The Spiritual Works of Mercy and Evangelization
This series first appear in our monthly newsletter, the Evangelization Exchange. Read the intro below, or click here to see the full listing of articles in this series.
Mercy and Evangelization
The “Year of Mercy” began on December 8, 2015. If mercy bears upon anything, it certainly bears upon evangelization. The whole genesis of “Good News”—the evangelium that we proclaim—revolves around mercy. St. Luke, in the way he portrays the initial ministry of Jesus, shows Jesus quoting Isaiah 61 about being anointed (messiah means “the anointed one”) to bring good news to the poor, to set captives free, and, most pressingly, to “proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Lk. 4:19) The “year acceptable” is, in Isaiah, called “a year of favor”—that is, a jubilee year when debts are forgiven and people released from burdens that are crushing them.
So the “Good News” we preach is one of a liberation that comes from the generous initiative of God—who begins the process of reconciliation by reaching out to us. This quality of reaching out has been underscored by Pope Francis who wants us to be a church that goes forth: “Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ. Here I repeat for the entire Church what I have often said to the priests and laity of Buenos Aires: I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” (Joy of the Gospel, #24)
As a way to celebrate the linking of evangelization and mercy, our Evangelization Exchange newsletter offered a series of meditations on the spiritual works of mercy, the ones we know far less in the Church than the Corporal Works of Mercy. It seems clearer to us to feed the hungry than to, say, bear wrongs patiently. So the year of Mercy provided an opportunity for us to review this part of our Catholic tradition.
Each of the seven Works have something particular to contribute to our reflecting on mercy—helping us realize what it means to be a more merciful Church. One of the implication of being a “merciful” Church is, of course, our own attitude. Just as important, however, is how we are perceived as a Church. I have noted the dread, just by way of a little example, that young people have in approaching a parish about a wedding. It’s like they expect the book to be thrown at them—rather than feeling welcomed because they are now linking their love sacramentally with the eternal covenantal love of Jesus.
Before we explore each of the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy, some initial thoughts about mercy can start us off: mercy means that we take the first step—something extremely difficult to do. Why? Because it is so easy for us to be locked into our sense of offense, of being outraged. ook at what anger does: how it frames the other person as an enemy, cuts off communication, makes unconditional emotional demands, and keeps a person spinning in on her- or himself. Once a situation like this comes about, what is the offender supposed to do? As a result, people hide from each other, stop communication, and reinforce the alienation with a further layer of isolation.
What can change a situation like this? Only taking the first step. And, paradoxically, it is the offended party that has to make the bigger leap, that has to extend a hand of peace and let the other party know that the isolation is being broken down, that there is a path to reconciliation. We can wait until we are blue in the face for someone to climb over the wall we have built; or we can break down the wall ourselves. The slightest meditation on how God loves us shows that this is exactly the model we have received in the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the first step—and the complete step—that God takes toward us.
A second dimension of mercy flows from this first step of taking the initiation. Mercy creates a new environment, a new space, into which people can come, and reconciliation can happen. Catholics, taking a huge hint from the Bible, see sacrifice as a huge factor in their thinking about reconciliation. In the third Eucharistic prayer we pray that God will recognize “the sacrificial Victim by whose death you will to reconcile us to yourself. . . . “ We associate sacrifice and reconciliation.
But how do we think of sacrifice? Often our first image of sacrifice is “what we have to pay back” in order to be accepted. It is a penalty that must be paid to bring about peace with an offended God. There is, however, another way to think about sacrifice, even from the Hebrew Scriptures. Their sacrifices were gifts, usually in the form of food, that were shared with the priests. The process was setting up an environment where people could draw close to God through the medium of food—kind of like the Eucharist, no? So we can think of mercy as creating a space whereby people, who seemed or were far apart, could approach God and each other, share, and reconstitute a relationship.
These can be two powerful traits of what it means to be “Church” in this Year of Mercy—to be (1) a community that takes the first step in reaching out, letting go, opening arms; and (2) to be seen as a safe and accessible space in which people can reconstitute their relationships with God and each other. As religious leaders, we must always keep Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his day in mind: “It is mercy I want, not sacrifice. (Mt. 9:13)”
Not a bad agenda for the year of mercy, right?