Spiritual works of mercy: Let the saints be your guide

There is nothing easier for a Catholic than performing the spiritual works of mercy. There is also nothing harder.

On the one hand, you don’t need money to counsel the doubtful or comfort the afflicted. It doesn’t take cash to pray for the living and the dead. Nor does it take time to bear wrongs patiently and forgive offenses. And, for those of us who love giving advice, instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners seems easy enough.

On the other hand, counseling the doubtful demands we first wrestle with our own doubts. Comforting the afflicted and praying for others requires that we look away from ourselves and to the needs of others. And if we want to bear wrongs patiently or forgive offenses, we need humility, and few virtues come less naturally than that one.

As for instructing the ignorant and admonishing sinners? Well, that comes with the risk of saying something unpopular, which raises the specter of lost friends and accusations of intolerance.

The simplicity of performing the spiritual works of mercy is, in fact, deceptive. What sounds easy in theory proves far harder in practice. Few will malign us if we serve a meal to the poor. But tell your sister that living with her boyfriend is a grave sin, and you’re liable to find yourself persona non grata right quick.

Nevertheless, love for Christ demands we perform spiritual works of mercy with the same diligence that we perform corporal works of mercy. That’s what Jesus did during his time on earth — forgiving sinners, enduring persecution, addressing sin forthrightly — and if we want to imitate him, we must do the same.

Fortunately, we have not only Jesus’ example but also the example of the saints to show us the way.

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.


Counseling the doubtful

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St. Francis de Sales

Born in 1567 in France to a wealthy noble family, St. Francis de Sales knew as a child that he wanted to serve God as a priest. His plan, however, was thrown into question when he heard a theological discussion about predestination.

The Calvinist position — that some people were predestined for hell and others for heaven — convinced the 17-year-old de Sales that the doors of heaven were barred against him. In 1587, however, while praying before a statue of Our Lady of Deliverance, de Sales’ doubts subsided, and he became firmly convinced of God’s love. On that day, de Sales resolved to dedicate his life to helping others overcome their own spiritual doubts.

Despite his father’s protests, de Sales was ordained to the priesthood in 1593. Soon afterward, he began working to win Calvinists back to the Catholic Faith, traveling throughout nearby Switzerland. By the time de Sales returned to France, more than 40,000 people had returned to the Church.

Installed as bishop of Geneva in 1602, de Sales next devoted himself to the formation of both his priests and their congregations, believing (contrary to popular opinion at the time) that holiness was as much for the laity as for the ordained. He also offered spiritual direction to whomever asked for it, counseling some in person and many more in writing.

“I have more than 50 letters to answer,” he once wrote to a friend. “If I tried to hurry over it all, I would be lost. So I intend neither to hurry or to worry. This evening, I shall answer as many as I can. Tomorrow I shall do the same, and so I shall go on until I have finished.”

In 1665, 43 years after his death, the Church declared Francis de Sales a saint. Two centuries later, in 1877, it declared him a Doctor of the Church.

Instructing the ignorant

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St. Francis Xavier

In 1525, when Francis Xavier (baptized Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta) left his war-torn home in Navarre (now Spain) for the University of Paris, the young nobleman had great plans for instructing the ignorant ... but only in philosophy.

Although his roommate at the university, the future St. Ignatius of Loyola, pleaded with Xavier to consider the priesthood, Francisco ignored him. He had his eye on worldly advancement and wasn’t interested in serving the Church. Eventually, though, Ignatius wore his roommate down, and in 1534, Xavier joined Ignatius and five other students in making secret vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. Three years later, he was ordained, and in 1540, after the pope approved Ignatius’ plan for a new religious order, Xavier became the first missionary priest of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). His first journey was to India, where the king of Portugal needed someone to re-evangelize the Portuguese who had settled in the Near East.

Not long after Xavier arrived in Goa, however, he began reaching out to the native people with as much zeal as he reached out to the debauched Portuguese merchants and sailors. Traveling up and down the Pearl Fishery Coast, Xavier instructed the people of southern India and Ceylon in the Christian faith, baptizing thousands and building more than 40 churches.

Eventually, Xavier expanded his mission beyond India, traveling throughout Malaysia and Japan before eventually reaching Shangchuan, an island just off the coast of China. Almost everywhere he traveled, Xavier was the first Christian missionary the people had met. Although he struggled with languages, he worked with native interpreters and used both art and culture to introduce thousands to the Gospel.

