July 12, 2020

Quotes From The Fathers On Mercy That Might Enlighten—Or Offend—You

This is part two of a three part essay from Martha of Ireland exploring how love, justice and mercy all tie in to our salvation.

Let’s take a look at what some Church Fathers had to say on the topic, and if we remember that justice, as well as charity, is also the foundation of mercy, perhaps we will not be so shocked by any appearances of proto-Communism, crypto-Socialism, or being less than fervent Free Market Capitalists on their parts.

(As quoted by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa):

Hence Basil says [Hom. super Luc. xii, 18]: “If you acknowledge them,” viz. your temporal goods, “as coming from God, is He unjust because He apportions them unequally?  Why are you rich while another is poor, unless it be that you may have the merit of a good stewardship, and he the reward of patience?  It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you have stored away, the shoe of the barefoot that you have left to rot, the money of the needy that you have buried underground: and so you injure as many as you might help.” Ambrose expresses himself in the same way. It is written 1 John 3:17: “He that hath the substance of this world, and shall see his brother in need, and shall put up his bowels from him, how doth the charity of God abide in him?”

More? Ok.

  • “You never give to the poor what is yours; you merely return to them what belongs to them.  For what you have appropriated was given for the common use of everybody.  The land was given for everybody, not just the rich.” St. Ambrose, 4th century bishop of Milan
  • “The bread that is in your box belongs to the hungry; the coat in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes you do not wear belong to the barefoot; the money in your vault belongs to the destitute.”  St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, c. A.D. 370
  • “Give something, however small, to the one in need. For it is not small to the one who has nothing.  Neither is it small to God, if we have given what we could.” St Gregory Naziansen, Bishop of Constantinople, late fourth century
  • “Nothing is your own.  You are a slave and what is yours belongs to the Lord.  For a slave has no property that is truly his own; naked you were brought into this life.” Asterius, Bishop of Amasea, from “The Unjust Steward,” c. A.D. 400

And that influence echoed down the centuries, where people in all ages and of all nations were inspired to do practical works of mercy.

In the 12th century two different religious orders, the Trinitarians (founded by St. John of Matha and St. Felix of Valois) and the Mercedarians (the Order of Our Lady of Ransom, established by St. Peter Nolasco and St. Raymond of Pennafort) were founded to carry out the sixth corporal work of mercy.  Both of these communities had as their chief scope the recovery of Christians who were held captive by the infidels.  St. Peter Nolasco was the first superior of the Mercerdarians, with the title of Commander-General; he also filled the office of Ransomer, a title given to the monk sent into the lands subject to the Moors to arrange for the ransom of prisoners.  The members of the Mercerdarians took a fourth vow to surrender their own persons in place of those whom they were not otherwise able to redeem from slavery.

Yes, that means if the owner of the galley slave didn’t want to sell because he didn’t want to lose a slave, the monk attempting to buy back the captive would volunteer to be a slave in his place.  Oh, those crazy mediaeval fanatics, huh?   And just to make things a little more historically clear, the ‘Moorish threat’ lasted a long time and ranged quite wide; as recently as the 17th century, the Sack of Baltimore (that’s Baltimore in County Cork, Ireland, after which the American Baltimore is named) happened on June 20, 1631.  The was attacked by North African pirates from the Barbary Coast, led by a Dutch captain turned pirate, Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, also known as Murad Reis the Younger, and a crew, made up of Dutchmen, Algerians and Ottoman Turks.  They captured 108 English settlers, who worked a pilchard industry in the village, and some local Irish people.  The villagers were put in irons and taken to a life of slavery in North Africa, to live out their days as galley slaves, while others ended up in the harem or within the walls of the Sultan’s palace as labourers.  Only three women out of the entire group were ever ransomed and returned home, some fourteen years later.

And, since it wouldn’t be a proper post by me without a quote from Dante, let me give you another example of a crazy mediaeval fanatic.  On the first terrace of Mount Purgatory, where the aftereffects of the sin of Pride are cleansed, Dante sees a famous figure:

121 ‘That,’ he replied, ‘is Provenzan Salvani,

122 and he is here because in his presumption

123 he sought to have all Siena in his grasp.

