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.
The principal hopes the students will benefit from this and learn more about the process behind selecting a pope.
"I hope it's not faith-shaking," Colosimo said. "I hope it's faith-affirming. I hope they come to realize the church is made up of a body of people, human beings that have all kinds of needs and wants and desires and abilities. We have always relied on leadership of human people to guide the church.
"If we have faith, then what we ought to be saying is thank you to Pope Benedict and we ought to be looking forward to who the next pope will be and who knows what we might get. I think our faith would have us be optimistic about the new pope and what the new pope can offer and bring to the church."
Veltri told her class that the speculation is that the next pope may come from an emerging country somewhere in Africa or South America. Colosimo said he could see that or the election of an European, as with others. An American pope would be "the blackest of the black sheep."
Junior Dominic Colosimo said a pope from the United States would be "cool," but is mostly hoping to see someone elected like the pope he has chosen to highlight in his pope project for Veltri's class.
"I would like a pope like John Paul II because he did great things and he was pope for a long time, and I think when you're pope for a longer time you have an ability to create more relationships with people around the world and do more good," Dominic Colosimo said.
He said he still remembers watching the election and initiation of Pope Benedict XVI and is anxious to learn more about the election process and how the resignation works.
"It is history and I feel privileged that I've been able to now see two different popes elected in my lifetime in such a young age," he said. "It's an honor."
Veltri's class will continue to discuss the pope's resignation and the election process in the conclave in upcoming weeks. She told the students Pope Benedict XVI has said he wants to live out his life in "solitude and prayer" and that she assumes he will be buried at St. Peter's Basilica with his predecessors.
"Will he still be called Pope or will be go back to Cardinal Ratzinger?" a student asked.
"That's a great question," Veltri said. "I don't know. Again, uncharted territory."
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