Book Review: Mercy in the City


I heard about Kerry Weber’s book, Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job, in an America Magazine podcast. I was in my office sorting, stapling, and stacking handouts for a campus ministry presentation on Charity, Justice and the Structures of Society, and the book struck me as perfect material for a future program.

Weber gives a quick background on her Lenten mission to attempt all of the corporal works of mercy in one short liturgical season, while also skipping sweets, serving as an RCIA sponsor, online dating, and keeping her day job as a member of the editorial staff at America Magazine. After reading through the introduction and the first chapter, I was hooked on the book’s 5-minute chapters, written in witty, idealistic, and honest prose.

The reader follows Weber through a New York City adventure as she volunteers on an early-morning bread line and in the Clothing Room at a Catholic Worker house, learns about worldwide water use and shortages, spends the night at a homeless shelter, visits prisoners and elderly Sisters of Mercy, and does her darndest to bury the dead. Along the way, she introduces readers to various Catholic figures: Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy; Dorothy Day, co-foundress of the Catholic Worker movement; St. Peter Chrysologus, a fifth-century bishop; and many present-day saints-in-the-making.

The chapters skip along quickly, and they reveal experiences that are likely familiar to many young Catholics: calculation of the length of the Stations of the Cross, for example, and the constant worry that we won’t accomplish our Lenten goals—or that our grumbly attitude is negating the influx of grace as fast as we accomplish them. I’d recommend Mercy in the City as a Lenten pep talk, inspiring us to raise the bar on what our hearts can give this year.

Her Mercy

My favorite part of Mercy in the City is Weber’s exploration of the mercy charism. In this section, she introduces readers to the Sisters of Mercy and their foundress, Catherine McAuley, and goes on to share her experience of post-grad service in the Mercy Volunteer Corps and her discernment on joining the Mercy Associates.

As a child, I attended a Catholic elementary school that had been served by the Sisters of Mercy for generations. Some of my grandmother’s girlhood friends joined the order, and both my mother and I were taught by the sisters. Eventually, my mother’s early years as a teacher were spent amidst the sisters working at this Catholic school. Due to diminishing numbers and pastoral changes, the Sisters of Mercy left after my 4th grade year.

Until I read this book, it never occurred to me the profound effect that the mercy charism likely had on my family. My grandmother was an icon of mercy. She was the little old lady who drove littler, older ladies to the grocery store or to doctor’s appointments when they could no longer drive. It seemed that she attended every funeral in the parish with a casserole in hand. My grandparents provided financial assistance to relatives in need, and early in their marriage, they even invited a pair of penniless newlyweds to move into their home. My mom has a similar heart for mercy, particularly in offering patience and kindness to people young and old who drive everybody else nuts!

After reading chapter 8, I realized that the charism of mercy must have rubbed off from the sisters, leaving its fragrance on my grandma and mom, and probably many others in our small town, spreading comfort and healing and kindness across generations. Though my grandmother passed away 15 years ago this winter, Weber’s book provided a new insight into what shaped her merciful spirit; for this, I am deeply grateful.

A Warm Invitation

Weber’s lifestyle is familiar to many millennial Catholics that dove into post-graduate volunteer opportunities and later discovered ways to blend careers and vocations as a young professionals in lay ministries or Christian non-profits. She reveals the joy, restlessness, creativity, camaraderie, curiosity, and even the doubts that charge through the experience of Christians of our generation. For those who haven’t waded so deeply into a life of intentional Christian discipleship, Weber’s book offers an inviting glimpse of what could be, along with the promise that there would be fellow travelers with warm hearts to welcome newcomers.

As a campus ministry professional, I barely made it through the first chapter before I’d made a mental list of dozens of former students, family members, and colleagues to whom I wanted to give a copy of the book. The joy of the Gospel permeates Weber’s writing. There is no rejection or judgment of our world, only an exploration of what it means to be a transformative presence. Mercy in the City is a roadmap to a healthy Christian life for young adults, which illustrates the kind of service that Jesus calls us to live while plumbing the depths of Catholic traditions and delighting in today’s culture.

Katie Diller is the National Coordinator of the ESTEEM Leadership Program and the Director of Student Outreach at St John Catholic Student Center serving Michigan State University.

