SOUTH PORTLAND (April 7, 2005): Holy Cross School Principal Deacon Steve Harnois took a group of students into the school's chapel Monday, with its frescos and murals on the walls, as millions around the world mourned the death of the pope.
Harnois has been using the death of Pope John Paul II to teach students about the traditions surrounding the death of the pope and the process of choosing a new one.
Taking students into the school's chapel, "like the Sistine Chapel," is helping Harnois recreate for the students the experience of the cardinals, as they vote to choose the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
“We learned basically what’s going to be happening as the cardinals arrive in Rome,” Harnois said of the events at the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school on the corner of Broadway and Cottage Road.
Pope John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyla in Poland in 1920, died Saturday at age 84, after more than 26 years as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
The school is beginning each morning this week by praying the “‘Our Father,’ ‘Hail Mary’ and ‘Glory Be’ for the repose of his soul,” Harnois said.
Harnois gave teachers information on Pope John Paul II, and on the process of choosing a new pope, and are discussing the events with their students.
Harnois, who worked 29 years in public education before moving to the Catholic schools seven years ago, said death is not a problem topic at Holy Cross.
“It’s much easier to handle death here than in the public schools … because you can go into Christian beliefs,” he said.
In religion classes, students have talked about John Paul II and what he did during his papacy, as well as the traditions surrounding the death of a pope and the election of a new one.
Some of the students asked about the practices of hitting the pope on the head with a silver mallet and calling out the pope's original name, Harnois said. He told them those measures were to ensure the pope was not stricken with the “sleeping sickness” in the 16th and 17th centuries, which made people appear dead when they were really still alive.
“We talked about all the different traditions that have evolved over the years,” Harnois said, including the prayers before each balloting, why the cardinals’ ballots are threaded by a needle onto a thread and why the ballots are burned after each vote.
Those practices were developed to prevent cardinals from casting more than one vote, which led to questions from students who wondered why holy men would try to cheat. Harnois has discussed with the students how some people throughout history have been more interested in the “power of the papacy rather than the goodness of it.”
And to explain why a newly chosen pope has to pick a new name, Harnois looks to the Bible. “It comes from Jesus changing Simon’s name to Peter,” he said, referring to an event in which Jesus renamed one of his disciples to reflect a new, reborn set of beliefs.
Harnois, who was in his late 20s when John Paul II became pope, is now 65. He has also addressed some of the larger issues the cardinals face when they meet to choose a pope.“The needs of the church, the needs of the kingdom of God, should be discussed,” Harnois said. If there are specific people who meet those needs, their skills might be mentioned, but there is nothing like what Americans might call campaigning. Cardinals do not urge each other to vote for one or another person in particular, he said.