Tag Archives: works of mercy

Loving Poorly

Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.
― Henri J.M. Nouwen

I love poorly. Every single moment. Especially when I fail to think about God in going about my daily life.

Do I initiate conversation with my parents, with whom I fell out 15 years ago? What if they start harassing me again with the past? I’ve taken so long to heal from the hurts, and what if they hurt me again?

Do I smile at people around me? What if they start to think that it’s an “open invitation” and then they start being creepy and stalk me?

Do I give that poor man some money for a meal? Do I buy him a meal? What if he demands more and more? 

I really like what Henri Nouwen has to say about forgiveness. I have failed my family, the lonely and neglected, and the poor and hungry around me. I need to love better.


Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.
Image: PD-US

Pier Giorgio Frassati’s Life of Grace

By guest writer Lauren Winter.

This morning I listened to the always enlightening Bishop Barron talk about Frassati. First of all, Bishop Barron is a national treasure and I 10 out of 10 recommend the Word on Fire Show. Secondly, let’s take a minute to talk about our boy, Frassati.

Frassati’s life is an example of how grace and faith can grow in the most surprising places. Frassati wasn’t raised in a faith-filled home like so many of the Saints. His father was a prominent Italian politician and his mother a well-known painter. His father was agnostic, and his mother was *vaguely* Catholic. Frassati wasn’t given a spiritual upbringing but found one for himself instead.

Even from a young age and without any humanly prompting he was captivated by the Eucharist and the liturgy. He would disappear for hours at a time and visit the chapels for Eucharistic adoration causing his parents to frantically search for him. (Now where have I heard that story before? *cough cough* finding at the temple *Cough cough*)

Similar to his surprising devotion to the faith, he also had a devotion to the poor. He gave all his money and all his time to the poor. He was truly a man of the poor. He was both their caretaker and their advocate. His love of the poor was so brilliant that when he died of polio at the age of 24 his funeral was a HUGE event. It wasn’t his prominent parents’ friends who overwhelmed the event, but the poor. His funeral was a massively-attended event because of the massive amount of people he attended to and cared for while he was living.

When we hear about mountain-climbing Frassati’s “Verso L’alto” we are reminded of his acceptance of grace and his determination to climb closer to Christ. Frassati was a man of action. First, he accepted grace into his life and then boldly ACTED. May he be an example to us all. To the heights!!! Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us.


Originally posted on Instagram.

Lauren Winter is a mother of three and owner of the apparel brand Brick House in the City, designing inspirational clothing for Catholic women as her contribution to the New Evangelization.

Grief into Joy

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn,
while the world rejoices;
you will grieve, but your grief will become joy.
When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived;
but when she has given birth to a child,
she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy
that a child has been born into the world.
So you also are now in anguish.
But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice,
and no one will take your joy away from you.
On that day you will not question me about anything.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whatever you ask the Father in my name he will give you.”
—John 16:20–23

Often we have a tendency to assume—even, sometimes, when we know better—that if we follow Jesus perfectly, we will live a charmed life free of suffering. Thus, when we experience suffering that seems “undeserved,” we become frustrated with God and think that there’s no way we can handle what He’s asking of us.


But Jesus doesn’t negate the suffering of the Christian life. He acknowledges it fully, saying that if they persecuted Him they will surely persecute us. He tells us we will weep and mourn and grieve while the world rejoices. Yet our pain and suffering are not wasted in His plan of salvation. When we meet Jesus in Heaven, when we see the destination to which He has led us on such a long, winding journey, our hearts will rejoice. We will receive a lasting joy, greater than anything of this world.

We will experience suffering in this life, but through Christ, this suffering becomes a holy calling. We don’t need to put on a happy face and pretend everything is fine—no, this trial is a gift, meant to break and re-form our hearts, making them more like His own. We can embrace our suffering and lean in to it. And we don’t need to spiral into despair, either, for this trial is not the end. A greater joy awaits us, a joy that will eclipse any memory of pain.

piergiorgioOur patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, was a joyful, exuberant young man who radiated hope. He loved to have a good time with his friends, sharing inside jokes and enjoying outdoor activities. But at the same time, he did not shy away from suffering. Although he easily could have stayed within the comfortable bubble of wealth provided by his family, he ventured into the poorest parts of his city, undeterred by the noise and smells, to seek those who needed company and support. He saw the beauty in each person he encountered and considered them friends. His passion for the Lord propelled him to serve, and even when he contracted a fatal disease through this service, he embraced this, too, as a gift. His love for Christ emboldened him to face every trial without fear.

Fear not. As Christians, we always have reason for hope. Inspired by the example of Pier Giorgio, may we face our sufferings with boldness and joy, knowing that all our earthly pain will pass away and that the joy to come is worth it all.

We are an Easter people, and hallelujah is our song.
—Pope Saint John Paul II

1. Heinrich Hofmann, Christ in Gethsemane / PD-US
2. Photograph of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati and friends

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.


O my Jesus, Thou who art very Love, enkindle in my heart that Divine Fire which consumes the Saints and transforms them into Thee.
O Lord our God, we offer Thee our hearts, united in the strongest and most sincere love of brotherhood; we pray that Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament may be the daily food of our souls and bodies; that Jesus may be established as the center of our affections, even as He was for Mary and Joseph. Finally, O Lord, may sin never disturb our union on earth; and may we be eternally united in heaven with Thee and Mary and Joseph and with all Thy Saints. Amen.

What do you think of when you see the word “charity”? Is it not works of altruistic love? Mother Teresa said: “The fruit of faith is love, and the fruit of love is service.” Faith without works is dead,1 and so is love. As St. Anthony of Padua declared, “actions speak louder than words.”2 Love is an act of the will. It is impossible to be charitable without an act. Just try it. When you love, you naturally want to do things or to sacrifice for your beloved. In fact, the word “altruism” comes from the Latin alteri, “to the other.”3 To love is to will the good of the other; and the good of the other is always in accordance with the will of God. Thus, to exercise charity is to become Godlike, to live out our baptismal priesthood as an Alter Christus ministering to the children of God. Charity is thus not only what we do, but the essence of who we are; as the hymn goes, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” St. Augustine says, “When the question is asked whether a man is good, one is not interested in what he believes or what are his hopes, but only what he loves. For beyond any doubt, a man with a right love also has the right faith and hope. But one who has no love, believes in vain, even though what he believes may be the truth.”4 After all, “the devils also believe and tremble.”5 St. Paul tells us that “the true faith of Christ is… faith that works by charity.”6 Therefore, “charity is not merely the supreme virtue… it is further an abiding condition and state without which any knowledge or other term of the Christian life would be impossible.”7

