We, like many others, were surprised when Pope Francis declared a Year of Jubilee to begin on December 8 this fall. We were especially surprised and moved when he revealed that the theme of the Jubilee Year would be mercy.
In the ancient tradition of a Year of Jubilee, slaves and prisoners were to be freed, debts would be forgiven, land and possessions would be returned to their owners, and the mercies of God would be particularly manifest (Lev. 25:8-13). Would this be the case for the newly announced Jubilee Year?
We awaited the document to outline the celebration and meaning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy with eager anticipation, knowing of Pope Francis’ emphasis on the mercy of God. We wondered if it would not only emphasize the mercy of God, but also mention the corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy which have been so much at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement.
The new document, Misericordiae Vultus did not disappoint. Reading it provides a jolt to the reader and will also jolt the Church if taken to heart. The Holy Father states it clearly: “This is an opportune moment to change our lives.”
The document may well turn out to be one of those life-changing documents which jolt the Church and its members into becoming more radical followers of the Gospel.
The first sentences set the theme: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth…”
Pope Francis asks us to contemplate the mystery of mercy, insisting that our salvation depends on it. He is giving us this year to “gaze even more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the Father’s action in our lives.”
He calls the mercy of God the beating heart of the Gospel, and insists that in its own way it must penetrate the heart and mind of every person.
The date of December 8, 2015, was chosen for the beginning of the Jubilee Year because it will be the fiftieth anniversary of the closing of Second Vatican Council. The Pontiff quotes the words of St John XXIII setting the tone as he opened the Council: “Now the Bride of Christ wishes to use the medicine of mercy rather than taking up arms of severity.”
Lest mercy be misunderstood as only for bleeding heart liberals, Francis reminds us of the ancient tradition of understanding mercy as a manifestation of the power of God. He quotes Thomas Aquinas: “‘It is proper to God to exercise mercy, and he manifests his omnipotence particularly in this way.’ Saint Thomas Aquinas’ words show that God’s mercy, rather than a sign of weakness, is the mark of his omnipotence.” And one of the oldest prayers of the Church relates mercy to God’s power: “For this reason the liturgy, in one of its most ancient collects, has us pray: ‘O God, who reveal your power above all in your mercy and forgiveness…’”
Would We Find Matthew 25?
As we continued to read the document, hoping to see Matthew 25 and the corporal and spiritual Works of Mercy spelled out, we found them in number 15 where Pope Francis’ speaks of his burning desire for the Jubilee Year:
“It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples.
“Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. And let us not forget the spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offences, bear patiently those who do us ill, and pray for the living and the dead.”
Reminding us of our Last Judgment, Francis emphasizes the practical corporal Works of Mercy, but also spells out what the spiritual Works mean on a practical level:
“We cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-45).
“Moreover, we will be asked if we have helped others to escape the doubt that causes them to fall into despair and which is often a source of loneliness; if we have helped to overcome the ignorance in which millions of people live, especially children deprived of the necessary means to free them from the bonds of poverty; if we have been close to the lonely and afflicted; if we have forgiven those who have offended us and have rejected all forms of anger and hate that lead to violence; if we have had the kind of patience God shows, who is so patient with us; and if we have commended our brothers and sisters to the Lord in prayer. In each of these ‘little ones,’ Christ himself is present. His flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled … to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us.”
We rejoiced to see again this affirmation of the great tradition of the Church that informed and inspired the Catholic Worker from its inception.
Dorothy Day spent her life putting flesh on the bones of Matthew 25. If there ever was a mission statement of the CW movement, this was it.
Dorothy’s writings reminded us that through the great mystery of the Incarnation, persons in every generation are able to respond to Christ himself in the poor. As she put it, “He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.”
Peter Maurin told Dorothy Day (and everyone else) about the early Church and how the Christians performed the Works of Mercy at a personal sacrifice, in self-giving love. He wrote more than one of his Easy Essays on the subject. Here is one of the best known:
At a Sacrifice
by Peter Maurin
In the first centuries
the hungry were fed
at a personal sacrifice,
the naked were clothed
at a personal sacrifice,
the homeless were sheltered
at a personal sacrifice.
