The Spiritual Works of Mercy- Catechist Reflection Day

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The title given to this reflection day is “The Role of the Catechist in the Year of Mercy”. Dr Wood will speak about the role of the catechist in the second reflection after morning tea. I would like to reflect on a theme proposed by Pope Francis in relation to the Year of Mercy.

In his Bull of Indiction for the Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis alerted the Catholic world to an aspect of our Catholic tradition which many of us may have forgotten or maybe never really been aware of: the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. He stated: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy”. (MV 15) He says, “Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.” (ibid).

I would like to speak more particularly on the Spiritual Works of Mercy. They have long been a part of the Christian tradition, appearing in the works of theologians like St Thomas Aquinas and referred to by spiritual writers throughout history. No one really knows who first composed or proposed them but they have a clear Gospel source. Jesus attended to the spiritual well-being of those he ministered to. The Spiritual Works of Mercy guide us to help people in their spiritual needs.

In a very particular way the works of mercy are reflected in the work you do as catechists. I would like to link these Spiritual Works of Mercy with your role as catechists.

A great deal of attention is given these days to the need to respond to the physical needs of others. The Corporal Works of Mercy are directed to meeting these needs. Less attention is given to the Spiritual Works of Mercy. In this area we are dealing not with people’s material needs, but with their spiritual needs, indeed the salvation of their souls.

Pope France said in his encyclical on evangelisation: “the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care. The great majority of the poor have a special openness to the faith; they need God and we must not fail to offer them His friendship, His blessing, His word, the celebration of the sacraments and a journey of growth and maturity in the faith’ (Evangelii Gaudium 200).

Simply put the Spiritual Works of Mercy are concrete works which are expressions of the Christian virtue of mercy. If you like, it is a way in which we can put mercy into action at the spiritual level.

The works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal, are not just some good suggestions but are the criteria by which our conduct as Christians will be judged and our credibility as followers of Jesus Christ can be measured. As God is merciful so those who believe in him should reflect mercy in their lives. Jesus taught in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall be shown mercy”. Mercy is the restorative power of God working in and through us. Mercy should be a distinctive virtue in the life of all Christians. It is not just an optional extra.

So let us briefly consider each of the seven spiritual works of mercy in relation to the work of being a catechist.

To instruct the ignorant
Obviously, this has immediate application to being a catechist. It is worth considering the work of a catechist as an act of mercy. Simply put, it is truly an act of loving mercy to help others learn what they need to know to save their souls and be united with God forever in heaven. I am sure you know only too well that so many today are truly ignorant of their Catholic faith. We teach as Jesus taught – with love and patience. Like Jesus we have a willingness to spend time with people and reveal the beauty of the Catholic faith. Our goal is to bring people to a closer relationship with Jesus.

In order to be able to effectively instruct the ignorant, it is necessary that we seek to enhance our own knowledge of the faith. Thus, for example, I would recommend having a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and reading up on aspects of the faith (as well as having it as a resource when asked difficult questions). I would also commend to you the work of Dr Wood in offering programs of formation in faith. A catechist seeks to deepen their knowledge of the faith.

To counsel the doubtful
Many people today struggle with faith. Even the young can be questioning their faith. We cannot presume that people have a strong belief in God. The material world around weighs down on the spirit. In this area we can recall the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus to Thomas. Pope Francis comments on this event: “With patience, Jesus does not abandon Thomas in his stubborn unbelief. . .He does not close the door, He waits. And Thomas acknowledges his own poverty, his little faith, “My Lord and my God!” With this simple yet faith-filled invocation, he responds to Jesus’ patience. He lets himself be enveloped by Divine Mercy; he sees it before his eyes, in the wounds of Christ’s hands and feet and in His open side, and he discovers trust” (Angelus, April 7, 2013).

Often the counsel of the doubtful needs patience. Sometimes all we can do is plant a seed. These seeds may take root and grown. On our part we are willing to spend time with those who are doubting. We offer ourselves to assist them in their search for God. It might be the provision of some reading material. It might be sitting down over a cup of coffee.

This is an act of mercy. This is a way in which we are carrying out the spiritual works of mercy.

