March 4, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Making mercy visible through corporal works of mercy

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Occasionally, I read or hear someone make the astonishing claim that Pope Francis represents a “radical break” from his predecessors. I call this “astonishing” because anyone who knows the teaching of former popes can hear their voices echoed (sometimes quite loudly) in the writing, homilies and even off-the-cuff remarks of Pope Francis.

There are obvious differences in style between our current pope and his predecessors, but a “radical break”? No way. The substance is the same. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the Church handed down to us from the Apostles.

One powerful example is Pope Francis’ teaching on mercy, which he says is “the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us … the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life, the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness” (“Misericordiae Vultus,” #2). This is radical teaching, to be sure, but it is not a break from the teaching of earlier popes.

Pope Benedict XVI taught that mercy “is the essence of Christianity because it is the essence of God himself. God is openness, acceptance, dialogue. And in his relations with us, sinful mankind, he is mercy, compassion, grace, forgiveness.” Our pope emeritus, who prefers to be called Father Benedict, believes we are called to be people of mercy because that is the greatest possible expression of our union with God and with the entire human family.

St. John Paul II once wrote, “Mercy is the central nucleus of the evangelical message. … Merciful love also illuminates the face of the Church and shows itself both through the sacraments—especially the sacrament of penance—and through works of charity. … From divine mercy, which brings peace to hearts, arises authentic peace for the world, peace between peoples, and among various cultures and religions.”

All three popes tell us that mercy begins with sharing our food and drink with those who are hungry and thirsty. Mercy compels us to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and imprisoned, and to bury the dead. These very practical actions, which we call “corporal works of mercy,” reveal the fundamental fact of God’s love for us as it is manifested in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

To feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty are the first two corporal works of mercy. As we bishops of Indiana write in our pastoral letter, Poverty at the Crossroads: The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana, most of us do not encounter hungry people every day. Our lives are more isolated. Most of us live in neighborhoods where most basic necessities are presumed. And yet there are hungry people—including children and elderly people—right here in Indiana. Catholic Charities agencies and local parishes served more than 100,000 meals last year to people throughout central and southern Indiana. How many more were not fed?

Throughout the world community (the family of nations), millions of people are hungry and thirsty every day. According to Catholic Relief Services (CRS), gains in reducing global hunger have been nearly wiped out in recent years by sharply increasing prices on some of the most basic foodstuffs in every region of the world, and by the current global financial crisis. Projections indicate that the global food price crisis will be long term, and that the impact on poor people in developing countries will be severe.

Pope Francis challenges us to respond to this crisis here at home and around the globe. We are called to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty as a fundamental requirement of our Christian discipleship. We cannot proclaim the Good News of our salvation unless we also share with our sisters and brothers the food and drink they need to live full and healthy lives.

What can we do? We can pray for an end to hunger and thirst wherever they are found—in our neighborhoods, in our state and nation, and throughout the world. We can support local food pantries, Catholic Charities agencies in our archdiocese, and the international CRS. We can advocate for laws and government policies that promote a just and equitable distribution of the world’s food and water.

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy,” Pope Francis teaches, in continuity with his predecessors and the holy Gospel. Let’s perform the corporal works of mercy. Let’s be the face of Jesus for others during this Lenten season and always! †

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