As the Catechism notes, “Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.”8 When we are charitable, we see Christ in our neighbor, even the most intolerable one. St. Thérèse recounts that a nun whom she found highly annoying asked, “My dear Sister Thérèse, tell me what attraction you find in me, for whenever we meet, you greet me with such a sweet smile.” The saint explains, “Ah! What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul—Jesus Who maketh sweet even that which is most bitter.” Thérèse tells us, “A heart given to God loses nothing of its natural affection—on the contrary, this affection grows stronger by becoming purer and more spiritual.”9 Charity goes far beyond tolerance. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver wrote,

“Tolerance is a working principle that enables us to live in peace with other people and their ideas. Most of the time, it’s a very good thing. But it is not an end in itself and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil. The roots of this word are revealing. Tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, “to bear or sustain,” and tollere, which means “to lift up.” It implies bearing other persons and their beliefs the way we carry a burden or endure a headache. It’s actually a negative idea. And it is not a Christian virtue. Catholics have the duty not to “tolerate” other people but to love them, which is a much more demanding task.”10

“Authentic love is an act of the will. Genuine love has two essential elements: self-sacrifice and commitment. Perfect love is total self-sacrifice and complete commitment.”11 Charity is not a one-off thing – it must be an ongoing part of our lives. As Nicholas Sparks wrote, “Love is more than three words mumbled before bedtime. Love is sustained by action, a pattern of devotion in the things we do for each other every day.”12

The Catechism continues: Our Lord Jesus Christ ‘makes charity the new commandment.13 By loving His own “to the end,”14 He makes manifest the Father’s love which He receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive. Whence Jesus says: “As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you; abide in My love.” And again: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”’15 St. Thomas Aquinas understood charity as “the friendship of man for God”, which unites us to God.16 According to Aquinas, charity is an absolute requirement for happiness, which he holds as man’s last goal,17 our telos.18 This is evinced in the Last Judgement account of Matthew 25, where men are judged by their works of mercy.19 As St. John of the Cross says, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” Christ tells us: “If any man say, I love God, and hates his brother; he is a liar. For he that loves not his brother, whom he sees, how can he love God, whom he sees not?”20 We Chinese have a saying: 爱屋及乌 – “love for a person extends even to the crows on his roof”. To love God is to love His family. St. Augustine declared, “Extend your love over the whole earth if you desire to love Christ, for Christ’s members are all over the earth.”21

“The love that is caritas is distinguished by its origin, being divinely infused into the soul, and by its residing in the will rather than emotions, regardless of what emotions it stirs up. The infused habit of charity increases any will’s natural ability to love. Furthermore, charity is also responsible for a morally good act becoming meritorious, that is, meriting an increase in grace or charity in this life and beatitude in the life to come. Since this refers to the supernatural order, namely, the capacity to share more intensely in the inner life of God through acts of love, it is a gratuitous gift dependent on what God freely deigns to give as a reward for loving Him. Over and above the added intensity a habit like charity imparts to one’s act of love of God, the habit also serves as a lasting mark in the soul, even when it is not eliciting an act of love. Charity indicates that the nature possessing it ‘is formally accepted by God as habitually able to be beatified and that the acts elicited with its help are accepted as meritorious.’ Using St. Augustine’s simile comparing the will to a horse and habitual grace or charity to its rider, Blessed John Duns Scotus explains that the horse is free to throw its rider (destroy charity through mortal sin) or it may not follow the guidance of the rider (and then its actions are not meritorious, but are either indifferent or venially sinful), or, thirdly, it may choose to follow where charity leads (and then its action is meritorious).”22

Professor William May writes:

“According to Aquinas, the principle of our moral-spiritual life is charity or the love of God, whereby we are ordered to Him as our final end. If charity within the person is lost, there is no inner source within the person to repair the harm he has done in sinning. Mortal sin destroys charity or the principle of our moral-spiritual life.”23 The two precepts of charity, to love God and to love our neighbor, constitute the life of the soul. “The practice of all the virtues is animated and inspired by charity, which ‘binds everything together in perfect harmony’;24 it is the form of the virtues; it articulates and orders them among themselves; it is the source and the goal of their Christian practice.”25

So, how exactly may we practice charity?

As you well know, St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Charity is patient, is kind: charity envies not, deals not perversely; is not puffed up; is not ambitious, seeks not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinks no evil; rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Charity never falls away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed.”26

God is love,27 and again, to be charitable is to be Godlike. “[God] is patient and kind; [God] does not envy or boast; [He] is not arrogant or rude. [He] does not insist on [His] own way; [He] is not irritable or resentful; [He] does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. [God] bears all things…, endures all things. [God] never ends.”28 Here is the template for the Christian life, to love always and everywhere, especially when it is most difficult. The Dominican Fr. Herbert McCabe said, “If you truly love, one day, you will be crucified. If you do not love, you are dead already.” “Christ died out of love for us, while we were still ‘enemies.’ The Lord asks us to love as He does, even our enemies, to make ourselves the neighbor of those farthest away, and to love children and the poor as Christ himself.”29

St. Thérèse writes,

I read in St. Matthew: “You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor, and hate thy enemy: but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you.” There are, of course, no enemies in the Carmel; but, after all, we have our natural likes and dislikes. We may feel drawn towards one Sister, and may be tempted to go a long way round to avoid meeting another. Well, Our Lord tells me that this is the Sister to love and pray for, even though her behavior may make me imagine she does not care for me. “If you love them that love you, what thanks are to you? For sinners also love those that love them.” And it is not enough to love, we must prove our love; naturally one likes to please a friend, but that is not charity, for sinners do the same.30

Thus, you can see that true charity is not some feel-good thing, but requires strength, sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears, and often involves doing what you’d rather not do. Peter Kreeft says:

“God is love. And love is not “luv”. “Luv” is nice. Love is not nice. Love is a fire, a hurricane, an earthquake, a volcano, a bolt of lightning. Love is what banged out the Big Bang in the beginning, and love is what went to hell for us on the cross.”31 God so loved the world, as to give His only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting.32

Moreover, charity fulfills and perfects the divine law given in the Ten Commandments.33 We as Christians live no longer merely by negative moral precepts, but by the positive law written in our hearts; in fact, this life of charity present in our hearts is God Himself, the Divine Law-Giver, the Holy Spirit. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est: “Since God has first loved us,34 love is now no longer a mere ‘command’; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.”35 He continued:

“The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself. Then self-abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy.”36

Citing John Duns Scotus, the Pope Emeritus observed, “Just as God’s love, God’s charity, was at the origin of all things, so too our eternal happiness will be in love and charity alone: ‘willing, or the loving will, is simply eternal life, blessed and perfect.’”37

“Charity, as St. Paul writes, ‘is not self-seeking’, meaning that it places the common good before its own. So whenever you show greater concern for the common good than for your own, you may know that you are growing in charity.”38 St. Paul told the Romans, “Avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love. If you love your fellow men you have carried out your obligations. Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbor; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.”39 “Charity, especially fraternal charity, is opposed to self-love. As it was self-love that originally destroyed the unity of man and the harmony of his powers, so it is charity, made possible to us in Christ, which restores that unity and harmony.”40 Supernatural charity is, “properly speaking, a ‘catholic’ (universal) love”,41 a disinterested love that moves you to act like the Good Samaritan or like Maximilian Kolbe. This is not a vague affection for the mereological sum of humans. Linus said to Charlie Brown, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.”42 Supernatural charity moves you to sacrifice even for the particular neighbor you can’t stand!

By this time, you may well be frightened at the demands made upon you by charity. But fear not! Mother Teresa said, “If you are discouraged it is a sign of pride because it shows you trust in your own power. Your self-sufficiency, your selfishness and your intellectual pride will inhibit His coming to live in your heart because God cannot fill what is already full. It is as simple as that.” To live a life of charity, you must depend completely on God and be nourished by Christ present in the sacraments. Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est,

eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realised. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to ‘be there for’ the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).”43

Moreover, living by love doesn’t mean just pouring it all out on your neighbor; it is also a great charity to accept and express gratitude for their kindnesses to us, no matter how small or clumsy they may seem. Think of a parent allowing a child to help with the cooking, although he might make a mess and get in the way – that’s an image of how God allows us to participate in His great work of redemption, and how we can respond to others. I read somewhere that when you accept help, you’re actually allowing your fellow man to work out his salvation in deeds of grace-filled love. Love is a two-way street.

One final important point. St. Maximus the Confessor reflected that “Charity unites (us) with God and deifies (us).”44 It draws us into the life of the Holy Trinity. At the same time, as explained by Professor Wadell, charity “makes us like God, but it does not make us God… it makes us more fully ourselves. If charity made us identical to God, then our friendship with God would be over for we would no longer be the ‘other’ every friendship requires… The likeness to God charity brings is really the most radical individuation.”45 Indeed, Jesus declared that He came that we may have life to the full,46 and St. Irenaeus said that the glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. When we live by charity, God’s kingdom will come and His will shall be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. God love you! Let us pray: “Lord God, living light of eternal love, grant that always aglow with charity, we may love You above all else, and our brethren for Your sake, with one and the self-same love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.


1 James 2:20.

2 St Anthony of Padua, homily [http://catholicradiodramas.com/saints/a/anthony-of-padua/actions-speak-louder-than-words/] (accessed 12 October 2014).

3 Douglas Harper. Online Etymology Dictionary [http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=altruism] (accessed 12 October 2014).

4 Augustine, Enchiridion De Fide Spe et Caritate. The Newman Press, (Westminster, Maryland, 1952), p. 108.

5 James 2:19.

6 Augustine, op. cit., p. 109, cf. Galatians 5:6.

7 Polycarp Sherwood OSB, STD, St. Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life; The Four Centuries on Charity. Ancient Christian Writers Volume XXI. The Newman Press (Westminster, Maryland, 1955), p. 92.

8 CCC 1822.

9 St Thérèse, Story of a Soul [http://www.storyofasoul.com/?page_id=18] (accessed 12 October 2014).

10 Abp. Charles J. Chaput, Render Unto Caesar [http://saltandlighttv.org/store/index.php?route=product/product&product_id=54] (accessed 12 October 2014).

11 Jim Seghers, “The Sacrament of Confirmation” [http://www.totustuus.com/TheSacramentOfConfirmation.pdf] (accessed 11 October 2014).

12 Nicholas Sparks, The Wedding.

13 Cf. John 13:34.

14 John 13:1.

15 John 15:9-10; cf. Matthew 22:40; Romans 13:8-10. CCC 1823.

16 Paul Wadell, “The Christian Life as Friendship with God: What Aquinas Means by Charity” in Friendship and the Moral Life. University of Notre Dame Press (Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, 1990), p. 120.

17 Ibid., p. 128.

18 Ibid., p. 121.

19 Matthew 25:31-46.

20 1 John 4:20.

21 St Augustine, Sermon on 1 John 10:7.

22 Allan B. Wolter, Duns Scotus on the Will and Morality. CUA Press (Michigan, 1997), pp. 93-94.

23 William E. May, “Sin and the Moral Life”, in An Introduction to Moral Theology. Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., (Huntingdon, Indiana, 1994), p. 167.

24 Colossians 3:14.

25 CCC 1827.

26 1 Cor. 13:4-8.

27 1 John 4:16.

28 Aaron Ross, “The 1 Corinthians ‘Love Chapter’ Isn’t Just for Weddings” [http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/practical-faith/1-corinthians-love-chapter-isnt-just-weddings] (accessed 11 October 2014).

29 CCC 1825.

30 St Thérèse, op. cit.

31 Peter Kreeft, “Perfect Fear Casts Out All ‘Luv’”. [http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics/fear.htm] (accessed 11 October 2014).

32 John 3:16.

33 Cf. Matthew 5:17.

34 1 John 4:10.

35 Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est.

36 Ibid.

37 Benedict XVI, “John Duns Scotus”, General Audience 7 July 2010 [http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2010/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20100707_en.html] (accessed 11 October 2014). Cf. Gérard Gillmen S.J., The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology. Burns & Oates (London, 1959), p. 129.

38 Rule for Monasteries 5:2.

39 Romans 13:8,10.

40 Sherwood, op. cit., p. 93.

41 Gérard Gilleman S.J., The Primacy of Charity in Moral Theology. Burns & Oates (London, 1959), p. 304.

42 Charles M. Schulz, Peanuts.

43 Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est.

44 Sherwood, op. cit., p. 93.

45 Wadell, op. cit., p. 139.

46 John 10:10.

The Narrow Path Through Reality

Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!
Matthew 7:13-14 (The Sermon on the Mount)

When I was in primary school, Neopets were a massive craze. I assiduously avoided the game, knowing that, with my perfectionist tendencies, I would probably spend hours trying to win as many trophies as possible and keeping my virtual pets well-fed. It was far better to spend my time reading twenty library books a week.

This salutary abstinence lasted for a decade, until a friend asked me to look after her Neopets while she went on holiday overseas. I just had to collect all the Advent calendar freebies.

Sure enough, I became obsessed with collecting the daily freebies (not just the Advent items, but all the freebies throughout the virtual world), amassing a collection of virtual books for the Neopets’ gallery, and playing games to amass virtual money. I even entered art and writing competitions on the site, attempting to win more trophies for my friend. In the end, I only managed to end the addiction by giving up Neopets for the following Lent.

Neopets wasn’t entirely a waste of time – there were word games, and the competitions fostered admirable skills and creativity in the young players. However, looking back on the hours spent repetitively clicking on various pages to collect non-existent goodies, I do think I could have spent that time far better – learning to play the piano, or cooking with my father, or reading real books. But those activities take way more effort, and once you develop a habit of gorging on junk food, it’s difficult to switch to a nutritious diet.

Seeking Fulfillment in Fakery

Now, young Japanese women are turning to virtual boyfriends to satisfy their desire for affection. They find that these “perfect” lovers are more attentive than human boyfriends. Porn is also destroying human relationships in Japan.

“Early Christianity’s struggle with idolatry bears striking resemblance to today’s fight with pornography. The development of Christian art and images also informs the conversation about how to catechize on pornography.

Pornography today mirrors all three historical concerns from early Christianity. Viewing pornography leads to an idolatrous turning toward earthly pleasures and away from divine things. Pornography is also deceptive. What is being portrayed is not the reality of sex. Viewers, especially younger viewers, often mistake what they are seeing as what sex is or should be like. Finally, pornography is seductive, creating emotions and desires that are not connected to real life, but rather buy into a fantasy. There are plenty of early warnings against visual art, particularly idols. Christians, however, are not actually anti-image.”

– China Weil, “How to Talk to Young People about the Dangers of Pornography”, Church Life Journal

In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle depicts a hellish planet where everything is controlled by a central mind. Children are not allowed to play freely, but have to bounce their balls in perfect synchrony or face painful punishment. This relentless demand for perfection has killed all human spirit on the planet, reducing the populace to robots governed by fear.

We humans have been granted the intelligence and capability to modify our environments, creating infrastructure and technologies that make life convenient. However, when we seek to eliminate the uncertainties and discomforts which come with any human life, and make everything bend to our own will, we end up with a sterile, empty mockery of life.

True Love and Fulfillment are Found in Reality

Christians know that this world is passing, and we look forward to eternal life. However, we are called to be in the world, and to be loving and responsible stewards of God’s creation. We cannot afford to fritter our time away in chasing after the unreal, becoming isolated addicts imprisoned in fantasy. The path to salvation lies through the concrete reality which we have been given. It is only in this reality that we can truly mature as humans and learn to sacrifice for other real persons.

Living in the real world involves denying ourselves and dealing charitably with uncomfortable, unwanted intrusions into our lives, like lonely friends, crabby relatives, and the needs of parents, spouses, siblings, children, and others in our communities. When we avoid our responsibility to serve one another, we often end up hurting ourselves and others. The harm may not be as extreme as that done to children whose gaming parents let them starve. But each of us has been given particular talents and resources which are not to be hidden under a bushel, buried in the ground, or sunk into a virtual world – we are meant to use them to build the Kingdom of God, which is already here (Luke 10:9), within us (Luke 17:21).

Living in reality does not come with the instant gratification and manufactured dopamine hits of virtual worlds. It usually involves suffering, annoyance and disappointment. However, it also comes with beautiful surprises, profound joy, the satisfaction of comforting or edifying others and being edified in return, and unexpected blessings. It also comes with a deeper consciousness of the presence of God in our lives and the lives of those around us.

This Lent, let us seek for more ways to serve others in real life, and seek God’s Face in reality.

Communities that are great, that are living, never function with perfect smoothness and consistency. When we seek something that runs with the smoothness and precision of a well-oiled machine, we get precisely that — a machine, not a living community. A church that functions perfectly will not be great and living; it will be small and dead.
– Fr. Michael J. Himes

My life is but an instant, a passing hour. My life is but a day that escapes and flies away. O, my God, you know that to love You on earth I only have today!
– St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Image: Wikicommons/PD-US

Good Works: Why We Do Them

St. Elizabeth of Hungary
St. Elizabeth of Hungary

O my God, I am heartily sorry that I have sinned against Thee. I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend Thee my God, Who art all good and deserving of my love.
I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.

—Act of Contrition

It is the Bountiful and Generous God Who has conferred to us the honor of worshiping His Being and of spreading His religion and its many sciences, so let us endear this service to our hearts.
His Greatness and honor deserves our worship, and true worship resides in sincere devotion to Him alone and in constant remembrance of Him. Indeed, the whole purpose of worship is but to apprehend the reality of the unity of the Divine Principle. So do not act ‘for fear of hell’ or ‘for the sake of heaven.’
Diary of a Turkish soldier, Refik Bey, who fought at Gallipoli, 1916.

Take heed that you do not your justice before men, to be seen by them: otherwise you shall not have a reward of your Father who is in heaven.
—Matthew 6:1

An agnostic housemate of mine, who regularly donates blood and volunteers at a legal clinic, said to me, “Isn’t it better for someone to do good things because it’s right, than because he wants to gain favor with God?”

Reflecting upon what he said, I thought of two points:

Firstly, there is a false dichotomy in the query. Certainly, it may seem self-serving for a Christian to want to gain favor with God. But God judges our hearts—it is selfless love that truly conforms us to Him. The more you perform good actions, the more habituated to good you become, and thus the more Godlike, since God is All-good. Heaven is the Beatific Vision, being intimately united with Infinite Goodness. Goodness is thus its own reward. We do not hope for extrinsic rewards like praise or pleasures, although limited and metaphorical human language may make it seem that way. Rather, we become more fully human, more fully ourselves, and more fully like God, the more we do good works—and this enables us to live in the Presence of Goodness forever.

Sin is a corruption of, or detraction from, goodness. Hell is the complete lack of goodness, life, and love. It is the annihilation of everything for which we are made. That is why we fear Hell—because it is eternal separation from our fulfillment, the ground of our being.

Secondly, how do we know what is good? By what standard do we measure goodness? Why should we treat each other well, even sacrificing our own blood, time and resources for complete strangers, and how do we know what constitutes right behavior? What are the grounds of intrinsic human dignity? Why is a drowning stranger more important than your drowning pet?

Simple: if every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and God is Love, then we are all made in the image and likeness of Love. To love is to will the good of another (CCC 1766). God is the Divine Eternal Act of Love. A Spanish Dominican priest in Singapore once described God as a fountain, the wellspring of Life, the dynamic Creator Who holds everything in being and attracts all things towards their ultimate end or telos, Himself, Love.

Now you might be wondering what things like rocks, grass, and volcanoes have to do with Love, especially when there are natural disasters like the earthquake that flattened Norcia anew.

Well, Creation has been out of joint since the Fall. Still, we can read of the Love and Goodness of God in the Book of Nature. The delightful delicacy of a teeny-tiny tendril of moss, the magnificent thunder of a waterfall, the graceful arc of a rainbow all testify to the gloriousness of Love, for Love alone is creative. Love alone creates goodness and beauty in everything.

So: we do good works, because it is right to do so, in accordance with true human nature; this is pleasing to God, Who created us for Good. The etymology of “good” traces its origin to a Proto-Germanic word meaning “fit, adequate, belonging together”. When we do good—with prevenient grace from God, Who alone enables us to do any good—we become good; and when we are good, as befits our nature, we belong with God.

The heart is perverse above all things, and unsearchable, who can know it?
I am the Lord Who search the heart and examine the mind,
to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.
—Jeremiah 17:9-10

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
—Romans 2:14-15

For the invisible things of Him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; His eternal power also, and divinity…
—Romans 1:20

In a pluralistic culture like ours, Christians are often led to ponder John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” How do you interpret it?

William T. Cavanaugh: There is a lot that could be said about this verse. The first thing I think of is a quote from St. Catherine of Siena: “All the way to heaven is heaven, because He said I am the way.”’ Catherine talks about Christ as the bridge between heaven and earth, divinity and humanity. The bridge between heaven and earth is already heaven, because it is Christ.

I love this quote because it breaks down the dichotomy between means and ends. The Christian life is not a means to heaven. War is not a means to peace, freedom is not a prerequisite for following Christ. The Christian life is about practicing heaven now, on earth, even if it gets you killed. It’s not about making our way to Christ in some far-off eschaton; Christ is the way.

Also see: Kathryn Jean Lopez, “O God, We Love Thee”.

Lent in the Year of Mercy

While it seems like we just put away the Christmas decorations, the season of Lent is upon us. Because Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, Easter is a little early this year. As someone who prefers to get the harder things out of the way as soon as possible (like eating my salads and vegetables first so I can enjoy the meat and potatoes), it seems like an early Lent is a Merciful Lent.

However, I am not hoping to be Merciful just to myself this Lent, but also to others. It seems fitting to seek this out during the Lenten season in the Year of Mercy. My desire to be more merciful this Lent is also inspired by the teachings of St. John Paul II on Mercy, particularly found in his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (DM).

In his second encyclical as Pope, St. John Paul II writes, “mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man” (DM, 6). This means that we are merciful when we respond to evil with good. We see this lesson first taught by Jesus as He tells us to turn the other cheek and shows us the application of this by bringing humanity eternal life from His Death. At the end of each Lent we celebrate this gift in particular by meditating on the evil brought upon the Son of God during Holy Week, and then the good He brings out of this evil through His resurrection on Easter Sunday.

God has shown us His Mercy. He has brought the greatest good from the greatest evil. In our Christian life, we must strive to imitate God and love like He loves and “be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).  It’s good to note that we cannot do evil to bring about good, but in the face of the evil that we experience we must only respond with good.

Ideas for the Lent of Mercy

My first thought is really already covered by the tradition of Lent, and so is more of a continuation of what has always been done, and that is offering sacrifices and sufferings up as penance for the forgiveness of sins. This truth of Redemptive Suffering allows us to make up for the wrongs we have done as we rejoice in our sufferings, and in our flesh “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). We are able to do penance for our sins and the sins of others and, in a way, participate in the Mercy of God. This could include offering up every suffering as a sacrifice throughout your day. Some ideas could be:

  • Getting up at the first alarm and offering it for someone you know who is struggling
  • Saying yes to anything (reasonable) others ask of you and offering it up for them
  • Letting people in front of you in traffic and praying for them at the same time
  • Take cold showers and offer it up for friends and family
  • Put a pebble in your shoe and offer it up for priests and religious
  • When you have the choice, pick foods you want the least and offer this up for those who are spiritually poor
  • Go on a spending freeze. Practice the spirit of poverty by not buying anything that is not absolutely essential
  • Maintain silence. This can include not turning on the radio and not always speaking freely your thoughts and opinions. Practice the virtue of silence and grow in your ability to really listen to others
  • Fast on bread and water on certain days to master your will

The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy taught by the Church show us many ways to bring good from the bad. We could make it a goal to intentionally seek ways to practice these works this Lent. This will include:

Corporal Works of Mercy-

1) Feed the hungry

2) Give drink to the thirsty

3) Clothe the naked

4) Shelter the homeless

5) Visit the sick

6) Visit the imprisoned

7) Bury the dead

Spiritual Works of Mercy-

1) Counsel the doubtful

2) Instruct the ignorant

3) Admonish sinners

4) Comfort the afflicted

5) Forgive offenses

6) Bear wrongs patiently

7) Pray for the living and the dead

Be Merciful to Jesus

Finally, we can be merciful to Jesus this Lent. St. John Paul II explains, “Christ, precisely as the crucified one, is the Word that does not pass away, and He is the one who stands at the door and knocks at the heart of every man, without restricting his freedom, but instead seeking to draw from this very freedom love, which is not only an act of solidarity with the suffering Son of man, but also a kind of ‘mercy’ shown by each one of us to the Son of the eternal Father” (DM, 8). We show Christ mercy by loving Him. We can love him through seeking to nourish our relationship with Him and by avoiding sins that hurt our relationship with Him.

I imagine we can come up with a plethora of ideas, but here are a few to help:

-Daily Rosary

-Time in Adoration (either exposed on the altar or reposed in the tabernacle)

-Daily reading of Scripture

-The Stations of the Cross

-Frequenting the Sacraments

-Consecration to Jesus through Mary by the St. Louis de Montfort method.

Mary can lead us to Mercy

In this last idea for Lent we see a special link to the school of Mercy conducted by Mary, the Mother of Mercy, who watched her Son carry out His Great Act of Mercy. “ Mary, then, is the one who has the deepest knowledge of the mystery of God’s mercy. She knows its price, she knows how great it is” (DM, 9). St. John Paul II teaches that Mary’s own sacrifice of her heart is deeply linked to this act of her Son and that she is the “one who, through her hidden and at the same time incomparable sharing in the messianic mission of her Son, was called in a special way to bring close to people that love which He had come to reveal” (DM, 9). Therefore, growing closer to Mary this Lent means to grow closer to Mercy and a great way to start this growth is to speak to Mary as you would anyone else.

