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 III

Fr. C. John McCloskey III

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

  • Tom Williams

    Your words stir my heart with hope Fr. John; but where are the priests who will teach and lead us? From what I see very few are willing to stand up against the culture of death. Their silence and inaction and a times embracing the tenants of the evil itself is hurting The Church. The people perish without a vision of hope. Your words are taken well Fr., I believe there are many who do the acts of mercy you listed, I just pray these words are heard and acted on by more priests, bishops and cardinals, perhaps then things will turn around a little faster. Then again everything happens in God’s time.

    • Marilyn

      As much as any cardinal, bishop, or priest, the laity must take up this responsibility of the Year of Mercy. In times such as these, we must all be a conduit of the Holy Spirit of the Lord for others.

  • grump

    Curious if the “Year of Mercy” has an expiration date. Is this like one of those “hurry up, supplies are limited” ads where you lose out if you don’t apply for forgiveness in time? I didn’t realize Christ put a deadline on mercy.

    • Sheila

      Good reply

  • ThirstforTruth

    Father …yours is a noble request but until Catholics are encouraged and taught from the pulpit the treasure that is our Church, nothing will change. This courage to act must come from the example and word of our priests, and more particularly from our bishops, especially those speaking from Rome. Right now, all we hear is confusion and chaos aided and abetted by the secular media and not sufficiently corrected by the hierarch.
    It seems that one of the most active movements right now to bring back fallen away Catholics is a program that is called the Christ Life, which begins with Discovering Christ. Strong on structure but very weak on substance. It seems to be a series more Protestant-esque than Catholic. It reminds me of the huge ecumenism movement touted after Vatican II which in effect drove Catholics into the camp of the relativists and away from the beauty specific to our Church.
    Instead of placing our Catholic heritage of sacrifice and sacraments front and center
    this program seems purposely esigned to help us pray the Protestant way “from the heart”, to a Jesus who is more like the Jesus of the Protestant church, than the Founder of the Catholic church Whose Sacrifice is offered at every Mass, a prayer and a meal far superior to anything from the human heart as prayer or any well prepared and attractively served church hall meal.
    Until that happens, Catholics will continue to drift away towards the easier and more happy clappy Protestant church, un-catechised and unknowingly indifferent to the true riches of our faith.
    We should be offering in all our churches, Adult Education classes in Apologetics, Church History, etc so that Catholics are more deeply drawn toward the mysteries of their own faith. Until Catholics are deeply into their own faith they have little to offer in the way of evangelization.

    • Monica

      That is so well said. Thank you for expressing it in a way I have had a difficult time expressing. It’s the whole reason I left the church many years ago. I have since returned but it is because the calling for the Eucharist became so great I could no longer ignore it. I am finding it very hard to find a true spiritual leader in the way of a holy priest. So many seem to have lost the holiness of their priestliness and have become lazy in their vocation. I continue to seek and with God’s grace will find one.

      • ThirstforTruth

        Let’s pray together for a return to holiness in our priesthood as well as for vocations and our parishes as well to return to holiness. In my parish, a few years back, we had some missionary priests from both India and Africa. They were all very holy and well trained priests who truly loved God and their calling to serve. These priests had been trained in traditional seminaries and I found have much to offer. If only our Bishops would swallow their pride and allow this to happen ( in our diocese they were all sent back when a new bishop took over) we would not have to close so many churches and our people would gain a renewed confidence in the church from both their holiness and their solid teaching. I am so happy to hear that it was the Eucharist that drew you back home. It is what keeps me going.
        May I suggest you also get some good spiritual writing to mediate upon ( I love Carryl Houselander, Scot Hahn, Fr Jacques Phiiippe, to mention a couple); EWTN is fabulous and online Catholic blogspots such as The Catholic Thing here as well as Fr John Barunek’s Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction. That is a wonderful Catholic website, especially for those seeking spiritual direction. Most pastors are far too busy for that ( some will) and really seem not well trained to do that.
        Monica…keep close to the Eucharist as you continue your journey seeking the truth and pray to the saints to direct your path by their intercession.
        Blessings in the New Year.

    • ScottG

      This thread is dated but one of your points, I think, needs clarification. You say that Christ’s sacrifice is offered at every mass. Doesn’t the catechism describe this offering as a re-presentation of Christ’s perfect sacrifice (as opposed to an actual sacrifice), as in a once-for-all-time event that is re-presented at mass in the form of the Eucharist?

