As Pope Francis walked out of a plane about 1 p.m. in Washington, D.C., his hand waving in salutation, church bells across the United States pealed an answering salute. But those lofty chimes could not match the energy, duration and sheer noise level of grade-school children cheering and clanking bells in the gymnasium of Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Modesto.
“This is so exciting!” said an eighth-grader, a braces-lined grin stretching ear to ear.
Watching via live streaming on the Internet, the 230 children shrieked and called and rang their bells as the pontiff walked down the stairs and onto the red carpet on the tarmac. The pontiff greeted the U.S. president and vice president and their families, church dignitaries, and Catholic schoolchildren in navy blue skirts and white blouses, and the Modesto students – in similar attire – roared their approval.
Minutes passed as the din rang on through the Modesto campus. When the bells and voices at last faded, the pope’s devoted young fans turned to a more internal task, praying for him.
“Dear Pope Francis, please keep us in your prayers and have a safe trip here,” read one youngster’s prayer intention, written with care on a paper with a sketch of the spiritual leader.
“I hope he has a good day in America. I hope he has a good time,” said sixth-grader Matt Aitken after finishing his paper.
The school joined in the bell ringing after Principal Melissa Neder heard of the call to churches. “We thought it might be a nice opportunity for our kids to be a part of that,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it for a couple of weeks.”
In the kindergarten class, the pope’s visit still seems far away, said teacher Marta Antone. “They keep asking, ‘Is he coming to Modesto?’ ” she said.
In older classes, students are studying papal teachings. “Pope Francis declared a year of mercy. We’re studying acts of mercy and what that means in their daily lives,” said eighth-grade homeroom and English teacher Mary Ann Walker.
The visit is historic, noted social studies teacher Greg Carlson. “Some of what he says will be interpreted as controversial, and I’ll want to explain to kids what he’s teaching us,” Carlson said.