BRADENTON -- "Pope Mania" has hit St. Joseph Catholic School.
As the pope winds his way through his six-day visit in America, students and administrators at St. Joseph are following him with enthusiasm.
One little boy in particular has fallen in love with the popular pontiff.
Tiny St. Joseph preschooler Marcelo Garcia is too young to understand the particulars of the trip, "but his heart has fully embraced the man," said St. Joseph Catholic School first-year Principal Deborah Suddarth.
"Whenever Marcelo sees the pope's picture he says, 'Papa,'" Suddarth said Friday.
"Wow! That's the Pope!" Marcelo shouted with his huge, dark eyes pointing
at a picture of Pope Francis during Wednesday morning's prayer service.
At the service, 224 students plus faculty and parents met to pray together for the World Meeting of Families, welcoming Pope Francis to the United States. They prayed for families around the world, especially those who are broken or dealing with poverty and homelessness, said Michael John, director of faith formation at St. Joseph Catholic Church on 26th Street West.
Invitation to Bradenton
St. Joseph seventh-grade student leaders Delaney Desjardins and Brendan Early said they would love it if the pope would miraculously decide to alter his travel plans and visit their school.
What would the two 12-year-olds say to persuade the pope to add Bradenton to the tail end of his Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia itinerary?
"Everyone here would be very excited to have you visit here," Delaney said.
"You'd be welcomed here at any time, and it would be a great experience meeting you and you would enjoy it here," Brendan said.
The papal invites come during a time when Pope Francis' visit to America has captured the imagination of Catholics across the nation, Suddarth said.
"I think it's an exciting time for all of us who are Catholics, because we are seeing the faith and the values we share with one another now shared by Pope Francis across the United States with everyone," Suddarth added.
Delaney has deep questions for the pope.
"I would ask him how he keeps faith with God, even though a lot of bad things are happening around the world," Delaney said.
In the days before the pope arrived in Washington, the children of St. Joseph Catholic School made pictures of their families and wrote prayers to the Holy Spirit to protect and watch over their families and the pope.
Older grades wrote essays on the theme "If I were Pope I would " or "If I met the Pope, I would want him to know "
St. Joseph families made a quilt of family pictures that will be displayed in the Parish Center, reminding them they are family and are commanded by God and His Holiness, Pope Francis, to serve in the name of mercy to all, John said.
"It would be interesting to know him," Brendan said. "He's such a humble person."
Students said if the pope were to visit their school, they would offer him time with St. Joseph teacher Cathy Daley, who they say has a God-given ability to help people with their English.
"I know he has been working very, very hard on his English and I know he would love Mrs. Daley and she would certainly help him with that," Suddarth said. "He would have a mastery of English beyond anything he every hoped for. She's the best."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.