By Father Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R.
Many good Catholics do not realize how important the works of mercy are in the daily living of the Christian life. Let us begin, then, by looking at a number of reasons why the works of mercy help us to live the gospel more fully.
Love Demands Them
The works of mercy are important because they connect love of neighbor with the love of God. In the Gospels, our Lord was asked the question, "What is the first of all the commandments?" (Mk 12:28; Mt 22:34-40; Lk 10:25-28) This was apparently a major theological question of the day, one which was hotly debated! The
rabbis (teachers) and the scribes (religious lawyers) had gone through the Old Testament writings and various other legislative documents and come up with 613 precepts that had to be obeyed. The debate focused on which of these was the most important. The various scribes who put this question to Jesus were looking for only one answer. Our Lord, however, gave two commandments. Quoting one of them from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5), he said: "You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the great and first commandment" (Mt 22:37-38). That was the only answer the scribe was looking for, but our Lord went further. Quoting from Leviticus (19:18), he added: "And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets" (Mt 22:39-40). What our Lord is teaching us here is that we cannot separate the love of God from the love of our neighbor. One without the other is incomplete. They must go together, as we shall see elsewhere in the New Testament.
The Eucharist Calls Us to Charity
The second reason we must perform the works of mercy is because the Holy Eucharist, which is "the source and summit of the Christian life" as the Second Vatican Council described it, moves us from sacramental union with Christ in his Eucharistic Body to union with Christ in his Mystical Body, in the least of his brothers and sisters. This two-fold love, stemming from the Eucharist, is the fulfillment of the love of God and neighbor mentioned above. This two-fold Eucharistic love becomes the basis upon which to live our new life in Christ. It is not enough to have mere piety. To live fully in communion with Christ, we must reach out to our neighbor as well. We find this two-fold love expressed so beautifully in the First Letter of John: "God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (4:16). To share in this love of
God, meaning that God loves us and we love him in return, is the very reason we were created. This love is the source of all our joy and happiness, both in time and in eternity. Saint John continues: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his
brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also" (1 Jn 4:20-21). Once again we see that the love of God is completed in the love of our neighbor.
Sacraments, as defined in the Baltimore Catechism, are "outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace". The Church clearly teaches that we should receive Jesus in Holy Communion only when in the state of sanctifying grace, which means we have the Most Blessed Trinity spiritually living in us. Therefore, we receive an "increase" of sanctifying grace each time we receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The first effect of Holy Communion, then, is to deepen our personal union with Jesus. After all, through each reception of the Eucharist, we allow Jesus to live his life more fully in us if we respond properly to his love.
There is a second effect of Holy Communion, which is that the love for Jesus must be extended now to our spiritual brothers and sisters. Our Lord taught this in his allegory of the vine and the branches (cf. Jn 15:1ff). Jesus said that he is the vine and we are the branches. Just as branches draw their life-giving sustenance from the vine, so we spiritually draw life from Christ in the Eucharist. But because all the branches are directly connected to the same vine, which is Christ, then they are indirectly connected to each other. The life of Christ that is in one member of his Mystical Body is the same life of Christ that is in all the others. Therefore, the Eucharist compels us to love and serve one another as Christ taught us: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (Jn 13: 34). He also said to the apostles after he washed their feet at the Last Supper: "If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:14-15).
A beautiful illustration of this two-fold Eucharistic love, namely, for Christ and for our neighbor, is seen in the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She was once asked, "From where do you find the strength to take care of all the difficult cases that you encounter each day? The dying destitutes in the streets of Calcutta? The lepers? The abandoned babies? The AIDS victims? The homeless and the hungry?" Mother answered with her simple yet profound wisdom, "I begin each day by going to Mass and receiving Jesus in Holy Communion, hidden under the simple form of bread. Then I go out into the streets and find the same Jesus hidden in the dying destitute people, in the lepers, in the abandoned babies, in the AIDS people, and in the homeless and the hungry. It is the same Jesus." So too for us, works of mercy must be the fruit of our Eucharistic love.