      • ThirstforTruth

        It is an actual sacrifice; the original re-presented in an unbloody manner.
        It is not a new sacrifice at each mass but rather we are mysteriously present at the original Calvary. In this sense, I meant what I said about
        Christ’s sacrifice being offered at every Mass. Thanks for making this point perhaps clearer to those who may have misunderstood.

        • ScottG

          I’m not sure you have stated that correctly, but thanks for your reply. My understanding is that the host is what undergoes the mysterious transformation, not the congregants… it’s not a deal breaker for me either way, I tend to believe Christ is wholly present in the spiritual sense and admittedly struggle with a strict definition for this.

  • Howard Kainz

    “Most fallen-away Catholics are only a good confession away from returning to the Church in which they were baptized.”

    Not really. This depends on whether they are already in a sacramental marriage and not contracepting.

    • Howard Kainz

      I mean, for couples.

  • teo

    : to admonish the sinner; to instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful;

    Walk me thru these. To admonish a sinner you have to determine that they are sinning. What kinda sins are your fellow christians doing (around you) that you see and how have you admonished?? Three examples would be nice.
    Instruct the ignorant. Identify three wrongful beliefs that your close friends may have and then guide me thru what you tell them to correct them.
    Your protestant friends have serious doubts about the claims that the Catholic Church makes. How have you counseled them?

  • Diane

    The best thing to do, is to first defrock every homosexual priest, Cardinal and Bishop, active or not. This will give the Church back its true teachings and identity. If we continue to ignore this major problem in the Church, we will be spinning our wheels forever. We must start here first to gain creditability as the One True Church that upholds the teachings of Christ. This is where the mercy must begin by telling the homosexual priests that they need to leave for the sake of the faithful. If this is not done the church will continue to be riddled in scandal. It is a sinful, perverted, ugly, dangerous, depraved lifestyle and it must be shown as such, now! Wake up everyone and ‘be not afraid’, period. This ugliness must end!

    • BXVI

      Are you referring to “practicing” homosexual priests or to all priests with same-sex attraction? Pope Benedict put a ban on any new priests being ordained from among those with same-sex attraction. Unfortunately, the ban is widely ignored and so we still get new priests who are saddled with this disorder.
      One solution to our twin problems of homosexual priests and the shortage of priests would be to allow married men to be ordained. Perhaps it has come that. I could see a real boom of vocations if married men were allowed to be ordained.

      • ACatholicMom

        I don’t agree that opening up the priesthood to married men is the answer for a few reasons.

        During a Theology of the Body class at my parish, a twenty-something girl relayed her thoughts on married priests. Her father was a deacon and she shared with our group how absolutely time-consuming his calling was. He was “on duty” many, many hours during the day and evening helping to minister to people. She said she could not imagine how a married priest could juggle a wife, children AND all the parishioners (and possibly a school as well).

        Also, how would a priest support a wife and family? Can you imagine parishioner’s thoughts:
        “Look at how Mrs. So and So (or children) are dressed. Is THAT where my offertory is going?”
        “Look at how Mrs. So and So (or children) is dressed. Their clothes are not befitting their father’s position.”
        You can substitute housing, cars, etc in either of those sentences.

        Also there would be gossip/judgement about how many children are a result of the marriage, questions of contracepting or too large a family. How well could the priest minister his flock if there is a grave illness or other problem in his immediate family?

        What if the wife or the priest himself cannot handle the incredible selflessness and sacrifice needed to fill his vocation? What then, a divorce? If normal marriages struggle to thrive, I cannot imagine a marriage involving a priest thriving.

      • Diane

        All of them and even those who are sympathetic to them and lie for them and protect them. They are destroying our Church and will continue to do so. Married priests is not the answer. Their wives and children will always come first and they will not be able to devout themselves to the Church. Even those marriages will not be made in heaven and they will bring their problems with them. Not a good idea.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      My conviction Diane is that you are completely correct. The ban must include those with same sex attraction also. They can contribute something else to the Church rather than enter an institution established by Christ for men who are consciously aware and established in their manhood. Compassion and understanding is not the issue here. This has been a failure by the hierarchy, a hierarchy that is composed of many who have this predilection. I am just as convinced that the Church will not be purified and be a true witness to Christ unless it firmly refuses those who have a sexual tendency in the wrong direction and who also mollify the teachings of the Church to justify their sexual issues. Unless this is done soon I also believe evil will proliferate and Christ will act.

