Comfort the sorrowful

The last Spiritual Work of Mercy that we will consider in this series of editorials is that of comforting the sorrowful. 

Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. described this work on that archdiocese’s website (adw.org): “Of all the Spiritual Works of Mercy, comforting the sorrowful requires the greatest patience, sensitivity, and also silence. This is because sorrow (or grief) often has a life and logic of its own; often it must be allowed to run its course. Sometimes there is not a lot a person can say or do when grief is present. Grief is something we can rarely get around; we must simply go through it. Thus, comforting or consoling the sorrowful and grieving people in our life often involves a kind of silent and understanding accompaniment more so than words or actions. To listen and give understanding attention often provides the greatest value.”

What the monsignor wrote calls to mind the Jewish custom of “sitting shiva.” Wikipedia explains it: “It is customary for the mourners to sit on low stools, or even the floor, symbolic of the emotional reality of being ‘brought low’ by the grief. Typically, mourners do not return to work until the end of the week of mourning. It is considered a great mitzvah (literally ‘commandment’ but usually interpreted as ‘good deed’) of kindness and compassion to pay a home visit (make or pay a shiva call) to the mourners. Traditionally, no greetings are exchanged and visitors wait for the mourners to initiate conversation, or remain silent if the mourners do not do so, out of respect for their bereavement.”

In a way, we Catholics do this at the wake, but this Work of Mercy reminds us that mourners continue to need comfort after their loved ones have been buried.

Msgr. Pope added, “St. Augustine once observed that sighs and tears in prayer often accomplish more than words. And so it is that when people are sorrowful, their grief and tears are their prayer and we do well to honor that, rather than to say, ‘Don’t be sad’ or ‘Cheer up.’ A largely silent and respectful silence can be a way of honoring grief and signaling a true camaraderie.”

On May 5, Pope Francis presided at a prayer vigil “to dry the tears” (this was the official name of the ceremony) in St. Peter’s Square, as part of the Year of Mercy. Towards the beginning of his speech, the Holy Father prayed that the Holy Spirit might “enlighten our minds to find the right words capable of bringing comfort.” 

The pontiff then spoke from the point of view of someone full of sorrow: “At times of sadness, suffering and sickness, amid the anguish of persecution and grief, everyone looks for a word of consolation. We sense a powerful need for someone to be close and feel compassion for us. We look around us with uncertainty, trying to see if we can find someone who really understands our pain. Our mind is full of questions but answers do not come.”

Jesus Himself is the model of how we are to approach the sorrowful with compassion, Pope Francis noted. “In our pain, we are not alone. Jesus, too, knows what it means to weep for the loss of a loved one. In one of the most moving pages of the Gospel, Jesus sees Mary [of Bethany] weeping for the death of her brother Lazarus. Nor can He hold back tears. He was deeply moved and began to weep (cf. Jn 11:33-35). The evangelist John, in describing this, wanted to show how much Jesus shared in the sadness and grief of His friends. Jesus’ tears have unsettled many theologians over the centuries, but even more they have bathed so many souls and been a balm to so much hurt.

“The tears of Jesus serve as an antidote to my indifference before the suffering of my brothers and sisters. His tears teach me to make my own the pain of others, to share in the discouragement and sufferings of those experiencing painful situations. Jesus’ tears cannot go without a response on the part of those who believe in Him. As He consoles, so we too are called to console,” Pope Francis reminded the crowd.

We cannot do this on our own. Thanks be to God, the Divine Physician is ready to help, as always. “Prayer is the true medicine for our suffering,” the pope said. “In prayer, we too can feel God’s presence. The tenderness of His gaze comforts us; the power of His Word supports us and gives us hope. The love of God, poured into our hearts, allows us to say that when we love, nothing and no one will ever be able to separate us from those we have loved. The power of love turns suffering into the certainty of Christ’s victory, and our own victory in union with Him, and into the hope that one day we will once more be together and will forever contemplate the face of the Trinity Blessed, the eternal wellspring of life and love.

“At the foot of every cross, the Mother of Jesus is always there. With her mantle, she wipes away our tears. With her outstretched hand, she helps us to rise up and she accompanies us along the path of hope.”

Given the mourning that surrounds us (on the national and international level, but also on the personal level, since people continue to die every day in our cities and towns), we need to ask God to help us imitate His example of love for the sorrowful and then live it out, bringing them comfort. 


© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts