Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Spiritual Mercy of Instructing Others


Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes by Benozzo Gozzoli

One inescapable experience of aging is reaching the moment in life when, like the rich young man in the Gospel, we wonder how God will judge our lives. On the one hand, not knowing the mind of God, this might seem to be fruitless exercise. On the other hand, our Lord in his teaching has given us some indication of the norms that might be used. One set of indicators is how well we have practiced the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

We may remember from our religious education classes that the spiritual works of mercy focus on ways to offer help to others on the level of the heart or soul. In the appendix of the Catechism they are defined as counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead (cf. CCC 2447).

It is certainly easy to see how prayer, practicing patience and forgiving others are loving spiritual works, but the related mercies of counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant and admonishing the sinner might seem in our day to be rather judgmental and presumptuous. They also sound like they might not be the responsibility of every follower of Jesus, but instead more suited to priests, spiritual counselors and teachers.

However, these spiritual works are indeed mercies that are perhaps needed more than ever in our time. Just as you might give directions on a map to someone trying to reach a particular destination, and just as you might warn them that they are going in the wrong direction or that they are driving with their lights off in the dark, as followers of Christ we do mercy to others by offering them guidance in life. When we fail to do this, allowing them to endanger themselves, not only are we being uncharitable by our silence and inaction, God says he will hold us to account (cf. Ezekiel 3:18, 33:8).

One of the great teachers of the Church, offering instruction on a massive number of subjects, is Saint Thomas Aquinas, the “Universal Doctor” of the Church whose feast day is today. He is called the Angelic Doctor, and his monumental masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, has for more than seven centuries provided instruction to countless popes, bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.

The spiritual mercy of instructing the ignorant has a special place in the life of pastors, whose first responsibility is to share the Good News of the Gospel, and in a particular way to those who do not know the teachings of Jesus. This spiritual work also resonates with teachers who educate our children in preparation to make their way in the world.

Instructing others regarding the truth is not reserved however to preaching and formal education. As Pope Francis points out, all followers of Jesus are called to practice these works and so all of us are called to share our knowledge with those who may not know what we know. Here, I am thinking especially about those times when we find ourselves in a conversation in which someone says something about the Catholic faith that we know to be wrong. Even if we may not possess the brilliance of a Saint Thomas, still we must, with humility and grace, offer a correction, or another way to answer the question, or even volunteer to “google the Catechism” and together find the right answer!

Also, with all of the public venues for conversation that are available today – blogs, tweets, online news with space for comment – as Catholic evangelizers, we need to work together to make sure that if someone is talking about the Catholic faith, they are getting their facts right. If we know the information to be incorrect and we know how to correct it, we do have a responsibility to do just that.

In this digital age in which we live, instructing the ignorant can be thought of as a uniquely modern from of evangelization and a way that someone who may not know our Lord or much about the Catholic faith can come to a deeper appreciation of Jesus and the Christian life.