Inaugurating the Year of Mercy Pope Francis wrote in his message, “In this Holy Year, we look forward to the experience of opening our hearts to those living on the outermost fringes of society: fringes which modern society itself creates. How many uncertain and painful situations there are in the world today! Let us open our eyes and see the misery of the world, the wounds of our brothers and sisters who are denied their dignity, and let us recognize that we are compelled to heed their cry for help! May we reach out to them and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference that too often reign supreme and mask our hypocrisy and egoism!” (Bull of Induction, art. 15).
Mercy is love in action. It is more than charity. Instructing the ignorant – meaning offering knowledge, skill, expertise and helping someone to use their ability are also works of mercy. Charity is often feeding someone who is hungry. Giving the hungry person fish is an act of charity, but teaching the person to fish is justice which springs from charitable intention. Christianity, and particularly the Catholic Church is known for offering quality education to people living in all corners of the world. There are numerous consecrated men and women who have offered their entire life to educate people. Surely offering education is a sure way of evangelizing – giving “Good News”.
Instructing the Ignorant as Spiritual Works of Mercy
Realizing the importance of instructing and giving knowledge to the ignorant, the Church considers this duty as one of the corporal works of mercy. It is a divine mandate that is given by Christ himself to his Church to instruct God’s people in wisdom and knowledge. It is truly a spiritual activity that is very humane in nature. “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbour in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2447). Humanly speaking, literacy makes these listed works of mercy possible and easier.
Right from the apostolic times, the Church has taken up on herself the important duty of serving the poor in different ways. Realizing that illiteracy enslaves God’s people to abject poverty and oppresses them in body, mind and spirit, the ministers of the Church have dedicated their lives to instruct and teach them knowledge and skill. It is said that about one third of all the educational endeavours in the world are the initiatives of the Catholic Church. This situation is very much true in Uganda when we put together the contributions made by the Catholic Church together with few other denominations. It is an undeniable fact that the literacy services we offer are of quality and affordable for various sections of people. The history tells us that it is the Church that championed the fight against illiteracy in the country especially in the remote and the most neglected areas.
As individual Christians in many practical ways we can practice this Spiritual Work of Mercy We can put to use our God given special gift or talent by sharing with them, such as teaching music, games, languages or other skills such as mechanics. We can help in our local Catholic parish, Small Christian Community, an institution and other places and opportunities where we can volunteer. Surely this work of mercy is vital for Catholic parents. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children” (2223), and parents are told that through the grace of matrimony, they “receive the responsibility and privilege of evangelizing their children” (2225).
Recently I heard the following story in Vatican Radio. A poor family living in a slum in one of the large cities of India could not educate their handicapped daughter Indra. Though her legs were affected by polio and was unable to stand or walk, God gave her an exceptional intelligence. Given to her situation she could only sit at the steps of her home for years watching children of her age going to school. After reaching 13 years of age she could not read or write. This pitiable situation was being noticed by a young primary school teacher who recently came to live in the area. He volunteered to take her to school and bring her back home in his bicycle.
Indra was overjoyed and took her opportunity with utmost seriousness. Within three years she mastered all the lessons of primary school and was allowed to sit for her primary school national examinations and passed excellently. Her excelled results brought her scholarship to study in a secondary school that catered for children of her type and once again she passed excellently in her secondary school examinations and was absorbed by an university for bachelors and masters programme in computer science. Once again she emerged as award winning graduate.
Seeing her excellence and endurance government and private companies offered her handsome salary and other benefits. But Indra chose to go to her former secondary school that educated her and gave her life. Today she works in her school as a teacher, mentor and administrator of numerous children who are also in similar situation like her. Those children today call her, ‘madam’, ‘teacher’, ‘sister’ and ‘mother’, the titles she truly deserves!
(Year of Mercy, article appeared in Munno newspaper, December 2015)