Mercy Received Must Become Mercy Given
Another reason we need to practice the works of mercy toward our needy brothers and sisters in Christ is because God himself deals mercifully with us. In one of the weekday prefaces used at Mass, we proclaim: "In love You [God] created us; injustice You condemned us; but in mercy You redeemed us, through Jesus Christ our Lord." What this means is that God created our first parents out of pure love to have them (and every other man and woman as well) share his eternal happiness with him. But when he put them to the test to see if they would accept his love, they sinned against him by pride and disobedience. Therefore, in his justice which is as infinite as his love, he had to condemn them, barring the gates of Heaven from them. Because of Original Sin, the consequences of which we all share, and because of our own personal sins, we all are under the same condemnation of God's justice. But God was moved by his divine compassion to redeem us by his infinite mercy. As Saint Francis was known to say, "Everything God gave us before the Fall, he gave us out of love; everything God gives us after the Fall, he gives us out of his mercy!"
Mercy adds two qualities to love. First, mercy often involves a need for forgiveness. For God to show us mercy after we sinned against him, he needed to forgive us our sins. When we, in turn, do a work of mercy for a needy brother or sister, there is often no sin on their part against us. But we must be ready to do these works of mercy for anyone who is in need, even someone who may have offended us. The unique love Jesus taught us to have for our neighbor includes reaching out to our enemies, to sinners, to strangers, and to the "poorest of the poor", as Mother Teresa of Calcutta called them.
The second quality mercy adds to love is compassion. Compassion comes from two Latin words meaning "to suffer with" or "to feel the pain or deprivation that our neighbor feels". In the Gospels, Jesus gives us many examples of compassion. He felt pity when he preached at great length to the crowds, who were like "sheep without a shepherd" (Mk 6:34). He multiplied the loaves and fishes because he was concerned that the crowd, who had been with him for so long a time and were now quite hungry, would faint along their way home (cf. Mk 8:3; Mt 15:32). Jesus was likewise compassionate in his mercy toward sinners, in his miracles for the sick and infirm, and in his raising of the dead to console their grieving family members and friends.
The Good Samaritan is one of the most beautiful images of Jesus' compassion (cf. Lk 10:30-37). Moved by our helplessness after sin, much like the helplessness of the man who had fallen prey to thieves who beat him, robbed him and left him to die, Jesus cared for us in our needs when he went to the Cross. Like the Samaritan in the Gospel parable who set aside concerns for his own time, convenience and even safety, Jesus reached out and provided for us in all our needs without counting the cost to himself By our very baptism which unites us to Christ and gives us a share in his own life, we are called to imitate his compassionate love and service. This calling is especially critical in our time if the Church is to fulfill her mission as God's instrument of peace and unity in the world.
Pope Paul VI, at the end of Vatican II, said that the Council's deliberations and documents gave us the image of "the Church of the Good Samaritan". In other words, the Holy Spirit spoke to the Church, calling her to give greater service to the poor. The Council declared that the Church must have a "preferential option for the poor", thus fulfilling one of the desires of Pope John XXIII, who convoked the Council. Prior to opening the Council, Pope John XXIII made a pilgrimage to Assisi, where he placed the Council und
er Saint Francis' special patronage and prayed that he who was called "the father of the
poor" in his own time would intercede for the Church so she would recognize herself once again as a Church "of the poor and for the poor".
Jesus Is Still Hungry and Thirsty
A fourth reason for the works of mercy is quite simply that Jesus is still in need in the neediest of his brothers and sisters. He tells us that he is still hungry, thirst
y, naked, homeless, sick, and in prison in his disciples. He suffered these things in his own lifetime on earth and continues to suffer them through the members of his Mystical Body. We need to reach out to alleviate the needs Jesus is still experiencing by ministering to his least brothers and sisters. Not only do they depend on us to relieve their needs of hunger and thirst and the like, but we depend on them for opportunities to serve. Without such opportunities, our lives would be the poorer spiritually. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once told me: "We will only know in Heaven how much good has come to us through all those who are in need, such as the sick, the hungry, and the homeless. This is because we cannot do anything for God in Heaven! In Heaven God is perfectly happy! He has everything he wants! So what did God do? God became man! Now we can do something for him becaus
e he said, 'I was hungry and you fed me! I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink!'" What Mother Teresa was saying in her profound simplicity and wisdom was that we have as much need to give to Jesus in the poor as the poor have need to receive from us as Jesus' disciples! Mother Teresa frequently emphasized the sublime dignity we have of serving Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor through whom Jesus so often approaches us. As she once put it, "We should not serve the poor like they were Jesus. We should serve the poor because they are Jesus." The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are our ways to serve Jesus even now.