While pilgrims journey to Europe for a deeper spirituality in the Year of Mercy, students and staff at St Vincent’s Catholic Primary Ashfield have found many ways to live and walk the path of Mercy at home.
A group of Year 5 students have elected to become the school’s Mercy stewards, a role that sees them visit classrooms to share and discuss ways to be merciful and live out those values themselves in the playground. The school’s Mini Vinnies team and events such as NAIDOC Week are all now seen through a mercy lens. Parents have sewn red felt hearts which the school’s family educator Sinead Kent has filled with cards with a line of text that encourages students to think about and pray for the deeds associated with mercy and groups in need of it, including the homeless, sick, and imprisoned.
Religious Education co-ordinator Sarah Bluestone said linking of bigger Mercy concepts to daily life through the heart and prayer made them real to students.
“Linking it to the social Catholic teachings is how we then reach out, making it very personal and authentic to our community,” she said. “They are developing their own faith and empathy, and I’m excited to see that because you really see you are making a difference.
“The Mini Vinnies and Mercy Stewards are seen among the teachers and students within the school as very important leadership positions.”
We’re all called to use our gifts to be kind and caring towards others.
Principal Pat Williams said St Vincent’s has a unique profile with about 95 per cent of students speaking English as an additional language or dialect and 50 per cent of students non-Catholic, with many of Hindu or non-Christian beliefs.
This does not stop the entire school community from embracing the prayer and reflection offered in class and through activities sent home.
“The students are very deep thinkers, and love to be involved and to reach out to people,” Mrs Williams said.
“I’m excited that they really understand the mercy values and the gospel message, and that this will sustain them throughout their whole life. We’re all called to use our gifts to be kind and caring towards others and if we all did that we’d a have a very easy, peaceful world.”
Mrs Williams said the school was well supported in its faith life by parish priest Fr Alan Gibson.
“He’s certainly helped the school understand the charism of St Vincent De Paul, which has a lot to do with Mercy and has led us in terms of the development of our vision and mission statement,” she said. “Father is very involved in the school spiritually and any event you have on he is present.”
Family Educator Sinead Kent said kindness became a focus at the school after the students’ began to unpack the concept of mercy. Like the gratitude project that encouraged families to appreciate all they have, mercy-themed activities will run for an entire year at the school instead of a single term.
“With the children coming from so many different backgrounds, some have come from refugee backgrounds or areas where there is terrorism – so they understand mercy to mean something like ‘Don’t kill me’,” she said. “They don’t get the forgiveness bit, so if you stretch it out over a year you get a deeper understanding.
It means forgiveness and caring for people, and giving them a second chance and being humble.
“The children will take a heart home next term and inside the heart there are lines on card – the card connects to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, so you could take a card out that says ‘pray for the homeless’.
“The idea isn’t just that they say an ‘Our Father’ for the homeless, the idea is that they’ll ask ‘Well, who are the homeless? Do I know people who are homeless?’
“The Mercy Stewards said that in a way the people in a nursing home are homeless, because they’ve had to move in in certain circumstances. In the same way they got really excited about another that came out, visit the imprisoned and asked ‘Does that mean we get to go to a prison?’
“I said ‘I’m not too sure Mrs Williams would let us do that, but what else does prison mean?’ That started a fantastic discussion because they talked about how a new child coming into the playground is technically imprisoned because they are inside themselves, people who are sick or ill, they’re imprisoned [in their own bodies]. It’s that confinement.
“Kindness was mentioned by most of them, and it was a gift that they could offer, like God offers. They were just really deep.”
Sinead said the school’s approach to topics like mercy and gratitude were well received by parents.
“It reassures parents that even thought they might not be Sunday worshippers, or even any-day worshippers, if they look they can see that they are actually walking in the footsteps of God and of Jesus, because they do help out, they do contribute, they do think about the world,” she said.
“No matter what we ask them to do they come forward and help out. In that way they’re being the hands and feet of Jesus. For me, no matter what we try to offer as a group here, the bit that excites me the most is when a parent actually realises that they’re walking a faith journey.”
Year 5 students Noah Young and Stephanie Ishak are among the grade’s 14 Mercy Stewards.
Each volunteer wrote why they wanted to take on the role and what mercy meant to them before joining the team.
“It means forgiveness and caring for people, and giving them a second chance and being humble,” Stephanie said. “We go around classes sometimes with a kindness sheet which we give to classes and it shows different ways of being kind, so we can teach the class how to care for people.
“There was one with a cartoon girl and boy and it had ears for listening to people, eyes that see ways to help, mouths that speak kind words, feet that walk gently on the earth and hands for helping.”
Noah said the thought of families that are sad and not able to do the same things that other people are able to do is what drew him to the role of Mercy steward. He said helping to build the school’s mercy bench was his favourite activity, and that acts of mercy were visible at school. “It happens in the playground every day,” he said.