Pope Francis has declared this to be a Year of Mercy but…so what? What does it mean to be merciful? And what difference does it make to families?
Many people think that being merciful means going easy on people or letting them off the hook and sometimes it does involve a willingness to bear wrongs patiently and forgive willingly (two of the Spiritual Works of Mercy) but being merciful means much more than this. If you look at the list of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of mercy and consider what all of them, taken together, mean, it becomes clear that “being merciful” means treating others in a manner that allows them to see their worth in God’s eyes.
We Are All Royal
We are all made in God’s image and likeness. We are all His children. Furthermore, baptism enables us to be prophets, priests, and royals. We clothe the naked not because we are concerned with fashion or ashamed of the body, but because every child of God deserves to be dressed in a manner that reveals their dignity as a son or daughter of the King of Kings!
We feed the hungry not simply out of a concern for good nutrition but because every person deserves to know that they have a rightful place at the royal feast set at God’s table! We forgive willingly and bear wrongs patiently because we recognize that “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” That is, while we strive to become everything God calls us to be, we will often struggle and stumble. Recognizing the challenges involved in becoming saints, we try to be generous about each other’s failings. And yet, when those we love forget who they really are, neglecting to strive for greatness and, instead, deciding to wallow in their brokenness, we admonish the sinner—not to condemn or judge them, but to invite them to remember that they were meant to be more, and to live more fully than they are.
Mercy: The Heart of the Home
A second. common misunderstanding people have about mercy is that it is best practiced by monks and nuns ministering to the poor in far off lands, or at least something that you have to leave your house to do but, in truth, most people’s biggest opportunity to practice mercy—and, in particular, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy—is right at home. When our oldest was preparing for his First Communion, we were reviewing the various Works of Mercy. When he heard that they included things like feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty and clothing the naked, he looked up at us and said, “You guys do those things all the time. They should call them the Corporal Works of Mommy—and Daddy too!”
St. Therese of Lisieux, promoted what she called “the Little Way of Holiness,” the idea that every person could achieve great heights of holiness and sanctity by doing small acts with great love. The Works of Mercy as practiced at home—what we have come to call The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mommy and Daddy—remind us that charity truly does begin at home, and more often than not, there is no better place to remind each other what we are worth in God’s eyes—that is, to practice mercy—than at home. Here’s how you can begin to practice the Corporal Works of Mommy and Daddy and make your household a holier place!
The Corporal Works of Mommy & Daddy
Feeding the Hungry: When we put real thought into preparing healthy, tasty meals for our families, we create a nurturing place for communion and conversation to occur. Tons of research reveals the benefits of families sitting down to meals together including everything from better physical and mental health outcomes, higher academic achievement, and greater life and relationship satisfaction. Add “growing in holiness” to the list!
Give Drink to the Thirsty: What parent hasn’t been asked to get a thirsty child a drink in the middle of the night? Getting up and serving that child cheerfully with compassion is a work of mercy that reminds the child that his or her needs are important and that they will be heard and loved even when it is inconvenient for us to do so.
Clothe the Naked: Finding the grace to be patient while dealing with a toddler who only wants to wear the blue shirt or helping a teen dress attractively, yet modestly, isn’t just an exercise in patience, it’s an opportunity to help your children remember their worth in God’s eyes!
Sheltering The Homeless: Putting in the thought, time, and effort it takes to make your house a welcoming home by working to make it a beautiful, orderly, yet a comfortable and hospitable place is a great way to remind yourself and your family of their dignity as children of God. And teaching your family to be good stewards of what you have been given is an important lesson in godly gratitude.
Visit the Sick: When you lovingly respond to a sick child, refusing to treat him or her as a burden or an inconvenience, even though the illness has thrown your schedule into chaos, you are practicing mercy, growing in personal holiness, and showing your child his or her worth in God’s eyes and yours.
Visit the Imprisoned: It is one thing to banish our children to their rooms or to time out when they have committed some offense, but when we visit them a few minutes later, talk them through their error, teach them what to do instead, and work to heal their hurts and rebuild our relationship, we are practicing true mercy and showing our children they still have worth in God’s eyes and our eyes even when they mess up.
Bury the Dead: Helping a child deal with the loss of a pet, or face the death of a beloved relative, requires incredible compassion and sensitivity—especially when we are dealing with our own grief. Doing this well enables our children to connect with God’s loving presence, even in times of sadness.
The Spiritual Works of Mommy and Daddy
Admonish the Sinner: Sometimes we need to correct the little sinners in our home. When we do this with compassion, understanding, and love, we do more than stop the offense, we invite our children to remember that they are sons and daughters of God and it is a blessing to be able to behave accordingly.
Instruct the Ignorant: There is so much to learn! Life is such a mystery. Whether teaching our children what to do instead of simply telling them what not to do, or answering their never ending questions with patience and love, or teaching them all the things they need to know to live life as a gift, instructing the ignorant allows our families to become the schools of humanity our faith says they are meant to be.
Counsel the Doubtful: Life is scary. Sometimes our kids don’t feel like they are up to the challenges they face. Being there to cheer them on, support them, and encourage them allows us to help our children remember that they can accomplish all things when Christ is their strength.
Comfort the Sorrowful: Life is not only scary, it can also be disappointing sometimes. When our children’s hearts are broken, taking the time to really listen—instead of either being dismissive of their pain or hurling platitudes at them in our discomfort—can both inspire saintly compassion in us and connect our kids with the consolation of the Holy Spirit through our efforts.
Bear Wrongs Patiently: Parents know that it can be tempting to harp on every little thing. While it is important to address the more significant offenses, picking our battles and also letting little offenses and mistakes go can be a huge work of mercy that requires the patience of a saint, but it builds rapport with our children while enabling us to save our energy for the corrections that really count.
Forgive Willingly: Sometimes, when our children hurt us, it can be tempting to carry a grudge, to pout, or behave in a passive-aggressive manner toward them. When we check that impulse and forgive our children willingly, we grow in generosity and teach our children that they can never lose our love or God’s love—even when they are less than perfect.
Pray for the Living and the Dead: Praying with our children and teaching them to have their own vibrant prayer life is the most important mission of the Catholic parent. Our children are not our own. They are on loan to us from God. Teaching them how to pray is our way of introducing our children to the love of their Heavenly Father.
Although we tend to take them for granted, our homes can become saint-making machines if we simply realize the transforming, spiritual power that exists behind even the most mundane tasks of family life. If we can only use this Year of Mercy to learn to do all these simple things with great love, we can use The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mommy and Daddy to cooperate with God’s plan to make us and our children into the saints we were created to be!
Editor’s note: If you’d like more insights into how to incorporate your faith into your family life, check out Dr Popcak’s books, Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids and Parenting with Grace.