At the end of the Exercises, Saint Ignatius puts “contemplation to attain love”, which connects what is experienced in prayer to daily life. He makes us reflect on how love has to be put more into works than into words. Those works are the works of mercy which the Father “prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph 2:10), those which the Spirit inspires in each for the common good (cf. 1 Cor 12:7). In thanking the Lord for all the gifts we have received from his bounty, we ask for the grace to bring to all mankind that mercy which has been our own salvation.
I propose that we meditate on one of the final paragraphs of the Gospels. There, the Lord himself makes that connection between what we have received and what we are called to give. We can read these conclusions in the key of “works of mercy” which bring about the time of the Church, the time in which the risen Jesus lives, guides, sends forth and appeals to our freedom, which finds in him its concrete daily realization.
Matthew tells us that the Lord sends his Apostles to make disciples of all nations, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded” (28:20). This “instructing the ignorant” is itself one of the works of mercy. It spreads like light to the other works: to those listed in Matthew 25, which deal more with the so-called “corporal works of mercy”, and to all the commandments and evangelical counsels, such as “forgiving”, “fraternally correcting”, consoling the sorrowing, and enduring persecution…
Mark’s Gospel ends with the image of the Lord who “collaborates” with the Apostles and “confirms the word by the signs that accompany it”. Those “signs” greatly resemble the works of mercy. Mark speaks, among other things, of healing the sick and casting out demons (cf. 16:17-18).
Luke continues his Gospel with the “Acts” – praxeis — of the Apostles, relating the history of how they acted and the works they did, led by the Spirit.
John’s Gospel ends by referring to the “many other things” (21:25) or “signs” (20:30) which Jesus performed. The Lord’s actions, his works, are not mere deeds but signs by which, in a completely personal way, he shows his love and his mercy for each person.
We can contemplate the Lord who sends us on this mission, by using the image of the merciful Jesus as revealed to Sister Faustina. In that image we can see mercy as a single ray of light that comes from deep within God, passes through the heart of Christ, and emerges in a diversity of colours, each representing a work of mercy.
The works of mercy are endless, but each bears the stamp of a particular face, a personal history. They are much more than the lists of the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. Those lists are like the raw material – the material of life itself – that, worked and shaped by the hands of mercy, turns into an individual artistic creation. Each work multiplies like the bread in the baskets; each gives abundant growth like the mustard seed. For mercy is fruitful and inclusive.
We usually think of the works of mercy individually and in relation to a specific initiative: hospitals for the sick, soup kitchens for the hungry, shelters for the homeless, schools for those to be educated, the confessional and spiritual direction for those needing counsel and forgiveness… But if we look at the works of mercy as a whole, we see that the object of mercy is human life itself and everything it embraces. Life itself, as “flesh”, hungers and thirsts; it needs to be clothed, given shelter and visited, to say nothing of receiving a proper burial, something none of us, however rich, can do for ourselves. Even the wealthiest person, in death, becomes a pauper; there are no moving vans in a funeral cortege. Life itself, as “spirit”, needs to be educated, corrected, encouraged and consoled. We need others to counsel us, to forgive us, to put up with us and to pray for us. The family is where these works of mercy are practised in so normal and unpretentious a way that we don’t even realize it. Yet once a family with small children loses its mother, everything begins to fall apart. The cruellest and most relentless form of poverty is that of street children, without parents and prey to the vultures.
We have asked for the grace to be signs and instruments. Now we have to “act”, not only with gestures, but by projects and structures, by creating a culture of mercy. Once we begin, we sense immediately that the Spirit energizes and sustains these works. He does this by using the signs and instruments he wants, even if at times they do not appear to be the most suitable ones. It could even be said that, in order to carry out the works of mercy, the Spirit tends to choose the poorest, humblest and most insignificant instruments, those who themselves most need that first ray of divine mercy. They are the ones who can best be shaped and readied to serve most effectively and well. The joy of realizing that we are “useless servants” whom the Lord blesses with the fruitfulness of his grace, seats at his table and serves us the Eucharist, is a confirmation that we are engaged in his works of mercy.
Our faithful people are happy to congregate around works of mercy. In penitential and festive celebrations, and in educational and charitable activities, our people willingly come together and let themselves be shepherded in ways that are not always recognized or appreciated, whereas so many of our more abstract and academic pastoral plans fail to work. The massive presence of our faithful people in our shrines and on our pilgrimages is an anonymous presence, but anonymous simply because it is made up of so many faces and so great a desire simply to be gazed upon with mercy by Jesus and Mary. The same can be said about the countless ways in which our people take part in countless initiatives of solidarity; this too needs to be recognized, appreciated and promoted on our part.
As priests, we ask two graces of the Good Shepherd, that of letting ourselves be guided by the sensus fidei of our faithful people, and to be guided by their “sense of the poor”. Both these “senses” have to do with the sensus Christi, with our people’s love for, and faith in, Jesus.
Let us conclude by reciting the Anima Christi, that beautiful prayer which implores mercy from the Lord who came among us in the flesh and graciously feeds us with his body and blood. We ask him to show mercy to us and to his people. We ask his soul to “sanctify us”, his body to “save us”, his blood to “inebriate us” and to remove from us all other thirsts that are not of him. We ask the water flowing from his side “to wash us”, his passion “to strengthen us”. Comfort your people, crucified Lord! May your wounds “shelter us”… Grant that your people, Lord, may never be parted from you. Let nothing and no one separate us from your mercy, which defends us from the snares of the wicked enemy. Thus, we will sing your mercies, Lord, with all your saints when you bid us come to you.
Full text of Pope Francis’ first meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Full text of Pope Francis’ second meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Full text of Pope Francis’ third meditation for the Retreat for Priests:
Courtesy: Vatican Radio.