“Each year, I’ve watched the bishop of that diocese have Mass with Catholic school students, but never with a gathering of religious education students (who go to public schools) — and yet there are more of them,” she said. In Waldvogel’s far-flung, five-site parish, Catholic school attendance isn’t even an option.
So, Waldvogel put the request to Bishop Ricken, and he asked her exactly what she’d like the outcome of such a gathering to be.
“I said I wanted him to explain his job, and for the children to leave knowing he loves them and that they are an important part of the church,” she said.
After some creative attempts to schedule a date, the event was planned. The result was a packed St. Joseph Church, with seven concelebrating priests, four deacons, and representatives from the Door County parishes as well as Algoma and Dyckesville. They came by car and by bus, they filled the parking lots and the street, and together they celebrated the oneness of the church.
The students got their first glimpse of the bishop as he sat quietly, in a dimly lighted sanctuary, gazing at the tabernacle while the pews behind him filled. Then, before vesting for Mass, he spoke with them informally, beginning with an explanation of why they genuflect before taking their seats, and why it’s important to maintain a quiet, prayerful demeanor when in church.
He told them a little bit about himself and how he became bishop — and drew much laughter when he explained his dismay when he first misunderstood the pronunciation of Cheyenne (Wyoming) and thought he was being sent to China. He would have been willing to go, he said, because he loved the church and was obedient to what was asked of him.
“Religious education gives you the chance to know Jesus as your friend — and his body, the church. You can’t love Jesus and not the church,” the bishop told the students.
Bishop Ricken returned to the idea of friendship with Jesus during his homily.
“Think of your friends you have at school,” he said. “Jesus wants to be your very best friend.”
But he also reminded them that just as human friendships require time and attention, so does friendship with God. It means they should study about their faith as hard as they do for math or science; it means prayer, he said, and being nourished by holy Communion.
“When you go to Communion, say to Jesus, ‘I love you, I give my life to you. I’ll do whatever you ask,'” he advised his young listeners. But he also reminded them that they shouldn’t receive the savior of the universe slovenly, or with sin on their souls.
“Keep your souls pure and holy and you will be able to serve others,” he said. “The world needs you now more than ever before to be faithful, to be the light of Christ.”
He also said it’s going to become harder and harder to be Catholic in today’s world.
“Be strong, study, grow, receive the sacraments — you’ll need those things to be sure you know how to put God first,” he advised.
Bishop Ricken also challenged the teachers seated with the students, telling them not to be afraid to challenge their students — in a loving manner — to encourage them to be saints and to build up the church in Door County.
“If you lead good, clean, pure and holy lives, the joy will flow,” he said. He ended by telling them that he prays for them, and asking them to pray for him and all priests.
The laughing, smiling, yet earnest bishop, surrounded by priests, posed after Mass in the church with the throngs of students, teachers and parents, and then waited outside the church for anyone who wanted to greet him personally.
“We need these children, as well as those in the Catholic schools, to become an active and lively part of our church if that church is to grow,” Waldvogel said.