Year of Mercy - Instructing the Faithful
Friday, 15 January 2016 00:00


 The Year of Mercy

"Instructing the Faithful" ~ A Spiritual Work of Mercy

By Father Patrick Manning, Ph.D.

Phillip, prompted by the Holy Spirit, joined an Ethiopian eunuch who was returning in his chariot from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. As the eunuch read a passage from Isaiah, Phillip asked him: "Do you understand what you are reading?"

The Ethiopian responded "How can I unless someone instructs me?" (Acts of the Apostles 8:36 ff.).

As we embark on our Year of Mercy, we visit the Spiritual Works of Mercy, first among them being "To Instruct the Faithful." Indeed it is a sore lack of mercy to refuse to enlighten one whose life would be greatly blessed by further knowledge and learning. Baptism has its gifts and graces as well as its responsibilities (some of which the Church articulates as the Corporal Works of Mercy). Baptism is a commissioning to ministry, and instructing the faithful is a ministry incumbent upon all the baptized.

Instruction suggests that we both teach and allow ourselves to be taught. This may occur in a more formal way, such as participation in parish programs (the religious education of children, sacramental preparation, adult education, youth ministry), or it may be in a more informal manner – that is, through the example we afford by living as Jesus commands (as St. Francis of Assisi suggests: Preach always, and use words if necessary).

One of the most delicate, important and oft avoided means of instruction is fraternal correction. How often have we avoided speaking up to correct one another because we fear rejection or ridicule? Jesus never, ever commanded us to be safe. And if there was anything Jesus was not, it was a people pleaser. It may be an improper joke, a racist or sexist remark, or an offense to another's dignity that we sinfully tolerate (This may cause one to recall the title of one of Thomas Merton's works: "Confessions of a Guilty Bystander.").

In the Hebrew Scriptures we read: "You shall not hate any of your kindred in your heart. Reprove your neighbor openly so that you do not incur sin because of that person" (Lev 19:17-18). This links "reproof" with "love," so when Jesus teaches that love is the greatest commandment, he doesn't just mean "feel-good" love; He means confronting people (or corporations, or governments) when they do wrong. What makes this commandment so pointed is its express motivation: If you don't reprove your neighbor, you share the guilt of the person committing the offense. Failure to reprove is a sin of omission. Interestingly enough, in this type of instruction, the Lord is calling us to be like Him, for out of love that is what He does for us.

There is a command to correct one another in Mt 18:15, as well as in other Old and New Testament passages, as well as in Gospel parables that remind us we are (at the very least) partially responsible for our neighbors' salvation. Even in apostolic times, we see this command in the ancient "Didache," which itself means "teaching," wherein we read: "And reprove one another – not in anger but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel" ("The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles," ca. 65-80 CE, 15.3).

In addition to the many ways we may instruct in the Christian life, we are called as well to be instructed, to allow ourselves to learn and grow in the faith. This may be done in a myriad of ways, but note this too has long been a tradition in the Catholic Church. We read as far back as the third century:

"If there is a teacher there, let no one be late in arriving at the assembly where they give instruction. Then it shall be given to whoever speaks to things which are useful to each one, and you will hear things you did not know, and you will benefit from the things the Holy Spirit will give to you through the one who instructs. In this way your faith will be strengthened by what you will have heard" ("The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus," 41.3, ca. 215 A.D.).

The Christian command to instruct and be instructed remains, and whether or not it is a baptismal responsibility is not in question. The challenge is relentless, as is the pursuit of holiness. In this Year of Mercy, may we allow ourselves to be humbly instructed in whatever ways the Church and the Holy Spirit may suggest. And, with a heart full of mercy, may we take up the mantle of instruction for our sisters and brothers, that we may assist and accompany one another, always more well-informed, on the way to eternal life.