Faith that Works

Teaching middle schoolers how to live and practice their faith

Throughout the year at our school, each mass and prayer service is planned and run by one class or grade level.  At masses, these students are the readers and choir, and for prayer services the class plans and leads the school in prayer, normally during Advent or Lent.  For a long time I mostly signed my religion classes up for the masses, because I was very comfortable planning these.  For years while I was in elementary and high school I was a daily communicant, and I am currently a lector and choir member in my own parish.  Mass is something I understand and can help plan- the more free form prayer services intimidated me more than a little.

In particular, coordinating a penance service was something I avoided.  Too often I had been at long, boring penance services that followed a similar dry format: basically mass with an examination of conscience instead of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Our school has two of these a year- one during Advent and one during Lent, and it always seemed to me that other teachers had all the creative ideas for these, so I would sit back and let them do the hard work while I stayed safely in my comfort zone.

Then last year I decided to bite the bullet and take on one of the penance services.  It was the year of mercy, and with that in mind, I turned the planning over (mostly) to my 8th grade class.  Their ideas and creativity blew me away, and before I knew it, we were getting delusions of grandeur.  Thankfully I work for a principal who not only supports over the top planning, but totally enables it.  Here’s what we ended up with at the end of the process.

We had two main inspirations:  the song “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” by Casting Crowns, and the gospel story of the woman caught in adultery.  We started the prayer service with a lyric video of the song.  Then the students acted out a few skits from the gospels about not judging.  Then we turned to the main event.

Students acted out the story of the woman caught in adultery while our narrators read from the gospel of John.  Then the students led an examination of conscience using the rocks from the story as symbols of sin and judgment.  The student who had played Jesus in the gospel play then bent and wrote the names of the students holding the rocks on the floor and one by one they dropped their rocks and walked away.  It was a pretty powerful image.

But here’s where things got really cool.  With the help of our principal and a few of the teachers, we had created three giant sandboxes where each student could come one by one and write their names in the sand as a symbol of Christ’s mercy and forgiveness.  While the inspiration song played again, each of the students and teachers came and wrote their name in the sand and then exited the church in silence.  It was probably one of my favorite moments of the year.

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If you are interested in doing a similar penance service at your school, I have included our script here: Lenten Penance Service.  We ended the service by having priests available to hear individual confessions.  Here is a list of the more practical planning needs:

  • Students to read (we had 4 brave students run the entire thing)
  • Students to pantomime Bible stories
  • Students to hold rocks for the examination of conscience
  • “Jesus, Friend of Sinners” by Casting Crowns
  • Posters in the shape of rocks with the sins from the examination of conscience
  • Costumes and rocks for Bible stories
  • Sandboxes
  • Sand
  • A clean up plan- one of our teachers took the sand for a landscaping project.

If you do decide to use our plan/script, my one request is that you comment on this post or send me an email with how it went.  Thanks and happy Holy Week!

One thought on “Let our hearts be led by mercy: a penance service

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