Pope Is Remembered for Connecting With U.S. Youths

By John Gehring — April 08, 2005 9 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions.

When Pope John Paul II visited Immaculate Conception School in Los Angeles 18 years ago, he came with a message of support for Roman Catholic education and with rosaries for the students.

Principal Mary Ann Murphy talked about that day with a mix of pride and sadness last week as her predominantly Latino school took time to remember the legacy of the 84-year-old leader of the Catholic Church, who died April 2.

Children light candles at a memorial service for Pope John Paul II April 3, 2005 at Pope Park in Hamtramck, Michigan.

“The kids just went wild when he came,” Ms. Murphy said of the pope’s 1987 visit. “You would think he was their favorite rock star.”

Teachers and students at Immaculate Conception and other schools were not only mourning the pope’s death, but also using it as an opportunity to explore the dramatic role the Polish-born leader played on the world stage during a 26-year pontificate that included visits to more than 100 countries and what many historians view as a crucial role in helping bring a peaceful end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe.

Such attention wasn’t limited to the nation’s approximately 8,000 Catholic schools, which enroll some 2.4 million students. Other religious schools also marked the death of a pope who was credited with historic efforts to mend the church’s relations with Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths. Even many public schools flew their flags at half-staff last week.

Ms. Murphy said younger students in the K-8 Immaculate Conception School were making collages from photographs of Pope John Paul, while older students were exploring his teachings on social justice and discussing the process of selecting a new pope, scheduled to begin April 18. And a group of former students who were attending the school when the pope visited there came back last week to talk to current students about the experience.

At Pope John Paul II School in Chicago, banners hanging outside the building proclaim in English, Spanish, and Polish a favorite phrase of John Paul II’s, taken from the New Testament: “Be not afraid.” Students there were following the extensive media coverage leading up to the April 8 funeral, while many of their parents recalled the pope’s visit to their parish in 1979, on one of his seven trips to the United States.

“The students are talking about death as a loss, but also as Catholics about resurrection,” said Principal Beatrice Madaj.

“They have also talked about him knowing many different languages,” she said. “We are a multicultural school, and they identify with that.”

Mercedes Zapata, a 13-year-old 7th grader at the school, attended one of the pope’s World Youth Day gatherings, held in Toronto three years ago. The massive events, which often attracted more than half a million young people in each of the several countries in which they were held—including a 1993 gathering in Denver—were seen as evidence of a deep connection between the leader of the world’s estimated 1 billion Roman Catholics and many children and youths.

“I look at him as a role model,” Mercedes said. “He had a great deal to do with ending Communism, and he was against the [Iraq] war and abortion. He wanted all of us to respect other religions.”

Students at the Ursuline Academy in New Orleans, the oldest Catholic girls’ school in the United States, have also been tuned into the detailed news coverage from Vatican City.

“This is a generation that has never gone through a death of a pope before,” Principal Nancy Hernandez pointed out. “They are intrigued by it.”

During a stop in New Orleans in 1987, John Paul addressed an audience of more than 1,000 Catholic educators. He encouraged teachers and administrators “to provide quality Catholic education for the poor of all races and national backgrounds, even at the cost of great sacrifice.”

Michael J. Guerra, the president of the National Catholic Educational Association in Washington, said the pope’s call for an inclusive system of Catholic education is even more relevant now.

“It is important for Catholic educators to be people of hope,” Mr. Guerra said last week. “Because of the challenges we are dealing with, it’s particularly difficult to sustain our schools where people need us the most. This is very important, and the pope reminded us of this.”

Catholic schools in the United States have been hit by a spate of closings, most often in urban areas, and total enrollment has declined from 2.6 million in 2000 to 2.4 million this year. More than 100 Catholic schools were closed or consolidated this school year. (“Catholic Schools’ Mission to Serve Needy Children Jeopardized by Closings,” March 9, 2005.)

Widespread Observances

Some U.S. public schools also honored John Paul II, who was born Karol Wojtyla in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland, and survived both Nazi and Soviet occupations of his country as a young man. He became a priest and eventually, during Communist rule, the archbishop of Krakow. He was elected in 1978 as the first non-Italian pope since the 15th century. He was 58 at the time of his selection, the youngest pope of the 20th century.

In Philadelphia, all flags at public schools and district offices were flown at half-staff last week at the request of Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 190,000-student district. Governors in many states also ordered flags at all public buildings, including schools, to be flown at half-staff.

Al Frascella, the communications director for the Silver Spring, Md.-based National Council for the Social Studies, said that while his association was not providing specific advice to teachers about ways to discuss John Paul’s historical and cultural impact, teaching about current events and world religions is always encouraged.

