Lent is a great season to focus on mercy.
We live in a society of instant gratification. We feel the need to have fun and be
entertained constantly. We want things to be easy and comfortable and to feel fulfilled and satisfied in all situations. Treats and rewards are no longer thought of as rare and special but something that is expected and always deserved. We have become a “me-centered” society.
Living in such a society, children can have a hard time understanding the purpose of Lenten sacrifice. Lent is a call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These acts are meant to help us become selfless, to focus on others, and to do good works for those around us. A good Lenten goal may be to get children to think beyond themselves and to focus on kindness and mercy toward others. Because this year is an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, this Lent is a perfect time to show children the true meaning of mercy.
Often when we talk about mercy we are thinking about God showing us mercy when we fail to do what we should. However, mercy goes beyond that. If we want God to shower his mercy on us, then we must show mercy to all of those around us. We must show mercy to those we love, those we don’t love, the rich and the poor, people we know and those we don’t know. We need always to look at the situations and feelings of others and try to be merciful to them, especially during their times of need.
The Bible tells us that we must be more than just receivers of God’s love and mercy. We also need to show God how we love him through acts of kindness.
“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (complete story at Matthew 25:31-46).
Acts of selfless kindness and mercy toward our fellow man are the best vehicle for us to use to show God our love for him.
Teach the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
The works of mercy are the Catholic teachings about mercy condensed neatly into two easy-to-remember lists. These can be used as a guide for teaching children the many ways to be merciful.
Create a corporal works of mercy obstacle course. If children can “practice” these good works, then they will remember them better. A corporal works obstacle course is a good activity for younger children. They can go through the obstacle course to learn and hopefully retain the corporal works of mercy.
- Feed the hungry: Carry a plate of play food to a picture of needy people.
- Give drink to the thirsty: Have the children set up a replica of a well pump and/or carry a cup of “water” to the picture of those in need.
- Clothe the naked: The children can dress a doll.
- Shelter the homeless: Have the children use sheets of cardboard to create a replica of a house.
- Visit the sick: The children can take turns being the sick person, and the other children can pretend to visit them.
- Visit the imprisoned: Create a jail setting and have the children take turns being in prison and visiting those in prison.
- Bury the dead: The children can add a flower to a pretend grave. Then the class can say a prayer for the deceased.
Understanding the spiritual works of mercy is very important. Some of the spiritual works of mercy might be hard to teach to younger children but are perfect learning tools for older children. Take time to have the older children discuss or write lists of what they think they can do to practice the spiritual works of mercy.
- Counsel the doubtful: If a friend is having difficulty believing in the teachings of the faith, help him or her to understand what the church teaches and why.
- Instruct the ignorant: Help teach others who don’t know about God and the faith.
- Admonish sinners: Passing judgment on others is not our job, but sometimes people need help to realize what is right and wrong.
- Comfort the afflicted: Be kind to all those who are having a difficult time.
- Forgive offenses: Always forgive those who have hurt you. As the Our Father says, “…Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…”
- Bear wrongs patiently: Remain calm in all situations. Learn more about the other person and the situation before you react. There may be more to the situation than you realize.
- Pray for the living and the dead: If you see a person who needs prayers then pray for them. Remember that the souls in purgatory are always in need of prayers, too.
Help children remember which is which. Create corporal and spiritual works of mercy card sets. Have the children mix them together and then unscramble the two types of works.
The Saints Teach Mercy by Example
Read about the lives of the saints. Focus on the saints who spent their lives doing good works. A few examples would be St. Therese the Little Flower of Jesus, St. John Bosco, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. John Vianney, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Martin de Porres, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Jane Frances de Chantal, and St. Damien of Molokai. Discuss how these saints practiced the works of mercy. Allow the children to create a special book with images and thoughts about these saints. Include a list of the works of mercy that they performed while they were alive.
Real-Life Acts of Mercy in the Classroom
Visit the sick from your classroom. Create cards or artwork for those at a local hospital or retirement home. The cards and artwork can be given to the hospital and retirement home so they can be given to those who can use a little cheer. Say a daily prayer during Lent for those who received these greetings.
Can children help those in prison? Call a prison in your area to see what they allow. Some prisons will accept homemade art or simple notes to tell the inmates that they are being prayed for. Some prison ministries could make use of these to help share the love of Jesus to the prisoners. If nothing else, have the children say an extra prayer for those in prison.
Mercy to those around us is most important. While mercy is important to show to the poor and those who have died, it’s more important to give mercy to those who are sitting right next to us. The spiritual works of mercy focus more on this. Children must remember to treat each other with respect and kindness. As Matthew 7:12 states, “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.”
Remind the children that mercy shown to those they see every day is the most important kind of mercy they can show. Ordinary mercy should include acts of love, understanding, and kindness to family, friends, classmates, teammates, strangers, and anyone else they meet or see.
In your classroom, create a large cross out of brown paper. Ask the children to perform acts of kindness and mercy to the other children at school. They can do simple things like compliment a fellow student, try to remain cheerful at all times, hold the door for others, speak kindly about others, and not gossip. They should do these kind acts for all those they meet, not just their friends! Then, when a kind act is completed, the children can add a bandage to the cross. Each bandage shows that the children were willing to endure a selfless moment to lessen Jesus’ pain. (If you wanted a more personal and private version of this, the children could create their own crosses on sheets of paper and draw bandages on them.)
Works of Mercy Through Time and Talent
Art and drama can feed the poor. Many children can’t easily give alms to the poor, but they can offer time and talent. Children can act out a stage performance and/or hold an art show. The money that is collected from selling the tickets can be given to the poor.
Collect clothes and food.
Donate them or host a sale to raise money for the poor. Have the children bring in some of their outgrown, gently worn clothes to give to the poor. If you don’t have the ability to donate the clothes to a shelter or other charity, the children can host a rummage sale. The money that is raised can be sent to a charity. The children can collect food for a local shelter or food bank. They could also host a bake sale and give the profits to the poor.
Mercy Through Prayer
Take a prayerful trip for those who have died. Both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy call for us to help the dead, so that must be an especially important work of mercy. Take a trip to a cemetery and say a Rosary or Chaplet of Divine Mercy while there. If your class is old enough to understand and will not be a distraction, seek permission to attend a funeral to pray for the person who has died.
Praying for those in an emergency situation. Whenever you hear a siren outside, stop class for a minute and say a Hail Mary for those who are in trouble. If you don’t often hear sirens at your location, make a special point to take a minute each day to say a prayer for those who have been in accidents or have had some type of emergency that day.
Create a prayer chain of mercy and love. Praying for others is an act of love and kindness. At the beginning of Lent, create a list of people or groups of people for whom the children wish to pray. These could include doctors, family, the poor, firefighters, pregnant women, priests, and the pope, as well as those who are ill, depressed, addicted to drugs, etc. Then create a paper chain with one of these people or groups of people written on each link. Remove one link each day and say a special prayer for those who are mentioned on the link. Pray the prayers for Saturday and Sunday on Friday and Monday. If you make a complete chain with one link for each day of Lent, it will also serve as a countdown to Easter!
Lent can be more than just a time to give something up. During this Year of Mercy, teach children the true meaning of mercy and the many ways to be kind and selfless!