By Father Christopher R. Seibt
Editor’s note: Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8, 2015, and will conclude Nov. 20. Father Christopher R. Seibt has explored various aspects of the jubilee in a series of Sun columns throughout the year. This is the final column in the series.
DWJD – “Do what Jesus did.” This is what we as followers of Christ do when we attend to the needs of others. We simply do what Jesus himself did to invite them to be a part of God’s Kingdom. If you have ever encountered or helped someone in need then you know that he or she is often looking for something more than just food, clothing, shelter, etc. As important and as urgent as one’s physical and material needs sometimes are, those in need are also looking for someone to listen to them, for someone to show them that they matter, or for someone to remind them that they are loved. As human beings created in the image and likeness of God we possess both a body and a soul (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 362). Therefore, we not only have physical needs, but also have spiritual needs because we are made for relationship, both with God and with one another.
The spiritual works of mercy are concrete ways that help us to attend to the spiritual needs of others. Perhaps they are best characterized by one of the simplest, yet most profound prayers of the Roman liturgy: “Lord . . . teach us to judge wisely the things of earth and hold firm to the things of heaven” (Roman Missal, Tuesday of the First Week of Advent). This prayer reminds us that our spiritual needs matter because when everything else passes away it is God’s promise of eternal life that remains. The spiritual works of mercy help us and those whom we serve to “hold firm to the things of heaven” so that we may all be heirs of this great promise. During this Jubilee Year of Mercy our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has invited us to reflect on the works of mercy (Misericordiae Vultus, 15). Let us now consider the spiritual ones.
Why is there a need for the spiritual works of mercy? Each human being has come from God and is on a journey back to God. Yet because we are still part of a world affected by original sin we sometimes forget who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. We get distracted by the things around us and forget to attend to the needs of our souls. As a result, we find ourselves in a state of spiritual poverty. This can lead to disorientation, emptiness, distress, despair, moral and spiritual confusion, indifference, a lack of faith, etc. (The Spiritual Works of Mercy, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 66). Moreover, spiritual poverty can bring with it certain spiritual deficiencies such as sin, ignorance, doubt, sorrow, suffering, injury, and indifference.
What, specifically, are they? There are seven spiritual works of mercy that address these deficiencies. They are charitable actions, a form of almsgiving, by which we come to the aid of those who are in need in a spiritual way (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447). Moreover, they are the ways by which we can establish relationships with them as we attempt to help them open the door to God’s love and mercy. These seven works of mercy come from our Christian tradition, particularly from the Scriptures, and from works of various theologians and spiritual writers. They are: (1) counsel the doubtful, (2) instruct the ignorant, (3) admonish sinners, (4) comfort the afflicted, (5) forgive offenses, (6) bear wrongs patiently, and (7) pray for the living and the dead.
Why do we do them? While corporal works of mercy are performed by Christians and non-Christians alike to show common human decency to those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of shelter, sick, etc., and by some Christians to “do what Jesus did,” the spiritual works of mercy involve much more. They are particularly Christian because they concern our relationship with God in Christ.
The first three spiritual works of mercy involve vigilance. They teach us how to look outside ourselves so that (1) we are certain of our meaning and purpose in life, (2) we receive the message of the gospel in its fullness, and (3) we do not fall into sin or remain in it. The second three involve reconciliation, the fundamental attribute of a disciple of Christ, so that (4) Christ and the salvation he won for us becomes the source of all relief, (5) we love everyone, including our enemies with the love that God has for us, and (6) we are as understanding with others as God is with us.
And finally, the last one sums up all the others by helping us to remain in a relationship with both God and one another: prayer (The Spiritual Works of Mercy, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 49-59).
The spiritual works of mercy are arguably more difficult to do than the corporal works of mercy because they address a deeper need, the need of the soul to participate in the Divine life. Nevertheless, we do them along with the corporal works of mercy in order to “do what Jesus did.” We do them in order to extend to others the mercy of God that we ourselves have encountered. Prayerfully consider each of the spiritual works of mercy and ask yourself, “How have I done so? How have I helped to alleviate the spiritual needs of others? How have I served them in the name of Christ and Christ himself through them?”
As the Jubilee of Mercy draws to a close, it is fitting that we end our reflections on this special time in the life of the Church with the spiritual works of mercy. They help us to place all that we do to encounter God’s mercy — in the Scriptures, in the Church, and in the sacraments — in context. Likewise, they help us to place all that we do to extend God’s mercy to others — by imitating the examples of the saints and performing the works of mercy — in context. This context is ultimately the spiritual life we live and the spiritual journey on which we all find ourselves, encountering and extending the mercy of God here and now until we experience it forever in heaven.
Thank you for joining me throughout this year. May the mercy of God always be upon us that we may place all our trust in him (Psalm 33:22).
Father Christopher R. Seibt is parochial vicar of the Church of Sts. John and Andrew in Binghamton.