By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
This past fall, students at St. Joseph Catholic School in DeWitt wrote names of deceased relatives and friends on white paper crosses and hung them on trees outside the school. The activity served as a reminder that it is important to pray for persons who have passed away.
“One of the spiritual works of mercy is to pray for the living and the dead, and that is what we did for our loved ones who we’ve lost,” said eighth-grader Emma Kizer. She prayed for her great-grandparents and great-aunts who passed away a few years ago and for her uncle Genie whose September death was still fresh in her mind during the activity. “When I look at the tree, I can think of him.”
Each school year, St. Joe’s chooses a spiritual theme for the students to focus on. Although the Year of Mercy didn’t officially begin until December, Principal Sharon Roling and the faculty believed mercy was an obvious choice for the 2015-16 school year. Since classes began in late summer, students have been participating in monthly activities and lessons related to spiritual or corporate works of mercy.
“We want to make students aware that they are called to be people of mercy, whether it’s showing compassion or praying for others,” Roling said. The DeWitt school is one of at least three in the Diocese of Davenport focusing on mercy throughout the school year.
In addition to praying for the dead, St. Joe’s students spent time collecting food for the DeWitt Referral Center as one way to practice feeding the hungry, a corporal work of mercy. Additionally, staff adapted the corporal work of mercy of visiting the imprisoned by having students write letters to homebound parishioners.
Between monthly activities, students can contemplate posters at school that read, “Walk justly, love mercy, walk humbly with God” as a reminder of their call to show mercy on a daily basis. Roling said, “It’s about those day-to-day experiences where we can incorporate mercy and be more intentional about it. We can think about what it entails, such as compassion and forgiveness.”
Regina Catholic Education Center in Iowa City introduced the mercy theme during a prayer service at the beginning of the school year. Students regularly pray about and discuss mercy at the services. Shelley Conlon, campus minister and history and justice teacher, said students decorated classroom doors as one way to enhance their awareness of the Year of Mercy. “Every single classroom in the junior/senior high school decorated their door. This was to bring the concept of opening the (holy) door, like they did in Rome, here to Regina. Classes decorated doors with illustrations and quotes from Scripture, the popes, saints, etc. The foods room drew a picture of McDonald’s golden arches but substituted the word Mercy for McDonald’s and wrote “I’m lovin’ it” (McDonald’s motto) beneath the word Mercy. More activities are being planned.
With Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish-Clinton serving as the deanery’s holy door location, Prince of Peace Catholic School students will visit the church during the year. Students, like those at Regina, decorated their own mercy doors at school. The students also focus on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Jenny Nansel, religion teacher for grades 6-12, said the students kicked off the school year by establishing a “mercy buddy” program where students wrote encouraging notes to each other the first month of school. The high school students later had a retreat day, participating in team-building activities with their mercy buddy groups. Throughout the year, students will focus on the Scripture verse, John 3:16. Nansel said, “This verse will come up again throughout the year to remind the students of God’s love and mercy.”
Nansel believes it makes sense to place lessons in mercy in a school setting. “We want our students to be able to share not only the love of Christ verbally, but live it as well, to truly be reflections, or lights, of Jesus in the world. … I personally look forward to seeing our students lead more opportunities, within our school and without, to show mercy and learn about the works of mercy. “
The school year will end before the Year of Mercy concludes in November, but Roling said she hopes the effects for her students in DeWitt will last much longer. “(Mercy) is something we’re called to continue. There will be a different theme next year, but we will still continue with our task (of being merciful). The pope has told us to think about how merciful God is, and we are called to do the same to other people.”