NY teens picked to see Pope Francis await him with mix of anxiety and joy

The magnitude of meeting Pope Francis was not lost on the the 12 Catholic school seniors selected to meet him on September 25.

At a press conference in the library of Cathedral High School in New York City this week, the teens’ anxiety and joy was palatable.

“I’m nervous and excited,” said Brandon Cabaleiro, a senior from Archbishop Stepinac in White Plains. “But mostly excited … I’m going to meet the most powerful man on earth.”

These students will wait in a hallway to escort the pope from one meeting with Catholic school elementary students to another across the school with recipients and representatives of Catholic Charities. 

I just want to tell him I appreciate everything he’s done to make it cool to be religious.

- Daniel Afrifa, senior student

While the younger students were narrowed down by recommendation and selected by lottery, the older ones were nominated by their schools. A number of school officials said they sought young men and women who were academically adept, spiritually sound and embodied Pope Francis’ ideals. As a result, many of the students were part of their campus ministry programs, active in community service and leaders in their school honor societies.

Cabaleiro, the son of a Peruvian and a Spaniard, is a volunteer tutor for children at the immigrant support center El Centro Hispano. He also distributes food and clothes to homeless around Manhattan's Penn Station with his school’s ministry.

“It is awesome and inspiring to see a Pope who is Hispanic,” Cabaleiro said, adding that the children he works with benefit from seeing a respected Latino in a lofty position of power.

Kara Fragola from Hartsdale’s Maria Regina High School has a special request for the pontiff. Her father, whom she described as her best friend, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February. She hopes Pope Francis can say a prayer for him.

“That is just what is in my heart,” she said.

As tested as her faith may seem at this difficult time, Fragola said it’s helping her cope and meeting the pope just bolsters her beliefs.

“If you don’t believe in God and don't have hope, what would you do?” wondered Fragola. “I don’t know where I would be.”

Daniel Afrifa from Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx said he is brushing up on his Spanish to address the pope in his native tongue.

“I just want to tell him I appreciate everything he’s done to make it cool to be religious,” he said.

Meanwhile, Richard Portas from Monsignor Farrell School in Staten Island, isn’t sure what he will ask the Pope, but he knows he wants it to be special — maybe something he can share with the third graders to whom he teaches catechism or pass along to people in his life.

“This is a chance in a lifetime,” he said of his opportunity to address the Pontiff. “I have to ask a life-changing question.”

Some of the students are prepared to go to great lengths to put their best foot forward. Robert Ruszkowski from St. Joseph by the Sea in Staten Island said he would try to look extra special that day. He plans to shine his shoes, and take his already perfectly coiffed hair to the barber just to get it spruced up. Styling products will undoubtedly be used with the utmost vigor.

If he gets to, he’d probably kiss the ring of his Holiness and thank him for doing a great job. He said he was still trying to wrap his mind around the occasion.

“A couple of weeks ago, I was just a regular guy from Staten Island,” he said, looking around at the media scrum that surrounding him. “I guess I still am.”

He may be just a regular guy, yet a regular guy that will meet the pope.

Soni Sangha is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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