Jesus did not hesitate to heal the ten lepers who cried out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us”. It was an act of mercy. It reveals the God is all merciful. During this holy year of mercy we have contemplated the depths of mercy in the heart of God towards humanity. And we are reminded that mercy should also be a defining characteristic of our lives as Christians. The Lord has taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.
Pope Francis has invited the universal Church to contemplate the notion of mercy – the mercy of God towards us and our role in being agents of mercy. One of the things the Pope asked us to do during this Holy Year is to reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We may recall them from our early catechesis at school, but it is possible that we have largely forgotten about them.
In his Bull of Indiction for the Year of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Pope Francis said: “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy”. (MV 15)
The corporal works of mercy have their scriptural base in the parable of the sheep and goats given in Matthew 25. There the Lord says that we will be judged as to how we carried out acts of mercy. We know them well from the parable: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
As Catholics we have been attentive to the corporal works of mercy and we have been involved in many good works which reflect this instruction of the Lord.
But what of the spiritual works of mercy? They are not so familiar to us. 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.
While the Corporal Works of Mercy are directed to meeting the physical needs of people the Spiritual Works of Mercy are directed towards the spiritual needs of people.
So let us very briefly consider the first three of the seven spiritual works of mercy.
The first is entitled “To instruct the ignorant”. The Church has from earliest times being committed to providing religious formation. Our great school system – 37 schools - here in Tasmania is eloquent testimony to this. We salute the heroism and dedication of some many religious men and women who served Catholic education.
However, let us not forget our parish catechists. Those who carry out the sacramental preparation of children. Those who are involved in the RCIA. This is a vital work in every parish. And to be a catechist is to have a calling to help hand on the faith. It is worth considering the work of a catechist is a spiritual work 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.
The second is entitled “To counsel the doubtful”. Many people today struggle with the issue of faith, of the presence of God in their lives – our family members, our friends. People question their faith. We know that we are going through a phase in our history when the material world around us weighs down and crushes the spirit.
We are all called to counsel the doubtful. Often this is as simple as encouraging people in their quest for God. We should never underestimate the impact of the witness of our own faith. People see that we have something, something that they would like to have.
The counsel of the doubtful needs patience. Sometimes all we can do is plant a seed. These seeds may take root and grow. 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.
The third Spiritual Work of Mercy is entitled, “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.
In the Gospel story today we see the Lord giving expression to mercy as he healed ten lepers. His comment to the one who returned to express his deep gratitude for having been healed was “your faith has saved you”. Acts of mercy are ways in which people can be drawn to faith. Every time we do an act of mercy, be it corporal or spiritual, we are advancing the Kingdom of God and providing an opportunity for a person to come to faith, even if it is only one out of ten.
Archbishop Julian Porteous
Saturday, 8 October 2016