The Five-Loaves, Two-Fish Philosophy

As we continue from last week our walk through the spiritual works of mercy, we come to the second on the list: "instructing the uninformed."

This 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 upon whom this responsibility primarily rests: 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 of fiction and poetry such as The Chronicles of Narnia, and other classics. 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 character.

In other words, "Veggie Tales" are in and Pokemon is out!

It means tight restrictions on the cultural rot flowing into our homes through the TV set ("The Devil's tabernacle," as Mother Angelica once called it!). It means praying together as a family, too (such as a family Rosary or Chaplet, or reciting as prayers the words of good Christian hymns at bedtime).

We do not have to turn our homes into monasteries and convents, but we do have to take seriously 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. Why not give to your friend, at birthday or at Christmas, a favorite Catholic book that clearly explains the Faith to them? Most non-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 of these are 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 in his First Epistle, "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 "counsel the doubtful" and "comfort the sorrowful" are the third and fourth spiritual works of mercy. What a tremendous gift from The Divine Mercy it is when you find someone who will really listen attentively and sympathetically to you, who will really let you pour out your heart and share your troubles and miseries, and then will take your whole situation in prayer to the Lord before presuming to dole out advice to you. Plenty of people are quick to give out half-baked, ill-considered advice! But how many people do you know really listen, to you and to the Holy Spirit, before they speak!

You can become that person for others, if you learn to really listen to the Holy Spirit in your own life first, with the help of a spiritual director. Read the New Testament every day, and listen to the Lord speaking to you there. Find a good spiritual director, and listen to the lord speaking to you through his or her wise counsel. Then, having learned to listen, you will be ready and able to listen deeply to others.

We can find a good example of this in the life of St. Faustina. In her religious community, she was apparently such a good listener to those who came to her with their troubles that she earned the nickname "the dump" from her fellow sisters, because they were always dumping their problems on her (see Diary of St. Faustina, 871)! Its not hard to discover from her Diary where she learned this art of listening: from listening to the Holy Spirit in prayer, and the same Spirit speaking to her through the guidance of her spiritual directors, such as Fr. Joseph Andrasz, S.J., and the Venerable Servant of God Fr. Michael Sopocko.

The fifth spiritual work of mercy is "to be patient with those in error." This is a tough one. We certainly ought to share the Catholic Faith in God's merciful love with those who are far from Him, just because they need His mercy so badly (don't we all!). It is an act of merciful love to share the Faith with those who need it and to pray for them. On the other hand, we must be patient with God's work in other people's lives. We must never harass, nor pressure, nor manipulate anyone. I remember a sign that my mother put on our kitchen wall in our home that said: "Please be patient: God is not finished with me yet!" That sums up pretty well what our attitude should be. Our job is but to sow the seeds of faith in the hearts and minds of those who are in grievous error. But change has to come in God's own time, when the time is just right. Even if we, ourselves, never see the fruit of our efforts, God will surely do His part to water the seeds we have planted with the grace of conversion, when and if people are ready to receive that gift. Until then, we are just to be patient with those in error, share the truth with them as best we can (acknowledging all the while our own limited grasp of God's revealed truth, and our own limited capacity to adequately express that truth to others), and pray for them, trusting in God's mercy and patience with us all.

The sixth spiritual work of mercy is to "forgive offences."

"Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, I will repay" (Rom 12:19). If there is any vengeance that needs to be "dished-out," in this life or the next, the only one who is qualified to do it is the Lord, for He alone knows the secrets of all hearts. Thus, we must always let go of any desire in our hearts for vengeance, and in that sense at least, to forgive our enemies. That means stopping ourselves from exacting "petty vengeance" as well; I mean, using detraction or slander to get back at them for the evil they have done to us, running them down with malicious gossip behind their backs.

In short, we are not to curse the darkness, but to pray for those in darkness (see Mt 5:44). Whatever temporal harm they have done to us, those who are evil are in danger of the greatest harm of all: everlasting loss and condemnation. What they have done to us pales in comparison to what they will suffer eternally if they do not repent.

However, forgiveness is probably the most misunderstood of all the works of mercy. It does NOT mean blindly letting oneself be victimized! As I have already stated several times in this column (see last week's installment, for example), you actually have a duty to yourself and to your loved ones to protect yourselves from harm, for you are all children of God whom He made in His own image, and for whom He gave His life on the Cross. That's how valuable and precious you are in the eyes of our merciful Savior!

Forgiving our enemies, therefore, is entirely compatible with reasonable acts of self-protection. For example, fleeing with your children from a physically abusive spouse and seeking legal protection and redress from his attacks. Forgiveness is entirely compatible with having criminals arrested and placed behind bars where they cannot do further harm to the innocent. Forgiveness is even compatible with the use of lethal force by the police or the military, as a last resort, in fending off violent criminals or aggressive foreign powers (on this see Catechism, 2263-2267).

Clearly, the duty to forgive your enemies is compatible with protecting yourself and your loved ones from harm and demanding high standards of conduct from those close to you, including your own close family members. To prevent and block the spread of evil in these ways is actually a work of mercy, not only for yourself and your loved ones, but even to the perpetrators of evil. The perpetrators, after all, often have little chance of ever coming to repentance without the help of the "reality therapy" meted out by those charged with the social responsibility defending the innocent. In other words, to love and forgive your enemies is not necessarily to let them trample all over you. When there is no effective way to defend oneself or others from harm then that may be the time and the place meekly to carry the cross of persecution. But that time and place is certainly not every time and every place!

The seventh spiritual work of mercy is to pray both for the living and the dead. Every day we are to bring all our needs, and all the needs of our loved ones, and of the whole world into the merciful Heart of Jesus (as St. Faustina herself so often did, bringing them as she often phrased it, "into Your most compassionate Heart," Diary, 1209-1229).

Our works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual, will always appear inadequate compared to all the crying needs of the world around us. But our Lord does not ask us to meet every need. We are only asked to do what we can and leave the rest to Him as He works out His loving plan for each human soul. At the John Paul II Institute of The Divine Mercy, we have always called this "the five loaves and two fish philosophy." Saint Andrew once said to Jesus: "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?" (Jn 6:9). That meagre supply, when offered in faith to Jesus, was found to be enough to feed multitudes. So will our seemingly meagre efforts to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, guided by His Spirit and offered up to Jesus. He can work miracles with such little offerings. Some of those miracles we will never even see with our own eyes until we see Him face to face in heaven, and He gives us the grace to see what He sees, and to see His loving gaze upon us, and hear those blessed words from His own lips: "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Mt 25:23).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at


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