And because the poor
were fed, clothed and
at a personal sacrifice,
the pagans used to say
about the Christians,
“See how they love each
Peter saw that the practice of the Works of Mercy involved more than simply receiving the Lord in the poor, binding up wounds and the symbol of the washing of the feet, although these certainly were meant and were an incredible work and witness. He understood from the lives of the Saints that the practice could also be revolutionary, that living the Gospel was a unique method of changing the social order. As he put it, “The social order was constructed by the first Christians through the daily practice of the Seven Corporal and Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.”
Dorothy’s commitment to the corporal Works of Mercy in soup kitchens and Houses of Hospitality are well known. Less well known is her insistence on the spiritual Works of Mercy as well.
In the May 1947 CW Dorothy wrote that an important part of Peter’s program was “to reach the masses through the spiritual and corporal Works of Mercy.” She pointed out that when we talk of the Works of Mercy, we usually think of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sheltering the homeless. She said that “Getting Catholic literature around” also includes quite of the few of the tasks involved in the spiritual Works of Mercy, such as enlightening the ignorant and counseling the doubtful, comforting the afflicted, rebuking the sinner, and even walking on a picket line. Dorothy quoted St. Paul to support the Catholic Worker’s broader under-standing of the practicality of the Works of Mercy, even including boycotts as a method to bring about good ends.
The spiritual Works of Mercy of picketing and putting out a newspaper often brought the Catholic Workers into conflict with the dominant culture. Their involvement in the world and its problems where others might fear to tread came from the perspective of God as a consuming fire, the fire of love. In her November 1955 Fall Appeal Dorothy described their love of God also in these terms:
“The love of brother, that care for his freedom is what causes us to go into such controversial subjects as man and the state, war and peace. The implications of the Gospel teaching of the Works of Mercy, lead us into conflict with the powers of this world.
“Our love of God is a consuming fire. It is a living God and a living faith that we are trying to express. When we begin to take the lowest place, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion, which led to the Cross, then we can truly say, “‘Now I have begun.’”
The Catholic Workers were not always praised for their work with the poor, their practice of the Works of Mercy. The possibility that this practice could change the whole social order was missed by many.
Some observers of the movement criticized Catholic Workers for helping the “undeserving” poor and demanded that Workers discriminate more scru-pulously between those who merited help and those who might be lazy parasites and cheats. Dorothy answered in the March 1947 CW that Christ loved all the poor, and that the social order should be changed so that not so many suffered: “It is indeed hard to see Christ in the undeserving poor. We admit that there will always be the poor, the wastrel, the drunk, the sinner. But Christ came to save them. He loved them. We just insist that there do not need to be so many of them, the degraded, the twisted, the warped, the miserable ones, employed and unemployed.”
They knew, and Dorothy wrote in The Catholic Worker, that the poor, as individuals, are often far from perfect. Dorothy recounted how sometimes she became discouraged with all the practical problems in Houses of Hospitality and how Peter would remind her of the importance of love for the poor:
“Very often in the course of our meetings I had complaints to make, discouragements to pour out. Peter would look at me with calm affection and in a few words speak of the principles involved, reminding me of the Works of Mercy and our role as servants who had to endure humbly and serve faithfully.
“He liked to talk of St. Vincent de Paul. When the film Monsieur Vincent came out, we all went to see it. The last lines of the saint to the young peasant sister were words we can never forget: ‘You must love them very much,’ Monsieur Vincent said of the poor, ‘to make them forgive the bread you give them.’”
In his document Pope Francis features the parables from the Gospels as examples of the incredible mercy of God, placing outreach to those on the margins of society at the center of the Jubilee Year. He asks us to look into our hearts and respond:
“In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! How many are the wounds borne by the flesh of those who have no voice because their cry is muffled and drowned out by the indifference of the rich! During this Jubilee, the Church will be called even more to heal these wounds, to assuage them with the oil of consolation, to bind them with mercy and cure them with solidarity and vigilant care. Let us not fall into humiliating indifference or a monotonous routine that prevents us from discovering what is new! Let us ward off destructive cynicism! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!” (15)
Pope Francis speaks to confessors, asking them to provide mercy, not condemnation. He is also speaking to ordinary Catholics, to those in the movements, to the local churches not only for the upcoming year, but for the Christian life:
“The Church’s first truth is the love of Christ… wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident. In our parishes, communities, associations and movements, in a word, wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.”
Putting the theme of mercy in perspective, Francis quotes from St. John of the Cross what Dorothy Day also cited many times: “Let us not forget the words of Saint John of the Cross: ‘as we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love.’”
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV No. 3, June-August 2015.