Almost six months into the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we have to ask ourselves how we can possibly fulfill Christ’s command to “be merciful even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
Mercy’s possibilities are not exhausted by forgiving those who have “trespassed” against us, essential as that is. There are seven “spiritual works of mercy” that have long been part of Christian tradition. They are:
• counseling the doubtful;
• instructing the ignorant;
• admonishing sinners;
• comforting the sorrowful;
• forgiving injuries;
• bearing wrongs patiently;
• praying for the living and the dead.
As pillars of Christian life, these are the work of a lifetime and not just something reserved for a jubilee year or for a special program at school or church.
Spiritual works of mercy that engage the mind, heart and soul may not be as obvious or fashionable as the “corporal works of mercy” that our secularized and materially oriented world finds easier to understand. They may not be as straightforward or “showy” as baking for a parish fund-raiser or donating coats to clothe the naked. The spiritual works of mercy are more discreet, personal and hidden in nature. They demand a high level of courage and conviction about the radical demands of the Gospel in situations that address not only our neighbors’ material well-being, but also their spiritual well-being, and ours.
The great Hindu leader Mahatma Ghandi once said: “You must be the change you want to see in the world … As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world … as in being able to remake ourselves.” As Christians, we would understand this transformation somewhat differently. We cannot “remake” ourselves. Only divine grace can remake us. Our greatness consists in saying “yes” every day to the re-creative grace of God, as did Mary at the Annunciation: “Let it be done to me!” The more we open ourselves to God’s mercy and experience a change of heart, the more we are capable of truly being “merciful even as our Father is merciful.” Without this inner, spiritual transformation, the corporal works of mercy fall short, and the spiritual works may seem impossible when they are needed the most.
During the recent Lenten season, a number of parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Hartford began using “Mercy Quest” booklets for reflection and as a springboard for carrying out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Small prayer and conversation groups, composed of both laity and clergy, explored the possibilities for mercy in everyday situations. In this way, participants helped each other connect life and faith in a thoughtful and relational way.
At St. Ann Parish in Avon, for example, a recent “Mercy Stories” program encouraged weekly participants to share their real-life accounts of kindness, forgiveness and love. The program was so popular and effective in making this large parish feel more like a closely knit community that the 1,200 booklets on hand were not enough. Another 500 had to be ordered. No doubt these parishioners experienced that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst” (Matt 18:20).
At St. Timothy Parish in West Hartford, parishioners forged 20 small prayer groups to make the Jubilee Year of Mercy – truly a holy time of reconciliation and mercy – meaningful for daily life. Indeed, prayer is absolutely essential if we are to grow in our relationship to God and to all others in the “communion of saints,” both living and dead. “To pray for the living and the dead” is a great act of charity and solidarity that breaks the bonds of space and time and unites us all in the one body of Christ.
At the new St. Ambrose Parish in North Branford, a “Mercy Quest” group was facilitated by a member of the laity. Composed of parishioners from the formerly-linked communities of St. Augustine and St. Monica parishes, this reflection group helped to strengthen the bonds of this newly united family of faith by reflecting on God’s great treasury of compassion.
Finally, hundreds of people from throughout the archdiocese, moved by the message of divine mercy, took to the streets of Hartford in a unified procession of faith on the Sunday after Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday. Bundled up against heavy wind and cold, they processed with me from Bushnell Park up Asylum Avenue to our mother church, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, where 1,500 people filled the pews, giving thanks to our heavenly Father for his unconditional mercy. Together, we sang: “Give thanks to the Son, Light of the Nations. He loves us with a heart of flesh. As we receive from Him, let us also give to Him. Hearts open to those who hunger and thirst.”
These are just a few recent examples of people’s willingness to seek and celebrate mercy in all its inter-related forms, spiritual and corporal, as harbingers of hope and healing. Steadfastly focused on God’s Word in the face of the world’s tumult, they are living signs of the mission we all have from our baptism and confirmation to bear witness to it in the world.
Archbishop of Hartford
“Mercy Quest,” which may be used year-round, is available through the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Small Christian Communities Office http://www.sccquest.org/index.html; 860-242-5573, ext. 7450.