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The Spiritual Works of Mercy

19 February 2016

The motto of this Jubilee Year of Mercy is to be “merciful like the Father”. We have seen that the Church gives us guidance as to how to be merciful. We have reviewed the corporal works of mercy. Now we will consider the Spiritual Works of Mercy, through which we collaborate with God in order to help save souls for Heaven. Like the Corporal Works of Mercy, there are seven listed Spiritual Works of Mercy. These are to: Admonish the sinner; Instruct the ignorant; Counsel the doubtful; Comfort the sorrowful; Bear wrongs patiently; Forgive all injuries; Pray for the living and the dead.

Should everyone try to perform all these works of mercy? Don’t we have priests, religious, deacons and catechists to admonish the sinner and instruct the ignorant? Don’t the same people comfort the sorrowful and pray for the living and the dead? The answer is: Yes, we do have professional ministers who are involved in these works, but that doesn’t give any of us the right to disregard those in need by assuming that Father, sister or deacon will handle all of these sensitive problems!

So how can we perform the Spiritual Works of Mercy this Lent – and indeed throughout this Jubilee Year of Mercy and the future?

The first thing to recognise about the “spiritual works of mercy” is that, like the corporal works these tasks are our bounden duty as followers of Jesus Christ. These works are what is expected of each and every one of us as standard behaviour. They are not optional.

Some find the thought of “admonishing the sinner” to be difficult. Many years ago I would ask myself: “Who am I to sit in judgement over anyone!” and I would pass sin by on the other side. Sometimes, I wonder where some of the graffiti sprayers I use to avoid have ended up, because I didn’t speak out. Some of my approach was driven by a desire to “judge not”, but there was also simple caution, because quite often the response to a remark like “don’t smoke in church” can be violent. What then do we do if we see sinfulness? We have to have the right approach. We must not admonish as judges, but rather we must aim to be merciful in helping the sinners to understand that what they are doing is wrong, and in helping them to find the right path in life. We are all sinners, and none of us has a right to be “holier than thou”, no matter how vile the sin committed by the person we are “admonishing”.

In these days of moral relativism we need to create a society that understands the gravity of sin, rejects it, and yet can be accepting of sinners, because we understand that we are all sinners too. We can do this in small ways, for example by gently reminding people not to chat and laugh in front of the Blessed Sacrament. We can find larger ways: The next time Parliament debates assisted suicide or euthanasia, or further relaxation of the abortion laws, we should take up our pens and write to our MP to promote the Christian approach to such issues. When we do this, or otherwise correct someone, we should remember this scripture from Matthew Chapter 7: “…how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye?” This means we can never assume that we are superior to others, because every single one of us will one day stand before the Lord and give an account of our actions here on earth. May we be judged lightly, as we try to avoid judging our brothers and sisters.

Many people also feel awkward about instructing the ignorant. This is often due to a fear that we ourselves do not know enough about our faith to feel able to instruct others. Others assume that Father, or the parish sisters or the deacons will fill in the gaps in knowledge of others. But that is abdicating our responsibility as Baptised Catholics. If you feel you do not know enough, there are plenty of books and websites that can help you develop your knowledge. I can recommend a book called “Catholicism for Dummies” which makes our faith accessible to all. Or you might volunteer to become a helper at one of our parish sacramental preparation programmes or attend our weekly Talks on the Faith. If you feel the need for instruction is urgent then you should always feel free to approach one of the clergy or sisters, but why not make a resolution this Lent to learn more about your faith?

To counsel the doubtful is like the first two works. Many devout churchgoing Catholics are sometimes doubtful that the Lord exists. We should gently find out why they have come to lose their faith. We should try to bring them back to the practice and acceptance of the Faith through the witness of how we live our lives, because nothing preaches the Gospel as worthily and well as a life well-lived. We should also be a friend to the one struggling with doubt. Never cut them off from our society, but perhaps ask them to come to Mass with us, or share with them a book we found useful. Sometimes the doubt is not about God, but about some aspect of our Faith. For example, why is the Church opposed to same sex marriage, or artificial birth control? Be sure that you yourself understand the reasons behind the Church’s teachings, and then adopt the tactful and sensitive approach you would when “admonishing a sinner”. After all, can we claim to know everything about the teaching of the Church? If not, then how can we show any superiority to others?

To comfort the sorrowful is about being a good Christian. Sometimes we feel awkward in the face of another’s sorrow, because we don’t know what we can do to relieve the person’s pain. Remember though, that one day we too will have to deal with personal grief and it is then that we would appreciate the support of friends and strangers. Therefore we should always be open to listening to those who are in grief, and open to doing what we can for them, because even if we aren't sure of the right words to say, just being a companion to the sorrowful will make a huge difference to their lives. We all know people who have troubles. We should spend time with them, listen to them, perhaps if we are separated by distance make sure we send them a sympathy card, or a Mass intention, or simply pick up the phone and speak to them. We should always be connected.

To bear wrongs patiently and forgive all injuries is part of our Christian mission. We are instructed to not be bitter about wrongs done against us, and to pray for the grace to endure the troubles that this world can throw at us. That isn’t easy, but that is our Faith. “How many times must I forgive my brother?” Jesus was once asked. He replied “Always”. We cannot forgive if we are bitter about wrongs. In the Lord’s Prayer we ask to be forgiven as we forgive others. Surely, the knowledge that by bearing wrongs and forgiving all injuries we show God’s mercy to others, and thereby bring God’s blessing upon ourselves, will help us achieve these works.

To pray for the living and the dead is merciful. There are those that may be sick; those that have become unemployed; those troubled by conflict; the list of needs is endless. We should also strive to give thanks to God for blessings received on behalf of those who might forget to do so. How can we keep track of all the prayer intentions? My mother in-law had her “prayer list”, and was sure to pass on prayer intentions to others too to get them involved. A great friend of mine kept a candle on a plate, and on this plate he kept slips of paper with the names of people in need of prayer. We should pray for others always, because in this way we will store up treasure for ourselves in Heaven. And who knows, if we do not need them now, then one day we too may need the prayers of friends and strangers!