Editor’s note: This is the third post in a series highlighting the corporal and spiritual works of mercy during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
“Wow, he can do that?” The child from the South Bronx parish was not watching Cristiano Ronaldo perform a pro soccer move. In fact, the white-robed friar in front of him probably would have spurred a mental revolution with the slightest athletic feat. Somehow, even the youngest believe that the “normal” and the “religious” rarely mix well. So why change anyone’s expectations?
Pope Francis taught in his first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” that it is relating to very normal things—like the sciences and human experiences—that makes Christians most ready to pass on the profoundly joyful message of Jesus’ saving passion, death, and resurrection. In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, it is important to re-discover how God and his representatives provide for us in ways both bodily and spiritual. The most “churchy” of the traditional works of mercy—here we focus on “instructing the ignorant” and “admonishing the sinner”—can be appreciated best when they are viewed and exercised in connection with our more earthbound needs and relationships.
Instruct the ignorant. How insulting! No, not really. Teaching a child to make his own sandwich or to do her own laundry is part of raising him to be self-sufficient. The child needs not only food and clothing but also knowledge about how to use and maintain food and clothing. More than providing physical nourishment, instruction involves bestowing upon a loved one a life-skill that he needs but cannot provide for himself. With weightier matters, such as dating or dealing with death, the impact of this work of mercy becomes more apparent. Such knowledge can be life-changing, even life-saving. This is certainly the case when the instruction concerns how to believe and live as a Christian. Here one’s spiritual life, which has immeasurable value, is at the mercy of the catechist. The teacher must be trustworthy and evoke deep confidence—just as a parent teaching the basics of life to his child—because a catechist passes on divine knowledge that is accessible only with faith. This is why, after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI identified the first steps of evangelization or preaching the Gospel to be “renewal of humanity” and “witness.” Playing soccer with a child in the projects shows him that you share something in common and that you care enough to share it. The joy with which you do this becomes proof that you have really been touched by God and that you have something irresistible to offer.
Admonish the sinner. This work of mercy sounds and often is outright daunting! Yet we must remember the goal we aim for in undertaking this task. The aforementioned life of joy that comes from knowing the saving Gospel “impels us onwards,” in the words of Pope Francis. Love for the life Jesus gives can even prompt us to walk away from alluring but ultimately destructive actions and habits of living. “Admonish” comes from a Latin word meaning “to warn” or “to advise.” As a work of mercy, to admonish the sinner means to bring to the attention of a loved one the harmful effects of a certain course of action. This work of mercy too is preceded by a real human relationship. Does not a man in his twenties best respond (and with surprising speed) to the well-meaning jeers of a friend who critiques his way of dressing, his habit of smoking, or his approach to romantic interests? These amigos are connected by strong human bonds and therefore will trust each other’s insight into deeper, even spiritual realities. When it comes to announcing the Kingdom of God and calling for conversion from sin, human connections and friendship are just as important. Pope Francis refers to a “spiritual accompaniment” wherein evangelists can lead men and women away from vice and sin by patiently walking alongside them through their struggles. This is the best context for “fraternal correction” within the Church because there is not a question here of spite or uninterested disgust. Instead, it is apparent that the advice is coming from a friend who desires the healing and flourishing of the one who struggles. The disciple who is a humble friend best administers this work of mercy.
Children in the South Bronx, like children everywhere, can and should be impressed with the likes of an athlete such as Cristiano Ronaldo. But it turns out that they, like all children, most of all respond to those whom they know and trust—grandparents, parents, pastors, mentors, and peers—those who clearly have something to give and are generous enough to do so. To pass on through teaching the gifts God Himself came to give us is an enviable task. Likewise, “whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way” (cf. James 5:20) is promised a well-deserved and lasting reward. But we must always remember that evangelization begins with human encounter and personal witness. Joy, after all, is humanly contagious. And that’s just how God designed it.
Image: Friar Futbol