As we await the beginning of the Year of Mercy on December 8, I was asked to speak to fellow catechists regarding the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Of the two groups (each comprising seven acts or works) my fellow catechists were more familiar with the former. This is perhaps because of Christ’s words in Matthew 25, but also because the works of mercy pertaining to the body may be visualized more concretely than their spiritual counterparts. Nevertheless, my personal reflections on the spiritual works of mercy from a catechetical perspective led me to realize that the catechist—or religious education instructor—practices the spiritual works of mercy far more often than he may realize.
The first of the spiritual works of mercy is also the most obvious work related to catechesis: instruct the ignorant. Sometimes teachers feel as though the minds of their students are a true tabula rasa, and may become overwhelmed at the amount of information that must be communicated during the school year. What we catechists also discover is that our students’ heads are often filled with misperceptions about God and Christian beliefs—misconceptions that must often be clarified before full instruction is given. There are an awful lot of things our students do not know, and a whole lot they misunderstand. The good catechist takes his instruction as a work of mercy, and lays out clear categories to help a student sort out and clarify what he knows. When he does this, the student will begin to grasp his “blind spots”—empty categories—and recognize his ignorance. It also awakens in him a wonder at the newness of truth, a desire to learn, and a ready receptivity for instruction. The catechist lays out the “big picture” and helps students find their place in it.
Students ask many good questions—but sometimes students question. There is a vast difference between asking questions and questioning. The former comes from the student’s awareness of his ignorance, while the latter is due to some form of interior doubt. This, in turn, leads the catechist to the second spiritual work of mercy: counsel the doubtful. Every catechist dreams of a room filled with students ready to learn—but also fears having to answer the questioning student. Rather than coming to the classroom with apprehension, however, the catechist should remind himself that his answers come as a work of mercy. As he counsels the doubtful, the catechist must speak with authority, unafraid of teaching the truth, yet relating that truth in a way which relieves the tension caused by questioning, while restoring the confidence of the shaken student. In his counseling, the catechist channels his inner Gandalf.
No catechist will make it through a school year without disciplining an unruly student, or calling out students on the immoral practices common among youth. This important use of a teacher’s voice of authority is a work of mercy called admonishing the sinner. The catechist is entrusted with aiding the formation of his students’ consciences where they are to hear the authoritative voice of the all-good and all-holy God. Students need admonishing when they misuse the name of God, mistreat another student, appropriate copyrighted materials on the internet, or fail to live chastely in our profane culture. Students respect a teacher that speaks the truth plainly, yet with merciful love. It is better to be a catechist that students respect than a catechist that students “like.”
If discipline has a merciful aspect, it entails a corollary work of mercy: forgive offences willingly. The student that speaks out of turn, or even disrespects a catechist, must be admonished, but also forgiven. The ultimate purpose of discipline is not to put a student “in his place,” but to correct the student, and help him win back his place. Forgiveness opens the door to healing and restoration, not merely between the individual student and catechist, but even between the student and the class as a whole. Like the miraculously healed leper of scripture now enabled to return to religious, social, and civic life, the catechist whose discipline is followed by forgiveness builds his classroom and teaches his students the broad reach of merciful forgiveness.
Students are not the only ones that may leave the catechist feeling less than appreciated or respected. Sometimes a catechist arrives for class and finds his classroom in disarray, or important catechetical materials missing. Students may be called out of the classroom unannounced, or a class may be shortened, thus laying waste to a catechist’s lesson and hours of preparation. All this calls for the catechist to bear wrongs patiently. This spiritual work of mercy is not so much directed at our students, but at those who manage and support the catechetical program itself. This is mercy shown to the Director of Religious Education and those assistants who act to aid the catechist in administration. Catechetical programs do not always run as planned, but we can turn those times of disappointment into opportunities to perform a work of mercy.
There are many poignant moments in the life of a catechist. No catechist will forget the look on a student’s face when it expresses the mind’s grasp of a newly discovered truth. Sometimes, however, a catechist’s most profound moments come outside of intellectual formation. As a catechist with over twelve years of teaching experience, I cannot think of a single year that has gone by without a student losing a loved one, being picked on by others, or going through a difficult situation at home. Catechists teach students from all walks of life, and life can be very hard on a young one growing up. These are the times that God’s providence has put the catechist in a situation to comfort the sorrowful.
The final spiritual work of mercy occurs outside of the classroom, and should be as important to the catechist as all the hours spent preparing lesson plans: pray for the living and the dead. The classroom gives us the opportunity to instruct, counsel, admonish, forgive, be patient, and comfort, but that hour or so the catechist has with students is miniscule in comparison to the students’ life outside of the religious education classroom. They are in desperate need of our prayers. We live in a culture that incessantly pulls our students away from Christ and towards worldliness. These students have been entrusted to us in the classroom, but they are also entrusted to us in our prayers.
In this year of mercy, may we catechists relearn the spiritual works of mercy and consciously enact them.