Christy Bissally bent over her desk in the quiet classroom, pressing her pencil into the center of a flower made of purple construction paper.
"Let angels guide him through his actions. Let love always be in his heart," she wrote in small neat letters.
Christy, a sixth-grade student at St. Agnes School in Catonsville, was writing a prayer for Pope Benedict XVI, who arrived in Washington yesterday afternoon for his first visit to this country as pontiff.
Elsewhere across the state, Roman Catholics have been making banners, renting buses and studying the pope's teachings to prepare for his visit.
Several thousand parishioners from churches across the Baltimore Archdiocese will attend papal Masses in Washington and New York. And many who stay behind are doing their part to mark the pope's journey through prayer and, in the case of one Catholic elementary school, a party to celebrate his 81st birthday today.
Catholics say that they are eager to hear the words of Pope Benedict, a quiet scholar who is markedly different from his charismatic predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
"Benedict is, in a way, an educator, a professor, a teacher," said Deacon Christopher Celentano, a seminarian at St. Mary's Seminary and University in Roland Park who will be ordained in June. "I believe he's going to have a great message and a strong message for the American people and the American church."
Getting to hear that message in person has been a a challenge for local church members. About 2,500 of the archdiocese's half-million Catholics won tickets to attend a Mass celebrated by the pope at Nationals Park tomorrow. An additional 1,000 received tickets to a papal Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York on Sunday. Others will vie for a glimpse of the pontiff at smaller parades and prayer services.
Along with other members of the Knights of Columbus, Andrew Gleeson of Lutherville will travel to Washington this afternoon with his wife and four children to attend an evening prayer service at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
"I think it goes a long way towards strengthening your faith," Gleeson, 41, a manager at Eddie's grocery store on Charles Street, said of the pope's visit.
Those fortunate enough to score a ticket to the Mass at Nationals Park will face another challenge tomorrow --- leaving the Baltimore area in time to make the 10 a.m. service. No additional MARC trains have been scheduled, but the Washington Metro will be running extra cars and selling commemorative passes.
Buses will leave three area parishes before dawn tomorrow to ferry worshipers to the Mass with enough time to make it through extensive security checks.
About 40 people from parishes in northern Baltimore County and Harford County will meet in the parking lot of St. John the Evangelist in Hydes at 5:30 a.m., said Colleen Sisolak, the church's youth ministry director. Many of from the parish delegation will be young people, who have had numerous tickets set aside for them.
"They're just very excited about the chance to be this close and present to the Holy Father," Sisolak said. "Especially to be in an audience for the liturgy and to receive Eucharist that was blessed by" him.
Others will have a chance to see the pope a few days later at Sunday's Mass in New York. Karl Prinz and Denise Yurek-Prinz of Aberdeen will take their three young daughters on a bus sponsored by the archdiocese. It's an experience the girls will always remember, Prinz said.
Many Catholic schools are using the pope's visit to teach papal history and the life story of the pope, who was born in Germany 81 years ago today and who attended the Second Vatican Council and was an adviser to Pope John Paul II.
At Our Lady of Mount Carmel School in Essex, regular classwork will pause tomorrow morning so that students can watch the papal Mass on television, elementary school Principal Lisa Shipley said. Younger students will celebrate the pontiff's birthday with cupcakes.
Students have been preparing for the pope's visit for weeks at the Cathedral School in North Baltimore by preparing bagged lunches for homeless people and creating posters to decorate q soup kitchen as an offering in honor of the pope's birthday, according to Susan Gray, an assistant to the principal.
And at St. Agnes, every student wrote a prayer for the pope on a bright paper flower. The flowers will be gathered at a prayer servince today and then mailed to Rome, according to religion teacher Sharon Herwig.
About 80 students and faculty members of St. Mary's Seminary will travel as a group to the papal Mass tomorrow. Seminarians have been offering petitions for the pope's visit at meals and studying his writing in seminars, said Deacon Tim Balliet of Erie, Pa.
"The trip signifies Pope Benedict's willingness to engage the United States, to engage the leadership here, to engage the Catholics here and to engage people who aren't necessarily believers," said Celentano, the seminarian. "He is willing to support and lift up the good that the U.S. does and also call us out and ask more of us because of the blessings that we have as a church here."
Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.