These days, when kids talk about priests, grownups listen.
So it should follow that, when more than 800 kids write essays on “Why My Priest is a Hero,” the adults around them will get busy reading. And learning.
That's one hope of the staff and supporters of Ascension Press, sponsors of the second annual National Catholic Education Essay Contest.
Based on the depth, thoughtfulness and quality of the winning entries, there's good reason for the organizers to be optimistic. “The essays demonstrated to the 11 judges that the future of Catholicism in America is indeed bright, and that the Church could not endure without the sacred institution of its priesthood and the fervor and commitment of its young faithful,” said an Ascension spokesperson in a statement announcing the winners.
The contest kicked off last November, when Ascension invited Catholic students from the United States and Canada to write an original, 500- to 750-word composition about a favorite priest. The entries came in by the bagful and, in early March, grand-prize winners and runners-up were selected in each of two grade groups.
Eighth-grader Jennifer Therrien of Little Silver, N.J., wrote the winning essay in the grade 5-8 category, and Rachel Elliott, a 10th-grader from Baden, Pa., took home the top prize among the 9th to 12th-graders. Each will receive a $500 scholarship to continue their Catholic education. (The winning essays are presented in their entirety below.)
The 18 runners-up (nine in each grade group) will receive scholarship funds and other prizes. All 20 winning essays are posted on the Internet at http://www.friendlydefenders.com.
Several of the 20 winning writers chose to spotlight such well-known priests as Pope John Paul II, Sept. 11 hero Father Mychal Judge and Franciscan Father Benedict Groeschel. Most others looked at their own parish priest.
“Father [Joseph] Newell is a priest who has and is using the graces he received on his ordination to mirror Christ to his people,” writes 10th-grader Elliott in her prizewinning essay. “Through his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and Mary, his healing in confession, his preaching the truth and his ministering to my family, one can clearly see that Father Newell truly is using the graces of the priesthood to transform himself into Jesus Christ, the greatest hero of all history.”
“It amazes me how, even though he is very sick, [Father James Clark] still makes it to numerous Masses,” writes eighth-grader Therrien. “I don't know why, but this trivial fact makes me feel stronger than I was before, for just seeing him in church makes me feel better. I guess it's because if he manages to lead the church in praising God in the condition he's in, I can conquer the daily tasks that I have to do.”
Runner-up Elizabeth LeBlanc, a ninth-grader from Linden, Mich., writes of how her priest, Father Martin Erpelding, suffered a stroke while saying Mass. “Despite his life-threatening condition, he refused to leave until after he'd finished celebrating Christ's Body and Blood,” she writes. “The ambulance drivers and nurses looked on from the back of the chapel reverently as this frail old man proceeded to celebrate the Mass. As I watched Father Martin he seemed to change from a frail old man to a strong, faithful and devoted priest. For the first time, I realized the true meaning of the priesthood, a representation of Jesus on earth.”
And runner-up Kevin Goodwin, an eighth-grader from Pipersville, Pa., writes of his favorite parish priest, the late Father John Davids. “Father Davids was a very inspirational man; he never gave up on people,” he writes. “He spent his last 16 years on earth preaching to the imprisoned, truly showing that Jesus is in all of us.”
A ‘Winning’ Priest Humbled
“I'm very humbled,” says Father Scott Mansfield, the priest-hero who inspired 11th-grader Elizabeth Malone's essay. Malone writes about Father Mansfield's defense of life and dedication to young people. She describes how easily he moves from delivering a powerful homily to playing football with the young people of the parish.
“In the midst of the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church recently, it's wonderful to be appreciated and loved instead of being looked upon with suspicion,” says Father Mansfield.
There were a few uncanny occurrences among this year's winners.
For example, the judges received essays in a blind format, which gave them no indication as to who wrote which one. Yet three schools each placed three students among the top 20 finalists.
Home schoolers accounted for six of the top 20 winners. Two finishers in each grade group were from the same family.
And this year's second-place winner in the grade 5-8 category is the brother of last year's second-place winner in that same category.
The 11-member judging panel was made up of Catholic authors, catechists, theologians, directors of religious education and evangelism at archdiocesan and national levels, and creators of home-school programs.
Judges commented that they had an “extremely difficult task” identifying the winning essays in each grade category and, this year as last, remarked on the quality and inspiration of these essays from today's young Catholics.
“In a world currently overshadowed with the threat of war, among other uncertainties, this year's essay contest sheds a bright light that gives us hope,” says contest judge Matthew Pinto, president of Ascension Press.
“It shows our kids’ love for their priests and, really,” he said, “the affection of Catholic families at large for their priestly leaders.”