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 CNS Story:

POPE-STUDENTS Apr-16-2008 (510 words) xxxn

Catholic school students give pope birthday gifts that will last

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Birthdays last just one day. But the efforts generated on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI by Catholics in the Washington area and throughout the nation will resonate for many days to come.

Three Catholic school students were chosen to give Pope Benedict birthday greetings for his 81st birthday April 16 during a brief meeting inside the Vatican nunciature in Washington.

Kristina Wilson, a junior at St. John's College High School in Washington, gave the pope a birthday card on behalf of the National Catholic Educational Association. The group collected pledges of 1.7 million hours of community service.

Stephanie Joy Heredia, an eighth-grade student at Corpus Christi School in Falls Church, Va., gave the pontiff a gift-wrapped box that contained the names of all parishes and schools participating in the "Birthday Blessing for Pope Benedict" effort.

Jennifer Sharkey, an eighth-grader at St. Jane Frances de Chantal School in Bethesda, Md., gave the pope a birthday card with partial results of the "From Hunger to Hope" food drive conducted the weekend of April 12-13 by parishes in the Archdiocese of Washington. The card read 200,000 pounds of food; the latest tally, according to Maryland Catholic Conference official Mary Schneidau, was close to 230,000 pounds. Sharkey also gave the pontiff a happy-birthday sticker on behalf of her school.

Wilson was almost weak in the knees when describing the meeting with Pope Benedict.

"I'm just trying not to explode," she said.

After she presented the service-hours birthday card, she said she told him "we were very happy to have him here in the United States and that it was a blessing. And he said that he was very pleased with our gifts and he was very pleased to meet us. He was happy that we came to meet him."

Wilson herself pledged 30 hours in the community-service drive. This is on top of the 40 hours she is expected to do as part of her studies. She goes to an assisted-living facility to sit and talk with the residents and to play the piano for them.

"I'm speechless," said Heredia. "It's such a blessing. It's just a slice of heaven. You can really feel the sense of peace he brings."

Heredia told Catholic News Service after the papal meeting that she prepared for it with the help of a teacher. "And I prayed a lot," she said, adding that she prayed, among other things, "that I wouldn't freeze up when I saw him."

Asked if her prayers were answered, Heredia answered with an enthusiastic and relieved "Yes!"

Sharkey was chosen at random from among all Catholic school students in the Washington metropolitan area. She was notified only six days before the papal meeting that she would meet the pope. "I definitely prayed a lot," she said.

Her fellow students are all ears when it comes to Sharkey's encounter with Pope Benedict. "They're very excited," she said. "They want to know everything, every detail. And they want to see pictures."


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