124 ‘Thus burdened he has gone, and goes on without rest,

125 ever since he died. Such coin he pays,

126 who is too bold on earth, in recompense.’

127 And I said: ‘If the spirit that puts off

128 repentance to the very edge of life

129 must stay below, before he comes up here,

130 ‘as long as he has lived–

131 unless he’s helped by holy prayers–

132 how was his coming here allowed?’

133 ‘While he was living in his greatest glory,’ he said,

134 ‘he willingly sat in the marketplace

135 of Siena, putting aside all shame,

136 ‘and there, to redeem his friend

137 from the torment he endured in Charles’s prison,

138 he was reduced to trembling in every vein

How, Dante wants to know, did such a notoriously proud and vainglorious general, who in his ambition strove to be the highest power and leader of Siena, end up in Purgatory when he should, by rights, still be waiting to enter in and start his purgation?  The answer is in an act of mercy towards another, which was also an act of humility on Salvani’s part.  A friend of his was captured after a battle with Charles of Anjou and a large ransom, to be paid in a month on pain of death, was put on his head.  Rich, powerful, proud Salvani, the would-be Lord of Siena, for love of his friend went and begged in the public square for the money, even though he was shaking with mortification.

The mercy he showed for love of another, though he did not know it, would result in mercy for himself.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy”.  Strangely obtain, in this case: a soldier of bloody wars to be one of the merciful?  Who would think it, except God?  Can we see a leading citizen of a city in our time doing the same – and I don’t mean getting the government to bail them out with taxpayer money because “they’re too big to fail”, I mean going down to the mall or the square and standing there like a common beggar asking the little people for help.  Mmm – can’t imagine it somehow.

Moving on from the 13th to the 17th century, let us look at St. Vincent de Paul.  A French Catholic priest who led an interesting life – in 1605, on his way back from Marseille, he was taken captive by Turkish pirates, who brought him to Tunis and sold him into slavery.  After converting his owner to Christianity, he escaped in 1607.  In 1622 he was appointed chaplain to the galleys, and in this capacity he gave missions for the galley-slaves (for those who think we’re way too soft on criminals, this is an example of “tough love” from the 16th-18th centuries.  Criminals and prisoners of war were sentenced to row the war-galleys by both Christian and Muslim powers in the Mediterranean; the Classical world, however, did not use slaves – contrary to popular belief and as seen in the movies.

Oh, and ‘prisoners of war’ also meant ‘Protestants’, in – for example – the French Wars of Religion, so before anyone out there gets too enthusiastic about “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” – have a look in the mirror first for the nearest eligible criminal, okay?)  Back to St. Vincent de Paul, who founded an order of missionary priests and co-founded a female religious order, the Daughters of Charity.  You’ll recognize his image if ever you see it, because he’s often portrayed with a baby under his cloak.  This is because of his work, with the Daughters of Charity, to rescue the babies left abandoned on the streets of Paris (often literally on rubbish heaps) or what was even worse, left in the Foundling Hospital:

That’s nice, that’s edifying, that’s even sentimental, but so what?  Well, in the early 19th century, a 20-year old student and a few of his friends started up a voluntary society to help the poor, and they took as their patron saint and inspiration St. Vincent de Paul.  Today, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is an international lay voluntary society working with the poor and disadvantaged.  It’s  the largest voluntary charitable organisation in Ireland and believe you me, an awful lot of people – including the working poor, the newly-poor who’ve lost good jobs, and people who before the economic meltdown would never have considered they’d ever need help from the Vincent de Paul – are reliant on them.

Now let’s hop, skip and jump a short time forward to the 20th century, and America in 1933, the middle of the Great Depression, and a woman named Dorothy Day.  She decides to start up a newspaper:

“In an attempt to popularize and make known the encyclicals of the Popes in regard to social justice and the program put forth by the Church for the “reconstruction of the social order,” this news sheet, The Catholic Worker, is started.”  She is an interesting woman and her movement is an interesting organisation; she was a radical, a Socialist, a feminist who embraced free love, pacifism, women’s emancipation and other left-wing (as they would be characterised) political attitudes.  She converted to Catholicism, and founded a unique series of communities, which you really have to read about for yourself since I can’t describe them adequately.

