Pope Francis: ‘A friend bringing us closer to God’

Pope Francis: ‘A friend bringing us closer to God’

Pope blesses man in wheelchair during general audience in St. Peter's Square at Vatican Pope Francis blesses a man in a wheelchair as he greets the sick and disabled during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis blesses a man in a wheelchair as he greets the sick and disabled during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican March 5. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The world has kept a watchful eye on Pope Francis ever since seeing him on that balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square a year ago.

But once he humbly bowed and requested the people to pray for and bless him, they were hooked.

His actions and words continue to make a profound impact, through word of mouth and social media. Some Catholic school students in Scottsdale hope the fruits of their “We love our pope” project will be swept up in the growing affection associated with Pope Francis. The care package from Bl. Pope John XXIII School should reach the Vatican any day now.

The package is filled with a spiritual bouquet, heartfelt letters and art projects telling Pope Francis what they had in common, educating him about Arizona — some also extended an invitation to visit — and thanking him for canonizing the school’s patron saint next month. Had Pope Francis edged out Pope Benedict XVI in the 2005 conclave, he would have reportedly chosen the name John after Blessed John XXIII, “the Good Pope.”

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The “We love our pope” project helped students understand their deep connection to the Universal Church. It also strengthened a relationship with the Holy Father, whom they, alongside most of the world, met a year ago March 13.

“I think at our school, he’s not just out pope, he’s our friend bringing us closer to God,” said Murphy Wuycheck, a seventh-grader.

That’s because he’s a household name. Students spent the last five weeks offering three prayers daily for the pontiff. Many classes also adopted the five-finger prayer, a suggested order of people to pray for, that Pope Francis popularized late last year.

“They’re so similar with Pope Francis. He’s right here in the classroom with him,” said Katie Zach, a third-grade teacher.

Besides a love of prayer, Bl. Pope John XXIII students are finding that they have more in common with the pope: a childhood fondness for collecting stamps, a desire to cook and an ongoing quest to perform acts of service.

Students told the pope all about their monthly Faith in Action projects. Each class takes a turn as the coordinator.

“Every time they have a spare moment, they’re using it to write to Pope Francis independently,” noted Karen Marshall, a second grade teacher.

Julie Carrick knows what it’s like to receive a response. The parishioner at Blessed Sacrament in Scottsdale, who travels the country on speaking and music tours, wrote to him earlier this year. She heard he enjoys hearing from those with common life experiences. Her note talked about losing part of her right lung. She also enclosed her recordings.

Carrick, whose middle name is Fran, received a response from the U.S. nuncio Feb. 19. It said Pope Francis was pleased to receive the kind gift, appreciated the sentiments and assured her of his prayers and blessing.

She loves hearing what Christ’s vicar on earth has to share with the world and has read his works. Carrick called his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” deeply touching. She was also enthralled with Pope Francis’ encyclical “The Light of Faith” and a compilation of letters and homilies called “Only Love Can Save Us.”

“What is interesting to me is how many people want to speak for him. The world seems to want to share the infectious way he simply loves in truth. Those two words stand out to me: love and truth. He does not water down the teachings of our beautiful Catholic faith. Yet, he speaks the Truth in a pastoral and Christ-like way,” Carrick said.

Deacon Kevin Grimditch is one of few Catholics from the Diocese of Phoenix to have heard Pope Francis speak in person. The seminarian from Phoenix’s Corpus Christi Parish is finishing his last year of priestly studies in Rome.

Deacon Grimditch said the pope’s simplicity of heart enlivens his message of words and action. He said having compassion for others, asking God for forgiveness and living joyfully is merely the simple consequence of God sending His Son.

The seminarian, who is one of three from Phoenix studying in Rome, found one Sunday Angelus address particularly striking.

“He gave the crowd gathered there ‘medicine.’ It was a small box made to look like a box of pills filled with a rosary and an image of the Divine Mercy, with instructions on how to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet. He was a father caring for his children, providing a remedy for their sorrows,” Deacon Grimditch said. “It was amazing; and it made an impact on the city. I still see the packages of the Pope’s medicine around the city months later.”

Roughly 30 youth choristers from St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Scottsdale hope to see the pope in Rome. The choir is organizing a trip to Rome after Christmas in 2015 as part of the International Congress of Pueri Cantores, the world’s largest organization of Catholic youth choirs. They would sing at a New Year’s Day Mass with the pope.

They love his humble examples: washing the feet of the lowly and hugging and kissing the disfigured and disabled.

“I’m excited to see what he will do when we encounter him and how he interacts with the people,” said Sam Barrett, 14, who is proud to be one of the pope’s 3.75 million followers on Twitter.

Sarah Martin, 15, said the pope has made her proud to a Catholic, especially when she hears media reports talking about his good works.

Martin is not alone. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that 26 percent of Catholics have become “more excited” about their faith. Another 40 percent pray more often.

Riley Marget, a seventh-grader in his first year at Most Holy Trinity School, finds himself hearing — and responding to — the cry of the poor a bit more since the election of Pope Francis. He reflected on it in an essay contest, “The Pope, the Poor and You” sponsored by Maryknoll Magazine. It scored a record 11,834 entries.

Marget emerged the second place winner in the middle school division. Maryknoll Father Scott Harris, who serves in the Diocese of Phoenix, will present him a check and certificate March 21.

“I never thought there was much I could do to replace despair with hope,” Marget, whose confirmation name is Francis, wrote in his essay.

Pope Francis showed him another way. Argentina’s cardinal-turned-pope is inspiring people like Maria Rodriguez too. The St. Gregory parishioner gets her papal news from El Sembrador, a California-based television network. She said his messages give people hope in a merciful Lord, especially in the midst of difficulties.

“People make mistakes and they pay for those mistakes, but that does not mean they are away from God,” Rodriguez said.

Nestor Muñoz, a parishioner at St. Francis Mission in Scottsdale, admires the pope’s warm approach and sees similarities to the pope’s namesake.

“Just how St. Francis shook the world in theology and what it means to be challenged, Pope Francis is trying to do the same thing,” Nestor said.

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