Catholic Colleges Get Running Start on Year of Mercy

The jubilee year provides an opportunity for Catholic institutions of higher learning to renew their Catholic identity and help their students encounter Christ through concrete actions of extending mercy to others.

Above, a Christendom College student teaches a child about the Miraculous Medal in Costa Rica; below, Franciscan University students pray for the dead and leave flowers at a local cemetery.
Above, a Christendom College student teaches a child about the Miraculous Medal in Costa Rica; below, Franciscan University students pray for the dead and leave flowers at a local cemetery. (photo: Courtesy of Christendom College and Franciscan University)

FRONT ROYAL, Va. — As the Year of Mercy begins, Catholic colleges and universities have already begun to respond to Pope Francis’ call to experience the mystery of mercy during the jubilee year.

Ten thousand acts of kindness — that is Christendom College’s plan for students to carry out the works of mercy and encounter the lives of those living on the margins of society: the poor, the homeless and the suffering.

“We’re literally trying to touch the lives of 10,000 individuals in this school year,” Julie Cipriano, assistant coordinator for the mission trips program at the small Catholic liberal arts college based in northern Virginia, told the Register.

Cipriano explained Christendom’s “10,000 Acts of Kindness” (10KAK) outreach campaign was created by mission program director and philosophy professor Mike Brown to respond both to Pope Francis’ announcement of a jubilee Year of Mercy and the student body’s overwhelming interest in mission trips and living their Catholic faith through more works of mercy.

“The student response has been terrific,” she said.

The college sent a record 30% of its student body on mission trips last spring break. The 10KAK campaign is aimed at trying to personally touch the lives of 10,000 by sending Christendom students on both weekend mission events to partner with various outreaches in northern Virginia/Washington, Philadelphia and New York City and five international mission trips for next year’s spring break.

The encounter helps students understand Pope Francis’ insight that works of mercy are relational, and what people need sometimes is more than someone serving them a sandwich, “but someone who makes eye contact, asks their name and takes a moment to restore a little human dignity.”

“As Mike said, and says all the time, if we want students to meet Christ, then we have to take them to the poor,” Cipriano said. “And Christ never lets us down; he is always there with the poor, and the students always come away having an encounter that is life-changing — for them, and I hope for the people they are serving also.”

Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio made this academic year’s theme “Be Rich in Mercy Like the Father.” The university’s Christ the King Chapel will also serve as a “holy door” for the Diocese of Steubenville, where students can gain the Year of Mercy plenary indulgence.

Sophomore Emily MacMahon told the Register that she feels inspired by the Year of Mercy and adds that she and a couple of friends felt the Holy Spirit was prompting them to do something to put it into action.

“Mercy is kind of a mystery to us,” she said. “We can’t fully comprehend what mercy is, but by trying to complete acts of mercy, and meditating on it, we can come closer to understanding it.”

What she organized with the university’s Missionary Outreach Office was “Project Mercy”: an outreach event of completing seven works of mercy in six separate events over two weekends. Approximately 50 Franciscan University students participated in the events: sharing a meal and spending time with the homeless (“Shelter the Homeless”); praying for the dead and leaving flowers at a local cemetery (“Bury the Dead”); visiting the residents of an assisted-living center (“Visit the Sick”); helping Franciscan Third Order Regular sisters at the downtown Samaritan House thrift store (“Clothe the Naked”); working at the local soup kitchen (“Feed the Hungry” and “Give Drink to the Thirsty”); and writing letters to comfort prisoners (“Visit the Imprisoned”).

MacMahon said many people thought the works-of-mercy marathon was “really life-changing,” and she plans to do the event again next year before the holy year ends.

“We did it here on our college campus, but, honestly, church youth groups and so many people could do a ‘Project Mercy,’” she added. “Not just Catholics — it’s just so good.” 


Essential to Catholic Identity

Other Catholic colleges and universities are holding events and initiatives related to the Year of Mercy.

At Ave Maria University, President Jim Towey focused the content of his blog on the Year of Mercy.

The University of San Diego has also developed online resources devoted to the Year of Mercy, with a number of useful resources for the community.

“When Pope Francis announced the jubilee year, he said, ‘Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life.’ Similarly, mercy is fundamental to Catholic higher education,” Michael Galligan-Stierle, president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, told the Register.

He indicated that the holy year provides an opportunity for colleges and universities to reflect on how “the intertwined values of mercy, justice and compassion animate Catholic institutions of higher education.”

“Those ideals compel our campuses to offer affordable access to high-quality education, to create communities of compassion and to instill a commitment to serve justly and mercifully,” he said.

ACCU has made “Reflecting on the Message of Mercy” the theme of its Jan. 29 mission officers’ conferenceThe conference discusses mercy in the life of the university and what it means to operate from the basis of mercy in areas of student life, faculty development and relations with alumni and co-workers.


Extra Attention on Mercy

The Catholic University of America’s law school and campus ministry also have initiatives already in place that will receive extra attention for the holy year.

CUA’s chaplain and director of campus ministry, Conventual Franciscan Father Jude DeAngelo, said the school is intent on continuing the momentum from Pope Francis’ historic visit to the campus in September.

“We want people to understand that Our Lord is indeed rich in mercy, and we’re hoping for continued conversion of life among us all,” he said.

The CUA Columbus School of Law has an outreach where volunteers help homeless families find emergency shelter during cold or severe weather.

Other volunteer initiatives include helping the homeless to claim legal rights to shelter, low-income workers prepare tax returns and immigrants navigate the citizenship process.

CUA’s campus ministry, in addition to promoting existing initiatives for students to carry out the corporal works of mercy, will be developing programming about the “Jubilee Door” at the adjacent Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and obtaining the plenary indulgence associated with the holy door. The campus is also planning an event that will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the death of St. Maximillian Kolbe, who gave his life at the Auschwitz death camp to save the life of another.

“It’s not about a program, but it is about an encounter with Christ,” Father DeAngelo said. One of the events will feature a speaker who was able to resolve his homeless situation and now helps other homeless persons as well — but it all happened because one CUA student took a genuine personal interest in him and who he was.

“It’s not just about doing the work of the Lord through feeding the hungry, but, in fact, is an encounter with the person that is transformative.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff writer for the Register.