Tag Archives: Works of Mercy

Practicing Mercy

Jessica Keating_headshotJessica Keating, M.Div.
Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives,
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

For those of a certain generation, the word mercy will forever conjure the image of a leather-clad, feather-haired Uncle Jesse, exclaiming, “Have mercy.” If not, you can watch a 2-two minute summary here.

Somehow, I don’t think this is what Pope Francis had in mind when he declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy, set to begin tomorrow on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. In the papal bull announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus, Francis writes:

Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. . . . Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God. We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts to the hope of being loved forever despite our sinfulness (§§1–2).

In some ways the declaration of a year of mercy seems hopelessly inadequate. The pragmatist in me scoffs at mercy. Mercy is too dangerous; it is too costly.  In world beset by violence and terrorism, where it seems all the news is bad news—bombings, shootings, kidnappings, natural disasters—mercy seems, well, not quite up to the task. Mercy seems reckless and imprudent. When things are better, when the world is safer, then it will be time for mercy. For now, mercy can wait.

But mercy doesn’t wait. It runs out into the danger; it bears the cost. Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium anticipates Misericordiae Vultus. Francis avers that Christ, the sacrament of salvation, is God’s work of mercy (cf. EG, §112). God’s mercy comes out to meet us, while we bear the weight of sin. God doesn’t wait for things to get better, for the world to be safer before sending his beloved Son. God enters into the quagmire most imprudently as an infant needing a home—as a helplessly needy, nearly blind infant. The eternal Word becomes speechless. The one through whom the entire cosmos is created and sustained in being is now hidden. Mercy is enthroned in the obscurity of the manger.

The recklessness of God! In The Portal to the Mystery of Hope, French poet Charles Péguy captures the audacity of divine mercy:

Terrible love, terrible charity,
Terrible hope, truly terrible responsibility,portal

The Creator has need of his creature, put himself in need of his creature.
And can’t do anything without it.
A king who has abdicated into the hands of each of his subjects
Merely absolute power.
God needs us, God needs his creature.
. . .
What rashness. What confidence.
Well or misplaced confidence, that all depends on us.
What hope, what obstinacy, what one-sidedness, what incurable strength of hope. (84–85)

God places himself in our hands. In his reckless and inefficient mercy, God hopes in us. We are called to show mercy because mercy has been shown to us in the person of Christ Jesus (cf. MV, §9). As an expression of the God who is love, mercy is always personal. It resides in the immaculate womb of Mary. Mercy heals the sick and forgives sinners. Mercy flows from Christ’s open side. Mercy welcomes the prodigal son home; mercy searches for the lost sheep; mercy endures for our sake. In the flesh of love, Christ’s flesh, mercy comes into the world to embrace, heal, weep, pray, and delight with us.

Mercy is never abstract. It is a practice of love, and like all practices, it is concretized by doing something somewhere. It takes place in the michelangelo_caravaggio_30_the_seven_works_of_mercyshadows, on the peripheries, and in the mundane realities of daily life. Yet in its hiddenness, mercy is the antidote to despair; it is the work of hope which remains “impossible to extinguish; as that little flame in the sanctuary” (Péguy, 7). Mercy is a form of life that flows from the pierced side of Christ. It is a form of life that puts us at the disposal of another. By practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy— feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead; instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses, comforting the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead—we participate in form of life that renders present the work of mercy in every age.

Our Lady of Ransom, free us from our shackles

Danielle Peters-cropDanielle M. Peters, S.T.D.

Secular Institute of the Schoenstatt, Sisters of Mary

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Institute for Church Life, University of Notre Dame

                                                           Contact Author

During the month of September we celebrated Mary’s birthday (September 8), the Most Holy Name of Mary (September 12), and Our Lady of Sorrows (September 15), the Patroness of the Congregation of Holy Cross who established and lead the University of Notre Dame. A lesser known Marian commemoration day is Our Lady of Ransom on September 24.

163_OurLadyMercyIts history is quickly recounted: In the twelfth century many Christians in Spain were held captives by the Saracens and transported to African prisons where they were tormented cruelly until they denied their Catholic faith. Christians in Europe, especially Spain, asked God to rescue them from the evil that threatened their religious freedom. Their prayers were heard when on August 1, 1218 the Blessed Virgin appeared to Peter Nolasco, who at the age of 25 had gifted his wealth to the Church and longed for a sign from God that would help him to realize his idea of establishing an Order for the redemption of the captives. Simultaneously, Our Lady appeared to Raymund of Penafort, professor of Canon Law, and to the king of Aragon, James I. Her request of these three saintly men was to establish a new religious congregation charged to deliver Christian captives and offer themselves, if necessary, as a ransom for their freedom.

