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What we should know about the Spiritual Works of Mercy

The following is part of a series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. We invite you to view the entire series.

Works of mercy can be directed not only toward the needs of the body, but the needs of the soul as well. Indeed, the most serious form of poverty of all can be the poverty of the spirit, not only because it drains life of all energy, joy, and sense of purpose, but also because it is the one kind of poverty that can last forever.

The evangelist Billy Graham tells the story of a private dinner he shared with one of the wealthiest men in the United States. During the meal the man confessed that despite having every good thing money could buy, he was miserable beyond words. The lesson: money cannot buy happiness. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Clearly, this wealthy gentleman suffered from moral poverty.

Indeed, the human spirit longs for the nourishment of truth, goodness, and beauty if it is to be healthy and strong and if it is to grow in sanctification and be prepared for the life to come.

That’s why, in addition to the corporal works or mercy, the Church has outlined the spiritual works of mercy. Look to these works as preventative medicine for poverty of the spirit. The spiritual works of mercy are as follows: (1) Admonish sinners; (2) Instruct the uninformed; (3) Counsel the doubtful; (4) Comfort the sorrowful; (5) Be patient with those in error; (6) Forgive offenses; (7) Pray for the living and the dead.

First: Admonish Sinners

This work of mercy — “tough love,” you could call it — is one of the hardest to practise in the western world today. Why? Because we live in the “I’m-OK-you’re-OK” culture. As such, I have my own personal set of values, and you have your own personal set of values, and we are each free to practise those values to our heart’s content just as long as we do not do grievous bodily harm to others in the process (although that limitation is waived when the “others” in question are unborn children, the chronically ill, and elderly).

If you really want to be unpopular — indeed, if you really want to risk getting a punch in the nose — try admonishing someone today for, say, swearing in public or wearing provocative clothing or talking loudly in church. Try objecting to the widespread availability of pornography, or try engaging in non-violent protests outside an abortion clinic, or try explaining to a gay friend that his or her lifestyle is unnatural and that he or she will never find true fulfillment, peace, or healing but through Jesus Christ.

Nine times out of ten, the end result of these attempts to “admonish sinners,” no matter how gently and compassionately they are performed, is that one is branded an intolerant bigot. After all, what could be a worse, what could be a more politically incorrect attitude in an I’m-OK-you’re-OK culture than to tell others, “You’re not OK: you’re harming yourself and others, at least spiritually and psychologically, if not also physically and sociologically?

Yet, it is to a society dominated by people who have not made any real psychological or moral progress since they reached adolescence that we are called to “speak the truth in love,” as St Paul put it (see Eph 4:15), with both courage and compassion.

It is certainly not easy to do. It takes the virtue of prudence as well: finding just the right moment and just the right words, and saying them in a way that clearly affirms the human dignity of the person you are admonishing, even as they challenge him or her to fulfill his or her highest potential.

St Faustina set an excellent example for us in this regard. In her convent in Poland she sometimes discerned the call of the Holy Spirit to practise such “tough love.” She actually became known in her religious community for her boldness in admonishing even older and more educated sisters in religion for their sins of malicious gossip, and some of them, in the end, grudgingly respected her for it.

Second: Instruct the Uninformed

Instruct the ignorantThis means, first of all, accepting our God-given responsibility to be the primary source of religious education and formation for our children. Some Catholics may be surprised to learn that it is not the local Catholic school or Sunday School program upon whom this responsibility primarily rests. Rather, it is the parents.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (2223), and parents are told that through the grace of matrimony, they “receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children” (2225). This includes, from an early age, reading to our children and grandchildren Bible stories and stories of the lives of the saints, as well as great Christian works such as The Chronicles of Narnia. It means providing them with a steady diet of good Christian CDs and videos and weeding out all the dubious ones from our collection that can only cause the loss of their innocence and the confusion of their developing moral characters.  It means tight restrictions on the cultural rot flowing into our homes through the TV set and the Internet. It means praying together as a family, too — perhaps by offering a family Rosary or Chaplet of The Divine Mercy or by reciting as prayers the lyrics of good Christian hymns at bedtime.

We do not have to turn our homes into monasteries and convents, but we do have to heed the exhortation of St Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2).

Beyond our homes, of course, the need for instruction in the true faith is equally urgent. Often there is no more effective (and no less threatening) way to share the Catholic faith with our non-Catholic friends than to do so in the natural course of friendship itself. For Christmases or birthdays, why not give your friends or family members a favorite Catholic book that clearly explains the faith? Most non-Catholics (and non-practicing Catholics) are so full of misinformation about what the Church actually teaches and about the role of the Church down through history that even if a good book given away does no more than break down a few of the prejudices they may hold about Catholicism, then count it as a work of mercy well done.

Try one of these books as gift ideas (all in print at the moment): Fundamentals of the Faith, by Peter Kreeft;Theology for Beginners, by F.J. Sheed; Catholic and Christian, by Alan Shreck (a book that is especially good to share with Evangelical Protestant friends); Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton; or Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. Finally, read the books yourself first.

As St Peter taught us, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet 3:15).

(To be continued)

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