Kalana Sembakuttige, left, and Clement Yen went on Brebeuf’s Holy Week pilgrimage to Rome last year. Photos courtesy of Kalana Sembakuttige and Clement Yen

Students of other faiths thrive at Catholic school

By  Vincent Mastromatteo, Youth Speak News
  • May 1, 2015

PHOTO GALLERY: Students from other faiths are included at Brebeuf College, an all boys' Catholic high school in Toronto. See photos from the students' Holy Week pilgrimage to Rome.

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Toronto’s Brebeuf College School has a vibrant faith life, and not only for Catholic students.

While attending a school of a different faith can be daunting, the experience has proven worthwhile for the school’s Catholic and non-Catholic students alike.

Kalana Sembakuttige, a Grade 12 Buddhist student at Brebeuf, began his high school years with apprehension.

“The start of high school was really nerve-wracking, being a non-Catholic and not knowing anyone,” admits Sembakuttige. “I thought I was going to be excluded because of my religion, but I was wrong. Everyone has been very welcoming and accepting.”

Sembakuttige, an active participant in the school’s Catholic chaplaincy, started taking part at the request of a teacher.

“My French teacher needed help with the homeroom rosary, so she asked me. I didn’t think much of it, only as a favour for her,” he said. “Even though I’m not Catholic, that’s what got me interested in the Catholic faith.”

Sembakuttige went on to attend Kairos, a religious retreat that gives students time to reflect on their faith lives with each other.

“Kairos was one of the most emotional and spiritual experiences of my life so far,” he said. “I have friends at school, but I truly didn’t know their stories until I went to Kairos.”

It had such an impact, Sembakuttige went back to serve as a leader.

Last year, Sembakuttige went on the school’s pilgrimage to Rome over Holy Week. To him, the pilgrimage “was more than a trip. It was something that developed me spiritually.”

Fellow Brebeuf student Clement Yen also went on the pilgrimage. Yen, an Evangelical Christian, said he cherished his time in Rome.

“It was a calming experience being away from the usual rush for 11 days,” said Yen. “I got to experience what Catholicism is like. The seminarians we stayed with were great people. They seemed to share a real brotherhood.”

Sembakuttige and Yen’s shared interest in Catholicism extends to the classroom. Although some students are not enthusiastic about being required to take religion classes, Yen and Sembakuttige think differently.

“Religion class was a beneficial experience,” said Yen. “After our witness talks, we realized that our peers were dealing with so many different issues at home. We didn’t just learn about religion, we also learned about each other.”

“The class has a lot of discussion on current issues in society, and how Catholicism ties into them,” said Sembakuttige.

“It’s really interesting to me, even as a non-Catholic.”  

Robert Gregoris, a religion teacher at Brebeuf, strives to make chaplaincy welcoming to all faiths.

“At Brebeuf College we’re particularly blessed with all the different faith components of our community. (Our chaplaincy) is very open and invitational,” he said.

Gregoris, who organizes the Kairos retreats, said that like academics, the chaplaincy work at Brebeuf College is open to students of all faith backgrounds. He’s found that people from non-Catholic backgrounds appear quite receptive to the faith journey.  

“The key is being Christ-like,” said Gregoris. “As in His ministry in the Gospel, being open and evangelizing to them. Being open to these experiences lets them learn who Jesus was and how it can impact their daily lives.”

Although an Ontario Superior Court decision allows students at Catholic schools to opt out of religious instruction, Gregoris believes few will do so.

“As an adult in the school community, if we could live out the Gospel values, the opting out wouldn’t be an issue because students would see the value of true happiness, true joy and true love. At our school, that’s our goal that we want to walk in.”

Gregoris also believes that a vibrant faith community can assist all students, including non-Catholics attending Catholic schools, to resist outside pressures such as the single-minded pursuit of high grades.

“Young people have a lot of pressure with marks, which is more of a secular pressure,” said Gregoris. “But at the same time, allowing Christ in their lives gives them a strong vessel to fight other temptations and distractions.”

(Mastromatteo, 17, is a Grade 12 student at Brebeuf College School in Toronto.)

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