Charles Noonan, a sixth-grader at St. Bernadette's School in Silver Spring, stood leaning over his desk, tie askew and one foot atop the other, as he intently read aloud a prayer he'd just written in his religion class:
"Holy Spirit, please give John Paul II a safe trip and when he has mass, will he strengthen people's hearts [whose] faith has turned against God."
Over in the fifth grade, Sister Florence was coaching the class in a skit based on the Bible passage in which Christ tells the apostle Peter that he will be "the rock upon which I establish my church." Later, she explained that Pope John Paul II is a successor to St. Peter, the first pope of the Catholic Church.
The the past two weeks, one period a day has been set aside in the parochial schools of the Washington archdiocese so the schoolchildren can learn something new about John Paul before he arrives here Saturday.
Like a Lilliputian army of support, the children of the archdiocese stand at attention at their desks each day, their hands clasped in front of them, and pray for the pope's "safe journey" and that he be touched with wisdom during his historic visit.
In Sister Margaret's religion class, where the axiom "Prayer Should Be the Key to the Day and the Lock of the Night" is stripped across the blackboard, the youngsters are encouraged to write their own prayers.
"Dear Holy Spirit, please give him a safe journey to our place. And if he's scared, please make him understand we're happy to see him," prayed Joseph Cribbin.
"Oh, Jesus, please help the pope get over his tiredness," beseeched Philip Key, another sixth-grader.
St. Bernadette's School is alive these days with reminders of the pope. A color portrait of him, set off by red velvet drapery, is the first thing the schoolchildren see when they walk up the steps to the school's lobby in the morning.
On the fire doors throughout the building, the Sisters of St. Francis, who run the school, have placed red and white bumper stickers that say, "Welcome Pope John Paul II -- God Bless You."
In one classroom, the students have posted a map of the United States on which red crayon lines are drawn, tracing the route he will take and the cities he will visit. Alongside, on the blackboard, they have figures out the mileage from city to city.
In the first grade, Sister Joseph has asked her young students to bring in pictures of the pope for the bulletin board. They especially seem to like newspaper pictures of the pope with children, she said.
The unabashed affection that the youngsters seem to feel for the pope -- they have eagerly learned his likes, dislikes, and his hobbies -- seems to have been returned a hundredfold during his tour. In Ireland and America, he has told Catholic youth how much he loves them and depends on them to sow the seeds of love, compassion and justice in the future.
As is often the case, children mirror the controversies of the age in their conversations, and the young at St. Bernadette's School are no exception.
"He's very conservative, even though his personality doesn't seem that way," said eighth-grader Penny Seaten. "For example, I go to St. John the Baptist Church and they allow altar girls and everything.And I don't like the idea that he won't let women give communion on the Mall."
"I think if they change the church too much, the true meaning might be lost," interjected Seaten's classmate, Beth Ann Boril.
"Yeah, but the church has to be fair" chimed in Dondra Coniglio, another eighth-grader.
"The world is modernizing and the church has to walk with it," Seaten replied.
The teachers at St. Bernadette's encourage such exchanges among students as a means of discussing with these future parishioners the current policies of the Roman Catholic Church.
The religion classes in Catholic school these days are using special pope-related lesson plans that were distributed earlier this month. Most of the lessons deal with the history of the Roman Catholic pontiffs and the gospel passages relating to St. Peter.
But they also stress the religious significance of the pope's visit so that the children are not just caught up in the excitement of what archdiocese officials fear might otherwise be seen as another Washington media event. Nonetheless, it's obvious that the intricate teachings of the church sometimes go over the youngster's head.
When Sister Florence was doing her skit on St. Peter as the "rock of the church," one fifth-grader said to her quizzically, "I didn't know there was a rock named Peter."
"It's not a type of rock we're talking about," the young Francisan sister explained patiently. "There are names that mean something in another language. The name Peter is a symbolic thing . . . Jesus specially chose the name Peter for this apostle because it symbolizes rock."
The teachers have tried to adapt the lesson to the learning levels of each grade. For example, in the first grade, teacher Kathy Glen has brought in pictures of the pope when he was a young man and pictures of him with his family.
"These primary grades can't grasp abstract things," she said. "So I've tried to stress that the pope was a regular person but specially chosen by God. I've tried to stress the aspects of his life that they can identify with."
In the eighth grade, Deacon Christopher Ruggles palyed the role of a non-Catholic last week who wanted to know from his Catholic friends, "What's the big deal about a pope coming to Washington?"
"It's not really the pope himself who's important. What's important is that he represents Christ's church on earth," one boy replied.
"Oh yeah? In what way does he represent Christ's church?" the deacon asked the boy.
"He's the leader of Christ's church on earth."
"Well, he doesn't lead my church and I'm a Christian," the deacon retorted, still posing as the non-Catholic.
At that the class looked puzzled. Then one girl's hand shot up. "The pope is like Peter," she said. "Peter was an apostle and Christ, the son of God, appointed him to be the rock of the Church."
"Christ knew Peter pretty good," another boy interjected. "Peter preached God's word with Christ. He gave up everything and followed Jesus.