I hope these ideas can help you in your own Spiritual Journey toward Mercy this year. It would be nice to hear of any more ideas others have to share to help us all be rich in Mercy. Please comment below if you can think of anything.

An Old Saint on a New Acquaintance

Some of us Catholics count our “Catholic credentials” by our knowledge of obscure catholic words; some of us by how many bishops we can name; but most of us use our knowledge of the saints as the absolute litmus test. For me, memories of All Saints Day parties surface each November, and the endless quest to stump our saintly parish priest. My failure to stump him each year, was usually highlighted by another peer actually succeeding, and putting the pressure on all of us to raise the bar the following November. This fun practice taught us much about the saints, from little known martyrs, to the new and very recent.

This past October, I had the opportunity to meet an old saint for the first time – Saint Joseph Cottolengo, or, “Giuseppe Cottolengo. When visiting his hometown of Turin Italy, and following in the footsteps of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, we encountered St. Joseph Cottolengo. From the sprawling hospital complex, and the number of religious sisters, it was apparent this saint’s work continues on in full force today. But who is he? How is it possible that I missed him all of these years?

From Catholic Online, a little bit about him:

“Saint Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo or Saint Joseph Benedict Cottolengo (3 May 1786 – 30 April 1842) was the founder of the Little House of Divine Providence and is a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

He was born in Bra, then in the Kingdom of Sardinia, and became a canon in Turin. Don Cottolengo founded the “Little House of the Divine Providence” in Valdocco, wherein he housed all kinds of poor people. He also founded monasteries, convents, communities of priests, communities of brothers, and organized groups of lay volunteers. His colossal of charity stands today at the heart of Turin city as sign of what it means to love and serve others in evangelical way.

Today Cottolengo Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers still work together in activities primarily geared at communicating God’s love for the poorest. They are spread out all over the world: Ecuador, India, Italy,Kenya, Switzerland, Tanzania and United States.

Don Cottolengo died in Chieri, Piedmont on 30 April 1842. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934, and his feast day is celebrated on 30 April.”

I had completely missed the fact that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI mentions this saint in his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est. He notes that, “Giuseppe B. Cottolengo, John Bosco, Teresa of Calcutta to name but a few—stand out as lasting models of social charity for all people of good will. The saints are the true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope and love.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also spoke glowingly of Saint Cottolengo when his visited the Little House of Divine Providence in May of 2010. He says he, “Always kept his serene trust in the face of events; attentive to perceiving the signs of God’s fatherhood, he recognized his presence and his mercy in every situation and, in the poor, the most lovable image of his greatness. He was guided by a deep conviction: “The poor are Jesus” he used to say, “they are not just an image of him.”

The Sisters of Cottolengo at prayer. Photo by Rachel Zamarron
The Sisters of Cottolengo at prayer. Photo by Rachel Zamarron

Charity and Mercy live on today in the work of St. Joseph Cottolengo.  Today, the place is still a buzz of activity and prayer. It was struck, by how many people are still touched by the humble work and prayer of this servant of God so many years later. What a beautiful witness to hold up to imitate during this year of Mercy. May Saint Joseph Cottolengo pray for us, and touch our hearts to be merciful today as Our Lord Jesus is merciful.

Sharing the Treasures of Humanity with the Poor

Spiral Staircase at the Vatican Museums © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons
Spiral Staircase at the Vatican Museums © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Last Thursday, March 26, 2015, the Vatican organized an exclusive tour of the Vatican museums for 150 homeless people in Rome. During the tour, the Pope himself welcomed the guests, telling them, “This is everyone’s house and your house. The doors are always open for all.”

Catholic News Services interviewed one of the guests, an Italian-speaking man named Mauro, about the experience:

Mauro, who speaks Italian and serves a spokesman for a group of Poles who sleep near the Vatican press office, told Catholic News Service March 27 that his favorite part of the Vatican Museums was the vintage carriage and car collection.

“I’m passionate about cars and what they have is great,” he said. “I had my picture taken there.”

Mauro said he and his friends always see long lines of tourists waiting to get into the museums, so it was great to see what all the fuss was about. And they didn’t even have to wait in line or deal with a crowd; “it was just us,” he said.

“It’s spectacular,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

Taking the homeless on an exclusive tour of the Vatican museums is not the first idea thought of as a way to help them. In fact, the Church’s critics occasionally challenge her to sell all her cultural and artistic treasures and sell the proceeds to the poor to prove that she cares about them.

This line of thinking suffers one flaw, among many others: it forgets that the Church holds these treasures not for herself, but in trust for the rest of humanity including the poor. It forgets that the poor themselves would be even more impoverished if the Church would lose these treasures.

The poor crave not only for food, shelter, clothing, and medical care. The worst effect of poverty is not hunger, homelessness, or disease; it is the sense of being excluded from the human race. The poor long to be part of humanity, to partake of knowledge, culture, and beauty. They are not just animals to be kept healthy. They are persons capable of appreciating Michelangelo’s frescoes and who have unique interests like vintage carriages and cars.

It would be absurd to expect a dose of high culture to stave off the poor’s hunger pangs. Of course, their bodily needs should not be ignored. (In fact, dinner was served to the homeless guests of the Vatican museums after the tour.) However, the tendency to the opposite extreme must also be avoided, that of forgetting that they do not live on bread alone.

We often ask ourselves what can we share with the poor if we do not have much money. Learning, access to culture, enough cash for a ticket, a bit of time perhaps to read to a sick person or to accompany someone to a museum or a nice movie – these too can be shared. By reminding the poor (and ourselves) that they, too, own the treasures of all humanity, we remind them and ourselves that they, too, are part of the human race and are therefore also children of God.

Works of Mercy Part VIII–Bury the Dead and Pray for the Living and the Dead

This is part VIII of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, part IIIpart IV, part Vpart VI, and part VII first.

Bury the Dead and Pray for the Living and the Dead
Burying the dead is the only of the Corporal Works of mercy not named in the parable of the sheep and the goats. It comes from the book of Tobit: “If I saw any of my nation dead, or cast around the walls of Nineveh, I buried him” (Tobit 1:17).

