Restoring Unity Through the Spiritual Works of Mercy


“Mercy” window

The practice of mercy, emphasized throughout Scripture, is brought together in Tradition and Church teaching via the seven corporal, and seven spiritual, works of mercy. In this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization points out that three of the spiritual works of mercy–to comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses willingly, and bear wrongs patiently–are especially relevant to the restoration of unity. This speaks not only to individuals, but to communities; and not only to the Church, but to the world.

How can Catholics today better understand and practice these particular spiritual works of mercy? How can the local parish become an oasis of mercy in a fallen world, and a light to the nations?

Working for mercy
The spiritual and corporal works of mercy reflect our innate desire to love God. The second greatest commandment follows upon the first: to love God means that we must also love our neighbor, the person in need who is right in front of us. The works of mercy seek to address some need of our neighbors, whether corporal or spiritual. Through our reception of the sacraments of initiation, we are made part of a covenant family, and thus we are called in a particular way to care for our fellow disciples who are in need, and in a more general way, all those we encounter.

How might these three spiritual works in particular help to restore peace in today’s world? Practicing these works of mercy calls for an understanding of our fallen-ness, and of the reality of sin, and its consequences–personal, social, and political. This is a necessary start but not sufficient. We also need to understand and desire God’s great mercy. The works of mercy show us how and where to work for unity in the Church, which contributes to unity in the world. The Christian ways of building unity are so often antithetical to the ways and means of the powers and authorities of the world. To fellow Christians, and to the world, however, we can not only point to a better way, but can testify that we have experienced a better way.

Comfort the afflicted. A fundamental lesson of the Gospels, reinforced by so many of the parables, emphasizes that Jesus both welcomed, and sought out, those who were in need, and comforted them in their distress. We learn in the Book of Acts and the letters of the New Testament that the disciples are called and enabled to carry out the same mission of mercy: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming those in need, showing the way to those who were lost.

To our modern ears, the word “comfort” may sound a bit trite or misplaced, in its common meaning of providing physical ease. Yet, its Biblical usage speaks to us more deeply of God comforting us, calling us to His side, and giving us some of His strength. This is one of the great messages of the Lucan parable of the father with two sons. The merciful father comforts and strengthens both of his sons, sharing his strength with them in loving, yet distinct, ways. In comforting us, the Lord prepares us to comfort and strengthen others.

The practice of offering the mercy of comfort deepens the peace of those united by baptism. Through our relationships and our belonging to a parish, for example, we are so often made aware of the distress and afflictions of our fellow disciples: illness, broken relationships, unemployment, loneliness, and isolation. In seeking to comfort, strengthen, and stand by those who are suffering, we bind ourselves even closer together as fellow recipients of God’s mercy in this fallen world. No Christian is meant to be alone, or to carry the burdens of life alone. This is part of what it means to be a communion of saints, and in spiritual solidarity with fellow members of the Church. Even though we cannot prevent or remove all affliction, we can always help to bear one another’s burdens, and thus foster greater unity.

Forgive offenses willingly. In this fallen world, we so often sin against others, and are sinned against. We lie and are lied to. We respond in anger when others get in our way. Envy and greed can twist our relationships with one another. Too often, our fallen inclinations, and the structures of our world, push us to hang onto those hurts, and to deny or rationalize the ways that we have hurt others. Aspects of our culture, the media, sports, politics, government, economics, education, and our legal system can perversely encourage the holding of grudges, seeking after revenge, putting ourselves before others, and getting the other person before they get us. This is not the way of the Cross to which our Lord calls us.

How are we enabled, by God’s grace, to respond to such occasions of sin in light of our faith? What are we called to when others offend us? As Benedict XVI taught in his February 18, 2007 Angelus, “love of one’s enemies is the nucleus of the Christian revolution.” This is a true revolution that can bring about real and positive change in our relationships. Loving our enemies as Christ loved His enemies is not a nice ideal to be placed on a shelf, ignored, and put safely out of reach. Rather, it is a capacity and gift that we are reminded of every time we look upon a crucifix; and every time we receive the Eucharist and remember the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the Cross, the tomb, and the Resurrection. Our daily prayer as Christians is “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, and also the exchange of the sign of peace before the Eucharist, can help to instill in each one of us the habit of seeking and offering forgiveness in our relationships with one another. Rather than a brief, generic meditation, or a pro forma action, can we not instead actively bring to our hearts and minds those we have hurt, and who have hurt us, and then implore God’s mercy?

