The tiny voices of thousands of Kansas schoolchildren shouted in unison Wednesday with the 200,000 people gathered in Italy when the Catholic Church introduced its new leader, Pope Francis.
“We heard a lot of screaming,” Wichita Catholic Diocese Bishop Michael Jackels said of the students, including chants of “Francesco! Francesco!”
More than 5,000 students from Catholic schools in the Diocese of Wichita had gathered at Hartman Arena to celebrate the diocese’s 125th anniversary. They got an extra bonus when the papal conclave indicated – by sending white smoke billowing from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel – that it had selected a new pope shortly after 1 p.m.
“I got a sense that they felt a part of that even though it was by way of television,” Jackels said of the students, who watched the Vatican’s announcement as it was broadcast into the arena on a large television.
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“They were all very excited.”
Jackels, who after the rally expressed thanks to God for the pope’s election, said he’s grateful leadership has been re-established in the church following Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation last month.
“With any organization, but certainly something like a church, to be without a visible leader kind of leaves you wondering how we move forward. Which direction do we go?” he said.
He added that the conclave’s selection of the first pope from the Americas – Francis hails from Argentina – recognizes the church’s global reach and that its youthfulness lies outside of Rome.
“For Catholics, it’s a very significant event,” Jackels said.
Wednesday’s event at Hartman Arena marked a significant milestone for the diocese, which was established in 1887 by Pope Leo XIII. The diocese today covers more than 20,000 square miles in 25 counties and is home to 114,195 Catholics in 90 parishes.
The diocese also includes nearly 11,000 students, making it the ninth-largest school district in the state. Many of those students participated in Wednesday’s event.
“We are celebrating their faith and diversity,” said Bob Voboril, superintendent of schools for the diocese.
Beginning at 10 a.m., students began pouring through the doors at Hartman Arena, carrying sack lunches, bottled water and other snacks.
“I think it is pretty crazy,” said Chad Pauly, a student from Trinity High School in Hutchinson. “I had no idea there were this many students in the Catholic schools. It is very exciting.”
The 125th anniversary is something that both Catholics and non-Catholics can celebrate because the church’s presence represents much of the history in Kansas, said retired Bishop Eugene Gerber.
“We’re all in this together,” Gerber said. “We should all be doing the best we can. It is a matter of respecting each other.”
Two teachers were inducted into the Catholic School Hall of Heritage for service and sacrifice in Catholic education. They are Sister Catherine Dreiling, who was originally from Hays and spent 45 years teaching at parish schools in Pratt, Independence, Kingman, Pittsburg and Arkansas City. She died in 1983.
The other was Patrick Forbes, who was a principal, teacher and coach from 1960 to 2005 – the longest tenure of any lay educator in the history of the diocese. He spent 41 years at St. Mary’s Colgan in Pittsburg.
“Quite honestly, I wasn’t planning on coming but my wife said, ‘You’ve got to go,’ ” Forbes said Wednesday. “I went to St. Patrick in Parsons through the 12th grade, St. Mary’s of the Plains to get my degree and have taught.
“What’s my life been? I have been blessed.”