By Mark Piper, Mercy Associate

Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to come up with answers regarding both national turmoil in the United States as well as local turmoil, particularly racial animus, stemming from a police-involved shooting that resulted in the death of a young man on the far South Side of Chicago, where my family and I make our home. When I feel I need to be at the ready if someone asks me a question fraught with thorny complexity or controversy, I do what I suspect many folks do: I talk with trusted friends and confidants to get their perspective; I listen to my spouse; I fall back upon my memory of books that I’ve found useful and pull them off the shelves for insights and inspiration. I have done all of that, and I’ve done one thing more: I’ve grappled with the Works of Mercy and how one ought to employ them at a time like this.  

For me, the Works of Mercy have been less a source of solace and more a cause for concern. The cause for concern manifests itself in two ways. First, when so many are experiencing anger, bewilderment and resentment, how appropriate is it to “instruct the uneducated” or “forgive offenders” or “counsel the doubtful”? When emotions run high, is it really wise to attempt any instruction or engage in any counseling? And even if it is wise, how does one do that without coming off as arrogant, privileged or otherwise superior?

The second concern has really troubled me. I question if we have actually engaged in the Works of Mercy and found them futile, or if we have stopped engaging in them because they don’t make a difference—thus they are not really true ways of being helpful, good, or neighborly. That’s a depressing thought for me.

As I move around in my angst about all this, I’m reminded of Mary, Mother of God, or as I like to see her, Mother of Mercy. She didn’t come up with answers, but she interceded for those in need, like at the wedding in Cana. She also provided an example of silence as an appropriate response at other times. I am then reminded of another woman of faith, who interceded for women and children in particular during times of turmoil—Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy.

Here is where my angst subsides, for in Catherine McAuley, and thousands of other ordinary women and men, I see that the Works of Mercy matter. They do speak to basic human truths, and they do advance the Kingdom of God insofar as we improve the lives of those around us. Catherine McAuley not only instructed the uneducated, but she did so in a manner that was not “holier than thou.” She put this and other aspects of her mission of mercy into practice long before that practice became accepted as doctrine or approved behavior. The Works of Mercy have made a difference, and if we practice them, they will continue to make a difference.

As such, I’m going to bear patiently these troublesome times while I work and pray for a more merciful world. After all, I am now reminded of at least 14 different ways of responding, or rather 14 appropriate answers to the questions we face in our neighborhoods and in our country. You can read about all 14 by clicking this link to, you guessed it, the Works of Mercy.

I’ve tried to come up with answers in anticipation of questions about how best to engage, move forward, or make a difference in what is going on around us nationally and around me locally in Chicago. My grappling with the Works of Mercy has reminded me that there is one fundamental point I had forgotten about until I talked with others, listened to others, and picked up those books from the shelf: discernment. I shouldn’t be afraid to “instruct the uneducated,” especially if I’m the one most in need of instruction. Instead, I ought to discern how best to employ the Works of Mercy, and knowing that discerning can take time, I am reminded that it doesn’t need to be done immediately. Mary, the Mother of Mercy, didn’t keep silent as an act of avoidance; rather, she was engaged: praying, listening and discerning when to speak and what to say. Catherine echoed that in a verse that I think is most apt:

“…Keep Patience ever at your side:
You’ll need it for a constant guide.
Show fond affection every day,
And above all, devoutly pray…”

I’ll go and do likewise—after all, the world cannot change until I change first.