FLASHBACK! Cathedral Grade School, Omaha, Mrs. Dugdale’s religion class. It’s the 1960-61 school year. I am in that stage of brain development when rote learning and memorization is what my gray-matter does best.
It’s the time that most boys collect baseball cards and can cite every player’s statistics like they were their own. I collected photos of cars and could identify every new make and model Detroit could churn out.
Mrs. Dugdale: “Dick, what are the Corporal Works of Mercy?”
Richard (AKA “Dick”): “The Corporal Works of Mercy are seven: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom captives and bury the dead.” I smile with pride.
Mrs. Dugdale: “Very good, Dick! What are the Spiritual Works of Mercy?”
Dick (AKA “Richard”): “The Spiritual Works of Mercy are seven: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowing, admonish the sinner, gladly forgive injuries, bear wrongs patiently, pray for the living and the dead.”
Mrs. Dugdale: “Excellent, Dick. You may be seated.”
I was beaming! That was as easy as distinguishing the characteristics and relative merits of the Pontiac Catalina, Chieftain, Fire Chief, Star Chief and Bonneville. I boasted a broad smile as I took my seat.
My friends who went to public school would learn the same information in Sunday School or summer Bible camp. They would most likely learn it directly from Scripture by memorizing 1 Peter 3:8; Romans 12:8 or 15:2; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Philippians 1:8 or 2:1; Colossians 3:12 or Hebrews 13:3. But those of us who went to Catholic school also knew that the best list to memorize was from Jesus’ teaching about the Last Judgment (Matthew 25).
FAST FORWARD: Today, 63 years old, Minneapolis, retired. I am immensely proud of Cathedral Grade School and remain eternally indebted to the Dominican Sisters who ran our school and teachers like Mrs. Dugdale. They knew what was going on, and was comprehensible, in my ten-year old noggin and gave me the education for a lifetime.
Yes, they taught us the Ten Commandments. But quite honestly, I just memorized them without understanding what the heck many of them meant. “Loving God alone with my whole heart, soul and mind” seemed like a worthy idea but wouldn’t change a thing – Mom and Dad and the teachers at Cathedral saw to that! I didn’t steal, except once I took a candy bar from B&B Grocery – but I apologized to Mr. Brannigan the next day! I didn’t have a clue what it meant to covet a neighbor’s wife and no one would even talk about “adultery”!
Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy… At least I understood the vocabulary. Even more, I saw my parents, neighbors, teachers and people at church actually doing these things. They were praised, practiced and possible.
Now that I have 63 years of trying to “walk the talk” I am recognizing the profound difference! Too many pious Christians are hung up on the Ten Commandments. They are scary as hell! Not enough people understand that Jesus says absolutely nothing about violation of these commandments when giving us the criteria by which we will be judged.
In Jesus speech about the Last Judgment, no one who murdered, stole, committed adultery (I now know what that is!), lied or cheated is condemned. Jesus’ condemnation does not concern violations of the Ten Commandments!
Jesus’ admonition focuses on failures to do good! Yes, we sin by failing to live according the teaching handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But, Jesus exhorts us to live by something more, by a higher righteousness. (Matthew 5:20)
Seems to me we’d be better off erecting marble monuments on our court-house lawns that quote the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy rather than the Ten Commandments!
On this Mothers Day weekend I am eternally grateful and indebted to Mrs. Dugdale, the Dominican Sisters, and so many other great women who “mothered” God to me. Of course my own mother, Gert, tops that list! Today, I hope all of you are beaming with pride for what you did with your lives and how you taught others to love.
Still very much a ten-year old boy, someday I want you to be able to say that I’ve done you proud!
I am indebted to Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2013 for prompting these – and many other – reflections. Taken especially from pp. 142-5.