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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

Schools give pope gift of community service

Religion News Service

Anyone who’s ever tried to buy a birthday present for an octogenarian grandparent knows the dilemma: What do you buy for someone who seems to have everything and need nothing?

Pope Benedict XVI turns 81 on April 16 during his stop in Washington and Catholic school students say they’ve found the perfect present for which size and color don’t matter, and the price is always right -- a million hours of community service.

“In giving this gift to the Holy Father, we want to wish him a happy birthday, but we also want him to know the good work that we do, that the Catholic education community does, and our understanding of the call of the Christian community,” said Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, which is coordinating the effort.

Students in primary and secondary schools, parish education programs, colleges and seminaries all were asked to devote hours of community service in the “Birthday Blessings” project to honor the pope.

Collecting food for shelters, making rosaries for children in hospitals and staging marathons to raise money for charity are just a few of the ways students are participating.

“Community service is a big part of the culture here,” said Jesuit Fr. Allen Novotny, president of Gonzaga College High School in Washington. “We’re just excited and happy to be part of this great project -- good works for a good cause.”

But students aren’t the only ones getting involved. The project involves teachers and administrators at all levels of Catholic education, from parish-based religious education teachers to university professors.

The NCEA is planning to present the hours of community service to the pope in a birthday card. Their goal is to complete at least 1 million hours of service by May 31.

So far, more than 350 schools have pledged more than 1.1 million hours of service. Corpus Christi School in Falls Church, Va., one of the schools, is pledging more than 700 hours, according to George Chiplock, principal of the school.

“We do so many service projects during the year anyway,” said Marilyn Mitros, the school’s second-grade teacher. “One of our main missions here is to start the children serving the community at a very young age. We need to serve others before we serve ourselves, and that is one of our big mission statements here at Corpus Christi.”

A running tally of participants and hours pledged is displayed at

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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