WASHINGTON – An excited mixture of clapping, cheering, screaming and singing only became louder as Pope Benedict XVI walked toward about 130 students who waited in front of the Vatican Embassy to wish the pope a happy 81st birthday April 16.
The students, from Washington’s Annunciation Catholic School, sang “Happy Birthday” to him in German and English and held up a banner with a jumbo-size painting of the pope dressed in a green cassock and white miter. Along the sides and bottom of the painting students had written, “Annunciation Catholic School wishes you a very happy birthday!”
Pope Benedict shook the hands of several students and congratulated the school’s music teacher on the students’ singing performance. He said it was “wonderful. In German and in English.”
The students had waited eagerly inside a fenced-off area for more than an hour to get their big chance to sing to the pope.
For James Henkels, a student from St. Joseph’s School in Vancouver, Wash., meeting the pope was doubly exciting because he and the pope share the same birthday. James said this is a birthday he will never forget – he turned 11 and shook the pope’s hand.
“It was a one-time experience … a surprise birthday present,” he said.
Mina Grace, a fourth grader at Annunciation School, said she was shocked to shake the pope’s hand.
Mina and her classmates have been learning about the pope for several weeks, and now she understands “the Catholic faith has true meaning in him,” she said.
Meeting the pope in person enables the students to connect on a deeper level with the pope, said Marguerite Conley, principal of Annunciation School.
“They have read about him, learned about him, seen him in pictures, but now they see he is a real person, a person of faith,” she said.
Having the opportunity to do something so personal for the pope inspired the students, Ms. Conley added.
“It was beyond sitting or viewing, now there is this true spiritual connection,” she said, adding that many of her older students were brought to tears when they met the pope.
“They understand the importance of his visit to the United States,” she said.
Time with the pontiff lasted for about five minutes, and then he was ushered into a black limousine and headed to a welcoming ceremony with the president at the White House.