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Virtual audience with Pope Francis launches new Washington chapter of Scholas, a program close to his heart

Darius Villalobos, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory and Adrianna Smith reach into a bowl with soil as part of a symbolic planting of seeds with the announcement of a Washington chapter of Scholas Occurrentes. The announcement was made at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington during a May 20, 2021 virtual audience with Pope Francis, who originally founded Scholas for young people in his home archdiocese of Buenos Aires, Argentina. During his papacy, the organization has spread throughout the world. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The enthusiastic welcome for the virtual guest at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington outshone the auditorium’s spotlights when Pope Francis appeared from Rome, on a video screen, to 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 May 20 was the latest in a global series of events supporting the worldwide expansion of the educational organization.

Seen on a video screen set up at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, Pope Francis waves to participants during the May 20,2021 Scholas video conference. During the event, Pope Francis blessed the inaugural ribbon and the welcoming plaque for the group’s new Washington chapter. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)
Cherie Ward, director of the Jim Vance Media Program at Archbishop Carroll High School, joins students in cheering when the school was introduced during a virtual audience with Pope Francis May 20 that connected participants at Scholas chapters for young people around the world. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

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 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.” 

Darius A. Villalobos, director of diversity and inclusion for the National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry and Georgetown University graduate Adrianna Smith wait for a virtual papal audience to begin at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington on May 20. The pair were scheduled to address Pope Francis about the launch of a Washington chapter of Scholas Occurrentes, a project begun by the future pope when he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, that focuses on bringing together young people from many cultures and countries to work together to change the world. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

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 Georgetown University graduate, 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.

Darius Villalobos, Washington Cardinal Wilton Gregory and Adrianna Smith watch from the stage of the auditorium at Archbishop Carroll High School as Pope Francis addresses the May 20 video conference for Schola. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

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, Larry Savoy, the school’s president, told the Catholic Standard. He acknowledged that he was unfamiliar with Scholas Occurrentes until he was contacted by the Archdiocese of Washington about hosting the video conference locally. But he soon realized the agenda of the organization 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 meshed with 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’s 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.” 

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville speaks with Georgetown University graduate Adrianna Smith May 20 at Archbishop Carroll High School while waiting for a virtual audience with Pope Francis related to the launch of a Washington chapter of Scholas Occurrentes. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Scholas Occurrentes was envisioned by then-Archbishop Jorge 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 Gomez of Los Angeles, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 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 now includes programs in 190 countries, reaching more than 1 million children and young adults.

Paula Gwynn Grant, the 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.