GENEVA -- Approximately 800 students from five schools in the Finger Lakes packed St. Stephen Church Sept. 27 for a Mass with Bishop Matthew H. Clark. As the students filed off their buses and into the church, many were excited at the prospect of seeing their shepherd up close.
"He's here!" one young girl eagerly called to a friend as she stepped through St. Stephen's side door.
"I see him!" came the answer from her enthusiastic friend.
Students and staff alike look forward to this annual Mass with the bishop, noted Elaine Morrow, principal at St. Francis-St. Stephen School in Geneva. Students and staff from St. Joseph School in Auburn, St. Mary School in Canandaigua, St. Michael School in Penn Yan and DeSales High School in Geneva also attended the Mass. Pastoral leaders associated with the schools, including 10 priests, also participated.
This year's Mass is special because Bishop Clark will begin the retirement process this summer when he turns 75. Canon law requires each bishop to submit his letter of resignation to the pope when he turns 75, although it potentially could be many months before a new bishop is selected and the outgoing bishop actually retires.
"Today we offer our prayers in a very special thanksgiving honoring the leadership of Bishop Matthew Clark," Morrow announced to the congregation before the Mass began. "We recognize this may very well be his last year with us, and we want to express our love and thanksgiving."
Mass began with a procession led by students carrying banners emblazoned with the names of each of the schools represented at the Mass, followed by Bishop Clark and the priests who were to concelebrate the Mass with him. Students from each of the schools sang together in a choir and served as lectors during the Mass. Deacon Claude Lester, catechetical leader at St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, proclaimed the Gospel from Luke 12:22-31, in which Jesus tells his disciples not to worry. God cares for the birds and for the flowers in the fields, so people should have faith that God will provide even more for them, Jesus explained in Luke's Gospel.
The Gospel reference to a field full of beautiful lilies reminded Bishop Clark of the pews full of beautiful children before him, he said during his homily.
"But they don't hold a candle to what I was looking at from that chair," he said, gesturing to the presider's chair near the altar. "There is nothing more beautiful in God's creation than boys and girls like yourselves, and I really mean that. I wish I had a camera with me today. I could sit in that chair up there and take a photograph of this beautiful assembly."
It's easy for people who live in the Finger Lakes region to visualize what Jesus means when he talks about the beauty of God's creation, Bishop Clark added.
"We live in a very beautiful part of the world with abundant water, rich vineyards, beautiful farmlands, and we're so familiar with that beauty. God provides all of that beauty and endows humankind to share in that beauty," he said.
The first reading from Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 emphasized that there is an appointed time for every human activity, Bishop Clark added. He asked the students to think about the different activities that fill their day, such as sleeping, playing, studying, playing sports and spending time with family members. God works through all of those things to build us up and help us grow, he said.
"We won't have to worry because we will know God's loving presence to us in all of those activities," the bishop said. "Don't worry about God's presence. God will always be with you. God just wants you to know that when you do something for your brother or sister, you really share God's light."
The students shared in God's light that day by providing Bishop Clark with spiritual bouquets, or groups of prayers offered for him. Student representatives from each school provided him with physical gifts, such as posters, albums and flowers, and also provided him with a more tangible gift purchased with money donated by the students and their families.
"That's 800-plus students and teachers offering up their prayers for you as you begin the retirement process," Morrow explained at the end of the Mass. "We wish you all of God's blessings through what may be your last year."
Colin Manning, a fifth-grader at St. Joseph School, said he enjoyed the Mass and was happy to be a part of the bishop's spiritual bouquet.
"I thought it was very nice that all the schools gave the bishop a material present as well as a spiritual present," Colin added.
Karen DeVaney, grandmother of several St. Francis-St. Stephen students, also said she enjoyed the Mass, which she tries to attend each year.
"I love it. I know the kids look forward to it," DeVaney said.
St. Joseph third-graders Molly Rejman, Sadie Coleman and Grace Ryan said they liked coming together to pray and sing with students from other schools.
"It was really good, and different from other Masses," Sadie said.
St. Mary second-graders Emma Petersen and Kylee Strege said they like visiting new churches. St. Stephen Church, which is part of Geneva's Our Lady of Peace Parish, is beautiful, they said.
"I like being in church," Emma said.