To instruct the ignorant... Cardinal Spellman once asked me what is wrong with the Catholic education? I said, "Your Excellency, frankly I don't want to answer that question. I know too much. Put me under obedience and I will answer it." So he did, and I said this sentence:
"Give me a grade school Catholic, a girl or boy who has just gone to grade school, and I will make a Catholic out of them in about three months. Give me a girl or boy who went through Catholic high school and it will take me, by the grace of God, six to eight months. Give me a B.A. who went through Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, Catholic college and it will take me a year to 18 months. Give me an M.A. and it will take me somewhere, with the grace, between 18 months and three years."
I have never succeeded to make a Ph.D. a Catholic.... one who has never been to a public school or anyplace else... just straight Catholic education from beginning to end! "Well, Catherine," he said, "this is a heavy indictment." I said, "It is, Your Excellency. It is that and more." "Well, what do you attribute it to?" I said, "The higher the education, the less the implementation."
A Ph.D. came to Friendship House--Mary was her name. Being that she has brilliant ideas I asked her to write for us a paper that we had to give to our Apologetics class - Sheed & Ward, about 300 people there - on the Mystical Body. Well, there was hushed silence when she finished. Tears were going down my face, and I don't cry over papers easily. A priest was sniffing through his handkerchief and blowing his nose. Sheed was looking at her and saying, "My God! What a brain!" That sort of reaction!
So Katie says to herself, "I have an idea. Tomorrow she goes to the clothing room," and in Harlem the clothing room was something! They were lined up a block and a half waiting for clothing. With that gift of understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ she would be ideal in the clothing room! I told that to the Cardinal.
So the dame lasted exactly three days and she comes to me and says, "B, I can't take it. They stink. They are dirty!" Now what is there after ten years of education or more? "They stink!" That gets to the very essence of working in the Mystical Body! When I go as a nurse into the carcinoma ward, which is the cancer ward, they all stink! You get that smell of cancer in the morning that just knocks you over. But love overcomes that. St. Francis kissed the leper.
That is my brother in Christ! That is a member of my body! This is my finger! Sure it stinks, but let's wash it off and let's serve it. Why write beautiful articles on the Mystical Body and not be able to do that simple thing?
Catherine Doherty, Talk on the Spiritual Works of Mercy
Reflection – Catherine had her own take on things, and that’s for sure. I’m hoping to go through a few of these presentations on the spiritual works of mercy, from a little course she taught to the MH staff in 1957. I am finding her way of presentation here to not lend itself to short excerpts, so this blog may be a whole lotta Catherine, a little bit of Fr. Denis for these next days.
The Church is abuzz with talks of ‘mercy’ vs. ‘justice’ these days. I think we need to go seriously into the doctrine of mercy and what it means. It is not sentimentality and laxity—it is a serious, searching, self-sacrificing, and total concern for the good of the other person, no matter what the cost is to us, and a boundless compassion for the other person in his or her real circumstances and pain.
Ignorance is a terrible pain, a terrible poverty. In Catherine’s era, and especially in the 1950s when she gave this talk, people would be essentially catechized; what she saw was the calamitous failure to apply the faith to life, to implement it. And indeed, I don’t think the Church and the world would have blown up into such intellectual and moral chaos in the 1960s and 1970s if things had been all that hot in the 40s and 50s. And indeed, it was the intellectual class who had heads full of theory and data but little practical charity who led the charge into that chaos and confusion.
For sure, Catherine would have seen the need for basic catechesis in our day, and indeed she goes on in this talk to present her delicate and careful way of sharing knowledge of the faith with people who lack it. The two go together: knowledge of the doctrine and how it is to be implemented; creed and commandments united with charity and compassion; dogma and decree with delicacy and discretion.
But let us not forget: to instruct the ignorant is a work of mercy. My experience, growing up as I did in the 1970s and 80s, that it is the one work of mercy that has been neglected above all others, to disastrous effect. And in the ongoing work of evangelization and outreach to the ‘margins’, we must include if not emphasize, with great tact and discernment, this long-neglected work.