Since students can’t come to them, chaplains connect with high schoolers at home

| Debbie Musser | April 27, 2020 | 0 Comments

Father Nels Gjengdahl, chaplain and theology teacher at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria, connects with students via livestream and online video from his office at the rectory of Sts. Joachim and Anne in Shakopee, where he lives. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

As distance learning has become the new normal this spring across Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, students have had to adapt to on-screen lectures, sitting alone in the confines of their homes.

That can be difficult for classes like theology, which are particularly enriched by open discussion. But, steps are being taken online to help maintain relationships and grow spiritually, including unique opportunities for faith formation and prayer.

“It’s really been an eye opener to tell us how badly we need our daily interactions with people outside of our house,” said Edward Stuart, a sophomore at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights who lives in Edina.

Stuart is missing the classroom experience of attending his favorite class, “Sacraments and Morality,” taught by Father Mark Pavlak, who also serves as school chaplain.

“That class is so special and different from the rest of my classes as it’s discussion-based, where we can ask questions and have deeper conversations with a priest,” Stuart said. “It’s been great for our faith life and our personal life, too.”

To maintain that connection with students, Father Pavlak is using both recorded lectures and live class sessions, and checking in to ask how his students and their families are doing. He also records short YouTube videos that students (and parents) can access to be strengthened in their spiritual lives.

“It could be a Gospel reflection, a word of encouragement, Stations of the Cross, a discussion of the parts of the Mass or taking a tour of the sacristy,” he said.

Father Pavlak notes that his biggest challenge has been not seeing the students at school, with their energy, humor and personalities that are complemented by being around one another. “It’s been important for me to stay connected with them as their priest,” he said.

“During times of uncertainty, fear and disappointment, a Catholic school must continue to pass on the faith, pass on what is best in culture and draw out what is best in their students,” he said.

Father Nels Gjengdahl, chaplain and theology teacher at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria, also acknowledges the challenges students are facing during these trying times.

“For most of their lives, they have been told by well-meaning adults to put the screen down,” said Father Gjengdahl. “Now they are told to spend hours and hours facing the screen without the usual breaks to interact with their peers.”

To foster students’ spiritual life, Father Gjengdahl broadcasts live daily Mass as well as night prayer at the end of the day. He’s also starting an optional online Bible study and weekly Catholic book club.

“I am a big fan of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose stories were influenced not just by his Catholic faith, but were really an expression of his understanding of Jesus Christ and salvation,” Father Gjengdahl said.

“One of Tolkien’s greatest themes has been the ability of God to bring unexpected and beautiful good out of tragedy — the very message of Easter,” he said. “This is an important message for our school community, especially the seniors, who are experiencing losses that will not be able to be replaced.”

Kalie Dahl, 17, of Cologne, is one of those Holy Family seniors. “This pandemic started with the cancellation of our overnight senior retreat that we were looking forward to all year,” Dahl said. “Then came the cancellation of our spring sports seasons, senior spring break trips, honor society banquet, prom and wondering if we’ll have a graduation.”

“I feel so blessed to be a part of a community that goes above and beyond to care for every individual,” Dahl said.

“Our spirits are brightened by daily convocation videos, which always begin with, ‘Let us remember that we are in the holy presence of God.’ They include prayers usually said each day at school, so continuing to recite them at home creates a solidarity with our whole school community.”

Rogers resident Anastasia Setter, 18, is also finishing her senior year, through distance learning at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley. “It’s a place where many of us find our identities, and walking through the front doors is something I miss daily,” she said.

Setter is grateful that the school’s campus ministry staff is offering opportunities for students to gather in community and share in prayer.

“Father Andrew Zipp is just a joy to have as our chaplain in general, but his online involvement has been very special to us as we embark on this new journey to spread God’s joy,” Setter said.

“Tuesday mornings before classes begin, Father Zipp joins in a Google Hangout with anyone from the student body who logs on, answering questions about faith, the Bible and really anything,” she said.

Totino-Grace also offers online chapel prayer services led by students Wednesdays and Thursdays, plus Friday Coffee and Convos, where students have spiritual conversations with weekly guests including faculty, staff and Christian Brothers, who sponsor the school.

“As we continue to navigate what it means to be online, we are looking to create other opportunities for us to be a community of faith,” said Traci Bennington, Totino-Grace campus minister.

“We’ve added weekly men’s and women’s small groups, as well as service opportunities for the students such as writing encouraging letters to senior communities and hospitals,” she said. “As we set on this new course, we want to help our students keep God and one another close and present in thought and prayer.”

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