Part 11: The Spiritual Works of Mercy

The following is part 11 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. 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 practice 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 practice 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 10, 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?

The problem is that we live in a society dominated by people who have not made any real psychological or moral progress since they reached adolescence. Thus, they stumble through life with an adolescent understanding of love. To be "loved," to them, means to be affirmed in everything they want to do that does not cause anyone else (except unborn children, the chronically ill, and elderly) grievous bodily harm. Imagine telling someone like that, "Hey, I think you are doing something wrong; I think what you are doing can lead to your spiritual self-destruction and, perhaps, to the spiritual destruction of others, too." They'll likely complain that you are practicing intolerance and bigotry. Yet, it is to spiritually adolescent people like this - to a whole society dominated by such people - 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.

Saint 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 practice 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
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 or CCD 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.

In other words, "Veggie Tales" are in; 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) 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).

Third and Fourth: Counsel the Doubtful and Comfort the Sorrowful
What a tremendous gift it is from The Divine Mercy when you find someone who really listens to you, who really lets you pour out your heart and share your troubles and miseries, and who then really takes 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 who 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 she earned the nickname "the dump" from her fellow sisters because they were always dumping their problems on her (see her Diary, 871). It's not hard to discover from her Diary where she learned this art of listening. She learned it from listening to the Holy Spirit in prayer and from the same Spirit speaking to her through the guidance of her spiritual directors, such as Fr. Joseph Andrasz, S.J., and Blessed Michael Sopocko.

Fifth: Be Patient With Those in Error
This is a tough one. In God's merciful love, we certainly ought to share the Catholic Faith with those who are far from Him 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, pressure, or manipulate anyone. There is a famous bumper sticker that reads, "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. Even if we never see for ourselves the fruit of our efforts, God will surely do His part to water with the grace of conversion the seeds we have planted, when and if people are ready to receive that gift. Until then, we are just to be patient with those in error, to share the truth with them as best we can (acknowledging all the while our own limited grasp of God's revealed truth and limited capacity to adequately express that truth to others), and to pray for them, trusting in God's mercy and patience with us all.

Sixth: Forgive Offenses
"'Vengeance is mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (Rom 12:19). If there is any vengeance that needs to be "dished out," in this life or the next, the only One 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, which includes the use of detraction or slander or gossip to get back at people for the evil they may have done to us.

In short, we are not to curse the darkness, but to pray for those in darkness. (See Mt 5:44.) Whatever temporal harm they may have done to us, those who are evil are in danger of the greatest harm of all: everlasting loss and condemnation. What they have caused us to suffer 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. You have a duty to protect yourself and your loved ones 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, 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. (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 toward yourself and your loved ones, but even toward 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 of 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!

Seventh: Pray for the Living and the Dead
Every day we are to bring our needs, the needs of our loved ones, and the needs of the whole world into the merciful Heart of Jesus. Saint Faustina herself often did this, bringing them into Christ's "most compassionate Heart" (see Diary, 1209-1229).

Our works of mercy, both corporal and spiritual, will always appear inadequate compared to the 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. Remember the "five loaves and two fish principle." Saint Andrew 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 meager supply, when offered in faith to Jesus, was found to be enough to feed multitudes. So will our seemingly meager 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 meet Him face-to-face in heaven. It is then when He will give us the grace to see what He sees; it is then when He will turn His loving gaze upon us and we will hear those blessed words from His own lips: "Well done, good and faithful servant!" (Mt 25:23)

Discussion Questions
1. Why is "admonishing sinners" so difficult today? Have you ever been effectively "admonished" by someone else?
2. What new way could you find to "instruct the uninformed" in the truth of the Catholic faith?
3. What new way could you find to "forgive offenses," praying for those who mistreat you rather than "cursing the darkness?"

An Exhortation of St. Theresa of Avila
Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

A Contemporary Christian Song
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold and precious silver
Purify my heart
Let me be as gold, pure gold

Refiner's fire, my heart's one desire
Is to be holy
Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy
Set apart for You, my Master
Ready to do Your will

Purify my heart
Cleanse me from within and make me holy
Purify my heart
Cleanse me from my sin, deep within

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).


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