By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
A murmur of excitement passes through the classroom during one of Father James Yamauchi’s recent visits to the upper school campus of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.
Students smile and laugh, greeting the parish’s parochial vicar like a returning friend. Their eyes light up as their hands go up so that they can pose questions or relate stories to him, making the most of his visit.
“It brightens my entire day,” Father Yamauchi admits. “When you come over to the school, you just see the students’ faces. They are smiling. They are passionate about learning. It really lifts me up.”
Father Yamauchi said when he first arrived at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, Father John Libone, pastor, made it clear a priority was visibility and accessibility of the priests at the parish school.
With more than 800 St. Thomas Aquinas students spread across two campuses, the task of being accessible is a daunting one. The impact of that effort, however, is not lost on Father Yamauchi.
“I believe it is important for priests to interact with students in the classroom because it gives the students an opportunity to see the priests in a setting that students who do not go through a Catholic school don’t have,” he said. “We’re constantly seeing different kids and getting to interact with them and helping them grow their faith.”
Father Yamauchi’s energy and passion inspire and invigorate students to be active in their school, church and community, said Jennifer Watts, upper school principal of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.
“The kids can just relate to him,” she said. “He really makes a connection with them.”
Watts added that it is not uncommon for Father Yamauchi to help with campus activities, further endearing him to the students, families and faculty.
“He can put on a pair of shorts and play kick ball with students. He can put on a Batman costume for Halloween and make them laugh. But then, in Mass, during his homily, he’s the person who is helping them to grow in their faith and guiding them on that journey,” she said. “His homilies are full of that youthful energy, and that makes the kids more attentive. They are listening and learning.”
St. Thomas Aquinas eighth-grader Katie Hammonds agreed, noting that Father Yamauchi has a way of relating faith lessons to living life today.
“His homilies are about things going on in our lives,” she said. “I understand what he is saying. He enlightens me and is an inspiration to me to really put God first in my life.”
Watts said Father Yamauchi’s impact goes beyond the chapel, though.
“He takes the time to listen to the students – to really listen to them,” she said. “He stops, sits down, talks to them and really carries on a meaningful conversation. The kids just love it.”
Monica Austin, who serves as president of St. Thomas Aquinas’ parents association, praised Father Yamauchi for his regular school visits, which she said makes him more approachable for the students.
“Bottom line, he is visible and engaging,” she said. “The children love him and connect with him.”
Ultimately, Watts said, Father Yamauchi embodies what Catholic school education is all about, providing a positive, Catholic role model for students.
Watts recalled a story Father Yamauchi tells students about when he was in the third grade and a little boy bullied him. When he told his mother about it, she told him that he was going to invite that little boy over for dinner. So he did and the kid punched him again. He kept inviting him, and eventually they became lifelong friends.
“The kids hear that story and they think, ‘If Father James can have someone bully him in the third grade and make him into a friend, we’re going to be OK,’ ” Watts said. “They think, ‘We can be better people because he’s such a good example.’
“And that’s what Father James is – a great role model.”