayers, “St. John Baptist de la Salle, pray for us, and live Jesus in our hearts forever.”
“Coming from being a Jesuit priest, it just showed how much he loved Rummel,” Impastato said.
Father Roca was the first priest that Father Hedrick said he knew and respected.
“I wouldn’t be a priest today if it was not for him,” Father Hedrick said, citing his example of daily Mass and hearing endless confessions. “He was Rummel through and through.”
Prayed when he was sick
Father Hedrick was a junior when Father Roca was first diagnosed with cancer, and the school prayed for his healing. Cancer returned with a vengeance a year later.
Sister Briege McKenna, a world-renowned healer, prayed with Father Roca for healing but felt God telling her he would not be healed, Father Hedrick said.
However, she said, “through his suffering, there would be 50 vocations for the priesthood that would come from Archbishop Rummel High School.”
When Father Roca heard this prophecy, he was at peace with his faith and embraced his suffering, Father Hedrick said.
During his final school Mass celebrated at Rummel, Father Roca told students, “Gentlemen Raiders, my message to you is to live and love. My life of service has been a journey of love – loving the places I have been and loving the people I have been privileged to know. I have been in no other place that has shown me the love that you have shown me.”
During an all-night prayer vigil in the gym, students slept in sleeping bags, and family and friends “spent the night in prayer before his funeral,” Father Hedrick said.
When Archbishop Francis Schulte celebrated the Funeral Mass in 1999, he held up Father Roca’s chalice, as is customary at a priest’s funeral Mass, asking who among the Archbishop Rummel student body was being called to follow Father Roca’s example and become a priest. About 40 to 50 stood up. Father Hedrick was among them.
Faith example to others
Father Roca’s faith example has influenced many others, not just Father Hedrick. Since his death, there have been at least 11 priests ordained who were Rummel graduates, and three more are currently studying in the seminary, Father Hedrick said.
“I truly believe that Sister Briege’s prophecy will come true at the ‘Seminary on Severn,’” Father Hedrick said. “Father Roca’s death, although extremely sad, inspired and touched the lives of many young men to follow his example. God used his coming to Rummel. God used his sickness to lead other people to God. God always takes the bad and brings good from it.”
Father Hedrick said he was confident today’s Raiders are being called to the priesthood and encouraged them not to be afraid of laying down their lives for others.
“You have the opportunity, like Father Roca, to touch the hearts and lives of so many people,” he told students.
He said the best way to honor Father Roca’s legacy was to remember his final message, to “live and to love,” lay down their lives fore others and remember Father Roca every time they hear “Thank God Almighty, I’m a Raider” during prayer.
Father Hedrick played a recording of Father Roca uttering the phrase before his death.
On the evening of the anniversary Mass, Rummel beat Catholic High in Baton Rouge 14-10 for the state football championship. Father Hedrick said he knew Rummel had “an intercessor praying for the success of our football team.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.