Soon after the order was established in Spain and officially sanctioned by Pope Gregory IX as the Mercedarians and placed under the patronage of Our Lady of Mercy. The heroism, piety and altruism of the Mercedarians attracted many followers who often were asked to surrender themselves to voluntary slavery in exchange for a captive. Devotion to Our Lady of Ransom, now also invoked as Our Lady of Mercy, spread first in Spain and France where it was celebrated on September 24. Pope Innocent XII extended it to the entire Church in 1696. Pope Leo XIII continued to make the devotion known by making this feast proper to all the dioceses of England. Its focus shifted from Our Lady ransoming Christians from Muslim captivity to Our Lady ransoming Christians from the slavery of sins, and interceding the grace for our conversion.

In his encyclical letter Octobri Mense of September 22, 1891, Pope Leo XIII recalled Christ as the first Mercedarian, so to speak, who has given His life as a ransom “for His Church, whose prayers and future tears He already then accepted with joy, to give them back in mercies.” Likewise, Leo reminded us that “Peter, Vicar of Jesus Christ, and first Pontiff of the Church, had been cast into prison, loaded with chains by the guilty Herod, and left for certain death. None could carry him help or snatch him from the peril. But there was the certain help that fervent prayer wins from God.”

Leo then draws attention to the fact that “the design of this most dear mercy, realized by God in Mary and confirmed by the testament of Christ, was comprehended at the beginning, and accepted with the utmost joy by the Holy Apostles and the earliest believers.” He Emblem_mercedariansconsiders “nothing more natural, nothing more desirable than to seek a refuge in the protection and in the loyalty of her to whom we may confess our designs and our actions, our innocence and our repentance, our torments and our joys, our prayers and our desires.”

Fast forward to our time which challenges all of us—in view of the atrocities and unspeakable human rights violations—to act as Mercedarians. Pope Francis, as is well known, proclaimed an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, starting on December 8 of this year. It is his wish that it will be a moment of true grace for all Christians and a re-awakening to continue to reach the “peripheries” of human existence and to give attention to the marginalized, held captive in so many ways and are deprived of their human dignity. In the words of Pope Francis: “today, unlike in the past … these conflicts, are transmitted live by the media. Therefore, they capture the attention of the whole world. No one can pretend not to know! … I cannot fail to mention the serious harm to the Christian communities in Syria and Iraq, where many brothers and sisters are oppressed because of their faith, driven from their land, kept in prison or even killed.”[1]

A situation remarkably similar to that of the twelfth century urges us to turn to Our Lady of Ransom or Mercy. In the Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus (The Face of Mercy) announcing the Jubilee year, Pope Francis writes:

My thoughts now turn to the Mother of Mercy. May the sweetness of her countenance watch over us in this Holy Year, so that all of us may rediscover the joy of God’s tenderness. No one has penetrated the profound mystery of the incarnation like Mary. Her entire life was patterned after the presence of mercy made flesh. The Mother of the Crucified and Risen One has entered the sanctuary of divine mercy because she participated intimately in the mystery of His love.

Chosen to be the Mother of the Son of God, Mary, from the outset, was prepared by the love of God to be the Ark of the Covenant between God and man. She treasured divine mercy in her heart in perfect harmony with her Son Jesus. Her hymn of praise, sung at the threshold of the home of Elizabeth, was dedicated to the mercy of God which extends from “generation to generation” (Lk 1:50). We too were included in those prophetic words of the Virgin Mary. This will be a source of comfort and strength to us as we cross the threshold of the Holy Year to experience the fruits of divine mercy.

At the foot of the Cross, Mary, together with John, the disciple of love, witnessed the words of forgiveness spoken by Jesus. This supreme expression of mercy towards those who crucified him show us the point to which the mercy of God can reach. Mary attests that the mercy of the Son of God knows no bounds and extends to everyone, without exception. Let us address her in the words of the Salve Regina, a prayer ever ancient and ever new, so that she may never tire of turning her merciful eyes upon us, and make us worthy to contemplate the face of mercy, her Son Jesus (art. 24).

The University of Notre Dame Advent Calendar 2015 depicts Our
Lady of Mercy as she is portrayed in the main stain glass window of Our Lady of Mercy chapel in Geddes Hall, the home of the Institute for Church Life. With her arms outstretched towards those who 1256seek refuge under her protective mantle she welcomes old and young, those burdened by life’s toil and those who approach her reluctantly. All are her spiritual children! Each one carries visible or invisible chains of captivity, be it sin, addiction, bitterness or grudges. We are all afflicted by emotional and physical brokenness: illness, losses, sadness, disappointment, broken relationships…

When hopelessness surrounds us, she beckons us to entrust everything to her care. She wants to be near us with her maternal counsel. She wants to pray with and for us. And she will lead us to her Son who will bless, heal, liberate and redeem us from our shackles.

