HONOLULU — On Jan. 18, the day the COVID-19 infection rate roared to a new single-day record of 6,252 in Hawaii, the congregation at the annual Red Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in Honolulu heard how Hawaii’s Catholic schools faced down the pandemic.

The Mass, celebrated by Honolulu Bishop Larry Silva, took place during the week of the opening of the Hawaii Legislature and is the annual prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance and wisdom for Hawaii’s civic leaders.

The superintendent of Hawaii Catholic Schools Office, Llewellyn Young, was this year’s guest speaker. He spoke of how local Catholic schools, with a vigorous combination of faith and science, made the conscious decision to thrive during the pandemic rather than merely survive.

In fact, he said, just surviving wasn’t an option.

The first step in their strategy was prayer, said Young, a Kauai-raised administrator with a doctorate in education.

“(We) needed to start with our faith,” he said. “We asked all schools to continue to pray for healing, understanding, wisdom and knowledge about the virus and how we could effectively respond.”

Then came the science: “masking, physical distancing, hand-washing, cleaning and sanitizing, defining bubbles or cohorts, etc. from our partners at the Department of Health.”

The schools planned for in-person classes, plus “effective alternatives,” Young said, noting that the majority of Catholic schools across the state opened in the fall of 2020 for in-person instruction. Hawaii has 27 Catholic schools with a total enrollment of about 7,000.

“They did this with tremendous care and caution taking every recommended mitigation and strategy very seriously,” he said.

“At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, we saw a total of just over 30 cases of COVID among all Catholic schools contracted by staff and students,” he said. “But all of these cases were contracted off campus.”

He also pointed out that for the first time in 14 years, Catholic schools in Hawaii saw a significant increase in enrollment adding 288 students this school year.

“Our schools have led with faith, science, love, wisdom, compassion, understanding and innovation,” he said, “staying true to our mission of evangelization, being witnesses to Jesus and stewards of the Gospel.”

He thanked his staff and “all our awesome Catholic school administrators, faculty, and staff.”

He also noted that “there is still so much uncertainty with this pandemic, but the Lord saw us through and he is at the heart of our successes.”

In his homily, Silva contrasted the impact of the invisible coronavirus with the  powerful but invisible force of faith and said: “Faith in God keeps us grounded; faith in God drives us on.”

Even the smallest amount of faith has an “incredibly powerful influence on the world,” he said, giving meaning to countless people. He also said it is the reason Catholic schools exist and is a response to many of the challenges in the modern world.

This is why we gather to pray for our civic officials, he added.

The Red Mass normally packs the cathedral. But this year’s Mass was probably the least ever attended because of the widespread omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. Eleven civic leaders came, the same number as last year.

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Downes is editor of the Hawaii Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Honolulu.