Devotion to Mary – Eighth graders crown a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary during which they recognized the Holy Father’s devotion to the Mother of Jesus. Jeff Metzner photo

Devotion to Mary – Eighth graders crown a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary during which they recognized the Holy Father’s devotion to the Mother of Jesus. Jeff Metzner photo

By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor

Rarely does a school community have the opportunity to witness the canonization of its school patron.

To see photo gallery on this event, click here.

So when Pope John Paul II was made a saint April 27 by Pope Francis in Rome, the community in Pope John Paul II Regional School, Willingboro, had great reason to celebrate.

Throughout the week of April 28-May 2, the students who attend the only institution in the Trenton Diocese that’s named after the newly canonized saint spent a week celebrating in his honor with a host of activities.

While most of the students are too young to remember Pope John Paul II, who was elected pontiff in 1978 and served the universal Church until his death in April 2005, the week afforded them the opportunity to learn more about him and reflect on his influence on the world in concrete ways.

The week started out with the school community watching a video on the Holy Father’s life and paying tribute his ministry as a servant leader by having students roll up their sleeves and perform works of service such as sprucing up the grounds around the school building which shares its campus with Corpus Christi Parish, planting flowers and cleaning debris and leaves.

The very popular and well attended International Night held May 1 in the school hall drew a significant number of school families and Corpus Christi parishioners which recognized many of the countries that John Paul II had visited during his pontificate. Each class was assigned a particular country and, through their research, the students learned that some of the Holy Father’s journeys included 43 out of 55 countries in Africa, as well as Italy, France, Spain, India, Mexico, China, his native Poland and, of course, the United States. On the stage, students placed flags of the various countries and on the tables that were set up around the hall, were displays that had written materials including facts, artifacts and pictures on the countries, information on when the Holy Father had visited and samplings of ethnic foods. Some of the students donned native attire while others shared a greeting they learned in their country’s native language.

The International Night held special significance for the school community given that student population is multicultural with a number of students or their families hailing from other parts of the world, Catherine Zagola, principal, shared.

Recognizing John Paul II’s mandate that all Catholic Christians are to promote and adhere to living a “culture of life,” the students wrote letters to their parents, thanking them for the gift of life. The students also acknowledged their folks for instilling in them the gift of faith and for making the sacrifice to provide them with a Catholic education.

The week culminated May 2 as the school community acknowledged John Paul II’s canonization as well as his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. A Mass was celebrated for the Holy Father in Corpus Christi Church by Father Joseph Jakub, pastor, followed by an outdoor May crowning of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary held in the school courtyard.

While the entire school community participated in the procession, Zagola explained that any of the eighth grade students who wanted to crown the Blessed Mother or be part of the court had to write an essay on why they wanted to have the honor. After writing their essays, the students participated in a prayer service during which they were each given a holy card and asked to pray that the Holy Spirit chose the right person to crown the Blessed Mother. The student who had the holy card with the phrase, “Mary has chosen you to have the honor of crowning her on May 2, 2014” then became the designated crowner.

During the May crowning, Father Jakub led a prayer service and as the community joined in singing “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” student Emma-Camille Lomax placed a floral crown on the Blessed Mother’s head.

In her essay, student Charlese Martin reflected on the influence that the Blessed Mother had in John Paul II’s life and that “she should have in all of our lives.”

While research led student Ciara Phillips-Darby to learn more about how the newly canonized saint had lived his life, Martin said she was heartened by the Holy Father’s forgiving nature, especially after the assassination attempt on his life.

“Forgiveness is a strong lesson we all need to know as Christians,” she said.

Lomax said she was interested to learn that the Holy Father had an interest in the theater and realized how “ordinary people who do ordinary things” can become saints.

The prayer service ended with Father Jakub giving each student a medal or a prayer card that had been blessed by Pope John Paul II. Father Jakub shared that he obtained the medals and prayer cards when he visited the Vatican in 2003. At the time, he was a seminarian in St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Philadelphia, and had the opportunity to travel to Rome with fellow seminarians to visit a priest who was studying at the Pontifical North American College. The priest arranged for the Philadelphia seminarians to have a private audience with the Holy Father.

“Meeting the Holy Father was a high point for me in the seminary,” recalled Father Jakub, noting that John Paul II greeted the seminarians as a group and then each man individually.

After sharing that he has read many of John Paul II’s writings and that the topic of his college thesis was on “The American Family -- From the Perspective of John Paul II,” Father Jakub said that “now that I’m affiliated with the school in the diocese that’s named after him is very special to me.”

“This week has been very special for the Pope John Paul II Regional School Community to honor their namesake’s life and legacy,” he said.