'You help us to know about Jesus'

In photo above, Father Rey Bersabel, left, and Ivan Hrga, center, talk to St. Francis of Assisi students from left: Olivia Forman, fifth grade; John Ballestero, TK; Nathea Genelza, seventh grade; and Enzo Espilla, fourth grade. 

High-fives in the hallway. Holy sharing. Heartfelt expressions of gratitude. These are just a few of the little signs and gestures coming from Catholic school students, parents, teachers and staff who gratefully acknowledge and endorse what makes a Catholic school distinctively Catholic – that is, the presence, friendship and involvement of Catholic priests.

Catholic Herald magazine checks in with the principals and pastors of St. Francis of Assisi School in Sacramento and St. Rose School in Roseville for straight talk and candid pondering on how, exactly, pastors affect Catholic school environments.

St. Francis of Assisi School in Sacramento

Ivan Hrga, principal, and Father Rey Bersabal, pastor

“The first thing – above everything else – is that we’ve built a relationship,” Ivan explains about the pastor-principal partnership. Not that the building part is over or past tense, at all, he says, because “you have to intentionally work on it.” He underscores the importance of developing an intuitive and ongoing “understanding” of each other with open communication, friendship and mutual respect.

Following a morning visit to the second grade classroom, Father Rey joins the conversation and immediately adds, “It starts with a relationship with the principal.”

Ivan and Father Rey, in just a few words, demonstrate how simpatico styles free the other to do what he needs to do, and what each does best, precisely because of their well-honed collaboration and commitment to parish-school unity that stems from decades of Catholic school experience. In the case of Father Rey, that means sharing and spreading the ever-present Spirit and mission of Jesus throughout the school community.

“I want them to feel an ownership of this relationship with me as shepherd,” Father Rey says, speaking of the entire community and his hope to foster belonging. He ponders how important it is to him for children and families to “have experienced that human efficacy,” he says, that comes from a priest’s engagement and participation to the point that they express, “we want to know you because you help us to know about Jesus.”

“I want them to feel the care of the Church,” he adds, expressing astute pastoral instincts but also his desire to be an instrument of God, leading hearts to Jesus and conveying Christ’s love.

Whether directing First Communion preparation, delivering homilies at school Masses, or engaging people around the campus or church, Father Rey celebrates these everyday moments as opportunities to make the presence of Jesus known.

“I want them to realize that beautiful encounter with Jesus,” Father Rey conveys, stressing how “that encounter is transformational… and it makes us like Jesus.” He turns to the current Eucharistic Revival underway across the nation as the emphasis of his teaching and preaching to school and parish families about Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. It urges a natural sharing of Jesus.

Father Rey senses a receptivity within the parish and school as learners – as disciples – go beyond the boundaries of a somewhat homogenous faith community and commit to “be” the “Jesus presence” wherever they are – whether in the grocery store, at home or at play.

“It swells my heart. It’s transformational,” Father Rey says of his front-row view of countless faith journeys.

“Father lives what he preaches,” Ivan interjects, placing great value on Father Rey’s personality to impart words and follow through with actions that communicate Jesus. “It’s what our kids and families need,” Ivan says, noting how Father Rey’s authentic faith and sincerity has drawn families back to church.

“They’re open to joy, open to conversation, open to relationship with Jesus,” Ivan details, indicating these as visible, tangible effects. Whether in response to Father Rey’s constant smile, the way he walks about the pews while preaching, or his easy conversational style with every grade level, his role as shepherd makes a difference. Ivan says, “It’s where he finds his sanctuary” and that is well-perceived in the community as the permeation of Jesus’ love.

“It charges me,” Father Rey assures. “It’s another way of learning for me,” he says, grateful for the opportunity to be assigned to a parish with a school. “It is really satisfying because of the energy they share and their perspectives on life,” Father Rey shares, encouraging younger priests to greet any opportunity that includes a school as one that motivates growth.

For Ivan and Father Rey, their complementary relationship models the unity of parish and school. “We have to be one community for it to work,” Ivan says, hinting that existing apart from each other, or as isolated entities diminishes the spirit. “It is life-affirming for the entire parish,” he says.

St. Rose School in Roseville

Michael Garcia, principal, and Father Michael Baricuatro, pastor

Michael describes Father Michael’s pastoral leadership and presence on campus as both direct and indirect. “We definitely see him, visible to us” at Mass, he says, “for various meetings and when he visits students in classrooms or during recess. If he is wearing the right shoes, he may even engage in a little basketball or kickball.

“It is so important to our children,” Michael says of their pastor's visibility on campus. “When they see him, they want to give him a ‘high-five’ or ‘knuckles.’” 

Father Michael laughs but in all seriousness infers the importance of friendship — of engaging and connecting — as a meaningful function of humanity that readily points to Christ.

“We can be friends,” Father Michael says of his priestly presence among students at the Catholic school, submitting that this kind of friendship can facilitate friendship with Christ.

“Because of love, and how we present ourselves as priest, as principal, as preachers,” Father pauses with conviction, “that will guide them.”

Not at all discounting the influence of administration and teachers, and in fact elevating it, Michael and Father Michael concur, that the visible and direct presence of a pastor can uniquely encourage a “deep and strong friendship with the Lord.”

That friendship “is apparent in the daily lives of our students,” Michael observes, mentioning he notices their capacity for love “from the moment they walk in for morning prayer and in the different ways they serve the parish.” Michael relates it to “Father Michael’s willingness to really connect with students” but also to the indirect effects of his participation in the school.

Father Michael encourages a collaborative environment that naturally instills a holy vision for the school. Collaboration, if not mentorship, exists with Michael, but also with faculty and staff.

“I was able to assemble an administrative team,” Michael explains, detailing Father Michael’s support and participation in bringing together a vice principal and a director of campus culture. The goal is “to create balance” and partnership, bringing the Catholic faith to life on campus and in the larger community.

Engaging the parish’s youth minister to serve the school as campus minister also marks the creativity of Father Michael, the principal and the administrative team. “In an indirect way, we connect not just with Father Michael but also by working through and with people” who know and value Father Michael’s vision for the school and parish.

An example of magnifying the presence of the pastor exists in the school’s commitment to the National Eucharistic Revival. Father Michael’s commitment to this grassroots parish revival effort, in effect, multiplies as the administration and staff share in dispensing this priority focus throughout their work as faith educators.

“He is a constant reminder that we are grounded in the Catholic faith,” Michael affirms, grateful for Father Michael’s pastoral mindset and guidance. Amid the reality of the business of school administration, Michael sees this Catholic grounding as paramount in St. Rose School’s community outreach to six Placer Deanery parishes that do not have Catholic schools. Father Michael actively engages the pastors at neighboring Catholic churches, inviting their presence on campus so their respective students and families know and see them also.

“There is so much going on in the world,” Father Michael says, intimating the speed of change and certain societal and technological risks. “One thing should be absolute, constant, and that is our faith in the Lord,” he stresses pointing to the sacred space created at St. Rose School as a setting where children can flourish and share their gifts.

Father Michael appreciates the sense of community and the vitality experienced at St. Rose School that will carry forward with every student as they go out into the world.

“It goes beyond education,” Michael says, forward thinking to life after St. Rose School for every student and meshing that picture with their whole Catholic formation vision. “It’s not just about the student we have now, but who they will grow to be,” Michael says, clearly cognizant of all the direct and indirect influences of the pastor.

“It’s not just friendly engagement, it’s human relationship” with the pastor, Michael upholds as the distinguishing reason students, families and staff come to know a true friend, and come to know Jesus.


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