The First Spiritual Work of Mercy:
This first Spiritual Work of Mercy sounds pretty garish right off the top.
Ignorant? This is a word we only use when insulting people.
Instruct? As in, “I know something you don’t know?”
So we need to unpack the phrase a bit so that it does not come off as entirely patronizing, or worse.
Another way to think about “ignorant” is simply people who do not (yet) know. A category, for sure, that includes almost all of us one way or another. Indeed, the ancient philosopher, Plato, thought that intelligence rose in proportion to one’s awareness of how much one did not know. Indeed, all of us have yet so much more to know, particularly when it comes to God.
Is not God the utter depth of mystery, One whose mystery grows deeper the closer I move into his presence? Do I not in fact grow as I wonder more about God? And does not my wisdom directly correlate to my pursuit of knowing the utter Mystery that is God? In this sense, being unknowing is to be human. Recognizing the vastness and indescribable love of God is common to all humans. To help each other grope for the glimmers of light in the darkness that surrounds us-this has to be the starting point for all of us!
The root meaning for the word “instruct” in Latin is to “pile things on.” Again, here’s an image that might make us wince. But the fuller meaning is to equip, to bring sufficient resources, to supply more than what is needed. So the idea of “instruct” in some sense is inviting us to supply for each other the resources we need. To instruct the ignorant, then, comes down to meaning this: to resource each other in our common search for God, in our common pursuit of truth and fullness.
This is something of the image that Pope Francis gives us in “The Joy of the Gospel”: “[The parish] It is a community of communities, a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey, and a centre of constant missionary outreach. (#28)” Our parishes should be a place of dialogue, resourcing the thirsty in the midst of their arduous journey through life. Parish should be a place of missionary outreach, where all our members are resourcing each other—and other people as well—in our journey toward the fullness of God.
Further on in “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis begins to talk about “personal preaching”—he’s not talking about standing on a street corner or cornering friends in a bar. Rather, he is talking about the personal sharing that we can do with those around us—equipping and resourcing each other as we go down the path of life. “In this (personal) preaching, which is always respectful and gentle, the first step is personal dialogue, when the other person speaks and shares his or her joys, hopes and concerns for loved ones, or so many other heartfelt needs. (#128)” Personal dialogue, listening to another attentive to the needs, and opening our hearts in response. One cannot evangelize without being simpatico with another.
This is starting to look, in parish terms, like the opening stage of the inquiry process, the first step of the catechumenate. I hear some horror stories of the RCIA being turned into a curriculum-run like a set of classes. Certainly inquirers need and deserve information. But they need to be engaged as a first step, with them coming to grips with their own longings, thirsts, needs, and dreams. These give people the distinct vocabulary—arising from their personal experience—which will allow them to hear, and eventually speak, the Gospel.
A particular aspect of mercy, then, is attending to the spiritual hungers of every human heart, but particularly those hearts who have not come to consciously engage the love of God.
All too often we project our own religious sentiments on others, not stopping to think of the huge deficit in the life of someone who has not encountered Jesus, dialogued with God, been empowered by the Holy Spirit, or found the language of prayer and praise. Very often we have religiously anorexic people surrounding us. We are blithely eating piles of spiritual ice cream while they look on bewildered!
Instruct the ignorant: opening the resources of our hearts so that we can be a resource for the heart of another . . . listening to the longings of another so that we know better how to share . . . allowing the abundance of the Spirit to spill beyond our lives so that the lives of others may also have their fill of God’s grace.
And, of course, if we open our hearts to others in their search, we find our own hearts immensely expanded; we find our own hungers clarified, but now fed in a new way.
“Instruct the ignorant” should also be an occasion to celebrate the educational and catechetical roles of our parishes. While all too many Catholic schools have closed—due to demographic factors a half-century in the making—many parishes have brought onto their staffs “Directors of Faith Formation.” To their credit, these directors not only serve the community of children coming to religious education classes, but, more and more, look to stimulate the faith formation of adults. “Life-long learning” has become a standard in the minds of many parish leaders; although “life-long growth” in faith might be more accurate to describe the task.
All of religious education has to undergo a fundamental shift: we need to move away from thinking that we are teaching children so they can receive the sacraments—and more towards the idea that we are evangelizing families.
Faith must be situated in the lived experience of the family in order for it to have any real chance of being a formative factor in the lives of Catholics today. We simply do not have the social forces of the past—ethnic cohesion, close neighborhoods or small towns, social patterns of authority, the feeling of being the underdog—that made the Catholic faith something that endured in the lives of many of us. Absent those factors, the importance of family values and behaviors have become decisive.
Having just finished two synods on the topic of the Family, this point, more than any other, has to be underscored in our Catholic community today.