- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

Three Roman Catholic schoolchildren met Pope Benedict XVI yesterday afternoon, and they did not come empty-handed: They brought him a birthday gift.

The three local schoolgirls presented the pope a box filled with the names of more than 2,000 area Catholics who pledged a total of 1.7 million hours of community service in honor of the pope’s 81st birthday yesterday.

“It was such an amazing experience,” said Stephanie Joy Heredia, an eighth-grade student at Corpus Christi School in Falls Church. “It was like meeting a piece of heaven itself.”

Stephanie and the two other students — Kristina M. Wilson, an 11th-grade student at St. John’s College High School in the District, and Jennifer Sharkey, an eighth-grade student at St. Jane de Chantal Catholic elementary school in Bethesda — also did not leave empty-handed.

Pope Benedict blessed them and gave them blessed rosaries. A papal blessing is especially significant, as Catholics believe that a blessing from the pope extends to one’s family and friends.

The “Birthday Blessings for Pope Benedict” initiative took place at the residence of the papal nuncio, or the Embassy of the Holy See, at 3339 Massachusetts Ave. NW, and was sponsored by the National Catholic Education Association.

Stephanie and Kristina represented 7.6 million Catholic youths at all levels of Catholic education, while Jennifer represented the Archdiocese of Washington. All three students were equally smitten by the pope.

Stephanie said that she wishes she could have said more to the pontiff, and if given the chance, she would have said, “Thank you for being such a role model to the world,” she said. “Because of you, we have a shepherd to lead us, just like Jesus did.”

The girls also presented the pope with several birthday cards wishing the pontiff a blessed birthday.

Stephanie’s principal, George Chiplock, said she was an easy choice when the faculty sat down to choose the student who would have the opportunity of meeting the pope.

Stephanie thinks that the American people will see how much love the pope is trying to show the world, even non-Catholics.

“Everything revolves around love,” she said. “All we need to do is love each other.”

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