WASHINGTON — When senior Peter Osgood was accepted into The Catholic University of America four years ago, he expected to earn a degree.

Not only will he earn his bachelor’s degree in biology next month, but he also had the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict XVI when he came to campus on April 17.

“It certainly enhances the degree,” said Osgood with a laugh. “I never anticipated I would meet the Pope.”

Osgood was the winner of Catholic University’s Student Essay Contest. His essay was chosen from 128 that were submitted by students at the university describing how Catholic education changed their life.

Osgood attended a Catholic elementary school in Penn Yan, N.Y., but didn’t return to a Catholic school until his acceptance at Catholic University.

“I remember vividly how each school day began in prayer. It was here that we brought to mind those in need, gave thanks for our many gifts and asked for help in all of our challenges,” wrote Osgood in his winning essay. “This truly set the tone for our learning throughout the rest of the day.”

“I was struck by how Osgood related his elementary school experience and the unity that developed there among the faith community,” said John Convey, who served as one of six judges for the essay contest. Former provost at the university, Convey is a professor of education. “Osgood never let go of that community, even when he didn’t attend Catholic schools later on. When the time came for him to go to college, he wanted to attend a Catholic university.”

As the winner, Osgood was given the opportunity to meet Pope Benedict when he came to campus.

Osgood met Pope Benedict and gave him a bouquet of white and yellow roses. University President Father David O’Connell introduced Osgood and explained to the Holy Father that Osgood was going on to medical school, to be a surgeon.

“The Pope smiled and said, ‘Going to medical school. That’s great,’” said Osgood.

Then Osgood and Father O’Connell asked the Pope if he would bless Osgood’s hands. The Holy Father made the Sign of the Cross over Osgood’s hands.

“To encounter the servant of God means so much to me,” said Osgood afterwards. “It was wonderful. I can tangibly feel the ministry of God in my life.”

Osgood wasn’t alone. Thousands of other students turned out to welcome Pope Benedict.

Approximately 3,000 students assembled on the lawn of CUA’s Columbus School of Law to watch the Pope’s Washington, D.C. Mass at Nationals Park on the jumbo TV screens and took part in a seven-hour papal pep rally as they waited for the Holy Father’s arrival for his speech at the university.

During the rally, students listened to music by the a cappella groups RedLine and Take Note, watched the film Sister Act and student-produced films on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, soaked up the sun and practiced cheers.

University chaplain Father Robert Schlageter, a Conventual Franciscan friar, led students in cheering “CUA Loves the Pope,” “Be-ne-det-to,” and “Viva il Papa.”

The excitement by students was palpable both before and after the event.

“I am a new Christian and he helps me to build my faith,” said Abdul Kamara, a senior nursing student from Sierra Leone, who held a small papal flag. “It means a lot and makes me very happy to see him.”

“Of all the places that Pope Benedict could visit, we’re excited that he came to our campus,” said senior theology major Joanna Berry. “We feel that there’s a new sense of hope and excitement in the Church, and there’s a lot of hope.”

“There’s this impression from the media that the young aren’t interested in the Church,” said Berry, a convert from the Lutheran church. “If they could come see the faith life on campus, they would find it a lot different than what they would expect.”

During her time at Catholic University, Berry spent time working in campus ministry reaching out to other students.

“We have a ministry of presence, going around to dorms, getting to know people,” explained Berry. “Every Tuesday evening we have Mass at our ministry house. Every Friday we plan different events and charitable service projects for students.”

Dominican Brother Thomas Joseph White, a seminarian, said that encountering Joseph Ratzinger led him into the Church. A former agnostic, Brother White was baptized a Protestant at the age of 18 while a student at Brown University. While browsing in the campus library, he came across Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity.

“Benedict had a huge impact on my conversion,” said Brother Thomas. “I began reading his work from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Three years later, I came into the Church.”

“He’s a person who has a deep sense of the challenges the modern world poses to Christianity and the crisis of modern humanity,” said Brother White. “He speaks to our modern contemporary situation with truthfulness and insight that’s uncompromising and consoling. I love his honesty.”

Brother White said he has also seen the influence of Pope Benedict on others who have come to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., discerning a vocation. They currently have 30 in formation, and an average of 10-15 men entering each year.

“A lot of young men feel we live in an age that’s catechetically barren,” said Brother White. “Many of them are attracted to the mission of the order to communicate the Catholic truth in a way that is clear, compassionate, and profound. Most have been deeply inspired by the teaching pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.”

Tim Drake filed this story

from Washington, D.C.