Instruct the Ignorant
The first spiritual work of mercy is to “instruct the ignorant.” Jesus gave this command to His apostles when He said,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
While initially directed towards the apostles, the obligation to "instruct the ignorant" applies to us today as much as it did in the first century. Even though the Gospel has reached every continent, many people in our world are ignorant of what Jesus actually taught. This is due to many factors, including the numerous interpretations of the Gospels. We must always sift through what we are taught in light of official Church teaching and the public teachings of the pope. When we do that, we are able to recognize a false interpretation of the Gospel and point it out to a friend or family member.
However, we must be remember that Jesus gave His “apostles” the direct mandate to “teach.” Bishops are the first catechists in their diocese and priests are cooperators with him.
After priests come deacons and after deacons come lay catechists. Most dioceses have a certification program that “certifies” a specific catechist for teaching the faith, because each catechist assists the bishop in his mission and can only teach with his permission.
While, we have a duty to evangelize our coworkers or family members, we must do so knowing that we can only take them so far. We must act like arrows, pointing to the truth, bringing these precious souls to those who can instruct them properly. When our knowledge fails, we turn to the Church for assistance.
This work of mercy must not be done lightly as the fate of a person’s soul hangs in the balance.
Counsel the Doubtful
The second spiritual work of mercy is to “counsel the doubtful.” The basic definition of “counsel” is “giving instruction or advice to direct the judgment of another.” To “counsel” in the spiritual realm refers to helping someone with a difficult spiritual decision they are about to make.
What makes this an even trickier situation is that the person receiving counsel is “doubtful.” This means that the person is “uncertain” about the outcome and questions the possibility of a resolution.
Putting it all together, to “counsel the doubtful” is to give an unsettled person wise advice concerning a spiritual decision.
What does this spiritual work of mercy look like in the real world?
Most commonly those involved with spiritual direction perform this work of mercy. In such cases, a priest, religious, deacon or even a lay person are charged with the task of leading troubled souls to spiritual solutions. It requires a very holy and devout person to sift through the muddy waters of life to give consoling words to someone in need.
However, this work of mercy is not meant to be performed only by qualified priests, but should be much more common among lay men and women. The reason being that our friends and family come to us on a regular basis for guidance in spiritual matters. Often they do not even think of talking to a priest, or are uncomfortable or embarrassed to do so. They may not even be Catholic and are struggling in the spiritual life and have no one to turn to except us.
One aid that has been helpful to the laity is the book The Discernment of Spirits: An Ignatian Guide for Everyday Living, which helps a person understand God’s action in their soul. Once a person can better understand God's movements in his/her own heart, he/she can then help someone else in need. When the spiritual situation requires a more detailed theological response, we should always have recourse to our parish priest and ask for his assistance.
“Counseling the doubtful” is an important work of mercy that is especially revealed in spiritual direction, but should also be taught to the average Catholic who seeks to bring peace of mind to a friend or family member.
Next week, we will look at "Admonishing the Sinner" and "Bearing Wrongs Patiently."
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