On a pastoral level, the Church reminds us, during this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, of the inherent unity among forgiveness, reconciliation, thanksgiving, and the Eucharist. Not only are we to seek reconciliation with those we have sinned against, we are to freely offer forgiveness to others who have hurt us, just as Jesus did from the Cross. To show mercy is to bring about a deeper unity, not based on extrinsic goods, or on justice alone, but rooted in a recognition that the other person, too, is made in God’s image and likeness.

Bear wrongs patiently. We all know people who annoy us, bore us, or rub us the wrong way somehow. If we are honest, these kinds of relationships are likely part of our daily experience: at home, in our parish, at work, or at school. This spiritual work of mercy includes, but also goes beyond such annoyances. Bearing wrongs and loving enemies—this is strong language. This work of mercy is not about imagined slights. It is also not only about minor aggravations. It speaks to the deep and abiding wrongs and injustices that plague our communities, cultures, nations, and world.

The Old and New Testaments powerfully portray the patience of God, who in His great love never forsook His people, but rather continually doubled and tripled His efforts to call us back into a close and loving relationship with Him. The Incarnation is the perfect and preeminent example of the depth of God’s suffering love. Christ Himself is our example of patience. In bearing wrongs patiently, we as disciples may also learn the ways that God bears with our wrongs against Him.

Scripture, the saints, and the martyrs provide us with many illustrations of what it means to bear wrongs patiently. We may fruitfully reflect upon the meekness of Moses, and the patience of Mary, for example. Bearing wrongs patiently does not mean stuffing down resentment and anger while putting on a (false) smile. It calls instead for a faith and hope in God who is patient with us, and for a deliberate turning toward love even in the face of injustice.

We are learning to bear wrongs with patience, through our sacramental life, and in our families and parishes. As part of a community of believers, strengthened by the sacraments, and fed by the Eucharist, we can remain steadfast in the face of injustice and wrong, without becoming a slave to our inclinations to impatience, to blaming others, or to responding with ill temper and, perhaps, even violence. As parents, priests, deacons, religious, catechists, and parishioners, we have a responsibility to live out this aspect of our baptismal vocation, and to witness and teach others about patient endurance.

Works of unity
Even a brief reflection on these three spiritual works of mercy makes it clear that unity among Catholics is not a shallow concept. It does not simply indicate a nice feeling of everyone getting along. Rather, it speaks to a unity founded on, and in the Person of, Christ Jesus, who is Lord and Savior, and who took up the Cross for each one of us. It speaks to the hard work of reconciliation.

Unity is sacramental, and thus is both a material and a spiritual reality. It is to be built up in a fallen world, by sinful people, in the midst of suffering and afflictions, broken relationships and injustices. Unity is not static but the result of ongoing labor. It grows out of the difficult work of truly seeing our fellow Christians and neighbors, of recognizing each one as made in the image and likeness of God. Unity calls on us to understand the needs and hurts of those around us, and to do what we can as disciples to bring God’s mercy to these needs.

The spiritual works of mercy which foster unity stand in contradiction to so many of the normative messages and practices of our society. Elements of modern society too often push a radical individualism that divides us from each other. Even when the need to help one another is recognized, the means offered are so often bureaucratized and impersonal. Is someone afflicted or in need? Put them in touch with a government agency or non-profit organization. Has someone been wronged? Call a lawyer and get justice. By contrast, the spiritual works of mercy call for personal effort and sacrifice, and a restoration of unity and relationship. They do not come from the powers and principalities, but rain down as graces from God, and grow from the tiniest of seeds.

Families, parishes, faith formation programs, and Catholic schools can nurture in children, parishioners, and students the desire to be merciful and to act with mercy. Conscious and active participation in the sacraments forms Catholics who are learning to be merciful. Disciples are called and graced to act as a model for the world, as a sign of what is possible, and of what holiness looks like. The Church, parishes, families, and individual disciples are called to give witness to the beauty found in the union of hearts and minds, rooted in the divine love of the Trinity. In this way, the pilgrim Church—whose members are scattered around the world like seeds of mercy sown by God—is becoming a Church where all can find a home.

Dr. Marc Tumeinski About Dr. Marc Tumeinski

Marc Tumeinski is currently a visiting assistant professor of theology at Anna Maria College in Massachusetts. He received his PhD in theology from the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, UK in 2015. His research looked at the communal Christian practice of peacemaking from an ecumenical perspective. Marc and his wife are members of the Cathedral of St. Paul in the Worcester diocese (Massachusetts).