If I say that in the 60s she was embraced by the counterculture, that may help you get an idea of what the ethos is like.  But she is typically Catholic in that she’s too lefty for the conservatives and too right-leaning for the liberals.  She lived like a Franciscan in the embrace of Holy Poverty (although she was a Benedictine Oblate) and though engaged in the corporal works of mercy, always emphasised the necessity of the spiritual element.

“We try to shelter the homeless and give them clothes,” Dorothy Day explained, “but there is strong faith at work.  We pray.  If an outsider who comes to visit us doesn’t pay attention to our prayings and what that means, then he’ll miss the whole point.”

And for those of you for whom all this may smack too much of Socialism and Communism, I can only nod my head sadly in agreement, what with the social justice encyclicals put out by the Popes, starting in 1891 with Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum” which is considered the foundational document of Catholic social teaching, and other statements and writings by the likes of that red radical Benedict XVI, with his 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”.  Let us not forget the proposal by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace last October entitled “Towards Reforming The International Financial and Monetary Systems in the context of Global Public Authority” (I dunno, maybe it’s a snappier title in Italian) which resulted in headlines saying the Vatican was calling for sweeping reforms, radical changes and crackdown on the finanacial markets, as well as jocular queries as to whether Pope Benedict supported Occupy Wall Street and much tut-tutting by American Catholic conservative bloggers and opinionators on how the Vatican was dangerously out of touch with reality and – dare one say it? – positively un-American!  (Can you tell I’m a European by the way I’m laughing up my sleeve here?)

The conclusion to this series will appear at four o’clock Eastern.



  1. Randy Windborne says

    Not certain you’ll see this, Martha, as I’m under blog discipline, but your first two offerings were well-written and light-hearted. Nicely done.

    I don’t think Western Orthodox doctrine or practices lapse into socialism until/unless those having something of value are coerced into surrendering their wealth.

    If it’s not a matter of the heart, a matter of trusting God, I doubt God regards charity as righteousness.

  2. +1

  3. Have mercy on me, O God, for my selfishness and presumption. Remind me constantly to render back to You what is Yours, no matter what disguise You’re wearing.

  4. Martha, I like this line about Dorothy Day: “But she is typically Catholic in that she’s too lefty for the conservatives and too right-leaning for the liberals.” Yay, Dorothy!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      When you’re taking fire from both sides, it usually means you’re on the right track.

      • I know I’m in danger, when I’m not being All Dante, All The Time, of being All Chesterton, All The Time, but to quote from “Orthodoxy”:

        “This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable.

        … It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”

        • Randy Windborne says

          Not to be a modernist or snob or worse yet a dull heretic, but do you think Orthodoxy has changed since the days of Chesterton, Martha? It doesn’t seem like a whirling adventure. Is it still?

          • Yes, I think so. It hasn’t really changed; orthodoxy is viewed as the dull, safe, routine consensus of the majority, while the new thing and daring interpretation is seen as bold, lively and a jolt of adrenaline to the system.

            But daring interpretations and new lights on old texts have a strange way of being the same old thing dressed up in new clothes, and the cutting-edge modernity of one decade becomes the stale, dated fashion relics of the next. Meanwhile, orthodoxy goes plodding on, swerving around the pothole on the left and the diversion on the right, all the time being sneered at or patted on the head as ‘simple faith for simple folks’ and swimming against the current of the age.

          • Just to clarify, Randy — the book by Chesterton refers to general Christian orthodoxy, not the religious tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            But daring interpretations and new lights on old texts have a strange way of being the same old thing dressed up in new clothes…

            “Nine out of ten Fresh New Ideas are really Old Mistakes. But to a generation which was not alive the last time these Old Mistakes were made, they seem like Fresh New Ideas.” — Chesterton (from memory)

            … and the cutting-edge modernity of one decade becomes the stale, dated fashion relics of the next.

            “Oh, that’s so day-before-yesterday!” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer (movie)

            Ever seen footage from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In recently?
            The most Cutting-edge and Relevant comedy revue of its time?
            Now imagine if you had tied your church and/or your Gospel completely to those Cutting-edge and Relevant tropes — “Groovy, Man!”

