Last September, students at St. Charles Borromeo embraced an ambitious mission: to pray 1 million Hail Marys during the 2014-15 school year for the safety of Pope Francis. The news media at the time was rife with reports that the Holy Father was a potential target of ISIL terrorists.
“We are always trying to impress upon the children how powerful prayer is,” said Mary Schmidt, principal of the Destrehan elementary school. “We tell them all the time that the prayers of little children are especially powerful, because Jesus listens in a special way when they pray.”
Given that St. Charles Borromeo’s 462 students say five Hail Marys together at the conclusion of their morning announcements, some 2,340 prayers dedicated to the protection of Pope Francis are built in to every school day.
But what really touched Lisa Benoit, the middle school religion teacher who coordinates St. Charles Borromeo’s million-prayer campaign, was how students took the initiative to offer their prayers beyond school hours. The young prayer warriors started leading Hail Marys at home and reporting the count from their family prayer time each week, Benoit said.
“Little kids would hand me tiny slips of paper and say, ‘Look, my mommy and I prayed this many prayers,’” said Benoit, who adds up the schoolwide Hail Marys and updates a hallway graphic to keep students abreast of their progress. The students’ prayer reports – scrawled on sticky notes and other paper scraps – cover a hallway locker next to pictures of Pope Francis and the Blessed Mother. The latter image includes a prayer: “Blessed Lady, please protect our Holy Father.”
Spreading the word
Still, as diligent as the students were, time was becoming a factor. At the halfway point of the school year the Hail Mary count was not yet at 500,000.
“We realized we would have to have help if we were going to accomplish our goal,” said Schmidt, who seized an opportunity to tell the story of the papal prayer campaign at the Jan. 23 prayer service held in conjunction with Grandparents’ Day. During these special occasions and at school Masses celebrated on first and third Fridays, students recite their five daily Hail Marys as they enter the church to armor themselves in prayer, maintain reverence and model Catholic identity.
“(During the prayer service) we asked our grandparents to say Hail Marys for us and give their grandchild the weekly number to add to our count,” Schmidt said.
One of the grandparents in attendance – Brother Martin math teacher Debbie Broussard – was so inspired, she challenged her own students to add to the count. Once this got going, Schmidt realized she also could enlist the help of two relatives with connections to Catholic high schools: her sister-in-law Judy Rodriguez, Brother Martin’s religion department chair; and her niece, Raleigh Benoit, a religion teacher at St. Charles Catholic High.
“(Rodriguez) just sent me 6,734 Hail Marys,” said Schmidt, citing a recent week’s contribution from Brother Martin. “Now that we have our families, our grandparents, Brother Martin and St. Charles Catholic all sending us numbers of prayed Hail Marys, we feel like we can realistically accomplish our goal of 1 million prayers by the end of the school year.”
At press time, more than 730,000 Hail Marys had been tallied.
“It’s like dropping a pebble in a pond and the circles start. At first there are small circles, and then they get bigger and bigger,” Schmidt said. “We started with our little community – with our kids saying prayers at bedtime – and it just rippled outward.”
Becoming stewards of prayer
Schmidt said the prayer effort also bolsters St. Charles Borromeo’s parishwide commitment to enhance three areas of stewardship: prayer, service and treasure.
The entire student body always sends a spiritual bouquet to the families of bereaved parishioners and newly baptized children, with Schmidt reading the resulting thank-you notes over the intercom so her students can again be reminded of their prayers’ impact.
In another prayer-related initiative – at the Feb. 6 “Blue Mass” for first responders serving in the areas of military, medical, police and fire protection – Schmidt’s students gave every adult congregant a Guardian Angel pocket coin and a card bearing the photograph of a different homeroom class. The cards asked the recipients to register with the school office if they wanted the pictured class to pray for them by name. In return, the first responder is asked to pray for his or her pictured class. So far, nearly 50 people, including Blue Mass celebrant Archbishop Gregory Aymond, have accepted the invitation to become “prayer buddies” with the school, Schmidt said. The first responders also were invited to take part in St. Charles Borromeo School's next quarterly Children’s Rosary on March 17, where more Hail Marys will be dedicated to Pope Francis.
“God is good and he works in wonderful ways,” Schmidt said. “This time he needs us (to pray for Pope Francis), and we are blessed to do his work on earth!”