OZONE PARK — At every turn on Monday, Jan. 30, the second day of Catholic Schools Week, students were the ones who administered pop quizzes.
Children ages 4 to 14 at Divine Mercy Catholic Academy in Ozone Park and St. Helen Catholic Academy in Howard Beach pressed Bishop Robert Brennan to reveal the mysteries of the man who leads the Diocese of Brooklyn, such as what it’s like to talk to Pope Francis, his thoughts about Major League Baseball, and even Italian cuisine.
But the challenges also became teachable moments for Bishop Brennan to share.
He sat down with pre-K kids, age 4, at Divine Mercy Catholic Academy to read them “The Little Engine That Could” — a lesson in perseverance.
Bishop Brennan read to the students about how big strong engines refused to help get a train of toys and food to the good children on the other side of a mountain. But the “little bitty” blue engine gave it a try, repeating the mantra, “‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!’ ”
“Sounds good, right?” Bishop Brennan said. “And then when he got over the mountain, he said, ‘I thought I could!’ ”
The pre-K tykes jockeyed for Bishop Brennan’s attention, bombarding him with tiny voices declaring, “I take the L Train!” Or, “I take the A Train!”
For over half a century, the annual Catholic Schools Week has showcased Catholic education in learning about academics, faith, and service to all people. This year’s theme for schools in Brooklyn and Queens was “Ignite the Catholic Imagination.”
Bishop Brennan’s two school tours on Monday were the first of eight visits he was scheduled to make during Catholic Schools Week.
Others include St. Bernadette Catholic Academy, Dyker Heights; St. Peter Catholic Academy, Bensonhurst/Bath Beach; St. Sebastian Catholic Academy, Woodside; Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy, Jamaica Estates; Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Academy, Sunset Park; and St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Academy in Windsor Terrace.
On Monday, Bishop Brennan quizzed students on what they were learning. He listened as they told him about the different types of sin, Spanish language skills, and painting with watercolors. He came away satisfied with their responses.
“Catholic schools exist, really, to take the good news of Jesus Christ one generation to the next,” he said during a break at St. Helen Academy. “We want people who are believers, people who know their faith, who can articulate who they are, what they believe, and what really motivates them in life.
“And the children, both here in St. Helen Academy and at Divine Mercy Academy, were just so eloquent and so exuberant. What a blessing.
“Absolutely, they’re on track.”
Later, at a question-and-answer session at St. Helen Catholic Academy, eighth graders asked Bishop Brennan about a wide range of topics, like divulging his favorite players for the Mets. Here was a chance to describe leadership and vision.
“Tom Seaver was one of my favorites,” he said of the Hall of Fame pitcher. “And a little later in the ’80s, it was Gary Carter. I think he just brought a lot of energy to the team. And in more modern times modern — modern for me, not for you — Mike Piazza.”
Bishop Brennan said Seaver, along with Carter and Piazza, both catchers, “were guys who built up the rest of the team,” but there were others too.
The bishop recalled an interview Seaver gave about the Mets’ 1969 victory over Baltimore in the World Series.
“He talked about how in 1968, they were like at the bottom of the barrel,” Bishop Brennan said. “And said there was one player, Jerry Grote, a catcher, who told the rest of the team, ‘I think we’ll go into the World Series this year.’ ”
It was a tough sell to the rest of the team, he recalled, but Grote talked up the strengths of everyone, from players to managers, until everyone started to believe.
“He was recognizing the talents of everybody else,” Bishop Brennan said, “and he got them all to work together and encourage them. And you know what? They went all the way. I just found that fascinating.”
A St. Helen eighth grader asked where he goes for Italian food. Bishop Brennan and the students traded recommendations.
“I’m still learning all the Italian restaurants,” he said. “There’s a place near me called Graziella’s. And Grimaldi’s pizza is over near me. But Graziella’s is pretty convenient for me. What about the ones here, like Matteo’s? Are any of those good?”
Yes, but they also mentioned another — Park Side in Corona.
Another eighth-grader asked Bishop Brennan if he had ever talked to Pope Francis, and he said yes, at the Vatican while he was bishop of Columbus. And here was another lesson on how even the highest leader in the Church made time for others.
“I was with all the bishops of Ohio and Michigan,” Bishop Brennan recalled, “and he came in and said we could talk about anything we wanted. He said, ‘Ask me any question’ — the same kind of thing here. And he spent about two hours with us. That was just graciousness on his part.”