Pope Project Is Lasting Lesson For Borgia Sixth-Graders

"Habemus Papam!" -- We Have a Pope! Students in Brenda Johnson's sixth-grade class at St. Francis Borgia Grade School gather around the pope they "elected" in their mock conclave, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, as they signal the result of their election by sending up white smoke from a chimney. The church's maintenance crew built the chimney and started a fire that would produce white smoke.   Missourian Photo.

Sixth-grade students in Brenda Johnson’s class at St. Francis Borgia Grade School were preschoolers the last time the Catholic Church elected a new pope. None of them probably even remember it.

This election, however, they may never forget.

Their teacher took the historic moment and turned it into a learning opportunity that included research, “campaigning,” a mock election, even a white smoke signal.

Johnson said the inspiration came from Michelle Etter, coordinator of religious education at the grade school, and some of the actual activities were taken from a homeschool blog.

The first part of the project was researching the history and the office of the pope. Students read newspaper articles, checked out books from the library, watched the TV news and searched on the Internet for answers to questions like:

What are the chief powers of the pope? What is the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the history of the papacy? What is the process for selecting a new pope?

They compiled their research into visual displays that are now hanging in the school stairwell where all of the students can see, read and learn.

The second part of the project was a playful mock conclave and election. Using a “March Madness Vatican Edition, Sweet Sistine” bracket chart created by one of the mainstream news outlets, the students each drew the name of a cardinal — the pool had been narrowed to 16 “most likely candidates from across the globe.”

Then they researched their assigned cardinal and began a campaign, making posters and giving speeches in favor of their candidate.

After each student had made his or her presentation, their conclave began. It took five rounds of voting before Cardinal Timothy Dolan, whose sister, Debbie Williams, is the school secretary, received the two-thirds majority to be elected pope.

They completed the project by dressing in red construction paper cardinal caps and, for the pope, a white cloak, white cap and staff, and marching over to the church courtyard where the maintenance staff had constructed a chimney and made a fire so they could send up the white smoke signal of “Habemus Papam!”

That means, “We have a pope!” the students noted.

Other details that stood out for the group were:

• Only cardinals who were over 35 and under 80 were eligible to vote for the new pope.

• It’s the Holy Spirit who tells them for whom to vote.

• Chemicals are used to color the smoke after a vote.

• In previous years, different kinds of wood were used to create the correct color.

• The ballots of the vote are being burned.

• St. Peter is buried right underneath the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica.

As the first rounds of voting took place, the students watched the TV news closely, even missing recess Wednesday morning.

“We watched a live stream on our Smart Board,” Johnson noted.

An early dismissal on Wednesday meant that many of the students were not in class when the white smoke appeared. Still, they watched and listened wherever they were to follow the news.

Many of them then did their own research on the new Pope Francis, said Johnson, since Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina, hadn’t been one of the 16 they had researched. They came in knowing lots of details about him, she said.

“He’s very unselfish,” one student noted.

“He’s an advocate for the poor,” another added.

“He didn’t live in the bishop’s palace . . . He rode the bus . . . cooked his own food . . . lived in a small apartment,” they continued.

Back in the classroom after sending up their “Habemus Papam!” signal, the students had fun celebrating their new “leader” by crowding around him and posing, thumbs up, for photos.