Read high schoolers' contest-winning essays

Maia J. Kennedy
This article appears in the Essays feature series. View the full series.

National Catholic Reporter asked high school juniors and seniors to reflect on their experiences of change and growth in the church and to describe their hopes for the church in the years ahead. After receiving and reviewing over 100 fantastic entries, we are proud to present the five winning entries -- first, second and third, as well as two honorable mentions.


FIRST PLACE

Make the message succinct and direct, yet enticing and colorful

By Maia J. Kennedy

The poet T. S. Eliot once wrote, "For last year's words belong to last year's language/And next year's words await another voice." The Catholic church represents a long, profound history and it is my aim to act as "another voice" coming to bear witness of the good news to the modern world. 

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As a junior in public high school who has attended Catholic schools all years prior, I have come to learn most recently that I am Catholic to the core. Jesus Christ is alive in me! My plans for bringing new faces, new voices, and new ways of being church are to follow the example of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, who is changing the Catholic state of mind and inspiring others to lead more prayerful and simple lives.

Poll after poll confirms that Francis is the most popular person in the world. His philosophical views have struck a nerve with the impoverished and young people of the world. As a new face and a new voice, Francis is leading the way toward a new Catholic character. He has a Twitter account and has been known to pose for "selfies"! His voice has reached me and my friends. 

His advice of living simply is a change in the church that deserves our attention. I have witnessed the concept firsthand through my family in Mexico who have few material possessions but who live a joyful and devout life. I admire their courage in the face of modern distractions. 

Today, I am exposed to greater diversity than ever before and I have begun to take community service to a different level. Where my community service before was organized through Catholic institutions, now I personally take the initiative and my efforts are encouraging others to do the same. 

In a world inundated by social media, a fresh voice of the Catholic church should be brief but effective. Long-winded dissertations on any topic will not gain traction with my generation. The message of the Trinity, forgiveness, and the holy Eucharist should be succinct and direct, yet enticing and colorful. 

Ideas provoking faith, hope and love cannot be concealed or drowned by rhetoric. Art, sports and music play significant roles in our human happiness and our sense of individuality — then why not in prayer that cleanses and strengthens our spirit? Might we address God through sportsmanship, song and visual expression? 

The church has undergone substantial change in my lifetime and I am grateful to be a small part of it. The church is a public body, a team of sorts, constantly in need of coaches who lead it to victory. 

I hope to be a new face, a new voice, proceeding by the grace of God in ways that appeal to and inspire the modern world to see Catholics as genuine stewards of Christ. Pope Francis' example of simple and personal stewardship will inspire us to achieve this victory and together, we can accomplish new ways of Christian life. 

[Maia J. Kennedy is a senior at Huntsville High School and active member of Holy Spirit Parish in Huntsville, Ala. She is a founding member of the Alabama Junior Arts Council and a Distinguished Young Woman award winner. Proud of her Mexican-American heritage, she holds a strong command of the Spanish language.]


SECOND PLACE

By Mary Chudy

Being church is more than sitting in the same pew week after week next to the same family you’ve sat with for years. Being church is promoting and projecting your brotherly love for humanity to everyone you meet. It’s being hopeful in the face of despair. It’s ushering welcome to the marginalized. 

My experience of church has been one of growth and change. As a child, I came to church each week with a pretty dress and a toothy smile to match. I never really thought about why I was actually there till I began to receive the sacraments. Receiving my First Communion began my new understanding of the church: one of unbounded unity and love. 

Just as my faith life continues to change, I am hopeful in the church’s change. With such a short pontificate, Pope Francis has challenged the church’s views on touchy topics such as divorced and remarried Catholics and homosexuality. Change is rough, and it is natural for people to veer away. However, Catholics must not be afraid to turn the other cheek for the sake of justice, and must be open to welcome this change. 

I hope that Catholics everywhere will open their minds and hearts to welcome to those who may not be “born and bred” Catholic, or those who find themselves in difficult situations, so that we may truly be the universal church that God calls us to be. It is only then that we can welcome new faces and strong voices to create a more vibrant, diverse church, ultimately allowing us to be loving ambassadors of Christ’s mission.

During his papacy, Francis has also continually promoted and exemplified the value of living simply, in solidarity with the poor and marginalized. Americans today are geared towards materialism. We are always waiting for the next best thing. We line up like sardines on Black Friday, willing to fight each other to get the best sales. This materialistic mentality hinders the church from truly living its mission in the world: to love thy neighbor as thyself. 

I hope that the church will realize the importance of serving others through Francis’s example. Taking concrete action in our communities will work to draw new faces to the church. Through these actions, the church will become a more welcoming institution, catalyzing its growth.

Being Catholic to me means knowing that somewhere, there is someone who looks nothing like me and doesn’t speak my language celebrating and believing the same thing I do. This thought is beyond powerful. It unites Catholics all over the world. It automatically connects us to millions of people we will likely never meet. With this in mind therefore, I have hope that the church will recognize this union and open its arms to include those formerly forgotten and misjudged — including homosexuals and divorced and remarried Catholics — so that we may create a stronger, more vibrant church and together, live in the truth of our all-loving, all-just, universal God.


