As soon as Valerie Herrera found out Monday morning that she would be speaking with Pope Francis, she started trembling. To calm her nerves, administrators and teachers assured the young vocalist that “at least you don’t have to sing today.”
But when the pope makes a request, it’s hard to say no. So on Monday, after several minutes of patient urging from the pope, Herrera nervously fought back tears and began trilling the first hymn her mother taught her.
While the words of “By You, Mary” didn’t come to mind right away, she said that they spilled off her lips as soon as she spotted her mother in the audience.
“Even when I started singing, my voice was shaking, too, from the excitement and the nerves,” Herrera said Tuesday afternoon after school at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood.
Herrera, 17, and another student at Cristo Rey were selected to speak with Pope Francis via satellite during a town hall meeting Monday with hundreds of people in Chicago, Los Angeles and McAllen, Texas — three locations the pope will not reach when he visits the U.S. later this month. Information about the pope’s satellite appearance arranged by ABC News was kept top secret until the network began to release details Monday afternoon and during its nightly broadcasts. An hourlong special will air Friday.
Even school administrators, who were contacted by ABC News last spring, did not know the pope would participate until last Thursday. And even that was an educated guess, said Elizabeth White, vice president of advancement for Cristo Rey.
“We didn’t know for sure. We were just told it was a world leader,” White said. This being an election campaign year, White admits she was nervous. But the network assured her it was a “world leader in line with our teachings.”
Those clues and others led staff to surmise they might be talking to the pope.
Herrera said she figured she would be speaking with school administrators or, maybe, she joked to a friend, “What if the mayor comes?” Minutes before the pope’s satellite feed, she was told she would be addressing Francis.
“It caught me off guard, but I’m really happy and blessed that it happened,” Herrera said. “We always thought he was a really good pope and that he was really humble and has just been one of the few popes that have actually made an impact on the people.”
Over the course of the summer, ABC crews interviewed roughly 20 students to find out what questions they would ask the pope if they had a chance to meet him on his U.S. visit. The network then spent time gathering footage with four finalists and their families. All of the students interviewed got a front-row seat inside the chapel where the event took place.
Herrera, who has a skin condition called vitiligo, which causes splotches on the skin, told Francis that she had been bullied in middle school for her appearance and had turned to music as an escape.
“It didn’t get serious until middle school. That’s when people actually started being mean, and they started calling me names,” Herrera said Tuesday, retelling what she told Francis. “I felt pushed away from everyone since I was different.”
Things improved in eighth grade, she said, when she sang for a talent show at her school.
“I guess they saw that I wasn’t as different as everyone else,” Herrera said.
The bad memories still linger, Herrera said, but the words the pope shared with her on air to be courageous and to walk in good company help her know that she can be great and succeed. Sharing her story on national television has also helped, Herrera said, as she is able to remind others who are bullied that they are not alone.
“It doesn’t just apply to me but to anyone else — to show your talents, just be courageous,” Herrera said. “Although people might think you’re different, be courageous and show who you really are.”