From feeding the poor to sheltering the homeless and caring for the sick, the works of mercy that men and women in consecrated life carry out every day show God’s radical love in action.
“God is love, but to believe in the love of God, we first have to see the love of neighbor,” said Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who serves as chaplain of the Leonine Forum in New York City.
“St. John was very clear about that in his first letter,” Father Landry told Our Sunday Visitor. “If we don’t love the neighbor we do see, we can’t really love the God who we don’t see. The works of mercy make tangible the love of God for all his sons and daughters.”
Father Landry also noted that it was said of the early Christians, “You will know they are Christians by their love.”
“And so in the early Church and still today, the Church’s charity is the most powerful proclamation of the Gospel,” Father Landry said. “And religious men and women do it by and large in a compelling and excellent way.”
The U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults describes the works of mercy as “charitable actions by which we help our neighbors in their bodily needs.” Rooted in Christ’s commandment to care for “the least of these,” the works of mercy respond to the basic needs of humanity.
The call to holiness
The works of mercy include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead and giving alms to the poor.
In modern times, priests, deacons, religious men and women, and others live out the works of mercy in myriad ways. They volunteer in soup kitchens, operate shelters for battered women, visit the elderly in nursing homes, provide medical care for the indigent, care for victims of human trafficking, resettle refugees, and help migrants to find homes and employment, among other charitable works.
A particularly poignant example of a work of mercy carried out by men and women religious is the care for the elderly-poor that the Little Sisters of the Poor provide in their homes throughout the world.
“There’s a line in our constitutions about our foundress, St. Jeanne Jugan, who said Christ waited for her in the poor. She found him and served him in the poor,” said Sister Constance Veit, the communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Sister Constance told Our Sunday Visitor that at 15 years old, when she began volunteering with the Little Sisters of the Poor for a community service requirement, she didn’t yet know that she was looking for God.
“But God was waiting for me in the person of the poor, and that was the first time I can say I really had an encounter with the living person of God,” she said. “And I was just so drawn in by that. It was God himself who drew me.”
Visitation Sister Anne Francis, the vocations director at Georgetown Visitation Monastery in Washington, D.C., said the monastery has an infirmary where younger sisters care for older members.
“They gave their all for the community, so we decided to take care of them,” Sister Anne told Our Sunday Visitor. She added that she wanted a form of religious life that enabled her to be a contemplative who was active in the world.
“It’s not about what I do. It’s about what the Lord is doing for me,” said Sister Anne, who explained that the Visitation Sisters’ spirituality is drawn from the insights of St. Francis de Sales, who emphasized the universal call to holiness back in the 17th century.
“You don’t have to be a nun. You don’t have to be a priest, but every person is called to holiness,” Sister Anne said.
A new risk
Father Nicholas Blackwell, a Carmelite priest who serves as the parochial vicar for Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Middletown, New York, told Our Sunday Visitor that he was moved by the parishioners of a nearby small mountain community in upstate New York who have continued to bury the dead and care for bereaved family members amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“They’re there to make sure the church is ready, that the church is clean and sanitized so people can come in and feel safe,” Father Blackwell said. “They’ve been putting themselves at risk during COVID, which is something they didn’t have to originally think about with this ministry.
“But everybody stepped up to make sure that people could still bury the dead with love and reverence,” Father Blackwell added. “And many of these people are up in age. They’re advanced in years and putting themselves at risk, but saying, ‘You know what? It’s important to care for the dead and it’s important to care for the living. And in this one ministry, we can do both.'”
Christopher Smith, a Jesuit in formation who teaches science at a high school in Washington, D.C., spoke of the powerful example he has seen from older priests and brothers in his order in carrying out the works of mercy.
“They were giving food to people,” Smith said. “They were trying to get programs together for mothers to get the supplies they needed for their kids. They were trying to get kids off the street, starting a dance school. They did so much for people.”
Franciscan Father Matt Foley, who teaches at a Catholic high school near Buffalo, New York, said the fidelity and charitable examples of Franciscan friars and others he sees engaged in works of mercy are powerful examples of being Christ in the world.
“I think their positive and prayerful examples are so edifying,” he said. “It strengthens me in my faith.”
Sister Constance said a “joyfulness in serving” is also a characteristic quality for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“I would say the sisters I’ve admired and learned from were all very joyful,” she said. “They were completely given in their life and held nothing back. They demonstrated a tenderness and affection for the elderly, besides just caring in the basic way, but delivering the care they really needed. They just have a very tender heart toward them, a very tender maternal heart, and that’s something that I’ve always been striving to have as well.”
As she has gotten older and reflected more on her vocation and the writings and remarks of Pope Francis on the elderly, Sister Constance said her own love for the elderly has grown. She recalled a saying attributed to St. Jeanne Jugan: “Making happy the elderly, that’s everything.”
“I have felt that even stronger these last few years,” Sister Constance said. “Like just wanting to be able to console them in their sorrows, comfort them, trying to relieve their sufferings as much as possible, whether it’s physical sufferings or the moral sufferings of loneliness.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.