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BLOOMINGTON — Pope Francis appeared to cheer on students in the gym at Central Catholic High School on Thursday.

The pontiff's silhouette in the stands was actually a cardboard cutout waved by junior Lucas Smith, but the figure encouraged teams competing in a school-wide Olympic sports tournament to celebrate National Catholic Schools Week.

“This week is an awesome way to show people how fun Central (Catholic) is,” said Lucas. “We show our faith and who we are and it’s important to not take that for granted.”

Catholic schools across the country have spent the week celebrating Catholicism, family, education and fun through events and prayer.

Across town, Bloomington's St. Mary's Catholic School celebrated during lunch hour. The gym was a sea of picnic islands as parents brought blankets and sack lunches to share a meal with their children.

“Today, we share family,” said St. Mary’s principal Jamie Hartrich. “We’re all coming together as one for lunch, which makes sense because a celebration is always centered around a meal.”

All 316 students at CCHS were grouped into eight teams for the Olympics event. Each team was assigned a predominantly Catholic country to represent.

While rushing across the gym for the Olympic races, students were wrapped in toilet paper, carried ping pong balls on spoons between their teeth, did push-ups, finished complex math problems, jumped rope or carried a smaller student across the finish line.

Other events during the week included life-sized board games, a dodgeball tournament and Bible trivia.

“It’s nice to get everyone together to build school spirit. We try to do fun things because school isn’t just about books,” said Jim Reckland, head of the high school art department and senior advisor. 

“We’re able to talk about our faith and live it in our schools,” added the Rev. Dustin Schultz. “This week gives us an opportunity to celebrate that difference and gift of having faith in our schools.”

Senior Zach Appio said by attending a Catholic school, he is learning more about his faith.

“At other schools, sometimes you can’t even say anything about your religion. I mean, we even have a chapel in our school. We welcome everyone here, even if you aren’t Catholic,” he said.

At St. Mary's, Josh Ohmart of Normal spread a blanket on the gym floor and shared lunch with daughters Sophia, in kindergarten, and Willa, in pre-K.

“I liked learning and reading on pajama day,” said Sophia, recalling activities earlier in the week.

Sonny Garcia of Bloomington joined his eighth-grade daughter, Yhaira, for lunch at his elementary alma mater.

“The great thing about St. Mary’s is that it has a big focus on parent involvement,” he said. “Catholic schools offer students a high level of education while giving exposure to our faith.”

To wrap up the week, more than 1,000 students from all Catholic schools in Bloomington-Normal are attending a service Friday morning at St. Patrick Church of Merna.

“The all-schools mass on Friday is great, especially seeing all grades come together,” said CCHS senior Kennedy Sheehan. “We are all really blessed and fortunate to go to Catholic schools. It’s important for us to get a week of celebration to show who we are and why we’re here."

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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