The Manifold Works of Mercy

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On December 8, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the second Vatican Council as well as the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis inaugurated a special Year of Mercy.

There are many ways in which we can celebrate this holy moment in the history of the Church. In particular, we can undertake more fervent practice of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. In our time, much attention is paid to the corporal works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick and imprisoned. These hold a special place in the Holy Father’s heart, and it is always a good idea to extend your practice of these works.

But the spiritual works of mercy are relatively neglected these days, even though they also offer very fruitful ground for celebrating this Year of Mercy. These are: to admonish the sinner; to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to comfort the sorrowful; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive all injuries; and to pray for the living and the dead.

Let’s put this bluntly: Many Catholics have been lost to the Church in the United States and Europe because of ignorance – as well as the scandal of Catholics not living up to the demands of the faith and the lure of the secular culture, to be sure. But despite the fallout from the priest scandals, the greatest part of those who have left the Church did so through a combination of poor catechesis and unwillingness to live according to the teachings of the Church on such issues as marriage, homosexuality, abortion, and contraception.

The best thing we can do as part of this year of Mercy is to work and pray, in an individualized way, for the return to the Church of those who have strayed. Generally, most fallen-away Catholics are only a good confession away from returning to the Church in which they were baptized. After all, the Lord tells us Himself that the Son of Man came to save what was lost. And that also is the work we are called to do. Yes, that includes prayer – but also action.

What form should such action take? It could be our willingness to talk to a fallen-away Catholic about the faith. And here I am not speaking only of relatives but also, for example, of people with whom you work who have fallen away from the Church. There are people in your extended family – perhaps nephews and nieces – who have stopped practicing their faith, in many cases due to bad spiritual formation and lack of sound knowledge about what the Church teaches and why.

Image of Divine Mercy by Stephen B. Whatley, 2007

I also would let them know about the great growth of the Catholic Church, especially in places like the Far East and Africa. There is even a small (and unfortunately little known) renaissance in some areas of Europe, particularly in France. All this can counteract the false impression that many people get from the media and from fellow apostates that the Church is dead or dying.

What else can you do? Ask them to accompany you to Mass from time to time, even if they are not yet ready to come home. Perhaps you might think of giving them a present of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, so that at the very least they will know where to go to find out what the Church really teaches as opposed to what they hear in the mass media or from misinformed or fallen-away Catholics.

Point out to them the history of the Church, which over the centuries has produced thousands of canonized saints. Note contemporary and near-contemporary examples of people such as Mother Teresa and so many others who, out of love of Christ, have dedicated their lives to the poor. Those who give such radiant and shining witness to the power and beauty of the faith, though proportionately few, alas, give powerful evidence of the mark of sanctity in the Catholic Church as the appointed guardian of the treasury of the faith.

Truly sacrificial and joyful love of God and man is innately attractive, and drawing attention to these exemplary lovers of Christ can counter the negative image of the Church and cynical attitudes imbibed from what is clearly a culture toxic to generous and heroic faith in Christ.

Speaking of heroic faith in Christ, another entry point into discussion of the Catholic faith among those around you is the bitter persecution Christians are undergoing in many parts of the world today, particularly in Syria and parts of Africa. Although sectors of the secular media would like to identify the activities of ISIS, Boko Haram, and others as evidence of the dangerousness of religion in general, unfairly painting the persecuted and the persecutors with the same brush, you can help counter this false impression with individual stories of faith, courage, and heroism on the part of persecuted Christians.

Descended from Christians who have lived in the Middle East since the infancy of Christianity, the majority of persecuted Christians today only wish to live their faith peacefully among their neighbors. But threatened by various forms of militant Islam, they have risen courageously to witness to their faith – even to the point of martyrdom.

Among the several works we need to carry out during this Year of Mercy, we are called to help our neighbor, partly by our own witness, even if in unbloody ways, to that same faith.


Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.