Focus on the Works of Mercy

As we enter the final months of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy, we focus on two works of mercy which most people, including the clergy, find challenging: the corporal work of visiting those who are imprisoned and the spiritual work of bearing wrongs patiently.

Visiting the Imprisoned. St. John XXIII used to walk everywhere around Vatican City, and even around Rome itself. Some British journalists even took to calling him “Johnny Walker Red” because of the red-dyed peasant shoes he wore. One of his most famous destinations was Regina Coeli Prison, a former convent which had been converted into a prison the same year Angelo Roncalli was born. He recounted to the prisoners the story of his own cousin who had been imprisoned there for poaching. He even joked that he came to them because they couldn’t come to visit him.

What do we do in our own ministries to go out of our way to visit those who are not free? Personally and parochially, what steps might we take to increase this vital ministry? Are there jails or prisons within our pastoral “footprint,” and could we develop groups of volunteers to become certified to spend time with prisoners?

One parish, located near a women’s correctional facility near Baltimore, has routinely (weekly) provided a small group of choir members who sing at the weekly Mass or communion service offered in the prison; some of those parishioners have been doing this for many years.

And we might ask about the families of those who are incarcerated: what are we doing to assist those families who are dealing with the absence of their family members? The family left outside is often more in need than the family member inside the facility. One well-established program, for example, arranges for children and spouses to “get on the bus” and visit their fathers and husbands on Father’s Day. Parishes and entire dioceses are sometimes involved in such efforts.

Bearing Wrongs Patiently is something many of us struggle with. While visiting the imprisoned takes us outside of ourselves, bearing the wrongs inflicted on us by others, and bearing them patiently, turns us inward to our core of humanness and the foundation of our spirituality. This work of mercy acknowledges that there are times in life and in ministry in which we are wronged, treated unfairly by others, or accused falsely of greater or lesser transgressions. Ministry itself has its own occasional frustrations along with the incomparable joys.

How do we react in the face of such challenges? Do allow ourselves to be angry or resentful? Are we tempted to respond in kind? Or do we, in imitation of Christ himself, endure wrongs with acceptance, compassion, and love for those who are inflicting them?

Jesus, of course, not only accepted wrongs patiently: He taught His disciples to do the same. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Mt 5:38-41).

Jesus goes even further, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:43-44).

For those of us ordained and filled with the Holy Spirit to act “in the person of Christ,” these words take on special significance as we try above all to be and to bring the patient, compassionate and merciful Christ to the world.

DEACON DITEWIG, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.