BRISTOL – Exactly what is mercy? And how are Catholic educators applying the spiritual works of mercy in the classroom?
To find out more about this timely topic, teachers from throughout the Archdiocese of Hartford attended a workshop titled “The Spiritual Works of Mercy Lived by the Catholic Educator” during the Catholic Educators Faith Conference on March 15 and 16 at St Paul Catholic High School.
The workshop was conducted by Katie Purple, who holds a master’s degree in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America and is a teacher of religion at St. Paul Catholic.
In her overview on mercy, Ms. Purple noted that the corporal works of mercy are easy to spot in the New Testament in Matthew 25:3440. However, the spiritual works are sprinkled throughout the Bible and trace their roots back to 200 AD, 300 AD with Saint Augustine, and the Middle Ages when they were codified by Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica.
The corporal works of mercy get a lot of attention, Ms. Purple noted, but the spiritual works are equally important and the two go hand in hand. “We always have to be looking at the whole person,” she explained.
According to Ms. Purple, the term mercy may need a bit of definition. “Mercy is not a going soft,” but comes from the Latin word misericordia, which means “a heart given to the miserable” or more practically “to give our hearts to those stuck in miserable situations,” she said.
In Dives in Misericordia 3, Saint Pope John Paul II brought forth the idea of Christ revealing the merciful face of the Father, showing his love by going to the sinners, the poor and the broken and bringing them the love of God, Ms. Purple said.
Catholic educators have a related mission. “Our mission as teachers is to unveil the love of God the Father and show it to our students. As Christians, we are called to let Christ live through us,” she said. “That means to see someone in their human condition, their messiness, and still walk with them.”
Ms. Purple said the first step toward showing mercy and love is to receive it by going to the sacrament of reconciliation. “We can’t give what we haven’t received,” she noted.
When it comes to the specific spiritual works of mercy, Ms. Purple offered the following:
Instruct the ignorant. In Acts 8:3031, Ms. Purple pointed out, the question “Do you understand what you are reading?” is posed, and the answer is “How can I unless someone instructs me?”
For teachers, this means “pouring ourselves out in service,” she said, “even on days when we are tired or doubtful. Remember, Christ is still working through us.”
Counsel the doubtful. In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Saint John Paul II acknowledged that we all have questions. These include, “Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life?”
“Students can get caught up in disillusionment, and doubt that there is meaning in life,” Ms. Purple said. “It’s a call to provide order in their world and direct them away from nihilism to what is positive, true and beautiful.”
Admonish the sinner. “The merciful love of the Father works through discipline,” Ms. Purple said. She cited Hebrews 12: 56, 11, which explains that discipline may initially be a cause for pain but eventually “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.”
Teachers must “call students to their potential,” she said. The question becomes, “How can we discipline them knowing that they are falling short and are called to more?” In addressing students who act out or behave dishonestly, teachers can “pull them out of their misery.”
Comfort the sorrowful. According to 2 Corinthians 1: 35, God the Father has “encouraged us in all our afflictions,” Ms. Purple said. Still, we should also take steps to comfort and encourage one another.
Educators, she said, should take a few moments to build community with colleagues and parents because so much can be gained from it. Ask, “How can we support each other through our difficulties?” “Put communicating in a new light,” she suggested.
Forgive offenses. The Bible offers at least two readings that address forgiveness: Matthew 18: 2122 in which Christ says Peter must forgive sinners 77 times, and Matthew 6: 12 in which we are called to forgive “our debtors.”
For teachers, forgiving is “an act of the will,” Ms. Purple says. “We want our eyes to be clear and see our students and others without the burden of the memory of the offense.”
Bear wrongs patiently. Ms. Purple cited Proverbs 16: 32, which reads, “The patient are better than warriors, and those who rule their temper, better than the conqueror of a city.”
“Sometimes we are wronged by an injustice,” she admitted, but the question is “When am I simply called to bear it and when am I called to speak up about it?”
Pray for the living and the dead. Prayer is “a raising of the heart and mind to God,” Ms. Purple said. “Pray to benefit someone else.”
Her favorite prayer quote comes from Saint Ignatius of Loyola, who said, “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.”
For more information on the spiritual works of mercy, Ms. Purple recommends the book The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy by the Pontifical Council of the New Evangelization.