As I watched the announcement about Pope Benedict XVI's retirement on CNN on February 11, 2013 I had two immediate thoughts: 1) Maybe I am still asleep and this is all a dream, and 2) I wish I were still working in a parish so I could be part of this rare and outstanding teachable moment. First I ascertained that indeed I was awake. Then my head began to spin about what I would do with different grade levels to help them get into the reality of what is going on and get excited about being a part of real Church history!
Activity: Modern Church Timeline for Kids
As a history major (in another life), I found that one of the things that appealed to elementary and middle school-aged youngsters was to put together a timeline. This has tactile elements as well as research and writing involved. So, let's make a timeline of what will happen between when the Holy Father made his announcement on February 11 and when the new Pope is installed as Supreme Pontiff.
Children can work in groups of four or five. Bring in copies of the diocesan newspaper and also secular newspapers for them to read. Much information can be collected from websites such as www.usccb.org, www.osv.com, and perhaps the fullest coverage of all at www.vatican.va. Don't forget your own diocesan web page as well.
Younger children can use color coded papers (gold for the pope, red for what is happening with the Cardinals, blue for information on American Cardinals, etc) and put them in a line on the walls of the room. Middle schoolers can do some digital time lines by keeping track of everything on their computers. They will know well the kinds of tools on the computer which they can put to good use. They can print them out and put them on the walls or even make them into a booklet.
Before beginning to work on this project be sure to give the students some background on why this is such an historical event (no pope has resigned from the papal office for 600 years, this will be an unusual election because the pope himself is still alive, no one really has a “rule book” to go by since it is so rare, and so on), who will elect the pope (118 Cardinals are eligible to vote in this election. Cardinals who are over 80 years of age are not able to be electors), where will the election take place (in the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican which is in Italy), how will we know when there is a new pope (there will be smoke from a special stove set up in the Sistine Chapel after each ballot; if the smoke is black they will continue their process of voting and if the smoke is white the people outside will know that a pope has been elected).
Be sure to emphasize that the entire process is done in the context of prayer and the Holy Spirit's inspiration is a big part of the decision making process. You might also mention that before the newly elected pope is introduced to the people gathered in St. Peter's Square he will have selected the name by which he will be called as pope. The current Pope's name is Joseph Ratzinger but when he became pope in 2005 he took the name Pope Benedict XVI.
Words of Faith
Another activity you may want to begin is to make a list of terms that the students have not encountered before. Put a long sheet of paper or newsprint on the wall and encourage students to add words when they come across something new (like conclave, papal, Cardinal, electors, inspiration, Vatican, succession).
Your student will remember this and will know so much more about the Church when you have entered into these and other activities. Encourage them to keep whatever they make because this is truly historical. Don't miss this incredible teachable and unique moment in our Church's history.