Part 1: Works of mercy: The framework of every Christian life

Illustration by Ellen Bollard Illustration by Ellen Bollard

First in a series

During his homily for the canonization of St. Junípero Serra on Sept. 23, Pope Francis reflected on three of his favorite themes: the Father’s unfathomable mercy, the joy that comes from following the Lord Jesus, and our responsibility toward one another.

“The spirit of the world tells us to be like everyone else,” he said, “to settle for what comes easy. Faced with this human way of thinking, ‘we must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and for the world.’ It is the responsibility to proclaim the message of Jesus. For the source of our joy is ‘an endless desire to show mercy, the fruit of our own experience of the power of the Father’s infinite mercy.’”

Christians don’t blend in with or follow the crowd, and we don’t blindly accept the conventional wisdom of the day without asking if it is compatible with faith in Jesus. That is because we don’t see Jesus as just one among many spiritual guides history has proposed.

Having accepted Jesus as Son of God, Savior of the world and Lord, we realize that nothing can be the same for us, ever again. Our lives must look like — and be like — his. Even more, his life must be our life, and we must see ourselves as his instruments.

The Jubilee of Mercy, to begin Dec. 8, will be a reminder of what God’s mercy means for us and how he calls us to be merciful ourselves. One way of understanding a life given to Christ is to call to mind the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, lenses through which we view everyone we encounter.

Loving as Jesus loves

The spiritual works of mercy are these: instructing the ignorant, advising the doubtful, converting the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently and praying for the living and the dead.

The corporal works of mercy are these: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned and burying the dead.

Christians do not wear blinders or rose-colored glasses but look for opportunities to love as Jesus loves, to love with the love of Jesus. Having come face-to-face with his mercy, we seek ways of sharing it with others. The works of mercy call us to focus our attention on others, to awaken our awareness of their spiritual, emotional and physical needs.

But first we have to notice their plight.

One striking feature stands out in Jesus’ parable of the rich man (often called Dives, the Latin word for “rich”) and the poor Lazarus: It wasn’t simply that the rich man did not offer help to Lazarus, who lingered pitifully at his gate, he didn’t even notice Lazarus was there. (Luke 16:19-31)

In other words, the life of a Christian doesn’t just “look like” Jesus. It also “sees like” Jesus.

The works of mercy begin in us when we open ourselves to those around us, when we look them in the eye, when we notice. We cannot remain unaffected when we encounter those in need, for they speak to us without words and call to the love of Jesus within us. Jesus wants to respond to them through us. Who else would he send to them but one of his disciples?

The basic fabric of life

Young people preparing for the sacrament of confirmation are required to perform a certain number of “service hours” as a way of introducing them to the works of mercy. When they write confirmation letters, they frequently mention what filled those hours: visiting a nursing home, collecting food for the poor, providing babysitting during a parish function, etc. I am often moved by their description of how they were affected by this service.

At the same time, I wonder if we sometimes present the requirement for service hours as a prerequisite for receiving something and not as an introduction to the form the rest of their lives should take. If we see the works of mercy as volunteer work added on to the rest of life, we will never truly “look like” or “see like” Jesus, or understand ourselves as his instruments.

The works of mercy are the framework of every Christian life. Far from being volunteer hours worked into a busy schedule, they are the basic fabric into which the rest of life is interwoven.

There’s no doubt that volunteer work is of immense help to those in need. But the works of mercy are essentially different. First, they are a recognition that because I am a Christian, those in need have a claim on me. Second, they are the framework of every Christian life, and their purpose is to bring about an encounter with Jesus — I meet him in those in need, and they meet him in me.

Dives was rich with money, but God is Dives in misericordia — rich in mercy. His are the riches we share in the works of mercy. His are the riches that feed us and those who meet him in us.

As part of our archdiocesan observance of the Jubilee of Mercy, in the next two columns I will reflect on what the spiritual and corporal works of mercy might look like in practice.

This is the English translation of Archbishop Sartain's column "Las obras demisericordia" that appeared in the November 2015 issue of NORTHWEST CATHOLIC.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.