March 11, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Making mercy visible through spiritual works of mercy

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Last week, I wrote about making mercy visible through the corporal works of mercy: sharing our food and drink with those who are hungry and thirsty, clothing the naked and sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.

I noted that the words and example of Jesus, which have inspired the teaching of the leaders of our Church for two millennia, are at the very heart of Christian discipleship. As Pope Francis says, Jesus is the face of mercy, and all Christians are challenged to make mercy visible through our concrete actions.

In addition to the corporal works of mercy, the Church proposes for our reflection and action seven spiritual works of mercy. These are to: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, comfort the afflicted, and pray for the living and the dead.

The first spiritual work of mercy is to instruct the ignorant. We are all ignorant to some extent. There is so much we don’t know about the wonders of God’s creation, about the history of our salvation, and the richness of our Catholic faith. It really is a work of mercy when someone takes the time to help us grow in knowledge, wisdom and understanding.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have received a mandate to “go out into the whole world and proclaim the good news” (Mt 16:15). When we help others expand, and deepen, their understanding of the meaning of the world and our place in it, we extend God’s mercy to others, and we receive back much more than we give!

The second spiritual work of mercy is to counsel the doubtful. Many Catholics suffer doubts about their faith. When we encounter those who are unsure of their faith, we must affirm them in it and help them grow. Everyone’s faith is tested at one time or another. In fact, our faith must be tested so that it can grow strong. During times of doubt or anxiety, it’s important to have the strong support of family members, friends and others who stand firm in the faith and who can share their conviction with those who may be unsettled. In the end, Jesus himself is our greatest source of strength. Because he is always faithful, we can keep the faith. Because he never wavers in his love for us, we can stand firm in our love for him.

When we “instruct the ignorant” and “counsel the doubtful,” we share Christ’s mercy with others. But we also receive it back a hundredfold so that the Lord’s mercy can fill our souls with his divine life. When we perform each of the spiritual works of mercy—admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses willingly, comforting the afflicted and praying for the living and the dead—we become the face of Jesus, the face of mercy, to those we interact with daily.

A spiritual work of mercy can be very concrete and practical. If we help someone understand why all human life is sacred, we help prevent violence and inhumanity. When we counsel someone who is uncertain about the freedom that comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we affirm the beauty and truth of Christian discipleship. We help make it possible for someone who is “on the fence” to become fully engaged in the life of the Church.

When we admonish sinners, we tell them the truth in love. When we bear wrongs patiently and forgive others as the Father has forgiven us, we make love visible in the most powerful way possible. When we comfort the afflicted and pray for all our living and deceased sisters and brothers (including those who are close to us and those who are strangers), we act in the name of Jesus who prayed that we would all be one as he and the Father are one.

Spiritual works of mercy are necessary activities for ordinary Christians who aspire to be men and women of mercy. When we perform these acts of charity, we build up the Body of Christ, first of all, by growing in holiness ourselves and, secondly, by assisting our sisters and brothers in their efforts to live authentic spiritual lives.

When we share God’s mercy with others, we become ministers of mercy to them. Let’s not hesitate to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses willingly, comfort the afflicted and pray for the living and the dead. What we have to share—our own experience of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness—can be life-changing for those who need it most. †

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