By the time, Francis Xavier died — at age 46, in 1552, on Shangchuan — he had baptized at least 30,000 people. It’s said he was responsible for more conversions to Christianity than any one single person since St. Paul the Apostle.

Admonishing sinners

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St. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe

In 1879, a group of Catholic missionary priests arrived in Kampala, the capital of Buganda (modern-day Uganda). One of the first converts they made was Balikuddembe, a tall, athletic and intelligent 19-year-old serving as a page in the royal court.

Balikuddembe became a catechumen less than a year after the missionaries’ arrival. Two years later, in 1882, he was baptized, taking the name Joseph. Balikuddembe’s time with the missionaries, however, was short-lived. That fall, it became unsafe for them to remain in Kampala, and they temporarily resettled their mission on the opposite side of Lake Victoria, leaving Balikuddembe in charge of the Christian community in the capital.

For two years, all was well. Then, King Mutesa I died, and the kingdom passed to his son Mutesa II, who continued to employ Balikuddembe at court. Mutesa II even elevated him to majordomo, putting the young Catholic in charge of both the royal household and his fellow pages. The new king also gave Balikuddembe permission to correct him if he fell into error.

Balikuddembe did just that a few months later, opposing Mutesa when he wanted to kill an Anglican convert. The king listened to him and stopped the execution. Soon, however, Balikuddembe began speaking up more frequently. The king was abusing his position, attempting to force young male pages to grant him sexual favors. Balikuddembe protected the pages and admonished the king. Then, in 1885, shortly after the Catholic missionaries returned to court, Balikuddembe learned the king was plotting to kill another Anglican. Again, he spoke up. This time, the king didn’t listen.

Not long afterward, the king summoned Balikuddembe and gave him a choice: keep his faith to himself or die. Balikuddembe chose death. He was beheaded, then burned on a pyre.

His successor at court, Charles Lawanga, continued what Balikuddembe began and met a similar fate. Along with 20 other Ugandan martyrs, both were canonized in 1964.

Forgiving offenses

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St. Maria Goretti

Maria Goretti was different from other children. Her neighbors in Le Ferriere recognized that soon after her family arrived in the small Italian village in 1896.

That year, Maria’s father, Luigi, lost the family farm and moved his young family, including 6-year-old Maria, to Le Ferriere to find work. Luigi passed away three years later, leaving behind his wife, Assunta, and six children. Because Maria was the eldest girl, she stayed at home to care for the baby, while her mother and brothers worked in the fields. To save money, they shared lodgings with another man, Giovanni Serenelli, and his 20-year-old son, Alessandro.

Throughout her family’s trials, Maria’s neighbors noticed how she worked gladly, without complaining. They also took note of her natural sweetness and piety. Unfortunately, Alessandro took note of her other attractions and began harassing her. She refused his advances, so the harassment continued.

Finally, on July 5, 1902, Alessandro attempted to rape the 11-year-old Maria at knifepoint. She fought him off, begging him not to commit such a terrible sin. Angered by her resistance, Alessandro stabbed her 14 times.

Almost immediately, her mother and Alessandro’s father found Maria, alive but barely. She was rushed to the hospital at the same moment Alessandro was arrested. There, the doctors could do nothing for her other than witness her dying words: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli ... and I want him to be with me in heaven forever.”

Alessandro went to prison for 30 years. Three years into his sentence, he repented of his crime. After his release, he went to Maria’s mother and begged her forgiveness. Unwilling to do less for him than her daughter, Assunta not only forgave Alessandro, but went to Mass with him and received holy Communion by his side.

Alessandro later became a lay brother with the Capuchin friars. He attended Maria Goretti’s canonization in 1950 and died in his monastery at age 87 in 1970.

Comforting the afflicted

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St. André Bessette

St. André Bessette (baptized Alfred) understood affliction from the inside. Born in Quebec in 1845, the eighth of 12 children, Bessette grew up in poverty. He lost his father when he was 9, his mother when he was 12, and four of his siblings during his childhood. Many were amazed Bessette didn’t join them. After his parents’ death, his chronic ill health made earning a living almost impossible. Bessette tried his hand at farming, shoemaking, blacksmithing, baking and working in a factory, but failed every time.

Finally, at age 25, Bessette’s pastor recommended that the pious young man try religious life. He sought admission to the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montreal and was accepted as a novice. A year later, however, the congregation asked him to leave, citing his chronic ill health. This time, however, the bishop of Montreal intervened and urged the congregation to find Bessette a place. So, they appointed him doorkeeper at the College of Notre Dame in Montreal.

