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Virtual papal audience launches Washington chapter of Scholas Occurrentes

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WASHINGTON — The enthusiastic welcome for the virtual guest at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington May 20 outshone the auditorium's spotlights when Pope Francis appeared from Rome, on a video screen.

He was there to help launch a Washington headquarters for Scholas Occurrentes, a project of the pope's aimed at developing young adults' commitment to the common good.

With internet connections to Scholas Occurrentes groups in Spain, Australia and across Latin America, the virtual audience with Pope Francis was the latest in a global series of events supporting the worldwide expansion of the educational organization.

For the excited students in the Archbishop Carroll audience, their interaction with the rest of the global participants ended up being mostly one-sided, as technical problems in Rome interfered with the video link just as Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory began speaking and the students started cheering.

Cardinal Gregory, the audience and two young adults speaking about their aspirations for Scholas Occurrentes in their communities later recorded their participation to be sent to the Scholas organization and the Vatican.

"With our new Scholas chapter, we are tremendously grateful that our young people will gain greater insight and experience in truly seeing, respecting, and assisting our sisters and brothers from various cultures, races, ethnicities, nations, religions and abilities," said Cardinal Gregory. "This deeper understanding allows us to become a church and a people open to genuine dialogue and authentic encounters."

"We are attentively listening and grateful for the voices and service of our young people," he continued. "The church is their home, and they are at the center of our faith community. Our new chapter of Scholas will provide an additional opportunity for our young people to continue to create a new culture of meaningful and long-lasting encounters."

Also in Washington, two young adults seated with Cardinal Gregory later recorded their messages of hope for what Scholas might mean for U.S. young people.

Adrianna Smith, a student at Georgetown University, said she hopes Scholas helps foster dialogue so that "in each person, in each exchange of ideas, we see the face of Christ."

Darius A. Villalobos, director of diversity and inclusion for the National Federation of Catholic Youth Ministry, noted that "we are blessed with much diversity in this country," and the young people who might participate in Scholas will bring "the gift of their diversity" to its activities.

The opening ceremony in Washington was attended by Martina Amengual, Scholas Occurrentes' coordinator of global expansion.

Pope Francis paid close attention to a series of presentations live in Rome and then streamed online from Spain, Australia and Argentina that touched on programs in each place.

Australian participants joining in at around midnight local time included one student from Australian Catholic University voicing pride in representing indigenous people of Australia and thanked Scholas and the pope for "embracing Mother Earth."

The pope was especially engaged as a young Italian man talked about how his participation in Scholas activities helped him emerge from a dark state of mind.

"Now I am able to smile from my heart," he said. "During lockdown, I was very sad and I started thinking about my problems. Scholas helped me face my own demons, and now I take pride in what I have become."

At the end of the program, Pope Francis lauded the young participants for their efforts: "You really took a risk. ... Remember, don't be afraid, remember not to stand still. Thank you for going beyond your limits."

The event at Archbishop Carroll was scheduled in the last couple of weeks before the launch, Larry Savoy, the school's president, told the Catholic Standard, Washington's archdiocesan newspaper.

He said he was unfamiliar with Scholas Occurrentes until he was contacted by the Archdiocese of Washington about hosting the videoconference locally. But he soon realized the organization's agenda meshes well with "what we do every day" at Archbishop Carroll.

Scholas programs use sports, art and thought to bring young people together across different faiths, cultures and national boundaries.

Savoy said the event also fit the school's Jim Vance Media Program, named in honor of the late local news anchor and founded to give students practical experience with the journalism profession.

The pandemic-limited audience in the auditorium was well-represented by students shooting video and interviewing participants. Other students worked behind the scene, shadowing the archdiocesan media team responsible for lighting, cameras and sound for the program.

One of those students, junior Ijeoma Okere, who has been in the media program for three years, said she was "most excited about hearing input from all over the world. I've lived in Maryland all my life, so the chance to hear from other places is exciting."

Scholas Occurrentes was envisioned by then-Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio when the future pope headed the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

After discussions with young people about their frustrations, he started in 2001 what became Scholas Occurrentes as a way to develop social integration and the culture of encounter among high school students through the arts, sports and technology.

It began as a conduit for encounters between public and private schools and students of various faiths in Argentina, and was adopted as a global youth project of the Vatican by Pope Francis in 2013. In December 2019, the U.S. headquarters of Scholas was announced in Los Angeles.

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles participated in the May 20 videoconference to introduce the Washington chapter and to share how Scholas Occurrentes has helped young people live out their faith in the world.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic slowed plans for growth over the last year, the virtual event gave a sense of its ambitious reach.

In addition to Pope Francis blessing the new Scholas Occurrentes chapter in Washington, he recognized a new chapter in Valencia, Spain, as well as the International School for Environmental Leaders and the School of Political Formation. The creation of those schools was inspired by the pope's encyclicals "Laudato Si' " and "Fratelli Tutti."

Scholas Occurrentes now includes programs in 190 countries, reaching more than 1 million children and young adults.

Paula Gwynn Grant, secretary of communications for the Archdiocese of Washington, said plans for the physical operation of Scholas Occurrentes in Washington are in the very beginning stages. There are not yet concrete plans for an office or staffing. She said the first activities, in the fall, will be in collaboration with Georgetown University's Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life.

Find out more

More information about Scholas Occurrentes can be found at https://www.scholasoccurrentes.org/en.

Zapor writes for the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021