NYC 3rd and 4th graders prepare to meet Pope Francis in person

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EAST HARLEM, Manhattan -- Some of the busiest planners for Pope Francis' visit to New York city have been among the smallest in stature. But that didn't stop a group of third and fourth graders a few weeks ago from showing how very excited they are as they prepare to meet the pope one-on-one during his first trip to the Big Apple.

"I almost jumped out the window," said Maziya Clemente, a fourth grader at St. Ann School on East 110th Street about her reaction when she heard that she was among eight students selected to meet Pope Francis in person.

"I was moving everywhere," said Essa Nashal, a third grader at St. Charles Borromeo School on West 142nd Street, as he reenacted the happy dance he did when he learned he was among the students chosen.

"I was like, 'wow,'" said fourth grader Nicholas Marronaro. "This is amazing.  This is awesome!"

He attends the Our Lady Queen of Angels School on East 112th Street.  Its building, between Second and Third avenues, is where the pope will visit on September 25 to meet with students from their schools, as well as the St. Paul School on East 118th Street.

"I'm going to give him a hug, and say I love him," said Allison Reyes, a third grader at Our Lady Queen of Angels.  When the pontiff visits her school in just over five weeks, it should feel somewhat familiar to him.

After all, as a young priest, the pope taught high school literature and psychology in Catholic schools in his native Argentina 50 years ago.  That part of his background has great appeal among the educators he's slated to meet as well.  here.

"From [teaching], God directed him to other things," said Aleeya Francis, the principal of St. Charles Borromeo.  She said that she was also led to a further ministry of leading her school.

The pope's schedule has him having conversations with the eight students who were chosen from a lottery of children who were recognized by their schools as being gifted conversationalists.

Among almost all of them, though, is an interest in asking one question.

"How did he survive with one lung for this long?" asked Nashal, the third grader. Many of his peers said they wanted to know the same thing from the pontiff.    A case of severe pneumonia in his early twenties caused doctors at the time to remove part of one of Pope Francis's lungs.  Clearly, he's been fine ever since.

It's also worth pointing out that a noticeable minority of Catholic school students uptown are not from Catholic families.

"My dad, he's Muslim," said fourth grader Farida Mintoumba, "and I was the first one in my family to be born in America."

The Togolese-American girl is Catholic, though.  Her classmate, Nashal, and his entire family, are Muslim.  He said that the pope has shown in his two years as the Bishop of Rome that people of other faiths -- or no religious affiliation -- are well worth embracing.

"He interacts with people by being kind to people," Nashal said with a smile, "with a gentle approach like a kiss or a hug."

His principal agreed.  "We're not saying we must convert you," Francis said.

She mentioned that she points out to students, teachers and fellow administrators that she and the pope share the same name.  Ms. Francis is one of four principals whose students are now preparing to meet a pope whose ministry, she said, speaks to all of people, through the Roman Catholic faith.

"To be a true Christian , a true Catholic," said Francis, a graduate of the school of which she's now principal, and a lifelong parishioner of its sponsoring church, "It doesn't mean to discriminate.  It means to be loving, to be open."

Pope Francis will be in New York at various venues, including Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, from Sept. 24-26.

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