Academic standouts plucked from a dozen Roman Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of New York -- seniors with aspirations that include a devotion to God, service and helping the needy -- will meet Pope Francis in East Harlem next week.
"These 12 students are what a Catholic education produces," said Timothy McNiff, school superintendent for the Archdiocese of New York during a news conference Tuesday in Manhattan, where the teenagers were introduced.
It's important to show the pope "that we are seeing success in our schools," McNiff said during the event at Cathedral High School in midtown.
Francis will go to East Harlem where he will be greeted by several hundred school children at Our Lady Queen of Angels. Inside, the pontiff is expected spend time with 24 third- and fourth-graders who will share their school projects with him.
The high school seniors -- National Honor Society students -- will stand in the wings of the school gymnasium hoping to talk with the pope, make eye contact and a spiritual connection.
"From what I read, I believe I will see kindness in his eyes -- someone who genuinely cares about people," said Julie Costigan, of Our Lady of Lourdes in Poughkeepsie. The pope, she said, is "our spiritual father . . . someone who is out there looking out for everyone."
The students were selected by their school administrators. They were recognized for their active religious lives and community work. They are altar servers at school and church Masses, volunteers helping the homeless and elderly, and tutors for younger students.
"I just hope I don't freeze up if I get to speak to him," said Daniel Kwaku Afrifa, a senior at Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, discussing his possible face time with the pope.
In preparation, Afrifa said he is brushing up on his Spanish. Afrifa, whose family emigrated from Ghana in the 1980s, said attending Catholic school "saved my life. There are a lot of negative influences like drugs and gangs that can derail one's life."
He said his Catholic education has given him "a support system and a place to feel safe."
Since his freshman year, Afrifa said he has worked with mentally disabled adults.
"We do arts and crafts and play basketball," he said. "We try to keep them moving. It's difficult but worthwhile."
Robert Ruszkowski, a senior at St. Joseph by the Sea in Staten Island, said he's honored "to have this opportunity. Hopefully, I won't get too emotional being in the same room with him. Maybe I'll be able to kiss his ring and say thank you for a great job in helping the poor and ending frivolous church spending."
His mother, Barbara Ruszkowski, a New York City public school teacher, said her son's Catholic education "has fostered a sense of giving and charity. He is a firm believer in prayer."