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‘Greatest blessing is seeing students grow up’

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SAN DIEGO — Father Peter McGuine, 58, has served as pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in El Cajon for eight years.

He shepherds not only the parish with its approximately 1,550 registered families, but also the parochial school and its more than 280 students.

The special role of pastor who also leads a school is in focus these days as the diocese prepares to observe Catholic Schools Week, a national celebration of the benefits and joys of a Catholic education, to be marked Jan. 30 to Feb. 5. Schools host open houses and other special events throughout the week, particularly inviting prospective families to pay a visit to see if a Catholic education is right for them.

Born in Harbor City, Calif., Father McGuine grew up in Orange County and moved to San Diego to attend the University of San Diego in 1981.

He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of San Diego on June 29, 1990.

Question: What was the practice of the faith like in your childhood home?
Answer:
 Both my mother and father are Catholic. They were married in the Church and raised a Catholic family of six kids. I can’t remember a Sunday when we ever missed Mass.

When did you feel called to the priesthood?
At the invitation of a priest at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, I started to investigate the possibility of a priestly vocation during my junior and senior years.

Not being convinced yet, I went to the University of San Diego and studied Business Administration. There, I remained active in campus ministry and became friends with a lot of the seminarians.

Near the end of my four years, Father Owen Mullen, one of the USD chaplains at the time, thought I had a priestly vocation and suggested I go speak with the vocations director of the diocese. I took his advice, met with Father Peter Escalante, and was invited to enroll in the priestly formation program at St. Francis Seminary here in San Diego.

What have you found most fulfilling about priestly ministry?
Being an agent of mercy and reconciliation on behalf of God. It’s God who forgives sins; it’s God who’s extending mercy; it’s God who’s inviting people into a deeper relationship with Him and to a change of life. It’s a true joy to be a part of that.

As pastor of Our Lady of Grace, you’re also responsible for its school. Why are Catholic schools important?
Catholic schools provide a solid education in a Catholic environment where students can flourish. They are also “points of evangelization.” Many students come to the Catholic faith because of their studies in religion and because of the overall school environment. Non-Catholic parents also sometimes come to the faith because of the evangelizing nature of the school.

Are you a product of Catholic education? If so, what role did that play in your formation and discernment?
Every school in which I have been enrolled has been a Catholic school, except for preschool, which I think was Lutheran! It was in elementary school where I experienced dedicated and happy parish priests; in high school where the possibility of a priestly vocation was presented; and in college where an observant chaplain invited me to seriously consider a priestly vocation.

Catholic schools were very instrumental in the discernment of a priestly vocation. Of course, priestly vocations can be discerned by those who attend non-Catholic schools. This happens all the time! For me, that process simply happened more naturally in a Catholic school environment.

What is a pastor’s role in school administration?
Ultimately, as with a parish, the pastor is the one responsible for a parochial school. He sets the tone for the school and must have a good grasp as to how the school operates.

At Our Lady of Grace, I meet with the principal every other week for nearly two hours at a time to provide guidance and to discuss whatever she has on her mind.

My role on campus and in the lives of the students is mostly liturgical and sacramental. All grades, except kindergarten, attend Mass weekly. From time to time, we have all-school Masses where all the students are present; at other times, it’s just two grades at a time. Parishioners are present for nearly all Masses with the school. Students also have the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of Penance at least once a year during the school day.

From time to time, I’m invited to a classroom to speak about a particular topic, and I’m happy to come be with the students.

What are the greatest challenges of leading both a parish and a school? What are the greatest blessings associated with that?
Probably the greatest challenge, especially in these COVID years, has been facility usage. In 2020-2021, when most non-Catholic schools were doing remote-learning, Catholic schools were, for the most part, open for in-person instruction. At OLG, the school needed to expand into quite a few additional parish facilities to provide adequate physical distancing. This year is better because those requirements have been relaxed.

The greatest blessing is watching the students grow up, become active in their high schools and in parish life, and really embrace the Catholic faith for themselves.

What advice do you have for brother priests about pastoring a parish with a school?
The words that come to mind are Scripturally based: “Do not be afraid!” There are many people in the parish and school communities who want to see the school succeed as much as you do. I would advise any priest to tap into those resources. The success of the parish school does not depend on you alone as the parish priest.

The more a pastor can help parishioners see that it is “our parish school” and not just the school of the parents who currently send their kids there, the better things will be.

A parochial school doesn’t exist apart from its parish. Rather, the school is a large — perhaps the largest and most costly — department of the parish. It’s an important aspect of parish life and it really does help spread of the Gospel in so many ways.

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