Father James Chelich – March 2008
Sometimes we forget to ask the most fundamental questions first. Why does the Church exist? Be it a Parish Church, Diocesan Church or the Universal Church, it exists for one reason: to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus said:
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations.
Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Teach them to carry out everything I have commanded you.
And know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!
What is the task of a Christian? There is only one answer: to witness to Jesus,
to announce His presence and make known that His healing power is available to all. Jesus said:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes down on you;
then you are to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea
and Samaria, yes even to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8
And the apostles testified:
This is the Jesus God has raised up, and we are his witnesses! Acts 2:32
The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
To Feed the Hungry, To Give Drink to the Thirsty,
To Shelter the Homeless, To Clothe the Naked,
To Visit the Sick, To Visit the Imprisoned, To Bury the Dead
To Pray for the Living and the Dead, To Comfort the Afflicted,
To Forgive Offenses, To Bear Wrongs Patiently,
To Counsel the Sinner, To Encourage the Doubtful,
To Teach the Uninformed
Why does the Church do these works of mercy? Why do we, as members of the Church, do them? They are good to do, but that is not why we do them. They are just, but that is not why we do them. They are helpful to others, but that is not why we do them. We do them because they are His works! They are the works of the risen Jesus who is present with us, and who lives among us for the salvation and healing of all! Above all else a Christian and the Church preserves a living awareness of this. Our worship at Mass reminds us that we are members of his body – flesh of his flesh, and blood of his blood. If we are his body, then his body does what He does and thereby reveals His real presence to all. Our explicit and conscious desire in doing the works of mercy and working for justice is to make Jesus known!
We don’t just do them because they are good to do, or just, or helpful to others because we do not believe that by doing them we can save anyone – ourselves, others or the world. The works of mercy, as good and just and helpful as they are, cannot rid the hearts of those we help of the bitterness, anger or resentment that in many cases brought them to their present circumstances. Nor can they displace from the hearts of those who used or abused others, the fear, greed and indifference that cause them to do so. Even in those who do the works of mercy and work for justice, the works themselves, as good and just and helpful as they are, cannot shield them from the bitterness, anger and resentment that easily grows in their hearts toward those who aren’t doing the good and just and helpful things they are. It is often these resentments that collect in the hearts of the “doers of the good,” that end up seeding new hostilities that grow into new evils of injustice and indifference. Of themselves, the works of mercy cannot even sustain the consistency with which they are done. People begin doing them when thy feel good and just and helpful, and have the time; and they stop doing them when they don’t. Or they do them for those toward whom they feel disposed to be good and just and helpful, but not for those toward whom they don’t feel so disposed. The works of mercy and justice are sadly often undone by the very people who do them. All this is simply to say that the helpers are as much in need of being saved as the helped.
For the world, a work of mercy is to do something good or just or helpful for others, and to leave the human heart unaddressed. For a Christian, the first act for Justice is to address the human heart – our own, and the first work of mercy is to enter into a living relationship with Jesus, a relationship in which we find healing and are restored to an integral wholeness (i.e., “holiness”).
Venerate the Lord, that is, Christ in your hearts.
And should anyone ask you the reason for this hope of yours
be ever ready to reply, speaking gently and respectfully. 1 Peter 15-16
We do the works of mercy and work for justice so that in doing them we may explicitly announce the presence and power of Christ who heals the minds and hearts, as well as the bodies of the helpers and the helped. We want the works to announce His presence and His power to heal. We want our doing them to announce His presence and His power to heal. And we want the works and our involvement in them to prompt people to ask us WHY we do them. At the heart of Social Justice is a readiness to give an answer that explicitly mentions Jesus: an answer that witnesses to the right order and peace that Jesus has brought to our personal lives, as well as the clarity and balance that He has brought to our way of viewing and engaging the world; an answer that makes it clear that Jesus is present and stands ready to restore purpose, hope and healing to them as well. Otherwise doing the works of mercy becomes a way to make ourselves feel good, just and helpful, and not a way to help our fellow human beings attain healing, become whole, and engage life fully.
The works of mercy are not a bribe to sucker people into to hearing a message.
The works are a seamless part of the message. There is a specifically Catholic way
of understanding this. First, we address the reality in own hearts and turn to Jesus in a living relationship to find healing. Then we “do” the works of mercy and the “doing of them” gives witnesses to the reality and presence of a Divine power at work for healing and good. Finally, when God prompts a person to ask why we “do what we do,” we are ready with more than a humanitarian answer – we are ready with an answer that explicitly witnessed to Jesus.
The ministry of Social Justice consists of:
1) awakening our consciences as members of the Body of Christ to what is just,
2) setting us into action doing what is just and advocating for what works for justice,
3) training us how to give explicit witness to the presence and power of Jesus to those who ask or who otherwise are crying out to know our reason for hope.
As Catholics we have and continue to grow significantly in awakening our consciences by teaching and preaching the Justice called for by the word of God and taught by the Church. The Church and Christians throughout history have long been active, in a multitude of ways, in doing the works of mercy. But we remain tentative and often incapable of articulating a spoken witness to Jesus, and this significantly weakens the effectiveness of our Social Justice efforts. A person doing the works of mercy who can effectively articulate her or his witness to Christ will long be doing them, will be doing them with increasing fruitfulness and with an absence of bitterness or rancor toward the world. In this way, the peace of the Kingdom will unfold in a fallen world to the praise of God and for the hope of all.