When my three oldest daughters — Anna, Maria, and Laura — were teenagers, they got involved in community theater. In one of the first plays they participated in, they became good friends with one of the girls in the play. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to call their friend “Julia.”
When my daughters met Julia, she revealed to them that she had grown up in a dysfunctional family. She was very appreciative of the fact that they overlooked her faults and accepted her for who she was.
After the play was finished, Julia told my daughters that she wanted to become a Catholic. She was influenced by them because of their love for each other, their kindness toward her, and their sense of humor. My daughters put Julia in touch with Fr. Michael Driscoll, who helped to prepare her for her entrance into the Catholic Church.
When the day came for Julia’s baptism, my wife and I, along with all seven of our children, attended the baptism. Other than my memory of being present in the church with Julia, my family, and Fr. Driscoll, the only other thing I remember was something that Fr. Driscoll said before he baptized Julia. Here’s a summary of what he said:
I’ve never met a person who converted to the Catholic faith because of one of my sermons. People embrace the Catholic faith because of the love, kindness, and influence of other people. They see something in the faithful Catholic person that they don’t have — something they lack and desire with all their heart. It can be the love and kindness of the person, the enthusiasm that the person has about the Catholic faith, or it can simply be because of the person’s love of God. Love, kindness, and enthusiasm are contagious, especially when accompanied by the grace of God.
Anyone who is familiar with the Gospel readings knows the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Zacchaeus was a man of small stature and when he heard that Jesus was going to Jericho, he ran ahead of our Lord and climbed up into a Sycamore tree, so he could see our Lord when He passed by.
When Jesus walked by the tree, He looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Several of the people who were present were critical of Jesus because He was going to be the guest of a man who was considered to be a sinner.
Later, while Jesus was with Zacchaeus at his house, Zacchaeus said, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” Jesus responded by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.” Luke 19:8-10.
Most of us are like Zacchaeus was when he climbed the tree to observe Jesus. We are spectators who are looking at what’s going on around us from a distance, as if we are watching a movie. We hesitate to go out of our way to come to the aid of others. We have our own lives and the lives of our family and friends to take care of, so it’s easy for us to justify our role as spectators who prefer to observe what is going on around us from a distance.
There is a lesson for each of us in what our Lord did when he saw Zacchaeus. He ignored the crowd, so He could focus on one man. That was our Lord’s preferred way of dealing with people — one person at a time. And that’s the way He expects us to work on His behalf — with one person at a time.
Jesus never said that our role in life is to change the world. His desire for us is to imitate Him by focusing on helping one person at a time. That role is implied in His message, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39.
It was not unusual for our Lord to reach out to an individual who was hidden in a large crowd. When Bartimaeus, who was blind, called out — “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” — our Lord stopped and talked to Bartimaeus and then healed him. Mark 10:46-52.
Bartimaeus specifically asked our Lord for mercy. The Modern Catholic Dictionary defines “mercy” as,
The disposition to be kind and forgiving. Founded on compassion, mercy differs from compassion or the feeling of sympathy in putting this feeling into practice with a readiness to assist. It is therefore the ready willingness to help anyone in need, especially in need of pardon or reconciliation.
The key phrase in the above definition is, “putting this feeling into practice with a readiness to assist.” To be truly merciful, you cannot be a spectator. You must be willing to accept the sacrifice and suffering that accompanies the performance of the act of mercy and then take direct action to help the person who is in need.
When Jesus saw the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), her ancestry, culture, and how she was raised did not make any difference to him. He saw through her exterior and into her heart. He talked to her in a way that led her to change her life for all eternity. He saw her as a unique individual who was created in the image and likeness of God.
That was the way He saw everyone.
When you and I perform a spiritual or corporal work of mercy, we imitate Jesus by seeing the person the same way He sees them. We see through their exterior and into their heart. We may not think about it, but we see them as a unique individual who was created in the image and likeness of God, and we do our best to assist them in the same way that our Lord would assist them.
When we are merciful to someone, we become a reflection of Jesus. The person we are assisting doesn’t realize it, but they are able to catch a glimpse of our Lord when they look at us.
That’s what happened when my three daughters were merciful to Julia and developed a friendship with her. Over time, Julia saw our Lord’s reflection in them and wanted to be just like them — a faithful, loving, kind, happy, enthusiastic Catholic who could touch others in the same way she had been touched.
Why can’t all Catholics be like that?