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Pope will speak to thousands of pupils

Pope Benedict XVI will address thousands of school children during his visit to Britain in the autumn.

During an event at St Mary’s University College, Twickenham, near London, Pope Benedict will speak to around 3,000 primary and secondary school children from around the country. Called the “Big Assembly”, the event is due to take place at the racetrack on the campus, and pupils from across Britain will take part.

One plan for the event includes the suggestion that Pope Benedict would bless all the schoolchildren in Britain for the start of the academic year, broadcast to schools via interactive whiteboards.

Places for schoolchildren to take part in the events will be allocated to the dioceses, which in turn hand them out to schools. The Catholic Education Service (CES) has launched a blog called “link in the chain” after a meditation by Cardinal John Henry Newman. The blog carries news updates about the Big Assembly and PowerPoint presentations about the papal visit to be shown in schools.

Mgr Andrew Summersgill, the coordinator for the papal visit, said: “Yes, we are planning a gathering with schools to take place on the Friday morning of the visit. And the Catholic Education Service, both in England and Wales and in Scotland, is now in touch with schools authorities in the dioceses to seek representatives from the dioceses to come to be with Pope Benedict.

“There are about 800,000 young people in Catholic schools throughout the country. Now clearly they can’t all be in the one place. So somewhere in the region of about 3,000 young people will be invited to come along to represent their schools and their fellow pupils and to celebrate education, and particularly Catholic education, with Pope Benedict when he is here.” Students from Holy Rosary and St Anne’s Catholic Primary School from Leeds and Maria Fidelis Convent School from north London are expected to sing at the event.

Kathryn Carter, the headteacher at Holy Rosary and St Anne’s in Chapeltown, Leeds, said: “We are absolutely ecstatic. It’s such an honour.”

The primary school, which is in one of the most deprived parts of Leeds, learned that its choir would be going to the Twickenham event just after the spring bank holiday.

Oona Stannard, the director of the CES, went up to Leeds to hear the children sing soon after they were invited to take part in the event.

Mrs Carter said: “The children are over the moon. It’s a chance of a lifetime for them and they’ve put a lot of hard work into the choir and their reputation as a choir is beginning to grow. We are hoping to make this school the Leeds Cathedral choir school. We are due to become the first state choir school in Britain and so the children have been working very hard. But this is the pinnacle of their work.”

But Mrs Carter also said that she was worried about whether she would be able to raise the £5,000 to take the choir, which consists of 50 children, to Twickenham for the event. She said that most of the children at the school come from the 10 per cent most deprived areas in Britain and that she would need to raise a lot of money to transport them. The sum covers transport costs and two nights accommodation.”If anyone would like to send cheques, make them out to Holy Rosary and St Anne’s School Fund,” she said.

Maria Fidelis Convent School in Camden, a secondary girls school, won the BBC Songs of Praise School Choir of the Year competition recently.

Cardinal John Henry Newman “will feature prominently in ‘the Big Assembly'”, according to the blog. The organisers have linked the event to the beatification by focusing on Newman’s “importance in education”.

The first principal of St Mary’s College was an Oratorian like Newman. Beginning as a Catholic teacher-training college in 1850, St Mary’s educated teachers to sense the growing numbers of poor Catholic children in need of schooling. By 1899 the Vincentians took over the college. In 2006 it was given the status of a university college. Sources close to St Mary’s said they were delighted about the papal visit. They have great expectations for the event because St Mary’s has “gone from strength to strength, having gained the university college title three years ago and is continuing the campaign to become the first Catholic university in this country”.