Beethoven’s “Hymn to Joy” rang out as the students processed single-file down the aisle and out the massive doors of Sacred Heart Church.
Sacred Heart High School’s Class of 2019 then engaged in an impromptu “group hug” on the steps outside.
“I’m going to miss my friends,” said class salutatorian Brian Sierra. “They’ve been here for me always, especially in tough times. And the teachers, too. They’ve been a lot of help.”
Graduates of this, the only Catholic school in the diocese to offer pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, tend to feel more like relatives than classmates.
“We’re all very close, and the teachers are like family,” said Alyssa Perez. “I’m going to miss these close relationships we’ve made in hanging out together all the time.”
One day after confirmation and two days before commencement, the school’s 19 graduating seniors gathered with their families, priests and bishop for a Baccalaureate Mass.
“As you proceed in your journeys, it is our prayer that you not be afraid to open yourselves up to the will of God,” said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight.
“Let Him direct you to His own heart. Let Him determine the path that you are to follow. Be courageous in how you respond.”
Precious Blood Father Mark Miller, pastor of Sacred Heart and St. Patrick parishes in Sedalia and the St. John the Evangelist mission in Bahner, and Father Brendan Griffey, associate pastor in Sedalia and Bahner, concelebrated the Mass with the bishop.
Deacon Jerry Connery proclaimed the Gospel reading and assisted at the altar.
Bishop McKnight was in Sedalia the previous evening to confirm many of the soon-to-be graduates — sealing them with the Holy Spirit.
He assured the Class of 2019 that Jesus would always be there to help them find their way — because He, in fact, is the way.
“Our journey in life, our spiritual life, is really a journey to the heart of God — that place that Jesus has prepared for us within God Himself, the Father,” said Bishop McKnight.
Sacred Scripture is the roadmap to that destination, “but we also need the teaching authority of the Church to help us interpret that roadmap in our spiritual lives,” he said.
He reminded the graduating seniors that no matter what they do next, they never stop needing God.
“And you will need the Church, which has the authority of the Apostles ... which provides encouragement and personal support for you to follow the spiritual roadmap of our Christian life,” he said.
He noted that a Catholic school is about providing guidance and formation, not only of the mind but primarily of the heart.
“Life is much more than what’s in your brain,” he said. “That’s why we need the Church to help us in our spiritual lives. We need the whole Church to form us as true disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Open minds and hearts
The graduating seniors received their diplomas two days later, during Sacred Heart High School’s 75th annual comment.
Keynote speaker Richard Bahner, valedictorian of the school’s Class of 1970, is retiring this year after 44 years of teaching, coaching and advising at Sacred Heart.
He taught each of this year’s graduating seniors and a few of their parents at least once.
“So I feel a closeness to the Class of 2019,” he said, “and it seems only appropriate that, folks, we’re goin’ out together.”
Pointing out that they are a class of talented, kind-hearted people, he told the graduating seniors that they will be challenged for their faith in God.
He suggested that when others caricaturize and lampoon their beliefs, the best response is always: “You cannot tell me what I believe. You do not know what I believe.”
“We seem to be born with this desire for oneness with our Creator in the same way that we desire good health,” he said. “Faith is just like good health: we can ignore it or we can nurture it, but the roots of faith are there in our hearts.”
He emphasized that there is no conflict between science and religion — an important insight that puts to rest the idea that science relieves people of their need for God.
There may be differences between some scientists and what the Church teaches, “but these conflicts are on moral issues — about what some people are doing with their scientific knowledge, not on the scientific knowledge itself,” he said.
He called to mind the axiom that a faith unchallenged cannot deepen.
“Do not fear the challenges,” he said. “Open your minds as well as your hearts.”
He urged the graduating seniors to believe in themselves but trust completely in God.
“Your education here at Sacred Heart has given you a foundation for life and you should confidently believe in yourselves and your ability,” he said. “When the going gets tough, though, remember your heavenly Father.”
From a deeply personal experience, he urged them to follow the advice of St. Padre Pio: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”
“Remember to pray,” said Mr. Bahner. “The path ahead of you is not going to be an easy one, but you are ready. Look forward with confidence. We love you, each and every one. God bless you and keep you safe always.”
“With God’s help”
Mr. Sierra realizes that most of the world is different from the faith-based community he has experienced at Sacred Heart.
“I’m taking my faith with me,” he said.
He wants to continue being Catholic, which for him means “helping others, being like Jesus and following His example.”
He said service is one of the big lessons he’s learned since he arrived at Sacred Heart in sixth grade.
“That’s a big part of learning — not just through books but helping others,” he said.
He has learned to be aware that God is always with him.
He is grateful to his family, friends and teachers who have helped him stay on the right path.
“Especially my dad, who’s worked really hard in order for me to have this education,” he said.
Mr. Sierra plans to study biology at the University of Missouri and hopefully continue with medical school.
“It will be a lot of work, but I think I’m ready for it,” he said. “With God’s help, of course.”
“The right path”
Miss Perez was packing up seven years’ worth of friendships and memories.
“I plan on taking those with me,” she said.
Although raised in a family of faith, she didn’t start thinking about God during the school week until she transferred to Sacred Heart in fifth grade.
“That’s when I realized that He is always here,” she said.
She’s eager to stay close to God through frequent contact with family, friends, the Church and the sacraments.
For Alysia Maquez, these past four years at Sacred Heart haven’t felt like school at all.
“It’s like your second family,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like an obligation. You just go here, like it’s part of your life.”
She recalled that when she was in eighth grade, the mother of one of her classmates passed away.
The students rallied around the family, trying to find ways to help.
She was amazed at how faith helped her classmate and his family not only survive but thrive.
Every now and then, Miss Maquez realizes how blessed she is to be able to go to a Catholic school.
She pointed to the class’s senior mission trip to Dallas, where the Class of 2019 helped prepare meals to give children in need.
“We got to do that in the name of God,” she said.
She plans on staying in touch with her fellow graduates and continuing to practice her faith.
She said she’s counting on God’s help as she ponders important questions without the daily guidance of her parents and teachers.
Mr. Sierra requested prayers for strength and fortitude for him and his classmates, especially when life gets difficult.
Miss Perez asked for prayers for her and her fellow graduates to “all stay healthy and safe and follow the right path.”