Vatican City, Jun 12, 2014 / 01:02 am
The first graduating class of the U.S.-based John Paul II Catholic High School celebrated by making a pilgrimage to Rome – a trip the students wanted and planned themselves.
"We're all going separate directions and it's going to be hard to stay as close as we've been, but it's so amazing to end our experience in one of the most beautiful cities in the world," Haylee McArthur told CNA June 11.
Coming from Greenville, North Carolina, the 16 members of John Paul II Catholic High School's first graduating class were present in St. Peter's Square for Pope Francis' June 11 general audience.
Having already been in Italy for 9 days out of their 10 day trip, McArthur said that the highlight of her experience was seeing the Pope that afternoon.
"We were near the barriers, so we saw him when he rode by," she said, recalling how he waved to them as he passed by in the pope mobile.
"It was so amazing, I did not think we would get to see him so close. I thought we were just going to have to wait for hours and see him from a distance, but we got within like 10 feet of him! It was so cool."
Another key moment, she said, was seeing the Sistine Chapel, "because I really like Michelangelo's art, and it was unbelievable that we were actually in there."
Having just entered the Catholic Church four years ago along with her grandmother, McArthur said that she chose to attend John Paul II High School because she started attending Catholic school in the fourth grade and "most of what I know was going to a Catholic school."
"The way they described the school was that it was a new experience with bigger leadership roles, and a way to really branch out," McArthur explained, "and I didn't want to go to just another public school where they just spit you through like a factory."
Describing how she feels that she has received a better education at John Paul II than she would have at a public school, the youth noted that "we've learned so many things than I think public schools do."
"We've learned things like a greater sense of community, and we've read things that are a higher reading material," she observed, drawing attention to a class the high school held this year in which they read "classic literature and had a thesis discussion on it...you can't find that at a public school."
Also present along with the students was the high school's principle, John Donahue, who has been in charge of the school for the past two and a half years.
To be with the students in Rome after accompanying them and seeing the high school's first class graduate was "an absolute thrill" Donahue said.
"It's absolutely thrilling and I think it (was) really kind of inspired by John Paul II; to come to Rome, to be educated in the faith, and to go out and engage the world, challenge the world."
Referring to how he has been in the field of Catholic education for 30 years, the principle noted that when the high school was founded just four years ago "it was really founded by the community of Catholics in Greenville."
"They've been wanting a Catholic high school for a long time and the bishop gave them the opportunity to do it, and so we've begun."
Coming to Rome, he said, "was actually the students' idea," adding that "they wanted to come to Rome and they've been planning this for a number of years now. So this is really the culmination of their education and the culmination of their senior year."
Explaining how he had only been in Rome once before when he was younger, Donahue noted that the experience of coming with the students is "just so exciting, it's almost overwhelming, it's almost too much."
"I'm looking forward to going home and just absorbing it all, and thinking about it and reflecting on it."
The principle reflected on the fruits of the trip for both the students and the school, expressing his hope that the class remains "close throughout their lives, and that this was an experience they all came together for and deepened their faith, and that it's a foundation for them moving forward."