To admonish the sinner
We may find this a little challenging at first. But it is truly an act of love and mercy to try to help others understand that certain acts or omissions are truly sinful. We do this not in a judgemental or accusing way. It is an act of mercy so it is done in love. In the words of St Paul, we “speak the truth in love”.

One of the special challenges we face today is to help people have a sense of sin.  Pope St. John Paul II has commented that the loss of the sense of sin goes hand in hand with the loss of the sense of God. As we help people come to know God we are better placed to help them come to know the reality of sin.

It takes courage and compassion to call individuals to understand the difference between right and wrong, to be faithful to the teaching of Christ and the Church. It is an act of merciful love to encourage someone to go to confession, especially if that person has been away from the Sacrament for a long time.

Often the most credible and merciful way to admonish the sinner is by our own example, for example, by acknowledging to others that we are sinners. It is a special form of witness to go to Confession ourselves with the children we are catechising.

Pope Francis has spoken eloquently about the importance of Confession. For example he said in a General Audience (Dec 16, 2015): “Not only this, with His love He says to us that precisely when we acknowledge our sins He is still closer and spurs us to look ahead. He says more: that when we acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness, there is a celebration in heaven. Jesus celebrates: this is His mercy: let us not be discouraged. Forward, forward with this!”

To forgive all injuries
As Catechists we are always on display. The children look to us to give witness to what we are teaching. The witness of our own willingness to forgive others is a very important witness to mercy.

We always have before us Christ’s forgiveness of His enemies from the cross. In the words of Pope Francis, “Mercy will always be greater than any sin, and no one can place limits on the love of God who is ever ready to forgive” (MV 3).

Again this has been a subject of the teaching of Pope Francis. He has said, “And to forgive is something great, yet it’s not easy to forgive, because our heart is poor and it cannot do so on its own. However, if we open ourselves to receive God’s mercy for us, we in turn become capable of forgiving”.

He goes on to say, “I’ve heard it said so many times, ‘I couldn’t stand that person: I hated her. But one day I approached the Lord and asked him to forgive my sins, and I also forgave that person.’ These are everyday things. And we have this possibility close to us” (General Audience, Dec 16, 2015).

To bear wrongs patiently
Embracing this work of mercy in our own lives will give us a disposition of mercy towards others which our students will recognise. The operative word here in this fifth spiritual work of mercy is the word “patiently.” It comes from the Latin word petior which means to suffer with someone, to place our feet in their shoes.

We have all been the victims of another’s thoughtlessness or carelessness. We have been sinned against. Bearing wrongs patiently means striving to be less critical of others. Sometimes the best thing to do is to pray for that person.

It is a noble ideal to seek never to say anything negative to or about another.

To comfort the afflicted
This general attitude in our Christian life can readily flow into our relationships with those we are catechising. We are compassionate with those who are suffering. We are willing to listen to them. To comfort a person in need is one of the great acts of mercy, especially when we are able to support the afflicted one’s spirit.

To walk with and accompany one who is suffering is akin to the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel. The Samaritan was moved with compassion as he approached the victim on the road, a victim unknown to him.

St Luke presents the parable: “He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back’ ” (Lk 10:34-35).

To pray for the living and the dead

Teaching our students to pray is a most important role of the catechist. In doing this we need to model good prayer. Thus, prayer is done slowly and deliberately. We can encourage our students to pray at home, urging them to make prayer a natural aspect of their lives.

It is deeply embedded in the Catholic spirit to pray for others, both the living and the dead. Our pray should not just be focussed on our own needs. We have prayers of intercession in the Liturgy. We offer up decades of the rosary for particular intentions.

We can remind children too about the practice of the Church is praying for the dead. The Catholic Catechism teaches, “From the beginning, the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1032).

The great Catholic prayer which we say at a funeral Mass, “May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace” can be used on many other occasions. It is a good prayer to teach to children.

Spiritual Works of Mercy
Pope Francis has done a great service to the Church in reminding us of the Works of Mercy, both corporal and spiritual.

I hope these brief reflections have enriched your appreciation of the role you play as catechists, particularly that you are in fact living out the spiritual works of mercy.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Friday, 9 September 2016