Editor's Note: April 25 is the feast day of St. Pedro de San José Betancur.
I don’t practice the corporal works of mercy.
The realization left me stunned. As I sat in a cluster of retreatants I thought about what that meant. Sure, I donate money to various charities, participate in food drives, and donate clothes that I no longer need, but I do not practice the corporal works of mercy — I have other people or institutions do it for me.
Living in a city, I am stopped at least once a day by someone on the street asking for help. Usually I apologize, say I can’t help, and keep walking. I don’t buy the man who is hungry a sandwich. I don’t clothe the woman who is cold with the hat from my head. While supporting local charities and advocating for systemic change are vitally important ways to live mercy, we miss something if we do not personally respond to the needs of our brothers and sisters.
St. Pedro de San José Betancur knew this. Best known as the first saint from the Canary Islands and Guatemala, and the legendary founder of the Posadas procession at Christmas, what is perhaps most remarkable about St. Pedro was his life of mercy. St. Pedro knew that mercy and conversion necessarily had their genesis in experiences of encounter — and a personal response to that encounter.
From a young age, St. Pedro quite literally went where the need was, moving from the Canary Islands, the place of his birth, to Guatemala in order to serve those who were poor and suffering there. When he arrived he was so poor that he, too, had to rely on the charity of the Franciscan friars for his food. After discerning a vocation with the Jesuits and eventually withdrawing and becoming a Third Order Franciscan, St. Pedro dedicated himself to serving those who were suffering. He ministered to the many groups he encountered: slaves, emigrants, indigenous people, orphans, the sick, the poor, and the homeless. He founded a hospital for the poor, a school for poor children, and a shelter for the homeless. Throughout his ministry, when he encountered a need, he found a way to respond to it.
St. Pedro’s paradigm of mercy was indeed countercultural in his own time, and it is perhaps even more so today. In a world where technology increasingly takes the place of personal interactions, it is radical to place encounter at the center of our lives. Yet to respond to an encounter with another is both deeply human and deeply divine. To be presented with another human’s need — to stop, sit with that need, and then personally respond to it — is an intimate moment that acknowledges our shared humanity and dignity. Such moments can transform our hearts and, in turn, our world, prefiguring the Reign of God.
As we strive to meet the many needs of our world, may we turn to St. Pedro, remembering that our own, personal responses of mercy are essential to transforming our world. For without such personal practices of mercy, our hearts remain distant from our fellow humans and their suffering.
St. Pedro de San José Betancur, pray for us.