Father Jason Doke opens up the floodgate, and the questions come gushing forth.
“Do you have any children?”
“Two hundred! And they all go to school here!”
He gives it a few seconds to sink in.
“You should see a kindergartner when it clicks in their mind,” said Fr. Doke, pastor of St. Martin Parish in St. Martins. “They say, ‘Oh! That’s us!’”
Fr. Doke is fully convinced of the importance of Catholic education and of having a spiritual Father make regular visits to the Catholic school in his charge.
“Just being present to the kids is the most important thing,” he said. “Because as priests, we work in persona Christi — in the person of Christ.”
Understanding that Father knows them and cares about them helps children see how much Jesus knows them and cares about them.
“Especially if Father knows your name!” said Fr. Doke. “That means you’re somebody important, that you’re somebody special. You have that relationship: ‘Father knows my name; therefore, Jesus knows my name.’”
Juggling his responsibilities as a pastor and as moderator of the curia in the diocesan Chancery offices can make scheduling time in St. Martin School difficult for Fr. Doke.
“That’s why I have a school schedule,” he said. “If I didn’t schedule my time in the school, it wouldn’t happen.”
Dr. Erin Vader, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, has slated Fr. Doke to give a presentation at the upcoming pastors/principals workshop in Jefferson City.
“I’m going to offer some advice on making an effort as a pastor to regularly spend time in your school, and ways you can have fun with the kids and teach them at the same time and have them get to know you,” he said.
He said the best way to learn students’ names is to build an actual relationship with them.
“You get to know them by interacting with them,” he said. “You actually get to know who they are, who their parents are, who their siblings are.”
“Part of everything”
Monsignor David Cox, pastor of St. Stanislaus Parish in Wardsville and St. Margaret of Antioch Parish in Osage Bend, said he has always enjoyed having a Catholic school in his parish.
“It makes the whole parish so much more alive,” he said. “It gives us a great opportunity to evangelize.”
Msgr. Cox has seen many adults decide to become Catholic or return to the practice of the faith because of their children’s positive experiences and excitement about being Catholic.
“Teaching is in my blood!” he added. “I enjoy interacting with the kids, and I love teaching them about Jesus.”
Learning students’ names opens the door to positive interaction with entire families.
“Somehow, it gives the parents a way to talk to me,” he said.
Msgr. Cox said it’s good to help children develop ways to express their faith at home and beyond.
Msgr. Cox believes it’s important for him to make time to teach children at St. Stanislaus School how to be altar servers, hear their Confessions once per quarter, and make sure they pray the “Angelus” at noon every day and spend time in Adoration on Fridays.
The students go to Mass twice a week and serve as lectors, altar servers and music ministers.
“One of the best things about a Catholic school is that we can surround them with the Catholic faith and remind them of the love of Jesus, no matter what subject is being taught at the moment,” said Msgr. Cox.
“It helps the children to make their religion a part of everything in their lives,” he said.
A St. Stanislaus student who attended summer enrichment classes at a local public school recently told him, “We didn’t even say one prayer!”
“I think she gets it,” he stated.
“The true center”
Father Dylan Schrader noted with sadness that some parishes with Catholic schools consider the school to be the heart of the parish.
“That isn’t accurate,” cautioned Fr. Schrader, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Westphalia and St Anthony of Padua Parish in Folk. “The celebration of the Eucharist is the true center of parish life.”
Like everything else a parish does, the school should draw its strength from the Eucharist and lead back to it, he said.
He noted that a priest has the special ability to help connect the school and — through the school — families to the Eucharist more fully, because he makes Christ present in the school in a unique way.
But that can backfire if parishioners come to see Mass, Confession and visits to the schoolchildren as a “school thing” that ends when the children graduate.
“One of our challenges is to help our students build life-long skills to serve them in the active practice of the Catholic faith for the rest of their lives,” said Fr. Schrader.
“I would really encourage parents to be deliberate about taking your kids to Mass each Sunday relentlessly; taking them to Confession over the summer months; inviting the priest to your home (with lots of advance notice); and building a relationship with your parish that will endure beyond the school years,” he said.
Father Joseph Corel believes priests should be competent and comfortable explaining to children the “whys” behind the “whats” that the Church teaches.
“As we think about the human development of faith and understanding, questions and challenges to the teachings of the Church will happen,” said Fr. Corel, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Sedalia. “We need to be a sturdy and friendly guide to help students through these questions and challenges that are usually very counter-cultural.”
He noted that one of the main purposes of having a Catholic school is to have teaching and learning happen in a Catholic setting.
“We as priests should be exercising our role as teachers by being in the classroom,” he said.
That doesn’t necessarily mean grading papers or giving quizzes and tests, said Fr. Corel, but it should include interacting with the students on a variety of Catholic teachings.
“Our students are living in the culture, and we need not be afraid of their doubts and questions, but help them through reason, concern, care, love and support to see and understand why the Church teaches as she does,” he said.
Fr. Corel believes priests should also spend time hanging out at lunch, recess, recitals, sporting events, plays, musicals and other instances when students have structured free time or are showing off their talents.
“Structured free time gives the priests and students opportunities for great conversations and building good, solid, healthy, relationships where we can demonstrate kindness, compassion, care and respect,” he said.
It’s a powerful statement to children when their priests care enough about them to spend time with them.
“And, while we’re at the events where they’re showing their talents, we can also interact with their parents, the first educators of the faith — the ones we partner with to help their children become the best disciples they can be, and have some good quality conversation and relationship-building with them, as well,” he said.
Fr. Corel sees being visibly present in the school as part of how pastors exercise their authority as leaders of the parish.
Students, faculty, parents and volunteers should see the pastor and school administration working together as a cohesive unit, he said.
“This is a balancing act because the pastor has the principal and administrative team to run the day-to-day operations of the school — so he’s not micro-managing, not abdicating his responsibility, but exercising co-responsibility,” said Fr. Corel.
“To be in the school is to show support to those who are employed, to those who we help make disciples, and to show good leadership,” he stated.
Creating an oasis
Teresa Dusenberg, a fourth-grade teacher at St. Martin School in St. Martins, talked about how Fr. Doke greets students and parents on their way into school each morning and makes weekly visits to each classroom, “teaching, talking and building relationships with the students.”
She lauded his homilies at school Masses and his participation in school activities, such as driving a tractor in the farm parade on Farm Day.
“Fr. Doke is a gift to our parish and our school!” she said.
As pastor, Fr. Doke believes Catholic schools are important because they’re an oasis from a dominant, secular culture that tends to want to do away with anything supernatural, let alone Christian.
“We’re giving children a foundation that it is hard to get elsewhere,” he said. “Because in a Catholic school, you get to live and breathe the faith that you don’t get to in another way.”