ColumnsDisciple’s Corner

Reflecting on the works of mercy: insights learned during the year

This week’s column is the last Disciples’ Corner for the current school year, and the conclusion of our discussion of the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

I thought it might be timely to close by identifying some insights about mercy that might have emerged over the course of the year.

I don’t know about yours, but these are some of mine:


  • The opportunities – and challenges – for acting with mercy may actually be more numerous, and certainly more diverse, than many of us have imagined.
  • Many of us may be engaging — if only unintentionally — in various acts of mercy more frequently than we have realized and calling it by other names like kindness or forgiveness or caring.
  • Mercy is not generally a highly prized value in our culture or a constituent principle of our social, political or economic systems. (This might also be true, until lately, of our religious communities.)
  • In fact, people often think about mercy as unfair or unjust — a violation of principle, or an effort to game the system.
  • As a result, talking about mercy – and engaging in acts of mercy – is actually a bit more uncomfortable, and in some cases actually unwelcome, than we might have thought.
  • Also as a result, private and individual expressions of mercy are generally more acceptable, or at least more tolerable, than public or social (which is to say official or institutional) acts of mercy.
  • As we become more aware of the opportunities – to be honest, the demands – for mercy, we might experience something like “mercy fatigue,” similar to the phe­nomenon charitable organizations call “donor fatique,” when there are numerous natural disasters in a short period of time. In other words, we may feel like the need simply overwhelms our ability to be merciful.
  • In response to both the general unpopularity of mercy and the demands “mercy fatigue” places on our capacity for mercy, there is always a dangerous temptation to start classifying the needs for mercy according to how deserving they are, even though there are no really justifiable criteria for deciding that one person or situation deserves mercy more than another.

This occurred to me a couple of weeks ago as I listened to the Sunday Gospel where the Risen Christ appears to the disciples and says, “Whose sins you forgive they are forgiven; whose sins you retain they are retained.”

If we’re not careful, that can sound at first hearing like Jesus is giving his disciples permission not to forgive. But reading the passage against the whole of the Gospel (which is the only way Catholics can interpret Scripture), it seems more likely that he was describing a fact, not offering a choice.

I think by extension, the same thing is true of mercy.

What do you think?

 “How many times we say: ‘But he is a sinner, he has done this, and that …’, and we judge others. And you? Each one of us should ask himself: ‘Yes, he is a sinner, and I…?’

“We are all sinners, but we are all forgiven; we all have the possibility of receiving this forgiveness, which is God’s mercy. Therefore, we must not be afraid to acknowledge ourselves sinners, to confess ourselves sinners, because every sin was born by the Son on the Cross….

“We must not be afraid of our miseries: each one of us has his own. The power of the love of the Crucified knows no obstacles and is never exhausted, and this mercy cancels our miseries.”

— Pope Francis in his Wednesday Audience, April 6, 2016.

Pray and Reflect

Use one or more of the following questions for personal reflection, group dis-cus-sion, or private journaling:

  • On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high) rate how aware you are of the 14 Works of Mercy. How would you have rated yourself five years ago?
  • Question for Children: Which of the Works of Mercy are the most important to you?
  • Questions for Families/Classrooms: Which of the Works of Mercy do we do well? Which do we need to work on?
  • Questions for Adults: What were the main insights about mercy that occurred to you during this year’s discussions? Which of the Works of Mercy come most naturally for you? Which would you want to work on?
  • I think the important thing about mercy is….

 Learn More

Use this inventory to determine how well you or your family are living the works of mercy: Find more resources at:

 Join the Conversation

Add your comments to this week’s discussion at

Dave Cushing is director of adult faith formation for the Catholic parishes in Waterloo. The Disciple’s Corner is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Dubuque’s Office of Faith Formation and Education and is funded through the Archdiocesan Educational Development Board. It is designed to help catechists, teachers, parents, grandparents, guardians and other adults grow in their appreciation of their roles as disciples of Jesus Christ.