September/October 2016

The Year of Mercy: The Corporal Works of Mercy

Michael A. Hayes

When Pope Francis inaugurated the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy the perceived focus was primarily and inevitable on the mercy of God: ‘merciful like the Father’. The people of God, indeed, are seen as the recipients of mercy – God’s mercy – as expressed in the liturgy, theology, spirituality and piety of so much of the tradition. Nonetheless there is also an emphasis on the Christian as not just the receiver of God’s mercy, but the giver of mercy. The great Judaeo-Christian tradition has always insisted on the imperative of the faithful as being those who are givers of mercy, precisely because they have received it.

Mercy is an active quality of the virtue of charity, and it is motivated by love. It is an active quality, which means it is about doing something; it cannot be simply a passive notion. Doing something motivated by love means doing something for someone else, it is about giving to the other in the first instance, but that act of giving selflessly for someone else is also efficacious for the one who gives: they too receive through what they give. God is merciful and that mercy can only be fully appreciated when it leads to a participation in God’s infinite mercy: the individual becomes an expression of divine mercy. Acknowledging this in reality is where the work of mercy begins for the faithful Christian.
The tradition of the Christian Church has always sought ways to help individuals to practice mercy. St John Paul II, for example, in his exhortation Dives in misercordia wrote: ‘Jesus Christ taught that man not only receives and experiences the mercy of God, but that he is also called “to practice mercy” towards others’ (14). The tradition holds that the practice of the corporal works of mercy provides a useful tool for the Christian in the ‘practice of mercy’. The tradition has identified a group of seven such corporal works of mercy, all of which are rooted in the Scriptures. They are easily recognisable in chapter 26 of the Gospel of Matthew but also elsewhere in the Scriptures – the Book of Tobit offers a very concrete catalogue of such works in the advice Tobit gives to his son Tobias (ch 4). The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website states that: ‘the Corporal Works of Mercy are found in the teachings of Jesus and give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise. They “are charitable actions by which we help our neighbours in their bodily needs” (USCCA). They respond to the basic needs of humanity as we journey together through this life.’

The seven works of mercy which have become part of Catholic Tradition are: To feed the Hungry; To give Drink to the Thirsty; To clothe the Naked; To welcome the Stranger; To heal the Sick; To visit the Imprisoned; To bury the Dead. The list, of course, is not exhaustive, but does very effectively offer a clear insight into the sort of action by which the Christian makes God’s mercy present in the lives of others.

In Misericordiae Vultus – the Bull of Indiction for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy – Pope Francis writes:

‘It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead’. Furthermore he writes: ‘we cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison’ (15).

The constant reiteration in the Scriptures of ‘the golden rule’ – do unto others what you would have done unto you – and the command from Jesus to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ leaves no scope for the Christian life to be one of abstract observance. The radical call of the Gospel is to make God’s mercy present; the invitation of the Pope is to find in the traditional corporal works of mercy a way to express that mercy, as a consequence of acknowledging the divine mercy received.

Ministry, modernity, and the stress of liturgy

Thomas O’Loughlin

Liturgy used to be something that a priest simply did – day in, day out. Today, answering the demands made by people, especially at the rites of passage, can be a major source of stress in a minister’s life. But this is often unacknowledged and the stress can wear them out. Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

Weddings bring their share of stress for most clergy. Couples want their wedding and if that does not fit in with priest’s or bishop’s views, then there will be arguments! In recent years the battleground has spread from having a poem ‘that means so much to us’ replacing a biblical reading, to a desire for a completely ‘modular’ wedding whereby the couple can select/create their own liturgical ‘package.’ The funerary variant is when a panegyric by a friend seeking a ritual space to express his/her feelings either replaces the homily or is added to it. The mourners desire their perceptions of ‘what was meaningful’ to the deceased to decide on what is ‘in’ and ‘out’ at the funeral.

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RE reform: Big questions for Catholic schools

Anthony Towey

This article looks at the background to and the possible consequences of the 2016 reform of GCSE and A-Level RE in schools in England and Wales.

Anthony Towey is an Ofqual subject expert and a member of the RE Council’s Independent Commission looking into the future of Religious Education.

In the merry-go round of recent political events, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan have been hurled off the Cabinet carousel. Yet their legacy in terms of both Church and State is likely to prove far more enduring than their respective terms of office at the Department of Education. Not only did Gove instigate a thoroughgoing review of all GCSE and A-level subject examinations to make them more academically rigorous, Morgan further nuanced the syllabus in RE by insisting that every school teach a second religion to an examinable standard. Ostensibly straightforward, these recalibrations constitute some of the most profound changes in the discipline for a generation and have consequences that extend way beyond the classroom.

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The Year of Mercy (7): The essence of the Bible

Adrian Graffy

In the second century Marcion dismissed the Old Testament because he considered the God found there to be a cruel tyrant. Many subsequent writers have disregarded the Jewish scriptures for this very reason. Adrian Graffy explores the often unnoticed presence of mercy in the books of the Old Testament. He is chair of the National Scripture Group and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Ever since the Year of Mercy began, we have been more attentive to the word ‘mercy’ in the liturgy. I have recently become more aware of the use of the word in the two canticles of Morning and Evening Prayer, the Benedictus and the Magnificat. The latter has us pray with Mary ‘his mercy (eleos) is from age to age on those who fear him’ (Lk. 1.50), and later on we proclaim that ‘he protects Israel his servant, remembering his mercy’ (Lk. 1.54). In the Benedictus we read: ‘so his love (mercy) for our fathers is fulfilled and his holy covenant remembered’ (Lk. 1.72).

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Our Lady of the Pillar. Patroness of All Hispanic Peoples, woman for all peoples

John M. Samaha SM

This article explains the background to the founding of the first Marian shrine in Zaragoza, northern Spain. John M. Samaha SM is a member of the Marianist community in Cupertino, California.

What do you know about Our Lady of the Pillar? Have you heard of her? Except for Hispanic peoples, especially Spaniards, she is most likely not as widely known as the Blessed Virgin Mary of other famous shrines. Yet her story pre-dates the gospels and was told long before the gospels were written. This is an interesting story, seemingly unbelievable, about Mary’s first apparition in history.

It is not an exaggeration to surmise that most likely every person in Spain knows something about Our Lady of the Pillar. Public and household shrines, both large and small, are found everywhere in Spain and in some of its former colonies.

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