One of my readers had directed me to the case of a cute kid in Utah who had participated in an armed home invasion and reached a plea bargain with the prosecutor, only to have it overturned by the judge and replaced with a severe term in adult prison.
I think my reader’s intent was to get me wound up about the judge, who had done a very unfair thing. That worked alright, but my main reaction at the story was how a boy, obviously from a good family, could be so uncompassionate that he would terrorize someone in their own home with a gun?
I had decided to react to my reader’s input by writing another essay on compassion, but I didn’t know what to say. I had just begun researching the word “compassion” on Wikipedia, hoping it would stimulate some ideas, when a wonderful story about compassion came on the radio.
It was a coincidence that was too good to ignore: a report about a 12-year-old program called the Saint Joseph of Armathea Pallbearer Ministry, at the all-male Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland OH.
The pallbearers group consists of 440 boys, and the activity of the group appears to have made a deep, life-changing impression on the young men. It serves at funerals for deceased people who were homeless, financially insecure, or without family to give them a dignified burial. It is the largest activity at Saint Ignatius.
The students are requested by the family of the dead to serve as pallbearers. The boys, each dressed in a blue blazer, khaki slacks, shirts and ties, follow the funeral director’s quiet orders, moving the casket to where it should be placed for the service. After the service, the body of the deceased is returned to the hearse for the trip to the burial spot, and it is the boys who lift the casket again. At the cemetery, they stand in a group offering their own silent prayers for the grieving family.
The ministry is busy, answering the requests of many families that have no one to serve as pallbearers for the funeral of a loved one. Sometimes the deceased had been a graduate of St. Ignatius High School and his family had requested St. Ignatius students carry him to his burial site. But more often, the deceased is old, poor, or both. Even during the days when there is no school, the pallbearer teenagers are there, ready to help.
“The great teaching of our faith is to care for the individual and to value human life from the womb to the tomb,” said Dan Baron, a theology teacher at St. Ignatius and one of the advisors to the pallbearer group. He and fellow theology teacher James Sker provide guidance to the group.
“The ministry was designed to not only give students an opportunity to perform the work of mercy, but also to help them see the real meaning of service,” said pallbearer Charlie Casa.
“When you’re out on a funeral, you kind of feel close to the families although you don’t even know them,” said St. Ignatius student Danny Dreiling.
Brendan Wagner said the ministry has helped him in his growing and maturing process. “It’s one of the best things we provide here at St. Ignatius,” he said.
All the boys said they better understood the fragility of life because of their participation in the ministry.
It has made them more compassionate.
The boys provide their services under the guidance of funeral homes that participate in the St. Ignatius project.
“They’re not only pallbearers,” said Lou Ripepi, owner of Ripepi Funeral Home. “They pray with the families, sit through the services, funeral masses, graveside services, and present a card to the family. These are young men that really care.”
The school ministry is named after St. Joseph of Aramathea, who appears in all four Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Christ. Joseph of Aramathea is said to have donated his new tomb outside Jerusalem to receive the body of Jesus.
The boys all said their work is more than a service. They view it as a mission.
To listen to the radio broadcast, click here.
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