The one who practices mercy does not fear death!

Pope Francis gave an engaging address to listeners this morning as he spoke about the Christian response to death and the hope that we have in Christ:

“This thirst for life found its real and true and reliable response in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ Resurrection does not only give us the certainty of life after death, it also illumines the very mystery of the death of each one of us. If we live united to Jesus, faithful to him, we will also be able to face the passage of death with hope and serenity. In fact, the Church prays: ‘If the certainty of having to die saddens us, the promise of future immortality consoles us.’ This is a beautiful prayer of the Church! A person tends to die as he has lived. If my life was a journey with the Lord, a journey of trust in his immense mercy, I will be prepared to accept the final moment of my earthly life as the definitive, confident abandonment into his welcoming hands, awaiting the face to face contemplation of his face. This is the most beautiful thing that can happen to us: to contemplate face to face the marvelous countenance of the Lord, to see Him as he is, beautiful, full of light, full of love, full of tenderness. This is our point of arrival: to see the Lord.”

The pope then went on to show how those who are charitable and merciful with “the least among these” are already well on their way to overcoming the fear of death:

“Therefore, a sure path comes by recovering the meaning of Christian charity and of fraternal sharing, by caring for the bodily and spiritual wounds of our neighbor. Solidarity in sharing sorrow and infusing hope is a premise and condition for receiving as an inheritance that Kingdom which has been prepared for us. The one who practices mercy does not fear death. Think well on this: the one who practices mercy does not fear death! Do you agree? Shall we say it together so as not to forget it? The one who practices mercy does not fear death. And why does he not fear it? Because he looks death in the face in the wounds of his brothers and sisters, and he overcomes it with the love of Jesus Christ.”

Quote(s) of the Day

Three from Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga:

“The Church decidedly bets on living the globalization of mercy and solidarity.”

“In practice, the hyperventilation of the economy has produced great amounts of money, fruit of the erosion of governmental regulation and a symptom of the failure of materialism. But, as a result, there is always a particular category of victim: ‘the poor.’ Jesus of Nazareth made a warning that should be heeded by all the powers: civil and religious, democratic, monarchic, socialist, of any type: ‘You know that those who are considered the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave.’ (Mark 10: 41; Matthew 20: 25).”

“There is no doubt that doctrinal argument is important, but people will be attracted by the humanity of Christians, those who live by the faith, who live in a human way, who irradiate the joy of living, the consistency in their behavior.”

Hopeful Sinners

Photo by Joel Muniz on Unsplash

Why did Pope Francis, who is known for his vivacity and joy, identify himself first and foremost as a sinner when asked to describe himself? And why did he return to this theme earlier today on twitter, where he reminded us that “we are all sinners”?

There is always a temptation, perhaps stronger in those of us who have a personality type prone to perfectionism, to hope for some way to wipe away our past mistakes and sins, to somehow rewrite history, so that we might have moral purity, moral perfection. We might try to justify past sins by placing them within a certain context. We might hide them from others. We might try to overturn the harm we have done to others by acts of repentance or restitution. We might pray to God to erase sins from our memory so that they will no longer blight our self-image and derail our quest for flawlessness.

In all of this is the desire to shed sins, a worthy goal. But if it is not centered in the desire for communion with God and others, it can trespass into the realm of idol worship, treating oneself as an object to be carved into the image of perfection we imagine. And we see ourselves as the artists, chiseling away, shaping our own perfection.

But when we accept reality, it becomes clear that we are sinners. Seeing ourselves as sinners means recognizing our total dependence on God and that redemption is only possible because of the radical love of Christ. We can resist sin, but we inevitably stumble. We might adhere to every law, but we inevitably fail to incessantly choose love. As we grow older, it becomes more and more clear that we cannot erase the consequences of our past errors through our individual actions alone.

We can only turn to God for forgiveness, for mercy. I have heard many people explain how they will certainly go to heaven (“if it exists”), thanks to the fact that they’re not a “bad” person. They felt satisfied with, and justified by, their moral mediocrity.

Yet the saints I have learned about seem to emphasize the opposite: their unworthiness to live in the presence of God. Those who seem morally perfect to the outside world recognize and regret the times they have turned away from God and love. They strive for righteousness, but accept the brokenness of their condition.

