Associate Director, Notre Dame Vision
We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy.
It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it.
Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, 2.
In Pope Francis’ proclamation of the Year of Mercy, he invites us all to “gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.” As I began to contemplate the mystery of God’s mercy in preparation for the Year of Mercy, I pondered the question: “How can I better respond to the gift of God’s mercy in my own life?” As I prayed, my attention was drawn ever more deeply to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – the practices of enacting and proclaiming God’s mercy through concrete acts of love.
Thinking of ways that I could incorporate the works of mercy into my life, I came up with ideas involving volunteering at the local homeless drop-in shelter, helping sort and deliver food from the parish food bank, donating clothes and household goods. All good ideas, but in the busyness I let fill my days they remained that – just ideas.
An impediment to practicing mercy is our lack of awareness and attentiveness to the needs of others. We can become so wrapped up in the challenges of our day-to-day lives – even lives of discipleship and ministry – that we become blind to the realities of pain and struggle around us.
Earlier this summer, I witnessed a moment of God’s mercy at work transforming a young man’s heart in the reception of the Eucharist that I reflected on in a previous post. As I prayed with this encounter, I experienced a profound renewal of my call to serve as an Eucharistic minister and I committed to regularly serving at my parish’s Sunday liturgy.
As I would distribute communion each week – to the elders of the parish, teens with sleep in their eyes, families with young children clinging to their legs, adults attending alone – I felt my heart continue to grow in love for the entire people of God, the diverse members of the community gathered together each Sunday in the pews. And during the times that I would need to go out into the congregation to those who could not come forward due to physical limitations, I felt an even stronger bond with the parish family.
Then I returned home, back to my normal routine and my attempts to practice the corporal works of mercy on my own terms, according to my own plan. And the good intentions were overshadowed by excuses of “I’m too busy this week” or “I’m sure they have enough help.” Yet each week as I received and shared the Body of Christ, God slowly chipped away at the hardness of my heart, transforming my heart more closely into the Heart of Christ, a heart poured out in love unto death in mercy for the world.
The mercy of God penetrated into the closed-off space of my heart, shattering the limitations I had placed upon my ability to show mercy. God hollowed out space for me to allow God to “make of my heart a home.” It is my Eucharistic vocation to share the grace of mercy that I have received, to go forth and practice mercy, to offer myself in love.
One day, when I heard the priest announce they were in need of people to take the Eucharist to those members of the parish community who were unable to attend mass, I felt a pull within me to respond. If I am to become that which I receive, if I am to be transformed into Eucharist for the world, and I take that seriously, it troubles me that there are those unable to participate in the Eucharistic celebration, those homebound due to illness or infirmity.
I contacted the priest and was paired with an older couple who had been long-time parishioners, but with the wife’s recent diagnosis and decline was no longer able to leave the house for mass. Due to the seriousness of her illness, there was a chance that her condition would quickly deteriorate, and that I may only be visiting with them for a short time. My Eucharistic vocation to share the mercy I received lead me to the corporal work of mercy of “visiting the sick.”
In my parish, at the end of the communion rite the priest places the host in the pyx, and those ministering to the homebound come forward. Each week I would stand with the pyx on my open hand as the priest sent us forth with a blessing. I would take hold of the pyx, grasping it in my hand throughout the final blessing, the concluding rites and closing song. Then I would head straight out to my car for the five-minute drive to their house.
My visits usually consisted of a few minutes of conversation about Notre Dame football with her husband, and she would join in if she felt up to it. But often her energy level was very low, so we would move into a simplified rite in continuity with the celebration of the liturgy just concluded.
? Peace be with this house and with all who live here.
Lord Jesus, you healed the sick: Lord, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you forgave sinners: Christ, have mercy.
Lord Jesus, you give us yourself to heal us and bring us strength: Lord, have mercy.
I held aloft the body of our crucified savior, whose wounds are transfigured in the glory of the resurrection.
The Body of Christ.
As I placed the host in her mouth I prayed, not for healing – which was unlikely at that point – but for wholeness. For a sense of peace and solidarity in the midst of suffering and pain.
All-powerful God, we thank you for the nourishment you give us through your holy gift. Pour out your Spirit upon us and in the strength of this food from heaven, keep us single minded in your service. We ask this in the name of Jesus the Lord. Amen.
As I left each Sunday, I sat in my car for a few moments before driving away to say a short prayer of thanksgiving for the movement of God’s mercy in my life that brought me to that moment, that couple, that grace.
One Sunday as I prepared to drive over after mass, I checked my phone to find a voicemail from her husband saying I didn’t need to come over as she was not doing well, and they were preparing for her death. Two days later I received word that she had passed away.
We had not spoken much during my visits due to her health, but were able to communicate about the most essential truth – the merciful love of God. She made the final journey through suffering nourished by his Body and comforted by the hope of the resurrection.
When I attended her funeral, God wasn’t finished teaching me about the boundless expanse of mercy. Due to the number of people present, I was asked to serve as an Eucharistic Minister, sharing once more the Bread of Life, this time with her friends and family gathered to say farewell. As I looked into her husband’s eyes, I witnessed the depths of his grief, but also the hope of the resurrection. What began as sharing the Eucharist at mass lead me to enter her home with the gift of Christ’s Body from the family gathered at the parish and ultimately to accompany her on her journey to her final home. My Eucharistic vocation to share the mercy I received led me to corporal work of mercy of “burying the dead.”
God’s mercy continues to work within me. God “makes of my heart a home,” a home of mercy and love that goes forth into the world. In my brokenness I am a vessel transmitting the gift I have received through concrete actions in response to the needs of the world. And in the action, the practice of mercy, I become merciful.
Make of our hands a throne
to hold the Bread of heaven,
make of our hearts a home
to hold the very wine of life.
In this myst’ry, Lord, make us one with you.