        • Jack Heron says

          I am 100% in favour of All Chesterton, All the Time!

          Of course, I’m reminded of the other thing Chesterton said about ideas that last – they have to be renewed. If you want a white post in a field, one thing you cannot do is paint it once and then never touch it again. No, you have to keep painting it. You must have a new post in order that you might have the old post.

          ‘The League of the Long Bow exists to find new ways to do the old things, so that the old things might still be done’

  5. I also like this passage:

    Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
    Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.
    ( Isaiah 1:17, NIV)

    For some interesting reading, read Isaiah 1:13-17 in “The Message.”

  6. The Previous Dan says


    Good post except for the political jabs. To expand upon what Randy Windborne said; What you wrote is not considered the least bit politically Socialist or Communist by those on the right (or by us libertarians). The Church might get along better if we understood each other better. We who object to Socialism and Communism object only to the government ruling class confiscating the money and property of others under the guise of “redistribution.” That usually means “Paying off supporters so that I stay in power. Oh yea, and throwing just enough at some poor folk to make it look legitimate.”

    No one objects to private voluntary charity, we applaud that. If you look up the statistics I think you will find that here in the US the “religious right” gives more, as a percentage of their incomes, than any other class of people. The issue is voluntary private contribution verses forced government confiscation.

    Did Jesus commend the Widow for voting that the Romans steal money from some rich person so she could donate it at the temple or did he commend her for giving from her own small resources? Did Paul command the church of Corinth to form a brute squad to collect from parishioners or did he say “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”?

    • The Previous Dan writes: “If you look up the statistics I think you will find that here in the US the ‘religious right’ gives more, as a percentage of their incomes, than any other class of people.”

      You must have seen such statistics. Where are they?
      And do such statistics include forced tithing as “giving”?

      • The Previous Dan says

        I have seen these statistics from multiple sources ever since the late 80’s. Wish I had paid more attention to recording those sources. However, there is at least one source I do remember; back in 2006 Arthur C. Brooks released a book called “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism.” Following the release of his book there was a strong effort to debunk his finds. From my casual following of the situation, no one successfully debunked him and other studies before and since reinforce his findings.

        And regarding “forced giving” that would be the IRS.

        • Brooks’ methodology must rely on so many variables, not to mention depend heavily on self-reporting, but I haven’t read the book, so I won’t speculate further. Nonetheless, a favorable reviewer on Amazon claims that the book shows that religious conservatives and relgious liberals give at about the same rate; the differences are between the religious and the “secular.”

          The Rev. Martin Luther King, God rest his soul, had it right when he suggested that the next step for the Good Samaritan, after he had personally paid for the needs of the man who fell among thieves on his way to Jerico, was to lobby for a Jerico Road Improvement Association, to make the road safe for future travelers. I love that; give as much as you can personally to those in need, while working to persuade our civil representatives to use our taxes to achieve more permanent solutions. It’s never either/or.

          • The Previous Dan says

            I agree that the Good Samaritan should have petitioned for a safer road. Societal safety has been a core function of government since ancient times (Romans 13:4). However, that is a different matter from the nanny state that takes $1 from one person so they can waste 70% on overhead and give 30 cents to someone in need. The worst way to help the poor is via a bloated (and dishonest?) government bureaucracy.

  7. Christiane says

    Catholic and Republican?
    no . . . no . . .

    those ‘social issues’? the ones that Republicans find repellant . . .
    it is those concerns that can help build a society that is more welcoming to a young mother and her infant

    I don’t buy the Republican talk about anti-abortion, not when they do everything in their power to build a world that services the wealthiest at the expense of the middle class and the poor

    Catholic and Republican ?
    no way

  8. Martha, Thank you for this piece. Isn’t it interesting that issues of poverty and justice get 17 comments, while issues of church discipline run amuck, homosexuality and other “hot-button” issues garner hundreds? Apparently debating such issues is more comfortable than is facing up to the pain and poverty in our world, and what we might do about it.

    Just this morning I ran across a paper online that discusses how the early Christians directed much of their giving, which you might find interesting. I know nothing of the author or his church, so his writing must speak for itself: http://www.relationaltithe.com/pdffiles/EmbezzlementPaper.pdf