They recognize that only God can remedy the injustice, disharmony, and division caused by freely-chosen sin. They come to fully understand the centrality of grace. And it helps them to escape the traps of legalism and moral arrogance.

These saints live in reality. They see who they really are. And Pope Francis seems to do the same. Meghan Clark argues that Francis displays what appears to be a “radical self-awareness.”

To recognize oneself as a sinner is not to proclaim the depravity of man, but the human person’s fundamental need for God and God’s mercy. This recognition is essential for the self-reflection that must accompany authentic efforts to follow the Way of Christ and help build the Kingdom of God.

A spiritual humanism that inspires our pursuit of the common good and our own full development as persons, which is open to the transcendent and recognizes our capacity for good while also accepting the reality of sin, is capable of avoiding both the dangerous hubris that is fostered by a naive belief in the perfectibility of man and the perilous cynicism or nihilism that logically follows from the belief that we live in a strictly material universe. In living this humanism, this personalism, we see others as they are—as persons. As Bishop James Conley recently explained, “When we acknowledge our common sinfulness and our common call to holiness, it becomes easier to see one another, not as objects, but as brothers and sisters in need of support, and encouragement, and solidarity with one another.”

We are sinners. We cannot achieve salvation alone. Only by living in reality and accepting God’s grace and love as sinners can we inch closer toward communion and realize our full potential as persons. And ultimately, while our faith drives us to eradicate all injustice, these good works must be joined by grace in order for us to have eternal life.

We are sinners, but we are hopeful. We hope that our acts of mercy and love, our pursuit of justice and the common good will not be undone by our sins or disappear over time, but will reach their full fruition when we are united through God’s transformative love. We are hopeful because Christ did not come to collect the perfect who are in no need of redemption, but to show sinners the path to God and to carry us when we can walk no more.

Around the Web (Part 2: Pope Francis Articles)

Check out these recent articles about Pope Francis from around the web:

Pastor, Prophet, Pope by Stephen Schneck , Sojourners: “Catholics around the world are transfixed by Pope Francis. We love his simplicity of life, his humble faith, his welcoming attitude to all, and his way of being Christian in the contemporary world that takes its bearings from the poor.”

Pope denounces ‘poison’ of consumerism in ‘society based on profit’ by Francis X. Rocca, CNS: “Pope Francis denounced consumerism as a poison that threatens true happiness, which comes from membership in the church.”

Dispatches from the Outer Banks by John Carr, America: “His description of ‘missionary discipleship’ (the new ‘new evangelization’), his call for a church close to the people that is tender and merciful, and his specific warnings against four kinds of destructive ideology are previews of themes to come. Likewise his visit to the people who live in the Varginha slum was a model of humble solidarity with the poor and a stark challenge to those in power.”

Pope Francis is unsettling – and dividing – the Catholic right by David Gibson, RNS: “But in a few short months, Pope Francis has upended that dynamic, alienating many on the Catholic right by refusing to play favorites and ignoring their preferred agenda items even as he stressed the kind of social justice issues that are near and dear to progressives.”

Boston’s O’Malley: Pope prefers to talk love, not abortion by Joshua J. McElwee, NCR: “I think he speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the Church’s teaching on abortion,” (Cardinal Sean O’Malley) continued. “We oppose abortion, not because we are mean or old fashioned, but because we love people. And that is what we must show the world.”

Jesuit head: Pope a ‘brother among brothers’ Joshua J. McElwee, NCR: “Members of Pope Francis’ religious order, the Jesuits, were ‘deeply touched’ by a special Mass celebrated for them by the pope July 31 and see the pontiff as a ‘brother among brothers,’ the global head of the order says in a special letter marking the occasion.”

A pope who ‘hates hypocrisy – he really hates it’ by Rick DelVecchio, Catholic San Francisco: “He’s a world leader who hates greed, hypocrisy, abuse of power and the cultural flattening of globalization, drives the cheapest car available, shuns fancy clothes, makes his own phone calls, believes global warming is a real threat, thinks that being without a job is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, and is orthodox in doctrine but pragmatic to the point of disregarding the rules in how he makes decisions. He’s Pope Francis as sketched by Jesuit Father Thomas Reese…”