Third-graders at Ss. Simon and Jude pray over the "Packages of Hope" they assembled Sept. 25. Each student planned to give it to a person in need they encountered on the street. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Third-graders at Ss. Simon and Jude pray over the “Packages of Hope” they assembled Sept. 25. Each student planned to give it to a person in need they encountered on the street. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Pope Francis was thousands of miles away during his inaugural visit to the U.S., but he stayed close to the hearts of area Catholics.

Parishes held special retreats, gatherings and viewing parties. They flew the papal flag outside and harnessed the power of social and mass media to bring its faithful the latest papal whereabouts and addresses.

Youth colored papal portraits and created welcome posters. A nationally known professional artist livened up the windows of a Catholic Charities van during a recent “First Friday” art night in downtown Phoenix. The van will travel the Valley doing good deeds for people and appear at special events as a way to inspire others to do the same, no matter how simple of an act.

That was the crux of what was dubbed the “#PopesHopeChallenge.” Catholic Charities Community Services launched the initiative in the weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ Sept. 22-27 visit to the U.S. It was inspired by his constant good example, but drew on the words Christ’s vicar on earth imparted to inmates shortly after he became pope: “But you too, help one another: Help one another always. One another. In this way, by helping one another, we will do some good.”

Catholic Charities leaders hoped to create a positive stir within the community and on social media, much like the “Ice Bucket Challenge” did a year ago.

“We wanted people to step back and focus on seeing the goodness out there instead of negativity,” said Tami Bohannon, vice president of advancement for Catholic Charities.

Some 3,000 visitors accessed the “#PopesHopeChallenge” page via the Catholic Charities site. Social media users referenced the challenge in their posts in the month leading up to Pope Francis’ visit.

“He’s calling people to action. He’s calling people to be a Church for the poor,” Bohannon said.

The local community responded in a myriad of ways. Individuals spent time with refugee families, donated lemonade stand profits and offered other small acts of kindness. Students at several Catholic schools responded by making deliberate efforts to help someone in need in their own neighborhoods before Pope Francis wrapped up his U.S. trip Sept. 27.

Each grade level at St. John XXIII School in Scottsdale selected their own outreach. Second-graders spearheaded a school supply drive for schools in the diocese that aren’t as well off and one parish that’s launching a children’s ministry program.

Students at St. Gregory loaded 400 fruit and vegetable boxes for families who rely on St. Mary’s Food Bank to eat. They also re-stocked the local St. Vincent de Paul pantry collecting 611 pounds. That’s half of St. Gregory’s monthly allotment Vincentians usually get from the warehouse at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. One class made Hope Stones for cancer patients.

“We thought it was a great way to ‘involve’ the students in Pope Francis’ visit to the United States. They have been very excited about this special visit,” Maureen DeGrose, principal said of the activities.

Grayson Gaspard, a student council representative at Most Holy Trinity, got a small taste of what it might be like to be Pope Francis. He dressed up as the Holy Father for a mock Q-and-A session with the students.

“He had his accent and everything,” Maggie MacCleary, principal, said.

The scripted Q-and-A had Gaspard reminding fellow students of some common papal trivia and discussing what it’s like to be pope. Students treated it like a real papal visit with collective sighs when Gaspard came out in character, shouts of “Papa Francisco” and swarming his later surprise visit at recess. It was held outdoors Sept. 23, the same day as the official welcome ceremony the real Pope Francis received at the White House.

“They were enthralled. I think we had to remind him that he wasn’t really the pope,” said Teri Tucker, who oversees the student council.

The pretend pope left students with a real message: love and care for the poor. They eagerly accepted the invitation to host a sock drive for Shoebox Ministry, which collects and distributes personal hygiene kits to the homeless and working poor.

Catholic Charities staff didn’t excuse themselves from the “#PopesHopeChallenge.” Its IT department brought pizza and fun to students in the Unaccompanied Minor program. This was days after those students brought colorful balloon sculptures shaped like butterflies to The Refuge. The café and wine bar next to Catholic Charities’ uptown office employs refugees and sells artwork and other handmade treasures. The balloons came with a simple card that explained how the “Butterfly Effect” could change the world via a single, small act.

Other Catholic Charities departments served at St. Vincent de Paul, collected household items for welcome baskets for homeless veterans the agency helps transition into apartments and partnered with local stores to collect its surplus baked goods to share with families who visit its office.

The Vincentians at Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral have its food pantry open five days a week and serve 40-50 families. Ss. Simon and Jude students re-stocked its pantry for the “#PopesHopeChallenge” by supplying 70 bags of food.

They also spearheaded a food, hygiene and sock drive to support the homeless individuals that students encounter on street corners near the cathedral. Classes donated the items by grade level with a massive assembly line allowing all 470 students to create a “Package of Hope” Sept. 25.

Each one had water, several snacks, hygiene items and a new pair of socks. Before they sealed it, students inserted a handmade note reminding its recipient of his value and love. School leaders encouraged students to make additional packages at home. Several staff members had done similar efforts on their own for years. Now it’s an official school wide effort.

Sr. Raphael Quinn, IBVM, principal, led each group of students in a prayer for those who will receive the bag. “May their hearts be filled with joy and may they find hope and compassion in our love for them,” she said.

Ss. Simon and Jude’s seventh-graders got an extra lesson in prayer in the days surrounding Pope Francis’ U.S. visit. Drawing on the Book of Philemon, they wrote spontaneous prayers in honor of Pope Francis.

Ethan Ballecer’s read in part, “We ask you to prepare us in our faith, and let us be merciful and compassionate. Make us strong faithful followers like Pope Francis.”

Catholic Charities plans to maintain momentum of the “#PopesHopeChallenge” especially leading into the Year of Mercy beginning this December. Its outreaches and those of similar Catholic apostolates across the Diocese of Phoenix carry out the corporal works of mercy daily.