      • Quo Vadis

        Father, I am shocked to read your opinion on this matter. You have judged a priest who while according to church teaching is intrinsically disordered, can keep his vow of celibacy, serve God and His people and live a fruitful and holy life. In the same breath a hetrosexual priest, can break his vow of celibacy, be less than a good servant of God’s people and support a view of church teaching in contrast to the Magisterium. (And there have been many who take a scant view of those).

        You and Diane believe that a homosexual priest or bishop wants to change church teaching to accommodate the justify themselves ? That they chose to be this way and have no faith in the teaching of Jesus and the church ? You judge all by the actions of a few ? (Pedifiles should be left out of this discussion as that is a different discussion).

        There are many hetrosexual priests that should be purged for their actions and views. Breaking a vow and not being true to church teaching is not exclusive to sexual attraction !

        • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

          Quo Vadis I agree that there are priests with homosexual predilections who have led holy lives as well as Catholic laity. Unfortunately the Church has been inundated with homosexuals who have grievously injured it. My proposal is not to condemn homosexuals who are faithful but to curtail the dilemma. In that sense it would be better for men with same sex attraction not to enter an all male institution. It is a matter of necessity at this time.

          • Quo Vadis

            Father, once again you lump homosexuals with pedifiles as the damage done to the church was the attraction to children, which is not exclusive to homosexuals. You avoid and seem to view relationships with women acceptable by priests as fine. Is this not breaking their vow ? Of course society takes a different view of this and certainly a priest who may have a relationship with an adult male, even in the so called “progressive” world we live in, is viewed as scandalous.

            Was the church not given the advice early on with respect to these homosexual priests to treat them and transfer them ? Only as the lawsuits broke and society’s views change was this matter viewed differently. I suspect any priest, regardless of their sexual orientation at this point, is fully aware of the consequences t of their actions, if they step outside the bounds of the law .

            In the end, regardless of the individual, do we trust the Holy Spirit will guide our teachings or are we afraid that men’s sexual orientation will corrupt us ?

          • Diane

            Quo Vadis, you have been mislead by those in the secular world, including the Bishops and Cardinals and all clergy who are homosexual or sympathetic to homosexuals or protected them. It was a homosexual priest scandal, over 80% of these priest abusers are homosexual. It was not pedophilia that was the problem. These homosexual priests preyed on boys from the age of 10 to 15. It would not fit the homosexual agenda as being normal to state this, that is why they continue to call it pedophilia because that can be considered a mental problem and heterosexuals also can be accused of this. This is being done to take the light off the abnormal homosexual behavior of the priests. No one condones priest relationships with women. All homosexual clergy must be eliminated from the Church so we can begin anew. NAMbLA wants to reduce the age of consent to 10 years old for boys, because that is how pervasive this sick world is with the man boy relationships that these abusive priests are a part of. Stop protecting them, they are destroying our Church.

          • Quo Vadis

            What does Nambla have to do with this? That is a distraction to the issue. A heterosexual who has sex with anyone 15 or below is having sex with a child. It is a sickness and unacceptable in any context. And I am not protecting anyone but this is not the days of the inquisition or are we looking for witches by throwing people in water.

            Purges never work. They only create evil space for Satan to occupy.

            Has history taught us nothing?

  • Fr Kloster

    I am late to the discussion today because of my usual 4 Masses and two hours of confessions. Was anyone else bothered by the art today? I remember after I was first ordained a priest one of my classmates remarked that the art today reflects society….disorganized, dark, and largely bereft of beauty.

    Whenever I think I could have drawn at least as well as the artist, I deduce that the art is wanting. Grump has a point that every year is a year of mercy. Then too, every year closer to our death means we need reminders of objective beauty. I’ve never believed that “beauty was in the eye of the beholder.” Even the least among us can discern blurry art and bad taste. So, I’ll end with writing an opposite parody on Grump’s words; not every piece of art is art.

    • Brad Miner

      De gustibus non est disputandum.

      • Fr Kloster

        De gustibus et coloribus dissentio.