[1] Audience to participants of the meeting organized by the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” on the Iraqy-Syrian humanitarian crisis, Sep17, 2015.

Dorothy Day on Abortion and Mercy

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

“Don’t you care about anything other than abortion, like U.S. military plans to invade Iran?,” a middle aged man asked a women holding a sign that read, “Abortion Hurts Women.” I happened to overhear this question a few weeks ago, when I participated in the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood protest in history.

The problem with this question and others like it (don’t you care about poor, don’t you care about the environment, don’t you care about the plight of the immigrant, don’t you care about
homelessness, don’t you care about human trafficking, etc., etc.), is that they attempt to limit the horizon of conversation to predetermined and falsely constructed dichotomies. Such questions are not neutral; rather their framing fossilizes the narrative about human dignity in our country through the unrelenting rehearsal of 11951995_10152931926825793_3853225836498330680_nslogans and arguments. These questions, whether expressed on Facebook or Twitter, in the media, or by presidential hopefuls in what seems like endless election cycles, are nearly always linked to the desire for power, to get candidate X elected. The not-so- hidden implication of such questions is that one cannot care about the unborn and militarism, or human trafficking, etc., etc. I have also heard the question inverted, so as to imply if one is really against abortion, all other human dignity issues must recede from view. In either inflection, there is a lack of nuance, distinction, and vision.

In light of the absurdity of this set-up, I have found myself reflecting on Servant of God Dorothy Day as a particularly important icon for Catholics in America who are daily tempted to fall prey to disjointed “issues”-based politics and to cultivate a comparable “issues”-based gospel. She confounded such tidy divisions and simply declined to engage the American political milieu in such predetermined ways.

Day actually rarely spoke or wrote directly on the topic of abortion. Scour her journals, articles, letters, and books. Search her prolific corpus, and one will find scant reference to that ordeal of which she had a most intimate knowledge. She wrote a fictionalized account of her own abortion in an early work, The Eleventh Virgin, and obliquely gestures to the experience in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Indeed, she expended her considerable journalistic talents denouncing state sponsored militarism, detailing the rhythms of Dorothy_Day_1934family life, describing the scandal of the works of mercy, writing letters, and advocating for a new social order. In part, no doubt, this had as much to do with the historical fact that abortion was not available and practiced on the scale it is today until the end of her life, but I also suspect her relative silence on the subject had something to do with Day’s own deeply painful experience of abortion.

In addition to the references to abortion in The Eleventh Virgin and The Long Loneliness, Day speaks of her abortion again in a tender letter written on February 6, 1973 to a young woman named Cathie whose own abortion left her in deeply wounded and contemplating suicide. To Cathie she speaks of pain and hope, healing and prayer. “In a way,” Day writes “to use old-fashioned language, I feel you are a victim of souls, bearing some of the agony the world is in, Vietnam, the Third World, ‘the misery of the needy and groaning of the poor’”(All is Grace, 397).

Day again mentions abortion in a reminiscence to mark her 75th birthday that appeared in the August 10, 1973 edition of Commonweal Magazine. Writing of her conversion, The Imitation of Christ, and Bartolome de las Casas, she writes:

God forgive us the sins of our youth! But as Zachariah sang out, “We have knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of our sins.” I don’t think anyone recognizes the comfort of this text better than I do. I have not yet been attracted by the present tendency to bring everything out into the light of day by public and published confessions. Were we not taught by Holy Mother Church to respect the modesty of the confessional? Or is that a silly expression? But oh the joy of knowing that you can always go there and be forgiven seventy times seven times. (Even though you wonder, in your distrust of yourself, whether you really mean or have the strength to “amend your life.”) I hope your readers can read between the lines from the above and recognize what my positions on birth control and abortion are.

In the same “letter-article,” she recounts being asked by reports in
Australia about her views on abortion and birth control. To these 2251719973_01c2c3fd40questions, she explained matter-of-factly:

My answer was simplistic. I followed Pope Paul. . . . Thank God we have a Pope Paul who upholds respect for life, an ideal so lofty, so high, so important even when it seems he has the whole Catholic world against him. Peter Maurin always held before our eyes a vision of the new man, the new social order as being possible, by God’s grace, here and now, and he so fully lived the life of voluntary poverty and manual labor.