As doorkeeper for a busy college, Bessette crossed paths with hundreds of people each week. Inevitably, they would tell him their troubles, and he would respond by them telling them to turn to St. Joseph. In his free time, Bessette visited the sick, anointing them with oil from the chapel and asking St. Joseph to intercede for them.

Soon, accounts of miraculous healings surfaced. As news of the holy doorkeeper spread, Bessette gave up his work at the college and did nothing but meet with the sick and afflicted. Eventually, he needed four secretaries to help him deal with the 80,000 letters that arrived annually.

In 1904, Bessette began raising money to build a chapel to honor St. Joseph. Although he never lived to see it completed, the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montreal is now Canada’s largest church. Brother André Bessette became St. André in 2010.

Bearing wrongs patiently

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St. Jeanne Jugan

Born in France in 1792, Jeanne Jugan grew up poor, helping pay her family’s bills by working as a kitchen maid, nurse and servant. Although she received two marriage proposals, she refused both. God was saving her for another work, she explained to her family; she needed to wait.

In 1839, at age 47, the waiting ended. That winter, while living in a small apartment with two other women, Jugan met Anne Chauvin, an elderly woman living on the streets. Jugan took the woman into her apartment, giving Chauvin her bed.

Soon, Jugan convinced her roommates to take in more women. Within two years, they acquired a convent that could house 40. They also acquired more helpers, and received permission to found a new religious order, the Little Sisters of the Poor. Jugan wrote their first rule and was elected as their first Mother Superior.

Two years later, the sisters re-elected Jugan.

But a priest who was assisting the women, Father Augustin le Pailleur, had other plans. He forced Jugan to step down, named another sister as her successor and declared himself Father Superior. He then sent Jugan out to beg for the order.

She did that gladly. But as her work continued to gain attention, Father le Pailleur grew even more envious. He began presenting himself as the order’s founder and forbade the first sisters from acknowledging Jugan as their founder. Then, in 1852, he sent Jugan to the Little Sisters’ motherhouse and ordered her to end all contact with friends and benefactors.

Again, she obeyed, reportedly saying, “You have stolen my work from me, but I willingly give it to you.”

Jugan remained confined there for 27 years, until her death in 1879. Those who knew her said she never complained and never protested. Nor did she try to vindicate herself. By the time of her death, the order had grown to include more than 2,500 sisters, but only a handful knew Jugan was the real founder.

In 1890, the Vatican began an investigation of Father le Pailleur, eventually forcing him into retirement. Jugan was canonized 119 years later, in 2009, and the Little Sisters of the Poor credit her patient suffering, in part, with their success.

Praying for the living and the dead

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St. Rose Philippine Duchesne

As a young girl, St. Rose Philippine Duchesne dreamed of traveling to America and evangelizing Native Americans. God, however, had different plans for her.

Born in 1769 to a wealthy French family, Duchesne defied her family’s expectations for a socially advantageous marriage and became a Visitandine nun instead. When the French Revolution came and forced the sisters out of their convent, she returned to her family’s home. There, she quietly lived her order’s rule of prayer and penance until the anti-religious fervor subsided. Once it did, she rented her former convent with her own money and attempted to convince other former Visitandines to rejoin her. Most refused.

After three years of failure, Duchesne met with Mother Sophie Barat, founder of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Barat convinced the Visitandine to join her, and named Duchesne the new novice mistress for her order in 1804.

For 13 years, Duchesne labored alongside Barat, but she never forgot her childhood dream of evangelizing the American Indians. She finally saw the chance to pursue that dream in 1817, when the bishop of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, William DuBourg, came to her convent, looking for help.

The following year, the 49-year-old sister left for America. Upon her arrival, though, she discovered that the Native Americans had already moved west and the bishop instead wanted her to found a school for American and French girls in St. Charles, Missouri. She obeyed, and eventually founded a half-dozen more.

Finally, in 1841, Duchesne received permission to found a new mission for the Potawatomi Indians in Kansas. Unfortunately, by then, she was too old to learn the language. So, rather than teach, she prayed. Moved by the long hours the sister spent in the chapel, the children nicknamed her Quahkahkanumad, meaning “Woman who prays always.”

After only a year, Duchesne returned to her order’s motherhouse in St. Charles. There, she spent the last decade of her life in a small room near the chapel, offering up her prayers for the work of her order. Pope St. John Paul II canonized her in 1988.

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