Students at Catholic school get impromptu lesson on papal succession

Published: Monday, Feb. 11 2013 5:00 p.m. MST

Caitlin Keenan participates in a discussion in Nicole Veltri's theology class at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013, following the announcement that Pope Benedict XVI will resign.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

DRAPER — Nicole Veltri stood in front of her theology class at Juan Diego Catholic High School Monday and answered as many questions as she could.

"What did I tell you when we started talking about popes?" she asked the class of juniors.

"Popes don't resign," they answered en masse.

"This doesn't ever happen and it's happening," Veltri said.

The class was already scheduled to learn about the conclave, the group of 118 cardinals that will elect the next pope, before Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would retire. Veltri told them this was the first time anything like this has happened in approximately 600 years.

"This is uncharted territory," she said, adding that Catholics may go into Easter without a pope. "I don't know if there's ever been an Easter without a pope."

The class quickly became a question and answer session.

"Will (the pope) go back to being a cardinal?" one student asked.

"Or is he, like, done?" asked another.

Veltri said there will be no acting pope between Pope Benedict XVI's retirement and the election of his successor. She told her class that the 118 cardinals have to come to a two-thirds majority as to who will be the next pope. Both the voting cardinals and the elected pope must be younger than 80.

"How do they know who to vote for?" another student threw out.

"Any male who is baptized Catholic could be pope," Veltri said.

"So, I could be pope?" a male student chimed in.

"You could be back in the old days," Veltri said. "Now they're being pulled from a smaller group of people that the cardinals know."

Madeline Lehman raised her hand often. She said she hadn't heard about the pope's retirement until getting to class.

"I didn't know they could do that," she said. "Has this happened before? I didn't know this could happen." Still, she praised the pope for his wisdom and thoughtfulness in making this decision. She already knows what she would like to see in the next pontiff.

"Someone who embraces the future and is trying to change with our generation," Lehman said. "We have to have someone who is continuing to move forward."

The class is working on a pope project, where they each select a pope and learn about their lives. Veltri said she introduced the project by talking about the church's popes and it was then that she told them popes don't resign.

"This morning I was proven wrong," she said.

She thinks this is a unique experience for both her and her class.  

"From a teaching perspective, it's a really neat opportunity to be able to walk them through the process as it's happening," Veltri said. "Rather than in the past, we get to teach in the present."

Principal Galey Colosimo said he met with the students at 8 a.m. and they discussed the pope's resignation and offered a prayer. They thanked Pope Benedict XVI for his contribution and leadership and prayed for his successor.

Everyone at the school was surprised by the announcement, including the students who were confused by it. Colosimo said they are trying to help students understand the process in their theology classes.

"We're trying to get that out to our students through our theology classes as we speak and let them know what a historic moment this is for the pope to actually resign," he said.  

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