Pope John Paul II's illness called for a message of hope, not despair, Thursday at Cathedral Elementary School in Raleigh.
The principal simply told children to pray for his recovery, rather than dwelling on his frailty or the possibility that his life may be near its end.
"We want children to be hopeful," said Principal Donna Moss.
Educators took the same approach at St. Raphael Catholic School in Raleigh. "You don't want to appear negative," said the principal, Louis Pappalardo. "That's like saying it's all over for him."
But for adult Roman Catholics across the Triangle, the pope's declining condition brought sadness and plans for special services to mourn an expected loss that could come at any time. News of his health trickled into offices and homes via Internet, radio, television and old-fashioned word-of-mouth.
Cary resident Amy Daniels got a call at work from her husband, who wanted to tell her that he had heard the pope had undergone surgery to help him breathe.
It reminded her of other major events near and far from home -- illnesses in the family, or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"You always want to reach out and share that news," she said. "I felt a kind of heaviness, as you do with any bad news."
Yet Daniels, who works at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Cary, the largest parish in the 54-county Diocese of Raleigh, said she could picture the pope embracing his suffering and saying "don't worry, that's part of it and it's OK."
Sallie Swanson, a St. Michael volunteer, said she felt a sense of shared sadness with the 50 to 70 people who prayed for the pope with her at a morning Mass.
"It's a general feeling that you're losing someone," she said. "Like it's a member of your family."
The news also prompted questions to clergy from parishioners wondering what might be next for the Roman Catholic Church.
"Since they announced he's in surgery, they've been asking more questions," said Monsignor Tim O'Connor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Raleigh.
O'Connor talks about the possibilities if the pope does not recover -- as he has in the past. But O'Connor says he can't tell them exactly what would happen if the pontiff could no longer perform his duties. "I don't believe the Holy Spirit would allow us to get to this point," said O'Connor, who led prayers for the pope in the morning and the evening.
Even the schools who were striving to strike an upbeat tone were also considering how they might handle worse news.
Some teachers at Our Lady of Lourdes School were assembling slide shows and timelines about John Paul II's life, said assistant principal Patty Roberts. She said parents should familiarize themselves with the process for selecting a new pope so they will be ready to answer their children's questions.
She recalled her own childhood and how her sadness at one pope's loss mixed with the thrill of a new pope's election. "It was exciting to be part of that," Roberts said.