There is a striking similarity between Day’s straightforward answer and Pope Francis’ first interview with America Magazine where, when asked about abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, he said simply, “I am a son of the Church.” And yet, such simple answers are far from simplistic. Rather, they speak of a life lived according to a particular form of life and a particular logic of love and mercy.

Day’s most formal statement about abortion appeared The Catholic Peace Fellowship’s “Statement on Abortion,” which she co-signed with six others on June 28, 1974. Here the authors write:

We make this statement to protest a policy and a practice, not to condemn any individual for a tragic decision she or he may have felt forced to make, just as in our protest against war and its destruction of human life we pass no judgment upon the individual who acts in good conscience.

. . . For many years we have urged upon our spiritual leaders the inter-relatedness of the life issues, war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and economic exploitation. We welcome the energetic leadership our bishops are giving in the abortion controversy and we are proud to join our voices with theirs. At the same time we must point out that, ultimately, the sincerity of our words and theirs on any of these issues will be measured by our readiness to recognize and deal with the underlying social problems which turn many people to these deadly womalternatives, to condemn all forms of social and economic injustice and to work for their elimination and the establishment of a social order in which all may find it easier to be “fully human.”

What are we to make of these three references? The first appears in personal letter in which Day recalls her abortion and the healing grace of God. The second appears in a self-described “letter-article,” wherein she speaks of abortion in connection to the mercy and authority of the Church. The third reference appears in a formal statement, in which the authors denounce the policy and practice of abortion and call for a new social order, one which makes human flourishing easier—a society that, in the words of Peter Maurin, “makes it easier to be good.”

Taken together, Day’s remarks on abortion offer two essential insights.

1) Mercy capacitates us to see more. In her “letter-article” for Commonweal, Day quotes the Benedictus: “We have knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of our sins.” The mercy of God, fully disclosed in the person of Christ, and Day’s encounter with God’s mercy enabled her to see more of reality. Indeed, it is a life prayer, of participation in the sacramental life, that forms such a vision. Grace elevates and penetrates even that which is available to reason. It enfolds us into the logic that knits together all “life issues.”

If this sounds similar to a seamless garment life, it is because it is. But let me be clear, such a vision must avoid conflation. The image of the seamless garment like the image of the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head, is a hierarchical image. Abortion, the willful termination of human life, is simply not the same moral act as capital punishment or even economic exploitation. Rather, such a vision requires the careful and precise distinction evident in Evangelii Gaudium, when Pope Francis explained why the protection of the unborn takes primacy of place in the Church’s teaching on human dignity.

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with
particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless pope-francis-im-not-a-marxistand innocent among us. . . . Defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. No. 213

A society that fails to defend its most vulnerable members will soon find that it is unable to defend other human rights, that indeed, what is considered a “right” increasingly will be determined by the powerful.

At the same time, such a vision can see the inner connection of all life issues. We do well not only to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children, but also that all offenses against human life, in different ways and at different levels of gravity, participate in a logic of violence, in a logic that produces a throw-away culture. We also do well to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children. Day expresses this when, in her letter to Cathy, she sees the acute particularity of Cathy’s suffering and its universality. It is precisely because of the Church’s teaching on abortion (and euthanasia) that enables her to to speak and act with clarity, conviction, and authority on all issues related to life, to labor tirelessly against an economy that kills (53). This kind of vision is elevated and expanded by an encounter with God’s fierce and tender mercy.

  1. Mercy is a habit that requires concrete forms of practice. Peter Maurin was famous for saying that the aim of the Catholic Worker was to build a new society in the shell of the old, one that made it easier to be good. In her “letter-article” to Commonweal, Day seems to make a non-sequitur from her affirmation of Pope Paul’s upholding of respect for life to Peter Maurin. As I read over the passage a second time, however, it struck me that her abrupt change in subject was only an appearance. Indeed, for Day (and for us) Maurin is living witness to the gospel of life. He provides, as does Day, a particular enactment of a life conformed to Christ, to the one who reveals the breadth and depth of human dignity, which is made known to us again and again through the tender forgiveness of our sins. It is a life lived within the horizon of mercy.

In his concrete practices of prayer and the works of mercy, the vigorous exercise of his mind and enactment of his vision for an agronomic university, Maurin (and Day) worked to build a “social order in which all may find it easier to be ‘fully human.’” By daily practicing the way of mercy, they labored for a society in which it was easier to be good, easier to choose life, easier to say no to the will to power and violence in all its many forms.