THIRD PLACE

By André Sicard 

Since the election of Pope Francis to the papacy, I have seen an immense growth of renewed interest in the church and increasing pastoral change within the worldwide church. What the media once viewed as a dying institution is now seen for what it truly is: a living, breathing organism that is ever ancient, ever new. While it is true Francis has revitalized the universal church, in my own experience, at the local level, I have seen a church that has continued its mission of evangelization since day one and grows daily. 

In my diocese of Salt Lake City, we have founded new church communities, ordained large classes of permanent deacons, commissioned 85 lay ecclesial ministers, continued to ordain men to the priesthood, and have even started seeking input from the faithful for a new pastoral planning process for our future, all in the past five years. 

In my own parish, being a music minister has given me a first-hand view of the growth of my community and given me the chance to view liturgy as something more relevant to my life and to our mission. It is my hope we approach the future in a more pastoral way, looking to evangelize people more with our actions than with our words. 

By taking my responsibility as a member of the priesthood of the people of God seriously, I must go out “into the streets” and help everyone come closer to Christ. Within the church today, we often close the door on too many of our own brothers and sisters who may not fit the mold of what a Catholic should be like. If I am to reach out to new faces, I need to have an open heart and open mind. 

I have many friends who do not agree with my beliefs, yet I am learning to leave my personal ego behind and ask what they can offer me and the church. I cannot simply argue with or judge my friends when we do not agree; instead I must offer them a glimpse of the joy I receive weekly through the Sacraments and the Gospel. By leaving behind this pride, I dare to become a disciple to a church that does not force an ideology on someone, but instead, accompanies them on their journey and is willing to receive and love them for who they are. Before I can do this, I must be certain that the church is willing to keep its, “doors always wide open,” as Francis wrote in The Joy of the Gospel

For a person will only find their place within the Body of Christ if we, as church, offer them a loving, welcoming home. I take the responsibility to keep the door of that home open and unlocked, because, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “to enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.” 


HONORABLE MENTION

By Rogelio Becerra 

When I was younger, I was in a Catholic school, and I remember being in class, learning about religion. I would take everything in and accept it as a fact, but I don’t believe that this was the best way to learn about God. Once I entered De La Salle, I had religion teachers who encouraged me to question our religion and say that it is science and religion, not science or religion. 

I believe that since every person has their own moments of doubt, we should be encouraged to ask questions about religion and poke holes in the Bible because some things might be mystery, but other questions might have simple explanation. For example, I asked why does Jesus say to love your enemy but then goes off and breaks everything when he sees what is going on in the temple, in the house of God? My teacher answered me that he was also human, 100 percent divine and 100 percent human, and humans get mad and act upon their emotions. No matter what I wanted to ask, my teacher would answer comfortably. 

I personally hope that the church as a unit, should try to focus on things that need tending to right away and not argue with others about some detail that our society is making a big deal about. I believe that the church should focus on diversity, poverty, people, and what the people want and expect from the church. 

Other topics that people are focusing on, like gay marriage, will still be here if we put them aside and focus on real problems that are endangering lives. After having my junior retreat, I’ve realized how important our priorities are and I believe that our new pope, Pope Francis I, has his priorities straight because I believe he knows what we need to worry about right now and what we can worry about later. 

Ways we could also help the church reach new faces and hear new voices is reach out to the teenagers, high schools, and other places with young adults. I believe that the church should try to connect with teenagers because it is around this age that many lose their faith. Most Catholic high schools have religious figures like priests, brothers, and nuns, but what I think we need is religious figures that are higher ranked and more known because that’s what we react to. 

For example Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich attend a De La Salle basketball game on Jan. 16. This brought a lot of attention from the students because they got to meet him at a basketball game and not during a Mass, so it was something out of the ordinary that caught the attention of many students because this wouldn’t be the place to expect someone of his standards. 


HONORABLE MENTION

By Omar Gomez

Growing up in a Latin household on the east side of Chicago, I would go to church every Sunday at 1 p.m. The Masses were always given in Spanish, and as a little boy I would never understand what they would ever say. Eventually I grew to understand what the message was in Mass and how I would take it definitely made an impact on how I grew up to perceive things as a young adult know. I feel like though that many people don’t get to experience what I do because not many people are able to connect with what happens in church. 

A way to attract new faces into church is if the church did more work in the communities themselves. Of course we see churches do outreach programs, but not many are able to reach the communities that they are present in. If we are able to reach these neighborhoods and they are able to give a face to the people who are scared to approach the church, they might be more inclined to approach the church. Many of these people who are too scared to come to the church, don’t because they feel like the church wouldn’t be to accepting. A way to combat this is to be able to give the church a “face” so more people feel welcomed to join the church. 

A vibrant church is also very important and a way to make it more vibrant is to be able to connect to the parishioners. If the priest is able to connect to his parishioners then perhaps more of them would understand where the message is coming from and how to be able to interpret the message itself. Not only does understanding the message important but also questioning it and perhaps this questioning could spark a great debate. Perhaps with these debates that could become more and more people would be more informed, and in turn become more intelligent, along with being able to freely think of issues pertaining to the church and many life issues. 

There is much that the church could do to make a huge impact, but it ultimately trickles all the way down to each individual church. That is where the change can begin to happen, at the level of the local churches that are making a huge impact in their own communities, because ultimately this leads to the change that it is wanted in each community. 


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