To celebrate the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, I have tried to complete all of the Works of Mercy during this past year. As it turns out, it is a lot easier to feed the hungry and visit the sick than it is to counsel the doubtful or to bear wrongs patiently.
Last weekend, just a week before the close of the Jubilee on the the Feast of Christ the King, I completed my seventh and final corporal work. The seven spiritual works have proven to be more elusive. This doesn’t surprise me. I’ve said here before that I’d rather go out and feed the hungry and clothe the naked than pray for an end to hunger and poverty.
Some of the works have been spontaneous, and others were planned well in advance. I didn’t plan to feed the hungry on the night I did, for example. It was a bitterly cold New England winter night, and I was driving to my then-girlfriend’s apartment when I saw a panhandler in his usual spot.
I typically drove right past him without a second thought, but this night was particularly frigid. No one, I thought, should be outdoors tonight. A short ways down the street was a pizza place, and so I picked up a couple of slices and a large coffee. It wasn’t a grand gesture, but he certainly did appreciate it.
Others acts were more difficult. I don’t know anyone currently in prison, so who was I going to visit? There’s a prison in my hometown that I’ve been to before, but prisoners there have a limited number of visitors they are allowed and everyone has to be pre-approved. The guards probably would have looked at me funny if I walked up and said that I wanted to be placed on the list of any random inmate, and then the prisoner may have been upset if I took the spot of someone else he really wanted to see.
I enjoy writing letters, however, and so found someone on WriteAPrisoner.com who said he was open to corresponding with strangers. Kyle and I now each write one or two letters a month, and I am really enjoying it. I think we are both benefiting from the experience as well. While I hope my friendship with Kyle continues for many years, other works were very much a one-off endeavor.
When I began this project, I figured that eventually someone I knew would die, and then I would be able to check burying the dead off my list. Fortunately, my friends and family all seem to be in good health these days. So, a few weeks ago I called my parish on a Thursday and asked if there were any funerals scheduled for the weekend. On that Saturday morning I sat in the back of the church, alone, at the funeral of a man I had never met. I hope my prayers hastened his ascent into Heaven, but I don’t plan to make a habit of attending random funerals.
I missed an opportunity to give water to the thirsty during the crisis in Flint, Michigan. A couple high school students at my alma mater ran a collection in the center of town where people could bring bottled water to be shipped 800 miles across five states. It’s too bad, and I don’t know what I was thinking, because this proved to be the most difficult of the seven.
Instead, I donated to the LifeStraw campaign after the recent earthquake in Haiti. I wanted all of my seven acts to be concrete actions, not just writing checks. I even made sure that under giving alms to the poor that I physically went out, bought a bunch of diapers and baby items, and then contributed them to the annual parish baby shower during Lent. It would be been easier to donate online to a crisis pregnancy center, but it would have been less meaningful.
Much easier was visiting a great-aunt in the hospital. I hate the insides of hospitals, but I know she appreciated the few hours I spent with her there. The same is true when I volunteered at a hospice center for the homeless. It’s not how I would normally want to spend a Saturday afternoon, but I think I got just as much out of it as the patients did.
If I have learned anything during this past year, it is that once you start looking for opportunities to perform acts of mercy that they are tough to miss. Some may be easier than others, and we can’t save the world by ourselves, but that doesn’t mean each little act isn’t important. Like Bobby Kennedy said in his Ripples of Hope speech, Pope Francis has recognized that even small acts have the power to change the world: “If every one of us, every day, does a work of mercy, there will be a revolution in the world!”