“It will be different in just about every school across the land,” Mr. Frascella said about the prospect of schools’ using the death of the pope as an opportunity for class discussions. “In some, there will be no mention of the pope because they are too busy teaching to the test.”

John Paul II was being remembered, meanwhile, in a special way at many Jewish schools.

He was the first pope in memory to visit a synagogue, which he did in Rome in 1986, and established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. During his trip to Israel in 2000, the pope placed a written prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem seeking forgiveness for the sufferings inflicted on the Jewish people throughout history, and he made a solemn visit to the Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.

“This is probably the first time in history that a Jewish school is speaking with a sense of loss and mourning about a pope that had an impact on Jewish consciousness and Jewish life,” said Zipora Schorr, the director of education at the 1,000-student Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School in Pikesville, Md. Teachers observed a moment of silence for the pope at their daily staff meeting and prayed from the book of Psalms.

“Students want to know what is different about this pope,” Ms. Schorr said. “Our job is to make sure they are not myopic, and to make them broader and see they are part of a larger universe, and a part of a brotherhood of man.

“This was a person who was truly a friend of the Jews,” she continued, “and who tried to undo centuries of cultural and theological anti-Jewish sentiment. I have an obligation to teach our children this.”

Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, the leader of the Beth Tfiloh congregation, visited the pope in January with more than 100 Jewish leaders from the United States, Israel, and Europe to pay tribute to the pontiff’s efforts to improve Catholics’ relations with Jews. Rabbi Wohlberg said he wants Jewish students to understand the profound change the late pope brought in Catholic-Jewish understanding.

The rabbi prepared a sermon for April 9 that focused on how different John Paul II was from his predecessors in his relationship with the Jewish community, and he shared the sermon with students beforehand.

“He helped turn us from being described as ‘Christ killers’ to elder brothers in faith,” Rabbi Wohlberg said. “This was quite a radical change.”

The Muslim Community School in Potomac, Md., also paused last week to remember John Paul, who became the first pope to visit a mosque during a trip to Syria in 2001.

“We talked to the students about how he was the spiritual leader of one billion Catholics, and how he worked hard on reaching out to other faiths, including Islam,” said Mahboobeh Ayat, the school’s principal.

Abuse Response Faulted

H. Newton Malony, a senior professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., an evangelical Christian institution, said the charismatic relationship the pope forged with young people was unique.

“Popes traditionally were thought of as pretty isolated from young people,” Mr. Malony said. “This pope was countercultural. He called young people to idealism. He was a man who had a message for them. I don’t think we’ve ever seen such an outpouring of love from young people for a pope.”

But John Paul II also drew criticism for the Vatican’s slow response to the priest sex-abuse scandals in the United States, which have seriously undermined the Catholic Church’s reputation as a teacher and protector of children.

Such scandals have erupted from time to time over the past couple of decades, but became a full-scale crisis three years ago and led to new anti-abuse policies. The church’s response remains a major issue in Catholic schools and parishes, said Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, a prominent lay-edited Catholic magazine. She was one of several experts called on to address a 2002 meeting of the U.S. bishops, who convened to adopt more stringent guidelines on responding to sex abuse.

“We are a long way from this being over,” Ms. Steinfels said last week, referring to the fallout from the scandals. “There is a sense from church officials that we’re on the road to healing, but there is a lingering skepticism among both men and women who thought this should have been tackled back in the 1980s.”

Last week, at least, such wrenching issues were not on the minds of students and teachers at John Paul II High School in Nashville, Tenn., where about 30 percent of the 530 students are not Catholic. In commemoration of the pope, the school community said the rosary together for the first time.

Drama teachers at the school, meanwhile, were discussing the pope’s background in theater as a young man. In English classes, students reading George Orwell’s 1984 were thinking about the pope’s critiques of totalitarianism. Religion classes have explored how the pope handled illness and death, as well as his ability to forgive the man who shot him in St. Peter’s Square in 1981.

A teacher at the high school who organized a recent trip to Rome, where students watched the ailing John Paul II struggle to speak from a window at the Vatican, had students perform a play she wrote about the pope’s life. And for the pope’s funeral on April 8, a outdoor youth mass was scheduled in the school’s football stadium.

“I have always found the pope to be someone who exemplifies Jesus as teacher, Jesus as liberator of the human being, which is so much of what we do as teachers,” said Hans Broekman, the school’s principal and a religion teacher.

“Young people had a connection with this pope because he is authentic,” he said. “There is nothing like a teenager to look through the b.s. They can tell whether a person is real or not. This pope was real, and they knew he was real.”


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