Four Reasons the Works of Mercy Are Important | Fr.
Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R. | From the Introduction to "What to Do When Jesus Is
Hungry" | Ignatius Insight
Four Reasons the Works of Mercy Are Important | Fr.
Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R. | From the Introduction to What to Do When Jesus Is
Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy | Ignatius Insight
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 the 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 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 under 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, thirsty, 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 because 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.
What to Do When Jesus Is
Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy
by Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R.
What to Do When Jesus Is
Hungry: A Practical Guide to the Works of Mercy -- Electronic Book Download
"The works of mercy provide us with the opportunity to let every person know he is a child of God and a brother in Christ. From the works of mercy will emerge a
community of love and peace centered on Christ." -- Fr. Andrew Apostoli
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus will judge us on the basis of whether or not we fed him when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, welcomed
him when he was a stranger, clothed him when he was naked, and visited him when he was sick or in prison. What we have done for others, he will tell us, we have done for him.
The Catholic Church has traditionally called these six acts of kindness-along with a seventh, burying the dead -- the "Corporal Works of Mercy." In this down-to-earth
yet inspiring guide, Father Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R., explains the Corporal Works of Mercy and illustrates multiple ways we can do them in our modern everyday life.
Father Apostoli also outlines the lesser-known but equally important "Spiritual Works of Mercy": counseling the doubtful, teaching the ignorant, admonishing the sinner,
consoling the afflicted, forgiving offenses, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead. And he offers many creative ways these too can be made part
of our lives.
As a founding member of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Father Apostoli knows firsthand about the challenges and rewards of caring for those in physical or spiritual
need. His order is dedicated to the works of mercy, and Father Apostoli brings to his subject a great wealth of spiritual and practical wisdom gained from personal experience.
Fr. Andrew Apostoli, C.F.R., is a widely known and loved teacher and retreat master. A frequent presence on EWTN television, he is an expert on Our Lady of Fatima and
Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including Fatima
for Today: The Urgent Marian Message of Hope (Ignatius, 2010).
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