DE PERE — As parochial vicar at St. Francis Xavier and St. Mary parishes in De Pere, Fr. Michael Thiel has the privilege of visiting Notre Dame Middle School and helping teach religion classes. Following spring break, he teamed up with religion teacher Pete Brauer and language arts teacher Abby Gonzo to introduce eighth grade students to Pope Francis’s 2018 apostolic exhortation, “Gaudete et exsultate” (“On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World”).
For three weeks, students spent time reading and discussing the pope’s document.
“Fr. Michael approached me before Christmas break and said he wanted to create stronger discussions with the eighth grade students in religion class,” said Gonzo. “He knew there were a lot of talented students in that class who were capable of having great discussions.”
“The students do the readings in language arts class with Abby and Fr. Michael, and answer assigned questions based on that reading,” said Brauer. “Then during religion class, they come prepared with their answers, to discuss the chapter that they have read for that day.”
Fr. Thiel and Gonzo decided that the pope’s exhortation, while challenging, was appropriate for the eighth graders. “Fr. Michael spent time gathering the materials and questions for the students. He was able to supply students with a book they could use, write in, and keep throughout the unit,” said Gonzo. The study project began March 18 and was completed on April 4.
“It was a neat experience for me to be able to see the students think theologically, because it is not something I see every day as their language arts teacher,” said Gonzo. “It also helped show students our faith is not just confined to religion class.”
“The students really opened up and (had) very thought-filled discussions,” added Brauer. “It really has expanded their thinking as far as what it means to be a Catholic today.”
The students completed the study project by writing a final paper about what they took away from reading the pope’s exhortation, said Fr. Thiel, who said he was impressed with the responses from students.
“By reflecting on my life through this exhortation, I know things I need to do more of and things to cut back on in order to be closer to God. I for sure need to stop using so much of my time on social media, gossiping and doing other things that will pull me farther away from God,” wrote one student.
“The top lesson I will take from reading this exhortation is that the Christian life is a constant battle, but Jesus is always there to support us,” wrote another student.
Fr. Thiel said students are interested in additional discussions this year. “I haven’t planned one yet, but I like the idea,” he said.