On a glance, this work looks to be the strangest and perhaps least merciful of the the seven corporal works of mercy. What benefit is it to a dead man how his remains are interred? We recognize that during the general resurrection, the body will be restored and reunited to the soul whole and entire. The Church taught this unequivocally in one of her ecumenical councils, stating, “We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess,” and the teaching has been a part of our Faith since the Church’s beginning [1]. In other words, our resurrected bodies may be renewed and glorified, but they are not otherwise “new” bodies, but are in fact our “old” bodies, the ones we have in this life.

Therefore, a proper burial has no particular effect on the resurrected body, nor does cremation (etc.). “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19) is a statement of fact, yet not one which nullifies the possibility of being re-formed and resurrected from the dust on the Last Day. What does burying the dead accomplish as an act of mercy, then?

For one thing, this work is in fact arguably the most practical of the works of mercy:

The last of the corporal works of mercy is, on some level, the most logical of them. There is little direct tangible benefit towards visiting a prisoner or welcoming a stranger. But dead bodies smell bad after a couple days, rotting and spreading disease. It only makes sense to get corpses into the ground and out of the way as soon as possible.

But this corporal work of mercy is not only logical; it is merciful as well. For we could just dump bodies in the ground, and solve our problem of disease control with far less pomp and ceremony.

But burying the dead is an act of honor, symbolizing the return of a Christian’s temple of the Holy Spirit to God. Through Christian burial, we celebrate the life of an individual and his (presumed) return to God.

So there are three ways (at least) that burying the dead is a work of mercy, in that there are three sets of people to whom it is merciful:

  1. The community as a whole benefits, in that there are not rotting, stinking, and disease-festering corpses piled up.
  2. The beloved of the deceased, in that the memory of the man and his life are laid to rest and the bereaved are given a sense of closure and a chance to say final farewells.
  3. The deceased himself, and to some extent God, in that the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit in this life, and in that it is the matter of which the soul is the form. Moreover, the man’s memory is honored among the living.

If burying a man’s body honors his life, praying for his souls actually aides him, both in this life and (assuming that he passes through purgatory) in the next. In the second book of Maccabees, we read that after a particular battle during the Maccabeen revolution, after several of the Jews, it was discovered that they had fallen into idol worship. Judas Maccabeas orders that the living should pray for (and make sacrifices on behalf of) the dead:

“On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (Maccabees 12:39-45).

So the Bible rather clearly teaches that prayers for the dead are good and holy works [2], and by implication that they are efficacious. But the dead are not the only ones we should pray for. We must also pray for the living (which includes ourselves, incidentally). “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Recall that the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). If we believe the words for Jesus, both concerning this commandment and concerning the efficacy of prayer, then it follows that we should pray for ourselves and for one another. We should ask for the big things, but also the seemingly little things. If I cannot do any of the other works of mercy, I can at the least do this one, I can pray that the sick will be healed, the hungry fed, and the naked clothed; or that the afflicted be given comfort and the ignorant instruction (which leads from knowledge to love) and that the sinner will repent.

Concerning at least the spiritual works of mercy, though the action be undertaken by my fellow men, the results must ultimately be brought about by God, at least in that His grace is a necessary cause of the effects. The admonished sinner must choose between repentance and umbrage, but God’s grace enable him to make that choice; the ignorant man must choose between docility and impertinent boorishness, but again God’s grace underlies that choice. Prayer is thus to this extent the most important of all the works of mercy, even if it must also at times be accompanied by action.

[1] Saint Thomas Aquinas even addresses several seemingly difficult objections to the resurrection of the body in his Summa Contra Gentiles. Saint Augustine does the same 8 centuries earlier in his City of God. The relevant passages from Saint Thomas’ Summa Contra Gentiles are quoted here.

[2] Indeed, it is passages like this one which caused Martin Luther to several the 7 Deuterocannonicals from his canon. It’s difficult to make a break from the Church on the pretext of wanting to do away with the concept of purgatory and prayers for the dead when the Bible rather clearly backs these doctrines and practices.

The Works of Mercy Part VII–Ransom Captives and Admonish Sinners

This is part VII of a series on works of mercy which I have written for Lent. You can read part Ipart II, part IIIpart IV, part V, and part VI first.

Ransom Captives and Admonish Sinners
Ransoming captives may seem the strangest, the least necessary of the works of mercy today. Oh, it was surely necessary historically (and Christ does specifically mention it in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats). There are indeed two different religious orders which were established to do this work historically. Both the Trinitarians and the Order of Our Lady of Ransom specifically had as their mission the rescuing of Christian captives from the hands of the infidels (which largely meant, Muhammedans). Members of the Order of Our Lady of Ransom took a fourth vow, which was to substitute themselves for other captives held be infidels, thereby ransoming those captives by becoming themselves captives: a very Christ-like approach to the problem of captivity.

But how can we do this particular work of mercy today? Hostage situations seem more a problem for the FBI and the police than for the average citizen. POWs are traded between warring governments, and the occasional ship taken by pirates is more likely to be rescued by SEALs than by concerned Samaritans.

Sometimes this work of mercy is interpreted as the simpler “visit the imprisoned,” and that is indeed a part of this work. Not all captives can be ransomed, nor really should all prisoners be set free: there is often a good reason why they are imprisoned, and letting them free is neither merciful to their victims nor to their own souls. But in the US at least, virtually any prisoner can receive visitors, and many of them greatly appreciate the visits. Many parishes run some sort of prison ministry, which might involve Bible studies or even Communion services, both of which can be invaluable to any prisoner. It may be too late for the hardened criminal to walk free under the sun or stars, but there is yet time for him to repent so that he finds himself in Paradise rather than perdition after his death [1].

Captivity goes beyond the bars of a prison or the demands of a hostage situation. Saint Thomas Aquinas notes that sickness refers to distress due to an “internal cause” (e.g. lack of health, but any internal cause of distress), and captivity is distress due to an “external cause” (e.g. imprisonment, but any other external cause of distress):

“If the need be special, it is either the result of an internal cause, like sickness, and then we have ‘to visit the sick,’ or it results from an external cause, and then we have ‘to ransom the captive.’…All other needs are reduced to these, for blindness and lameness are kinds of sickness, so that to lead the blind, and to support the lame, come to the same as visiting the sick. On like manner to assist a man against any distress that is due to an extrinsic cause comes to the same as the ransom of captives” (Summa Theologica II-II.32.2 Answer and Reply 2).

Therefore, ransoming captives includes many works of mercy beyond visiting the imprisoned and freeing hostages. The fireman who pulls a woman from a burning building is ransoming the captive, as is the teacher who breaks up a fight in the schoolyard.

