Catholic schools from elementary schools to high schools to universities opened their doors this past week. The front page photo of this week’s print edition of the Catholic Standard by photographer Andrew Biraj shows a blessing of the backpacks in the hallway at St. Mary’s School of Piscataway in Clinton, Maryland, with Father Timothy Baer, St. Mary’s pastor, sprinkling holy water as children are lined up holding their backpacks aloft, and with some students seeming to giggle as they hold their backpacks as a shield to dodge getting doused by the holy water.

This week’s print edition of the Catholic Standard and our website at cathstan.org chronicle a busy first week of Catholic schools, with reporting by Josephine von Dohlen and photos by Andrew Biraj of Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s opening school Mass for Catholic school teachers at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and then his opening Masses at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington and at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland.

I pitched in by covering the archbishop’s opening school Mass at the Saint John Paul II Seminary. I have chronicled the seminary since Cardinal Donald Wuerl, now the archbishop emeritus of Washington, opened it in 2011, and I have written many articles and a book about it over the years, with a special highlight being the first three priests from the seminary being ordained for the Archdiocese of Washington in 2017. This past June, seven of the 10 new priests ordained for the archdiocese were also alumni of the seminary.

I guess I feel a special connection to the Saint John Paul II Seminary, because the Catholic Standard offices were located in that building for more than a decade, until it became the first seminary in the United States named for Pope John Paul II. During my story assignments there, I have told the seminary’s priests that I like what they’ve done with the place. Since we left the premises, the building has been completely renovated, and now the seminary includes two additional wings, and a separate residence for older seminarians.

So I always feel at home in returning to the Saint John Paul II Seminary, especially when I have the chance to interview some members of the next generation of priests studying there.

Returning to the seminary to cover Archbishop Gregory’s opening school Mass, I sat in a back pew, behind more than 50 seminarians. In his homily, Archbishop Gregory noted that the Mass was being celebrated on the feast day of St. Augustine, who as a young man led a worldly life.

“Eventually Augustine gave his life over to Christ completely. He was a great sinner who became a great saint,” said Archbishop Gregory, encouraging the seminarians to follow St. Augustine’s example and turn their lives over completely to Jesus.

After the Mass, our freelance photographer Paul Fetters did not take my advice and have the seminarians pose in a cheerleaders’ pyramid for the annual group photo on the seminary’s front steps.

Then I got to join a table of six seminarians at dinner and had time to interview four of them about their hopes for this school year. This year, the Saint John Paul II Seminary includes 27 of the Archdiocese of Washington’s 78 seminarians, along with 25 other seminarians from across the country who are studying at The Catholic University of America.

Chukwuma Odigwe, who has family roots in Nigeria and was born in the United States, grew up at St. Columba Parish in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

“Growing up, our parents were always keeping us involved in the faith,” said Odigwe, 23, who also credited his experience at the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“I just want to enrich my mind and use the knowledge I have to see the world in God’s light,” he said, describing his hopes for this school year.

Describing the genesis of his calling to the priesthood, Andrew Clark, a 21-year-old seminarian from the Diocese of Richmond, said that when he was 7, just after his First Holy Communion, “the Holy Spirit dropped the idea in my heart. I fell in love with the Mass and the faith.”

Ethan Gould, a 28-year-old seminarian for the Diocese of Arlington, was deployed in Qatar in the Persian Gulf as a member of the Virginia Army National Guard, and in 2017, his unit distributed food and water in the U.S. Virgin Islands after a hurricane hit there.

As an 18-year-old, Gould attended a Quo Vadis vocations retreat in his diocese, but he later joined the military, inspired by the example of his grandfathers, one who had attended West Point, and the other who had attended the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis.

“I wanted to be like that, (to be) a man of service who did something for his country,” he said.

At his retreat, the vocations director had challenged the young men to think about what God wanted with their lives.

“I took that challenge seriously,” Gould said, adding that when he was nearing the end of his military service, “It became clear God had a plan for me.”

Now in his second year at Saint John Paul II Seminary, Gould said, “I’d really like to focus on growing as a disciple of Christ.”

Joseph Brown, another seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington, grew up as a member of St. Aloysius Parish in Leonardtown, Maryland, attending Father Andrew White, S.J. School there and then St. Mary’s Ryken High School.

Noting how he grew up Catholic, he said, “I always treated it as my own. I always knew God’s will was important to me, and putting God first was the only real way to live life.”

Brown, who is 20, said in this year of his formation at Saint John Paul II Seminary, “My goal is union with Christ, as much of His love and His grace (as) I can receive…”

Father Timothy Baer, pastor of St. Mary of Piscataway Parish in Clinton, blesses the backpacks students at in the hallway at St. Mary’s School on the first day of the school year, Aug. 27. See related stories in the Back to School issue, pages S1-S20.