Works of mercy are a way to keep holy the Lord’s Day
By Father Jim Baron
Someone once asked how a priest decides the penance he gives in confession.
Most priests do not necessarily use a formula or a precise method. Sometimes it’s just the standard “three Hail Marys.” Other times the penance may be a little more involved. A lot depends on the needs of the penitent.
Sometimes, I like to prescribe performing a work of mercy. I ask the penitent to find the list of the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy, pick one, and do it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recommends this (No. 1460) as one way to further configure ourselves to Christ. For penance or not, it is an act of love for another and helps to repair the damage done by sin in our souls and the world. Although we can do them any day of the week, the works of mercy are also a great thing to do on Sunday.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 9, Jesus is denigrated for eating with sinners. He replied, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Then he said something even more revealing: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’” In this, he is both equating himself with God the Father, as well as revealing that the heart of God is oriented toward those in need of mercy. Later in Chapter 25 Jesus tells us that judgement will be based on feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked and visiting those in prison. These are examples of acts of mercy to those in various forms of need. They also indicate our standing with God. Blessed are the merciful; they will be shown mercy. Acts of mercy are so close to the heart of the Lord. Therefore, they are a great way to celebrate the Lord’s Day.
In his latest column (Herald Feb. 17 issue), Bishop Golka reminded us that the “human is the disclosure of the divine.” We see this in those who suffer. “Whatsoever you did to one of these least, you did to me” (Mt 25:41). “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”(Acts 9:4). Jesus himself is present in the sufferings of others. We also see the divine reflected by those who minister in Christ’s name. Our acts of mercy manifest to others the mercy of God.
Bishop Golka also said, “Lent reveals to us a God who is extremely concerned with our world.” As his Church, we embrace Lent as a time for spiritual renewal which is meant to make us more like Christ. That is why we focus on acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These disciplines are meant to draw us more deeply into the heart of God and move us to love what he loves, to seek what he seeks. If God is extremely concerned with our world, we should be too. These disciplines are an expression of the concern God has for those who suffer, manifested by his people. Especially during this season of Lent, but all throughout the year, when we carry out works of mercy we collaborate with God in redeeming the sufferings of others. And if Sunday is a day of rest and refreshment for us, we can also help make it a day of rest and refreshment for others through such works.
There are different seasons in life when we must scale our expectations to match the possibilities. A family with children at home will likely not be able to spend much time at a soup kitchen. They may, however, spend time with the lonely widow up the street. Giving drink to the thirsty may take the form of alleviating someone’s thirst for God by sharing the Gospel. Caring for an ailing spouse or parent may seem like a family duty but it can also be an opportunity to show the tenderness of God. Instructing the ignorant could just be teaching a catechism class. When children are at home, parents spend a lot of time doing at least a few of the works of mercy, spiritual or corporal. Done with faithful love, each work has infinite value. Later on, retirement provides more time to serve outside the home and throughout the parish family. Once again, we may need to scale our expectations and find ways to serve that are compatible with our situation in life. But serve we must!
In these days of Lent, I hope we are able to make some time to exercise one or another of the spiritual and/or corporal works of mercy. They help fulfill the deeper purpose of Lent. They also are a way to keep holy the Lord’s Day in a way that is pleasing to God.
(Father Jim Baron is Director of Mission and Strategic Planning for the Diocese of Colorado Springs.)