“So Ms. Storms, aren’t there like, a bunch of popes out there? Why is this pope so famous? ”
“Ms. Duchene, does the pope always wear a white dress?”
“So you’re trying to tell me that the pope lives in a placed called Vatican City that is a country inside of a city? Ms. Storms, stop messing with us!"
As Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) teachers at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy in southeast Washington D.C., we’ve spent the first few weeks of this school year preparing our classes for Pope Francis’ visit. Our students’ unabashed curiosity has turned these religion lessons into humorous and thought-provoking classroom discussions.
Yet when our school delegation of teachers, students and parent chaperones set off in pursuit of a Pope Francis sighting last Wednesday, we weren’t sure which lessons had actually stuck with our students. Would they remember not to call the papal robes a dress? Would they grow tired of all the standing around and waiting? Would they appreciate the significance of this experience? As is so often true with children, we had no idea how they would react.
Though we were only traveling a few miles downtown to the Vatican Embassy, our journey through security checkpoints and staging areas took nearly three hours. The students were good-natured and patient throughout it all.
After pausing for a fruit-snack-and-goldfish-cracker break at one of the staging areas, we finally arrived. That was when the real wait began. It was more than four hours before Pope Francis’ arrival, but excitement was building as our students joined other Catholic school children from the area outside on the embassy lawn.
As anyone who works with children can tell you, four hours is an incredibly long time for little humans to be away from a bathroom, food and chairs. The pope’s blessings must have already been pouring over us though, because all of the children were on their best behavior. Their excitement recharged even the most serious adults among us.
We introduced ourselves to those around us, waved our papal flags, practiced cheering for the Pope’s arrival and sang gospel songs from our Friday masses on repeat. The time passed surprisingly quickly. As Pope Francis’ arrival grew nearer, the television cameras started turning on and the level of crowd chatter rose. Each time a car drove by on the adjoining streets, cheers erupted and the crowd started screaming, only to be disappointed by what turned out to be just another security car making a sweep.
Finally, just as our second graders began asking for more fruit snacks, the papal motorcade arrived. After a lengthy parade, the pope’s tiny black Fiat turned the corner of the embassy drive.
There was screaming, there was shouting, and there aren’t words that can capture what it was like to see Pope Francis himself, right there, hugging children and blessing Special Olympics medals. But the best part?
The best part was the kindergartner yanking on our sleeves with one hand while furiously waving her papal flag with the other, yelling in her loudest voice, “I SEE HIM! I SEE HIM! THAT’S HIM!” It was the awe in the eyes of a second-grader who has never been speechless before. It was the giddy laugh of a seventh-grade girl who had been acting a little too cool for school just minutes before.
Seeing Pope Francis in person was pretty cool. But seeing the excitement of a papal visit through the eyes of our students? Well, that was kind of the best part.
Aletha Duchene teaches second grade and Emily Storms teaches third, fourth and fifth-grade social studies and religion at St. Thomas More Catholic Academy, an Alliance for Catholic Education partner school, in Washington, D.C.