High school chaplains connect to students on their own turf

From left, Eli Berggren, Cristhian Consuegra and Anthony DiGirolamo, juniors at St. Thomas Aquinas in Overland Park, chat with their chaplain, Father Matt Nagle, during a passing period. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JOE MCSORLEY

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

OVERLAND PARK — They eat lunch in the school cafeteria, attend Friday night football games and sit in on classes.

If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake some for students.

But high school chaplains in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas are on ministry duty, and their efforts go far beyond giving high-fives in the hallways.

The letter

When Deacon Justin Hamilton was ordained a transitional deacon, he received a letter from Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann telling him what his first assignment would be.

Like Archbishop Naumann often does, he asked Deacon Hamilton while he was in the seminary if he was open to being a high school chaplain.

“He asked me, ‘On a scale of one to five — five being terrified and one being superexcited — where do you fall?’ I was closer to a three or four on that one,” said Deacon Hamilton.

“But I said at the end that I want to be open to anything because I think that’s the right approach,” he added. “So I said, ‘If you want me to go to a high school, I will do my very best to be chaplain there.’”

“I knew at the end of the night when I was going to sleep that he would send me to a high school,” he said, smiling.

And he did.

Deacon Hamilton now serves as acting chaplain of Bishop Miege in Roeland Park in addition to his duties at Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. (He will be ordained to the priesthood Nov. 4.)

Deacon Hamilton wasn’t alone in his initial hesitation.

Father Jaime Zarse, chaplain of Hayden High School in Topeka and associate pastor at Christ the King there, never wanted to be a high school chaplain.

“I simply did not think I would be able to make an impact on the students at Hayden,” he said.

Father Zarse attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and looked up to Father Mitchel Zimmerman and Father Gary Pennings, who served as chaplains there during his time.

“Father Mitchel was young and full of energy — he was confident and great at engaging the students on a big scale, while Father Gary was much more of a sage,” said Father Zarse. “His wisdom and experience in life made for a great witness of stability for the students.”

“Both were exceptional and were another reason I was nervous about becoming a high school chaplain,” he added.

But Father Zarse accepted the challenge and has since found joy in it.

“[The students] are brimming with potential; they are beautiful souls,” he said. “And because of this, I fight for them.”

Ministry of presence

When it comes to being a chaplain, relating to young people in a tangible way is key.

Father Nagle, who taught at St. Pius X in Kansas City, Missouri, before he entered the seminary, was excited to work with students again.

“I thought some of the skills as a teacher would translate well as a chaplain,” he said.

Father Anthony Ouellette, chaplain of Bishop Ward in Kansas City, Kansas, and pastor of All Saints Parish there, was also happy to bring his past experience to the job.

“I had worked in high school youth formation at Camp Tekakwitha before and during seminary,” he said, “so the thought of chaplaincy filled me with joy.”

Father Nagle has found that the greatest quality a chaplain can bring to the job is being a good listener.

By that, he means “letting them know that you’re somebody who they can talk to and they can say things that normally maybe they wouldn’t.”

“I think the most important thing is to be willing to listen and be present,” he said.

A ministry of presence is something the priests agree is one of the most important parts of a chaplain’s work.

Like many of the chaplains, Father Dan Morris, who serves at St. James Academy in Lenexa and as associate pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Shawnee, spends his mornings at the high school and afternoons at the parish.

“The primary responsibilities [at the high school] are sacramental — Mass, confession, being on retreats and traveling with the students when we go to the March for Life,” he said.

Dividing time between school and parish responsibilities is overwhelmingly the chaplains’ biggest challenge.

But they make it a priority to attend student activities and sporting events.

“Every priest is going to have some background that’s going to relate to some students,” said Father Morris.

“My love for sports and my background in design [are things] I like to plug in to the practices and games and connect with the students on that level,” he said.

Father Zarse’s past four years at Hayden have demonstrated that connecting with his students is the most meaningful while on retreats, field trips, mission trips, etc.

“The best evangelization takes place outside of the classroom,” he said.

But the priests will connect with students wherever they find them — in the chapel, classroom, lunchroom and hallways.

“I’m being almost a student and fitting into their natural lesson for the day,” said Father Morris. “And I’m there to answer questions.”

Preaching in the classrooms is one of Deacon Hamilton’s favorite parts of chaplain life.

“It’s awesome to go into a classroom and share a little bit about my faith, and I really think they’re listening,” he said.

Deacon Hamilton’s young age has been a gift for this ministry.

“I’m on a similar wavelength in terms of pop culture — being able to bring in movies or TV shows when I can and what’s going on in the world,” he said.

Many of the schools have traditions when it comes to sports and special events, and Bishop Miege makes a point to include their chaplain in those times.

“Before the football games, they have a pep rally and they plug me into it,” said Deacon Hamilton.

Deacon Hamilton, who was home-schooled, wasn’t even sure what a pep rally was when he started at Miege.

And although it can draw him out of his comfort zone, jumping into activities is one of the easiest ways he can reach the students.

“My theory is that kids don’t remember 90 percent of what you say,” said Deacon Hamilton.

“They remember you out on the floor doing something goofy,” he said. “Otherwise, I might come across as intimidating or out of touch.”

Getting to know ‘iGen’

In a time where many high school students spend as much time on their phones as they do interacting with real people, chaplains are posed a complicated task.

“I think social media is a big challenge,” said Father Nagle. “One of the things that’s hard about social media is it can isolate you.”

“That creates some unique challenges for our kids and how to reach them in an age where technology has become a dominant force in their life,” he added.

Father Zarse agreed.

“The culture we live in has been largely successful in convincing the students to settle for some second-rate version of themselves, [their] friendships and love, while encouraging them to always pass the buck and avoid responsibility,” he said. “This is difficult to tackle.”

But Father Zarse strives to lead his students in the right direction.

“I warn them constantly that they are living in and being heavily influenced by a culture of death,” he said. “This is usually met with a smile and the words, ‘Don’t worry so much, Father Z.’”

Father Ouellette’s work at Ward has given him a unique look into his students’ lives.

They’re “tough on the outside — survival mode — but longing for deep and authentic relationships on the inside,” he said.

Like his fellow priests, Father Ouellette finds frustration in the kids’ often low perception of themselves.

“When my students can’t see how God sees them and treat themselves poorly because of it [it’s difficult],” he said.

“[Or] when they buy into what the world says they need to be happy, and they must endure all the pain and frustration when it proves itself to be a lie,” he added.

Father Morris agreed.

“The culture around us isn’t a friendly culture if you’re trying to live the Christian life,” he said.

But that’s what makes communities like St. James and the other high schools even more special, he added.

“Out of 940 students, there’s never less than 100 people in the chapel every morning [for daily Mass],” he said.

“There’s an intentional desire to grow in holiness living itself out here,” he continued.

And, ultimately, the students have demonstrated a resilience unique to their generation — one that has left the chaplains inspired.

“They can go through some pretty unique struggles,” said Father Nagle.

“But helping them and talking to them has helped me grow in my priesthood,” he added.

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