I stood on Grape Road, with my jeans rolled up and my hair pulled back, with the young and old, with men and women who had also come to plead for justice and mercy for unborn, to call for a new 11879275_10152927735535793_2395403451959082158_osocial order, one that makes human flourishing easier—a society permeated by mercy. This work on behalf of the unborn is not exhausted by protesting, though that is critical. It is not exhausted by legal changes, though these are necessary, as the law shapes the imagination. It requires more; it requires concrete practices of care and support for mothers and their children—health care, paid maternity leave, a living wage, etc. Mercy does not choose its own way. It does not say, I will do this work of mercy but no other. Mercy is a bridge, it has wholeness, a breadth and depth that makes it easier to choose life.

Christ the King of the Universe…and the Mundane

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Dorothy Day passed the winter of 1948 on her daughter Tamar’s West Virginia farm helping her with the daily tasks of country life and children as they awaited the birth of Tamar’s third child. Included in a volume of Day’s diaries, On Pilgrimage, her entries from that winter show the beauty of smallness. She writes of the trials and delights of living close to the land, the pains and joys of child-rearing, and the hidden life of the family; nothing falls beneath her notice.  Noting the activities of the day on January 20, 1948, she writes:

25036143-36A3-491E-B33A-849222667E73_mw1024_s_nBreakfast of sausage, hotcakes, apples and coffee. Dishes, water heating for clothes, bread-baking. That was today. Yesterday it was pumpkin pies. These things do not take all morning so I have time for writing letters. Then there is the arrival of mail, at 11:30 in the morning, always something to look forward to in the country, with a book arriving from a friend, a package of food from my sister. Yesterday it was fish balls, cheese, baby food, candies, and two toys. (On Pilgrimage, 78)

She writes of other matters, too: of capitalism and communism, of poverty and destitution, of the “fear and distraction these days over the state of the world,” and of the duty of delight and wonder (85).

It is in the midst of one such entry, as she reflects upon the realism of joy and the paradox of the Christian life, that Day observes, “we can suffer with others, we can see plainly the frightful chaos, the unbelievable misery of cold and hunger and bitter misery” (85). Yet all the while, Day observes, we know the truth of St. Paul’s words “that the sufferings of this time are not to be compared to the joy that is to come” (85; Rom 8:18). Indeed, “if we pray enough, the conviction will come too, that Christ is our King, not Stalin, Bevins or Truman. That He has all things in His hands, that ‘all things work together for good to those that love Him’” (85; Rom 8:28).

Sizing2_800Christ the King of the Universe holds all things in His wounded, glorified hands: angels and saints, sun and moon, stars of heaven, shower and dew, fire and heat, frost and chill, hoarfrost and snow, night and day, light and darkness, seas and rivers, mountains and hills (Dan 3: 52-87). The whole of the cosmos resides in the crucified hands of Christ. These very same hands that hold the entirety of creation also hold the bread-baking and the bitter sufferings of this age, the washing of dishes and the making love, the cleaning and clothing of children, the caring for the sick, visiting of the imprisoned, the feeding of the hungry, the burying of the dead.
angry-kidsChrist’s kingship baffled the disciples and continues to overthrow our own paltry notions of kingship, whether they are notions of political messiahs or nationalistic fervor or more nearly the small realms of power we aggregate for ourselves and protect like tyrannical children. Thus we often bend the stunning reality of Christ’s reign as King of the Universe to our own pedestrian imaginings of political kingship, envisioning the vast and majestic implications of Christ’s power as King and the eschatological judgment of the Son enthroned in glory surrounded by the heavenly court as little more than a glorified president with a well-functioning congress.

Yet the one who holds the scroll in his right hand, the one who sparkles like jasper, is also the King who laid His divine prerogatives, naked, hungry, needy (Rev. 4:3; 5:1). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI notes the paradox of the Christ’s kingship:

Jesus, the Son of Man, the ultimate judge of our lives, wished to appear as one who hungers and thirsts, as a stranger, as one of those who are naked, sick or imprisoned, ultimately, of those who suffer or are outcast; how we treat them will be taken as the way we treat Jesus himself. We do not see here a simple literary device, or a simple metaphor. Jesus’s entire existence is an example of it. He, the Son of God, became man, he shared rouault-crucifixionour existence, even down to the smallest details, he became the servant of the least of his brothers and sisters. He who had nowhere to lay his head, was condemned to death on a cross. This is the King we celebrate! (Christ the King Homily, November 20, 2011)

This is the King whose reign extends over all that is seen and unseen. This is the King who sparkles like jasper. This is the King of glory who descends into the small and mundane obscurities of human existence in order to glorify them—the baking of pumpkin pies, the writing of papers, the weeping of tears—that all may shine like jasper and diamond. This is the King who sits on the throne of the Cross, whose seat of power is crucified love.