By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff writer | Published November 4, 2016
ATLANTA—Thirty parish preschool directors boarded school buses for a Jubilee Year of Mercy pilgrimage through three of the Holy Doors of the archdiocese Oct. 6.
Guided by Deacon Steve Swope of St. George Church in Newnan, the directors passed through the Holy Doors at the Shrine of Immaculate Conception and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Atlanta and at Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church in Norcross. At each church, Deacon Swope provided a reflection on mercy.
The tour began and ended at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Atlanta.
Terry Lynne Graham, director of parish preschools for the archdiocese, came up with the idea of the pilgrimage for the jubilee year. St. Pius X High School lent two of its Golden Lions buses for the event.
Deacon Swope also wrote a booklet with reflections for each of the Holy Doors in the archdiocese and included questions on mercy to inspire further thought.
The Year of Mercy began Dec. 8, 2015, and concludes Nov. 20, 2016, the solemnity of Christ the King and the end of the liturgical year.
“The Holy Father is calling us to a Year of Mercy not just to be done with it,” said Deacon Swope. “He is really calling us to be a merciful people.”
The idea behind a holy door is to “pass from a sinful life to one of grace,” he said.
By entering from outside and passing through the holy door, pilgrims are moving toward Christ and the tabernacle.
Pope Francis asked that each diocese designate a church building as a location for a Holy Door of Mercy to make the graces of the jubilee year widely available.
“Archbishop Gregory, who never believes in doing things halfway, has declared seven,” said Deacon Swope.
The other Holy Doors in the archdiocese are at Our Lady of the Americas Mission in Lilburn, the Cathedral of Christ the King in Atlanta, St. Philip Benizi Church in Jonesboro, and the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. The Holy Door at St. Philip Benizi is closing at 4 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 12, while the one at the cathedral will close on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 10:30 a.m. Mass.
“This wonderful gift”
Pope Francis granted the possibility of a plenary indulgence, or the full remission of temporal punishment for sins committed, if certain steps are fulfilled in the spirit of conversion. The indulgence can be applied to one’s self or to the souls of the deceased.
“It’s really this wonderful gift,” said Deacon Swope.
To experience and obtain the indulgence, the faithful are called to pass through a Door of Mercy, make a profession of faith with the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed, pray for the pope and his intentions, meditate on mercy while receiving the Eucharist within 20 days, and participate in the sacrament of reconciliation within 20 days.
“Do you get a certificate?” asked Deacon Swope. “No. God in heaven knows your devotion to him.”
At the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, pilgrims learned the history of Atlanta’s first Catholic church before passing through its Holy Door.
Deacon Swope told the group that mercy is often assigned meanings of not punishing someone who deserves it, or of forgiving someone. Mercy is something much greater than that, he said.
The deacon shared the writing of Dominican theologian Meister Eckhart on mercy: “God’s highest work is mercy and the highest work that God ever performed in all creatures is mercy.”
Deacon Swope said that mercy is an expression of God’s love and is about wanting good and not harm for all humans. Mercy is multifaceted in that it means to feel compassion for the suffering and also prompts action.
The group sat in pews as Deacon Swope spoke of those without the necessities of food, shelter and medicine.
“We have to provide it. It’s up to you. It’s up to me,” he said. “Mercy is only manifested through real action.”
Child displayed mercy
Diane Fletcher, preschool director at St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek, was moved to speak about a personal experience while visiting a Mustard Seed community. St. Brigid supports Mustard Seed, an organization that works in Jamaica and Nicaragua to help children with physical and mental disabilities.
A young disabled boy joined Fletcher’s group on a walk and as they walked, they were passing by many homeless people. One homeless man sitting on the ground caught the attention of the boy. The child sat down beside the man and prayed for him.
“All he did was say an Our Father,” said Fletcher. “Sometimes it’s not the money you give; it’s a simple prayer.”
At Sacred Heart Basilica, the group knelt to make a profession of faith and pray.
At Holy Vietnamese Martyrs Church, they reflected on the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s significant that the man left by the side of the road, beaten and robbed, has no identity in the parable, the deacon said.
“What Luke wants you to do is to think it’s you,” said Deacon Swope, and ask yourself how you would want to be treated and how you extend mercy.
It’s noteworthy, said the deacon, that the New Testament book following the four Gospels is the Acts of the Apostles, which describes the acts of the early Christian community.
“He tells us the test to get into heaven and he tells us the answer,” Deacon Swope said.
The pilgrimage concluded with lunch at IHM and the selection by ballot by the directors of the Preschool Director of the Year award for 2017. After a three-way tie, Marti McLeer, of St. John Neumann Church preschool in Lilburn, was selected as the honoree in a runoff.
Mary Jo Nichols, director of Holy Family Church preschool in Marietta and the 2016 director of the year, presented flowers to McLeer and thanked her peers for honoring her last year. The Holy Family parish and preschool community showered Nichols with support following the announcement last year, she said.
“It was such a blessing,” she said. “They made me feel so blessed and loved.”
The director of the year is honored with other educators at the annual Archbishop’s Banquet for Catholic Education in January.
The preschool directors will gather next August for their annual Summer Education Institute and will be joined by their teachers. The institute, to be held at St. Catherine of Siena Church, Kennesaw, offers informative workshops and resources.