WILMINGTON – The day before Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia, more than 500 students at St. Mary Magdalen joined their teachers, Bishop Malooly, St. Mary Magdalen Pastor Father James Kirk., and superintendent of schools Louis De Angelo in welcoming the pontiff in an hour-long “pope rally.”
Parents filled the bleachers at St. Mary Magdalen on Sept. 25 to watch their children sing, cheer and chant in anticipation of the papal visit. A cardboard cutout of Pope Francis sat outside the gymnasium, and students entered carrying a “Flat Francis” or a poster, with some of the younger ones wearing miters.
Between students and teachers, there was every type of Pope Francis t-shirt imaginable: ones with “pope” in the design of Philadelphia’s “Love” monument; one bearing the words “Keep calm, the pope is coming”; several with his image; and one, worn by parish religious education coordinator Stephanie Casey, who led the rally, that said, “Pope Francis rocks Philly,” with an image of the pontiff with his arms raised a la Rocky Balboa.
“God is truly present with us right now,” St. Mary Magdalen principal Serena Brasco said.
Casey, who also has three children at the school and is a member of a parish moms’ prayer group, got the rally started, walking around with a microphone and saying, “I say ‘pope,’ you say ‘Francis,’” which the students did with gusto.
After a short biographical cartoon, students from each grade ascended the stage to read brief facts about Pope Francis. There were facts about his family; his love of sports, particularly soccer; his focus on education; his own schooling as a chemist before entering the Jesuits; and his love of sports.
“He recently learned to spin a basketball on his finger with the Harlem Globetrotters,” second-grader Franco Vranic told the assembly.
Elaine Zahnow, a seventh-grade student, told why the pope chose the name “Francis.” When he was elected, “a friend told him, ‘Don’t forget the poor,’” she said.
Father Kirk called the pope an “amazing” human being.
“He wants us to be kind, compassionate and merciful,” he said.
The only person in the room who has actually met the pope then talked to the students. Bishop Malooly was in Washington, D.C., when the pope arrived on Sept. 23 and spent a few seconds with him at St. Matthew’s Cathedral with a group of American bishops.
“What were you doing on Wednesday afternoon at 1:25?” he asked the students. “I was shaking the Holy Father’s hand.”
Bishop Malooly said he told the pontiff, “Pope Francis, I’m Bishop Francis.” The pope had a confused look on his face, but when his translator relayed the message in Spanish, the pope had a good laugh.
The bishop presented Brasco with a photo of him with Pope Francis, then, noting all the papal t-shirts, wanted to know where all the Bishop Francis shirts were. None were to be had, but later in the afternoon, he, Father Kirk and De Angelo each received a Pope Francis shirt.
The bishop noted that it was not as noisy at St. Matthew’s as it was at St. Mary Magdalen, but it was a wonderful experience nonetheless. He said he spent some time with his neighbors telling them about his visit. Francis is the third pope the bishop has met.
Another fact about the pope that the students learned is that he has a devotion to Mary, Undoer of Knots. Each of the children wore a knot on their wrist signifying a challenge they face in their lives. They and members of the parish religious education program also wrote those challenges on paper knots and placed them in a basket that was placed on the stage. Bishop Malooly blessed the knots.
One of the challenges was “I want to stop bullying,” while another read, “I need to pray more.”
The afternoon also featured a performance by the school’s cheerleaders, in uniform and waving pom poms. They led the assembly in a series of chants. Soon, the gym was filled with the sounds of “Hey, hey! Are you ready, are you ready for Pope Francis?”
With the theme song from “Rocky” playing, two students with Pope Francis masks jogged around high-fiving students as two other students followed carrying the papal flag. One of the highlights of the program followed, as the gym erupted with the sound of “Pope Song,” a revised version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” filled the room.
After a round of pope trivia, the assembly ended with another rendition of the “Pope Song.” The students then filed out with a full weekend of papal activity ahead of them.