By John Thavis
In terms of power and prestige, it was perhaps the least of the papal events on Friday, which also saw him address the United Nations and lead an interfaith service at the 9/11 Memorial.
But for Pope Francis, kids and refugees are high on the list of priorities. The encounters showcased the U.S. church’s vast educational network, which serves nearly 2 million students, and introduced the pope to its services for more than 35,000 immigrants each year.
Even before he got inside the school of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels in a predominantly Latino and black neighborhood of Harlem, the pope posed for selfies with older students, blessed their rosaries and chatted in Spanish. Some burst into a spontaneous version of “When the Pope Comes Marching In.”
Then, as he toured the classroom, they presented him with homemade gifts. Two students showed him a touch-screen “SMART board” with an environmental theme, displaying moveable symbols of land, water and resources. When the pope kept trying unsuccessfully to reposition the symbol for water, a child took his hand and helped him.
The immigrants came from Latin America, Africa and Asia and included mothers, unaccompanied children, people fleeing religious persecution and the disabled.
When the pope entered the gymnasium, some of the younger ones presented him with a “Papa Francisco” soccer uniform and a ball signed by members of their team. More gifts followed.
Seated on a small platform, the pope gave a brief talk, drawing a lesson from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. The pope said it had special meaning for children who came from other countries, and who are adjusting to a new culture.
“His dream was that many children, many people could have equal opportunities. His dream was that many children like you could get an education. It is beautiful to have dreams and to be able to fight for them,” the pope said.
Before leaving, he asked the students if he could give them some homework: “Please don’t forget to pray for me.”
John Thavis is a journalist, author and speaker specializing in Vatican and religious affairs. He is a contributor to the NET TV coverage of Pope Francis’ Visit to the United States.