A more serious problem in our society is sex-trafficking. The USCCB (council of US bishops) has a program which attempts to fight sex trafficking, which is the modern day equivalent of slavery. The American abolitionist historically worked to ransom the captive by freeing slaves, and now their successors work against the modern slaves, those victims of human trafficking.

There are worse situations against which the Church has been leading the fight. Abortion, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, parental surrogacy, artificial insemination (arguably) and in vitro fertilization (definitely) are all forms of captivity. Many of of them—embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization (in practice at least), and abortion—result in the death (often very painful) of the captive, in this case a tiny human being in the earliest stages of his development. Ransoming the captive here aims to put a stop to these evil practices, and where possible to save the lives of their victims. Abortion destroys at least two lives—the child’s and the mother’s—and rescuing a woman and her child from abortion most certainly is a form of ransoming the captive which can be engaged in directly or indirectly (by prayer) by us as lay Catholics.

Moreover, certain sins, especially those pertaining to addictions, require the presence and availability of the thing to which a person is addicted. Thus, an alcoholic sins when he over-imbibes. Whereas his addiction to alcohol is a sort of sickness, the actual presence of alcohol to tempt him is a sort of captivity, and so to remove this temptation is a sort of ransoming. Thus, another form of ransoming the captive is to remove external aides to sin, such as alcohol from an alcoholic, drugs from a drug addict, or weapons from a man who might be tempted to murder.

While we are removing those external aids to sin, we might go a step further and consider the internal ones. If there are many people who are put in external danger, bodily damage, corporal captivity, then it is also true that all of us face a greater internal threat from sin. We are all to some extent enslaved, ensnared, and beshackled by sin. Thus, a fitting spiritual compliment to the corporal work of mercy ransoming captives would be ransoming sinners. However, we cannot ransom sinners and remove them from their captivity in sin: that’s a thing that only God can do. However, we can do a slightly less glamorous task which may be the first step in this process, which is the spiritual work of mercy of admonishing the sinner.

In the book of Ezekiel, we read

“You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.” (Ezekiel 33:7-9).

This is addressed by God to His prophet, meaning ultimately to all His prophets. This includes us, since we are also prophets by our baptisms. According to our Lord, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” John was the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets (and among the first of the New), yet those who will be part of the Kingdom of God are greater still.

Since we are all called to be prophets by our baptisms, we are also called to take up the mantle of the prophets as “watchmen” against sin. Therefore, we are in fact called to admonish sinners. It does not seem that this was ever an “easy” task, in that admonishing sinners always carries with it a certain risk. In past ages where sin was taken more seriously, admonishing a particularly powerful sinner might bring with it certain social consequences, and worse. Nobody likes to be reminded that he is a sinner; the more humble accept the correction without bitterness; the more haughty see the rebuke as a personal attack and look to exact revenge.

That is still true today [2]. Admonishing the sinner still carries a number of social (and physical, for that matter) risks, whether the sinner is a powerful stranger or a close friend. Try telling one of your “gay” friends that homosexual acts are immoral (as per Catholic moral teaching and the Natural Law tradition), and you will see how strong the friendship is [3]. Ditto for your “straight,” Christian friends who are divorced and remarried.

However, there is an added twist in today’s society. There is a Bible verse which has been twisted and then placed on the lips of the collective culture, and used as a bludgeon against the work of admonishing sinners. After all, we read in both the Gospel of St Matthew (7:1-5) and the Gospel of St Luke (6:37-42) Christ’s own words: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Even the Gospel of St Mark echoes this point, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more” (Mark 4:24).

So we are warned sternly against judging others.

However, these passages have been twisted from their intent. For one thing, we are being told not to judge falsely (hence Christ’s use of the word “hypocrite” [4]). We are not to condemn others, either, and this is what judging as Christ uses it here boiled down to. We do not know the inner movements of the hearts or the inner thoughts of the minds of others: we cannot gaze into each others’ souls to see fully our motives, struggles, desires, thoughts, beliefs, etc.

We can, however, see actions, and call them what they are. Therefore, we cannot judge a person—this is the real warning which Christ is giving here—and call ourselves better than him for not committing all of his sins. For that matter, we can’t call ourselves worse simply because he does not seem to commit all of ours. What we can do, and what this work of mercy requires of us, is to call a sin a sin. This can be done publicly where the sin is public (what we sometimes call a “scandal” [5]); it can be done generally where the sin is widespread (e.g. abortion, contraception, usury, pornography, etc.). But in its most potent (and most merciful) form it is done tactfully, privately, and done with the intention to helping the other person to give up his sin.

Lest we get hung up on the “judge not” passage, Christ also tells us about fraternal correction, and admonishes us to use it rather than pretending that the sin does not exist and that it causes no harm:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

Admonishing the sinner is in fact a work of mercy, and one which Christ Himself enjoins us to do. We are to do it tactfully, lovingly, without boasting, and without condemning. That is a tall order, but it is a far cry different from not doing this at all. When we do not admonish the sinner, we risk losing our own souls, whatever else may be the outcome.


Continue to Part VIII.

[1] Saint Dismas, often known as “the good thief,” is an excellent example of this.

[2] Mary Stachowicz is a name we may hear more often in the future. She died a martyr for the Faith, murdered by a homosexual man for telling him that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful.

[3] Not to mention that we have created a socio-political-economic climate in which the wrong remarks about the wrong classes of people can lead to losing one’s job. Personal conversations and private actions increasingly have public consequences, usually not for the better.

[4] Hypocrite means something very different in the Gospels than its common use today. Now it merely means not practicing what one preaches. This is not at all the meaning of the words as used by Jesus, since it would make anybody who preached a consistent moral code into a hypocrite. Since He tells us that we must “be perfect” (Matthew 5:48), if we merely echo His own words we would be hypocrites by today’s (mis-) use of the word.

The word then meant something akin to wearing a mask, putting on a false show like an actor. It would mean, in other words, that we ourselves do not believe in the moral standard which we are preaching, that we don’t hold ourselves to the moral standard to which we hold everyone else. We have one (easy) moral standard for ourselves, and another (harder) one for everyone else. “Hypocrisy” is, in other words, more rightly translated by the phrase “double standard,” and so “judging” means holding others to this double standard to which we do not hold ourselves. God is not fooled, and if we do this, then we will ultimately be held to the higher/harder standard by God.

[5] Another words whose meaning has changed. “Scandal” once meant something—an action, some words, etc—which caused others to lose their faith or to doubt. As Christ Himself says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).