- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

NEWTOWN, Conn. - With plays, colored maps and student essays, Roman Catholic schools across the country are taking advantage of the first papal transition in 26 years to teach both facts and faith.

Pope John Paul II’s travels, speeches and writings are top lesson topics, as are the church’s history and rituals. Above all, students are connecting their own memories of John Paul with the world’s experience of the long-serving pope.

“I myself will always remember him as a frail, little old man with Parkinson’s disease,” said seventh-grader Shannon McCarthy, holding the pages of her carefully typed paper with both hands as she read it to classmates at St. Rose of Lima School in Newtown. “But my parents will remember him as a passionate, newly elected, 58-year-old pope.”

She looked up and smiled to the class, each of them dressed in a school uniform.

“He was truly the youth’s pope,” she said.

Although teacher Pam Arsenault wants her classes to learn about John Paul’s life and how the conclave to pick his successor works, she also wants students to understand that the selection of a new pope affects their lives as Catholics.

“They’re going to be reading about this in history books and religion books, and they’re part of the process now,” said Miss Arsenault, who is also director of religious education at St. Rose. “They’ll be telling their children about it. This is their story.”

The nation’s 7,799 Catholic schools teach 2.4 million students: John Paul was the only pope who young Catholics have ever known. Teachers say they want to make sure it’s his life’s work — more than his death or his burial — that proves lasting.

“Right now, on TV when they see the pope laid out, it’s kind of scary to kids,” fifth-grade teacher Eileen Clark of Our Lady of the Rosary School in Greenville, S.C., said last week, as the deceased pontiff’s body was displayed in St. Peter’s Basilica. “And I don’t want the kids to remember the pope in that way.”

Her students were compiling quotes, coloring a map of his travels and sketching John Paul images.

Schools also are taking care to teach age-appropriate lessons. While older students discuss the symbolism of white and black smoke that the conclave uses to signify the selection of a new pope, younger students might perform a play so that they understand the key people involved.

In Lake Charles, La., Catherine Townsend, director of religious education at Immaculate Conception Cathedral School, transferred the Apostolic Constitution into student-friendly language.

The 27-page document was revised by John Paul in 1996 and outlines the process by which a new pope is selected. Miss Townsend said she was surprised by the amount of student interest.

“They’ve been watching the news, reading the news, and they’ve been coming in with many questions,” Miss Townsend said. “Even the little ones, as young as 3 and 4, came to school asking, ‘Did you know the pope died?’”

Schools also joined Catholics around the world in waiting and praying for a new pope. Some schools canceled classes Friday for John Paul’s funeral, while others set the day aside to specifically learn about the pope and transition process.

Many will attend special Masses. Students at Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., will watch a videotape about how the conclave works, said Stephen Crawford, director of campus ministry.

“There’s such detail to the process that you have to sit down and study it,” Mr. Crawford said. “Kids find that kind of process and a little bit of the mystery and ritual of that kind of thing intriguing.”

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