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“Instructing the Ignorant: An Undesirable Mercy?”

By Christopher Carstens
Director of the Office for Sacred Worship

While showing mercy to others is God-like—we are to be “merciful like the Father,” as the Year of Mercy’s motto says—and is good in itself, we are also motivated to show mercy so that we, too, might be recipients of it.

Were we hungry, we wish others to feed us. Thirsty, to give us drink. Sick, to offer prayers on our behalf. Afflicted, to be comforted.

But ignorant?

While I’d be first in line to receive another’s merciful food or drink or prayers or comfort, I’m not sure how quickly I’d confess my ignorance and ask instruction! Should the catechist (for example) tell those in her care that she is motivated by the Spiritual Work of Mercy to “instruct the ignorant”? Most other Works of Mercy seem easier to receive, but claiming ignorance and seeking instruction may rankle.

But my aversion to claim ignorance and, as a work of mercy, receive instruction shouldn’t be.  There is nothing that I now know that hadn’t been taught to me by another; or at least any new or original knowledge that I’ve come to is the fruit of truths given from without. The Pythagorean Theorem, infield-fly rule, tying a tie, driving a car, balancing a checkbook (sort-of), table etiquette, reading books, praying, Jesus, eternal life: only by the merciful instruction of others do I know these things today.

Aristotle—who was at one time ignorant and needed a teacher to instruct him!—believed that we are born with minds as “blank slates,” knowing nothing, and receive all information from without. Indeed, as Aristotle also says that each of us, “by nature, desire to know.”

As the Year of Mercy comes to its end, consider, like Aristotle, learning something new, especially of the faith. Then, like St. Paul, lead another to divine truth: “But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach” (Romans 10:14)?

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