Ash Wednesday
Lent Week One
Click here to view and share

In this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has emphasized the importance of participating in the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. No time is better than that than the season of Lent, this year beginning on Feb. 10.

In his Lenten Message, Pope Francis said that the works of mercy “remind us that faith finds expression in concrete everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit … .” Who has been better at modeling these acts of love than the saints? Join OSV Newsweekly as we let the saints guide us through the works of mercy during Lent.  

Instructing the ignorant

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.

Feeding the hungry

St. Frances of Rome

St. Frances of Rome could have lived an easy life, full of food, parties and pleasure. But she didn’t want an easy life. She wanted to serve Christ by serving the poor.

Born in 1384 to a wealthy Roman family, Frances married at age 12 into an equally wealthy Roman family: the Ponzianis. Her husband, Lorenzo, was a good man — generous, kind and enamored by his bride. Frances, however, was initially disappointed with him, as she would have been with any match. She wanted to become a religious and found the social obligations of marriage almost unbearable.

Help soon came, though, through her sister-in-law, Vannozza, who also longed to live a life of service and prayer, and together the two devised a plan that allowed them to pursue spiritual disciplines while still carrying out family obligations.

Not long afterward, in the early 15th century, famine struck Rome. With the help of her sister-in-law and the support of her husband, Frances ordered that no one who came to the Ponziani palace begging for food was to be turned away.

Corn and wine were distributed liberally until her father-in-law learned of her generosity. He ordered Frances to stop. She refused. So, he sold off the family’s extra corn and wine, keeping only what the family needed. Frances continued feeding the poor just the same, emptying their corn loft rather than allow others to go hungry.

The loft never completely went empty, though, for on the very day Frances gave away the last kernels, the entire supply was miraculously replenished. The same happened with the wine. When the family cask ran dry, new wine mysteriously appeared in it, finer than the previous wine.

Frances would go on to form a small community of like-minded lay women committed to caring for the poor: the Oblates of Mary. After her husband’s death in 1436, Frances lived with the Oblates for four years, serving as their superior, until her own death in 1440. She was canonized in 1608.

Lenten Message
The “season of Lent in this Jubilee Year is a favorable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the works of mercy. In the corporal works of mercy we touch the flesh of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need to be fed, clothed, sheltered, visited; in the spiritual works of mercy — counsel, instruction, forgiveness, admonishment and prayer — we touch more directly our own sinfulness. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy must never be separated. By touching the flesh of the crucified Jesus in the suffering, sinners can receive the gift of realizing that they too are poor and in need. By taking this path, the ‘proud’, the ‘powerful’ and the ‘wealthy’ spoken of in the Magnificat can also be embraced and undeservedly loved by the crucified Lord who died and rose for them. This love alone is the answer to that yearning for infinite happiness and love that we think we can satisfy with the idols of knowledge, power and riches.”

Pope Francis, Lenten Message 2016
More on Lenten Saints