My sense is that we need to offer opportunities to do mercy, and that they need to involve hands on personal encounters and definitely not take the easy route of delegating that personal encounter by a donation of money to a registered charity.
One way might be to come up with six different opportunities to practice the works of mercy, and invite parishioners to try one of them in each two month period. With the expectation being a 2 hour time commitment once in every two months of the Year of Mercy. The real challenge, of course, is coming up with six and having enough experienced people around to ease parishioners into each encounter. While being able to offer all six concurrently would be ideal, it is more practical to have the whole parish focus on only one work of mercy for each two month period.
The corporal works of mercy are:
To feed the hungry;
To give drink to the thirsty;
To clothe the naked;
To shelter the homeless;
To visit the sick;
To ransom the captive;
To bury the dead.
The spiritual works of mercy are:
To instruct the ignorant;
To counsel the doubtful;
To admonish sinners;
To bear wrongs patiently;
To forgive offences willingly;
To comfort the afflicted;
To pray for the living and the dead.
In no particular order, here are some workable ideas.
Clothe the naked
To clothe the naked could be approached like this, especially if the 2 month period leads into the start of the school year. The local St Vincent de Paul Society should be able to identify where the struggling families are. School uniforms are expensive, as are school shoes and the uniforms and gear needed to play team sports. Parishioners could be invited to patron a child from a struggling family, and with parental permission, take the child to get a new uniform (paid for by the parishioner) and go through the whole process of finding the correct size, trying the items on, and bringing them home. Parishioners could then choose to go the next step and be there for the child's first day back at school or at team sport and taking by family photographs to mark the occasion (thus enabling the whole family to be in the photo).
Feed the hungry
Feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty could be approached through local nursing homes and hospitals. In those places – all too frequently – there are people who have trouble feeding themselves. Should they not have family around to help them, or be in a place which is understaffed, they may not be getting enough nourishment. A bit of a group training session with someone who knows how to feed incapacitated people in a patient and respectful manner, and then some hands on experience (with light supervision) would work. In order to go into institutions parishioners might have to obtain police checks first. If that proves to be too much of an obstacle, parishes may know of people recently discharged from hospital who need help like that, or the local Meals on Wheels service may know of people who need extra help.
The same 'police check obstacle to ministry' is likely to prevent any kind of 'providing breakfast to school children' initiative. About the only way of getting around the reams of red tape is to have everyone go through the 'working with children' checks and accreditations and then to set up a free breakfast stall in the front yard of a friendly neighbour who lives near the school.
Instruct the ignorant
Engaging in catechist work through the local schools is a rather obvious answer to 'instructing the ignorant'. A 2 month period where parishioners could be a 'catechist helper for a morning' is one way to do it. Helpers can make a big positive difference to how smoothly the lesson runs. The main thing is that there is no obligation or expectation that parishioners who give it a go for a morning will make a commitment to this ministry. It is enough that parishioners after their day at school with a catechist will have a concrete idea of what goes on rather than an imaginary one. With a concrete idea in the heads of a number of parishioners, the amount of practical and moral support to catechists in the parish should increase markedly. Heading into an 'out of comfort zone' experience like that is easier when you know that lots of other parishioners are giving it a go, too.
Ransom the captive
Ransoming captives may not be practical in the traditional sense of paying money to set free prisoners of war. But anyone who is struggling to pay the expenses of major surgery, funeral costs for a relative, unexpected parking fines, a bigger than usual electricity bill, or mobile phone debts would certainly feel they had been let out of prison if those debts were paid by someone else. In a similar vein paying the course fees for someone who cannot afford to pay for the career training they need to escape the poverty cycle would be on a par with setting them free from prison. Once again the local St Vincent de Paul society should have a good idea about which local individuals and families are in need of that kind of help. Parishioners could be involved both at the fund raising level and at a personal gift level. For larger debts and situations that will take time to resolve, some parishioners could choose to be a moral support through encouragement and celebrating the milestones along the way to freedom. Of course safeguards would need to be in place to make sure the money allocated for a specific purpose is used only for that purpose.
Visit the sick
Visiting the sick can take many forms. Getting parishioners to accompany those who regularly take Holy Communion to the house-bound is one way. Having groups of two parishioners on standby to go with the priest when he is called to anoint the seriously ill, and so be a presence of faith and representatives of the parish and universal Church is another way. These first two can be done in a 2 month period. The next two require ongoing commitment. Becoming aware which elderly parishioners never married, or don't have any family left on earth or who have been irreparably estranged from family, and taking a special interest in their health and welfare is another way. Then when ill health comes along, there is a support network in place. The average nursing home has many residents who don't get any visitors on a regular basis. Knowing that someone other than paid staff is interested in how you are getting along means a lot. Residents who get visitors get better care than residents who are obviously neglected.
Bury the dead / pray for the living and the dead
Funerals are another way we can help parishioners to exercise mercy. Every funeral needs some welcomers; people who can direct those who have travelled distances to the toilets, who can answer questions, and who can introduce the family members of the deceased to the acolytes, organist, cantor and anyone else from the parish who are assisting with the funeral. Having enough parishioners around to pray a rosary for the deceased prior to the start of the funeral Mass is a wonderful tradition. The benefits of having a contingent of parishioners at a funeral cannot be underestimated. 1) it witnesses to the love of the church universal and parish for the deceased 2) it provides people to sing the hymns and say the responses 3) it gives good example of when to sit, stand and kneel 4) the prayers of those with faith are valuable not only in obtaining mercy for the deceased but also in interceding for the conversion of the mourners and 5) it is an invitation to all to live their lives more worthy of heaven. And these benefits are just as relevant if the parishioner knew the deceased well, only a little or not at all. In fact, the blessings that come from attending the funeral of someone you didn't know can be very special. The challenge lies in getting the word out when the next funeral is scheduled. In every parish there are members who for medical reasons are unable to attend morning Mass but who could get to a late morning or early afternoon funeral and who would be very grateful for that opportunity. You need to get the word out especially to them. Going the extra mile would be attending the burial rites as well as the funeral
So there's six ideas.
They are all do-able with a bit of planning and co-ordination.
Now is the time, before the Year of Mercy begins, to encourage parishioners to begin the paperwork for police checks and working with children accreditation. That way, come December 8 with all the paperwork done, parishioners can confidently begin stepping out of their comfort zones and start experiencing the works of mercy at 'taste tester' level.
Now is the time to meet with parishioners who can help make these opportunities happen, and to liaise with representatives from the various institutions (schools, hospitals, aged care facilities).
May St Vincent de Paul, St Mary of the Cross McKillop and Blessed Frederic Ozanam intercede for all those preparing for the Year of Mercy.