    • grump

      In the immortal words of Keats:

      “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is allYe know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

    • Margaret O’Hagan

      I agree with you Fr Kloster! Has anyone watched Roger Scruton’s presentation of ‘Why Beauty Matters’?

    • Dave Fladlien

      Are you referring to the “Image of Divine Mercy” appearing above in today’s article? If so, I’d say — as a person who is part artist myself — if you don’t like a piece of art, that’s fine, but it means that you don’t like it, not that it’s bad art.

      Frankly, I like some non-objective art, and I applaud TCT for using a piece like this one.

    • Sheila

      I had to take a 2nd and closer look to see what was in the painting. Ha! That was after I read the inscription.

  • Dave Fladlien

    I certainly agree that we need to focus on prayer for the living and the deceased, both of which I think are becoming forgotten practices.

    However, I don’t agree with the author about the reasons for the decline in the Christian religions or more especially Catholicism. Abortion, divorce, etc. are disputes and resentments that have been around for centuries, and the Church prospered despite them in the past. But today the Church is barely a church; it is a social action organization with the disadvantage compared to other social action organizations that it has all these behavioral rules to follow. That combination won’t attract much of anyone. The Church has to become a Church again, and that means that what it offers is first and foremost a friendship with Almighty God, not an easy path to earthly well-being. Care for the poor is an important part of Christianity, but it is a part that follows from, not supplants, the over-riding importance of the Infinite God.

    Another major cause of decline is that people no long feel a sense of the relevance of God in their life. God isn’t about instant gratification, and much of society is. But He will help those who turn to Him and invite Him into their efforts. We have to start teaching long-term commitment to prayer and hard work, with help for those in genuine need, but with opportunity as the ideal kind of help. We are not, and do not have, the ultimate answer for those who want only instant gratification. They should go somewhere else.

    I think when we get back to these basics of who we are, then we will begin again to reach people with the vital word of real friendship with the very Creator of the Universe.

  • Spiritual Ronin

    I am ready to come back if the Church officially acknowledges the need to show animals more mercy, especially in regard to the horror of industrial farming. I am not asking for any doctrinal changes, just for an appeal to human conscience in the name of true compassion and general (i.e., not merely anthropocentric) love. The animals are the poorest of the poor, they have only their lives and they deserve Christian mercy. If the Buddhists can do it, why not Christianity, the vaunted “religion of love”? But I know from my long and bitter experience that it is easier for many Christians to come to terms with abortion, euthanasia and homosexuality than with vegetarianism and the idea of animal welfare. This lack of sensitivity and selective approach to life was exactly what had made me leave the Church and Christian religion in general. I don’t want to be saved if animals are going to live forever in hell. Incidentally, such an appeal would be a good PR move for the Church, too.

    • BXVI

      Ronin –
      We do not believe that animals have souls. Therefore, they will not go to hell. When their lives are over, they cease to exist. This distinguishes humans from the other animals. Also, God made the animals, in part, to provide nourishment for humans. Even the animals kill and eat other animals.
      Should humans treat animals better? Yes. Might the Church be wise to emphasize this? Yes. But, this is no excuse for you to stay away from the Church, especially if you believe that there is a God, and that Jesus Christ is his Son. You should come back and work for the more humane treatment of animals from within it.

  • Paul Vander Voort

    Didn’t lack of belief in the supernatural come up?

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    Sue I won’t try to explain away your bad experience. You will be in my prayers and have my love.

  • Stringtickler

    You will find this everywhere. Satan taunts Catholics the most. The sins you write of are truly horrible; from anyone…especially Catholics who know the Truth…the whole Truth. But don’t let Satan win. Turn your back on him…not the Church…pray for lukewarm, fallen Catholics…and pray for our Church.
    As our Pastor says: “Pray for me…I’ll pray for you…and together, let’s further God’s Kingdom.”
    Please come home Sue.

  • Diane

    People are not the Church or its Teachings. The Catholic Church is the One true Church. I have friends who belong to other religions and they seem to also have people problems. Trust in the Divine Mercy. You will never find the real Presence, The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the form of the Holy Eucharist anywhere else. You are giving up much by staying away. People will come and go. Just ignore them and go to Mass for Jesus. Do not be caught up in the secular world. It means nothing.

  • David Brandt

    St. Paul Street Evangelization is a great apostolate for performing spiritual works of mercy and helping to address the deep spiritual poverty that exists in our culture.