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HomeNewsUW Student Receives Class Excuse Request Letter Signed by Pope Francis

UW Student Receives Class Excuse Request Letter Signed by Pope Francis

Instructors are used to reading excused absence notes from their students. They have heard it all — dogs eating homework and students missing sleep and homework due to working late into the evening at their jobs. Many of these excuses are easy for educators to shrug off, but what if the excuse came from the Pope?

One University of Wyoming student produced just that. Sophomore Wyatt Olivas received a personal “please excuse Wyatt from classes” letter signed by Pope Francis, the leader of the world’s largest Christian church of over 1.3 billion members.

Olivas recently attended the monthlong assembly for the 2021-24 Synod on Synodality at the Vatican in Rome that featured Catholic leaders from around the world discussing the future of the church. The 19-year-old Cheyenne native was the youngest member of the assembly that drew nearly 400 delegates selected from around the world — and the only person in attendance to ask the church’s leader to excuse him from class some 5,500 miles away.

Olivas, a music education major with an emphasis in vocal education, originally told his UW professors that he would return to classes Wednesday, Nov. 1, just two days after the Synod’s closing Mass. He flew back from Rome overnight Monday and arrived back in the early morning hours Tuesday, Oct. 31. He knew that the Synod’s long schedule would leave him physically and mentally drained. He wanted a few more days to recover before returning to his regular classes on the UW campus.

The idea of obtaining a personal note from Pope Francis — one of the world’s most recognizable people — was twofold: The first was to show UW faculty that he was “not just hanging out over there, but truly doing work.”

“Second, I just wanted to make some people have a smile,” Olivas says. “We had many serious things come out of the Synod and, sometimes, you have to add some joy into everything and find that joy in what you are doing.”

Olivas had already met Pope Francis three times during the Synod and says the Holy Father has a sharp memory and remembered Olivas, mainly because he was the youngest member of the assembly. This time, Olivas was able to have a private conversation when Pope Francis was sitting alone at a table in the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall where the 2023 Synod assembly took place.

“I thanked him for inviting young people and thanked him for inviting me because I am only 19,” Olivas says. “When he says he wants to listen to everyone, he truly means it.”

During the private conversation, Olivas said, “Now, Holy Father, I have some classes my professors want me to get back to, but I could use a little rest. Would you sign this?”

The letter he drafted, in part, indicated that Olivas promised to “return to his classes and complete his work, and we trust that he will keep his word. We are confident that, after this much-needed break, he will return to his studies with renewed energy and focus. Therefore, we kindly request that he be excused from classes for a short period.”

As he began reading the note, the Pope smiled, and his amusement turned into laughter. He then took his pen and simply signed it “Francis.”

“I thanked him for signing my note. After that, I pulled out a card that read ‘You Matter,’ and I gave it to him as a reminder that he is important and loved,” Olivas says. “I wanted him to know that I am here for him. He said, ‘You’re important, too’ and smiled.”

The card is something that Olivas produced as a Cheyenne East High School student and handed out to those who needed a “pick-me-up.”

Now that he is back to being a full-time UW student again, Olivas is concentrating on his studies.

“It was tough to keep up with schoolwork while I was gone just because of all of the work that I had to do with the Synod and the brainpower that it took. I also was spiritually drained,” Olivas says. “It was a lot to take in but so good. Professors are working with me to figure out how we will catch up. I did have to be back in classes that Tuesday, but my note helped. I wish I could have taken more time, but I have some classwork to catch up on.”

UW President Ed Seidel says he is happy to see Olivas return to campus eager to catch up on his education.

“We are proud that our student, Wyatt, represented his community and state so well at the Vatican,” Seidel says. “We are sure his instructors will work with him to make his return to campus as seamless as possible — and getting a note from the Pope shows just how resourceful and creative our UW students are.”

About the Experience

The Synodal process began in fall 2021. UW alumna and Laramie resident Diana Marie Waggener, executive director of communications for the Diocese of Cheyenne, led the diocese’s Synod efforts. She and her team trained people in every parish across the state to conduct listening sessions. Each parish sent in reports from those sessions that formed the basis for the Wyoming Catholic Church’s 10-page document that was sent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The Diocese of Cheyenne has 48,000 parishioners, who attend 36 parishes statewide and 33 mission churches.

Then, each USCCB episcopal region — the Diocese of Cheyenne is in Region XIII — wrote syntheses based on themes that were shared in the (arch)dioceses and sent those to the USCCB. The USCCB wrote the official National Synthesis based on reports from each region. Each bishop then was asked to nominate four to five people to participate in one of several continental listening sessions among the U.S. and Canadian regions. A North American continental report followed those listening sessions.

Pastors and other diocesan leaders nominated people who they thought would like to participate in the continental session. Olivas was selected along with three other people to attend one of those sessions via Zoom. USCCB and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops then nominated Olivas to attend the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the fall 2023 meeting at the Vatican. From nominations received, Pope Francis and his advisers selected 363 people from across the world to participate in the Synod gathering in Rome last month. Olivas was among the delegates selected, and not every diocese around the world had a delegate attending the Synod.

“I was pleasantly surprised when Wyatt was chosen as a youth delegate for the Synod in Rome, yet I knew that he had so many gifts to share,” says Bishop Steven Biegler, of the Diocese of Cheyenne.

He says Olivas was chosen for several reasons — his lively faith, strong participation in the Catholic Church and being articulate and an effective communicator.

He has been blessed with good parents and a strong family, where his faith has been nurtured. As a youth, he actively participated in the life of the church as a catechist, and he remotely participated in the continental Synodal sessions for the U.S. and Canada,” Biegler adds. “Because of Wyatt’s amazing experience at the Synod, he will return to Wyoming with a much broader understanding and experience of the church, which will be a blessing to all of us.”

Personal Reflections

Olivas, a first-generation college student, was on a youth mission last July when he received notification that he was selected as part of the North American delegation — and the only Wyoming resident — to travel to Rome last month.

“I called my mom and told her to go grab my dad and take a seat. As I reread the email to them, I began to get emotional, and my mom and dad did as well,” he says. “They both told me that they were very proud of me. Now, being the only person from Wyoming was pretty unique, but being only one of seven nonclergy going from North America was unique. And, being one of the 400 out of 1.3 billion church members is pretty huge.”

As the youngest member of the assembly present for the Synod, Olivas says delegates could not believe he was only 19 — and everyone wanted to hug him because they were happy that he was selected.

“They told me this gives them hope and relief because young people care,” he adds. “I told them, ‘Young people of the church care, young people of the world care; you just have to believe and invest time into us. Someone invested time into me; that is why I am here. The youth not only are the future, but they also are the ‘now.’”

Olivas says meeting the Pope face to face has been a dream of his since Pope Francis was elected leader of the Catholic Church. Meeting him has changed Olivas in many ways.

“One, he showed me to take the job seriously — not myself — add some jokes and ‘find the joy in what you do.’ Honestly, he is really a funny person,” Olivas says. “But, the biggest way it changed me is that Pope Francis is human. It showed me I do not have to do anything special for God to love me; I can just be me.”

Reflecting on his monthlong journey, Olivas also never thought that he would receive so much worldwide attention for just a simple note asking to be excused from his UW classes.

“This was just a tiny idea that made some people smile,” he says. “As long as people smiled, that is a win in my book.”

By: University of Wyoming News
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