More Precious than Silver or Gold – A Meditation on the Spiritual Work of Mercy to Instruct the Ignorant

 "Jesus blessing little children”  oil on canvas by William Brassey Hole This file is licensed under the  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
“Jesus blessing little children” oil on canvas by William Brassey Hole
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

To instruct comes from the Latin in + struere, which means to build up or (even more literally) to pile up. In English, there is also the notion of strewing something. For example, to strew hay or to say that the seed has been strewn. Thus, to instruct means to disperse knowledge or build someone up in what is learned.

These days, the word “ignorant” is most often used in a negative or pejorative sense. And thus to say that someone is ignorant usually means (in modern English) that he is stupid or foolish. But more literally and less pejoratively, the word simply refers to someone who does not know something. And while some ignorance can be said to be inexcusable (in that a person should know better), it can also be more innocent: one simply does not happen to know something and can benefit from instruction in the matter.

And this is what is meant by the spiritual work of mercy “Instruct the Ignorant.” All of us can benefit from proper instruction by those who know more about a certain subject or issue than we do. And it is a work of mercy when someone takes the time to instruct us. It is an even greater work of mercy when the knowledge conferred is something essential or saving for us.

Can any of us ever really be grateful enough for all those who took the time to teach us down through the years, whether it was as young children in school, or as we grew through maturity and into a career, or even today as we learn new technologies or new issues and things that are on the scene? A patient and generous teacher is a great gift. And indeed the knowledge we gain is so enormously valuable as to be literally invaluable.

Yes, to instruct the ignorant is a great great work of mercy, and knowledge is one of our most precious gifts.

In speaking of instructing the ignorant as a spiritual work of mercy, at least two things are meant. First, because the intellect is a faculty of the soul, our human spirit is nourished by all instruction.

Second, however (and more particularly), the Church has in mind the kind of instruction that most benefits the soul: instruction in religious truth rooted in the Holy Scriptures and in the Sacred Tradition of the teachings of the Church. If secular instruction can benefit us unto worldly ends, how much greater the benefits of religion instruction that has heavenly and eternal rewards.

The goal of religious instruction is always to place one into a saving relationship with God. And thus the goal is not to simply help people know about the Lord, but to know the Lord, and by that relationship with Him in the truth, to be saved.  What an enormous boon, what a wealth and treasure it is to know the sacred truths of God!

Psalm 119, the longest in the Bible, goes on for 176 verses praising the glory of God’s truth, which is more precious than gold many times refined. The book of Baruch says, Blessed are we, O Israel; for what pleases God is known to us! (Baruch 4:4)  Yes, how I love your law, O Lord.

The second and more particular sense of instructing the ignorant, however, seems to have been largely lost. Many otherwise good and conscientious parents place a low priority on the religious instruction of their children. Math and science classes must be passed; if trouble emerges a tutor needs to be secured! School attendance is essential, for indeed the child’s future very much depends on success in academic subjects. But there seems to be little concern if children do not grasp religious truths or balk at attending Mass.

Even more than understanding worldly truths, laying hold of sacred doctrine is essential for children’s eternal salvation. But too few parents have any sense of urgency about conveying these truths.

Part of the problem is theological, since many today have a diminished sense of the possibility of Hell, erroneously thinking little of the Day of Judgment for which we should have a holy fear and sobriety, not to mention a careful preparation.

Sociologically, however, the problem seems to have its roots in the last two centuries, when the religious instruction of youth was largely consigned to priests and religious. The idea of parents as the chief educators of their children in the ways of faith was largely eclipsed by a ceding of this authority to a professional class. And thus the Catholic school system, one of our greatest strengths and assets, also has had unfortunate and unintended consequences at the family level.

Today there is a greater emphasis from the Church on the need for parents to be equipped for their role as the primary educators of their children. But effective programs are still hard to come by. In my own parish, I have made the instruction of parents the most critical pillar in our Sunday school program. While the children are in the classroom, I am in the cafeteria teaching the same material to the parents. Nothing is more essential for parents than to hand on the saving truths of the faith to their children. Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov 22:6). 

Instructing the ignorant: a great and wonderful spiritual work of mercy whereby  souls are saved; the wonderful, astonishing, and inestimable gift of knowledge, given like food for the soul and light for the mind.

Be extravagant in teaching your own soul by frequent recourse to Holy Scripture and all sources of good knowledge and holy wisdom. Be extravagant in sharing what you have learned with others.

Oh, how I love your law!
I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me
and make me wiser than my enemies …
Your statutes are my heritage forever;
they are the joy of my heart.
My heart is set on keeping your decrees
to the very end.
Your statutes are wonderful;
therefore I obey them.
The unfolding of your words gives light;
it gives understanding to the simple (Psalm 119).

21 Replies to “More Precious than Silver or Gold – A Meditation on the Spiritual Work of Mercy to Instruct the Ignorant”

  1. Msgr. Pope your posts have gone a long way in my life, you have instructed this ignorant person, even though I thought I knew Jesus, and all there was to know of my faith. I have learned some much from you. Thank you.
    May God continue to bless your works.

  2. I had a rather upsetting conversation yesterday with a priest(!) who denied free will, satan, hell (it’s empty) and a purgatory that lasted more than an instant. One of the things I challenged him with was the spiritual works of mercy. It was as if he had never heard of them. Or maybe for him (because everything in the conversation was framed in that way: “for me”) they were irrelevant since everyone is heaven-bound and there is no evil…you get the idea.
    May God help us and have mercy on us all…

    1. Patty, I would be disturbed too if I found out a priest (who supposedly has some sort of responsibilities in some sort of ministry) does not believe in the teachings of the Church. Of what use is he? And moreover, he is likely to do great harm to the souls he is responsible for. Can you imagine his counsel in the confessional? Oh, sorrowful will those be who fall into his hands.
      The fact that there are these blind guides who we assume we can trust makes it necessary for every Catholic to have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by John Paul II in 1992, and to read it, so they know the truth for themselves, because teachers such as this priest are unreliable and even dangerous.

  3. What are the most common/important things you share with parents to help them best educate their children the best way that they can? Any areas of the faith of which today’s parents should be more educated?

    1. Joan, I’m just a fellow Catholic, but I think for a parent to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by John Paul II to make sure you are grounded in the truth. The first thing is to teach your child is prayer, and to pray every day (nighttime prayers). The second is to emphasize the knowledge behind the 10 commandments. The third is to teach them about the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. Most of all, teach them the sayings and actions of Jesus, and how He came to show us the way to the Father, and to die for us.

  4. Msgr Pope, your blogs are incredible and I hope the political as well as the religious leadership in our communities are reading these. Very insightful and what I love best is, “to instruct the ignorant is an great great work of mercy and knowledge is one of the most precious gifts. Stay blessed Msgr and highly favored.

  5. “And thus the goal is not to simply help people know about the Lord, but to know the Lord, and by that relationship with Him in the truth, to be saved. ” There are myriads of people who don’t even know about the Lord, let alone know the Lord. Here’s a conundrum. Do you need education to know the Lord? Then what to make of St. Bernadette and others My 12-year Catholic-schooled niece didn’t know who the Trinity was. Yet, my maternal grandmother who was illiterate had faith that could move mountains. So one who was educated didn’t know about the Lord, yet the one who was illiterate had a relationship with the Lord.

  6. Thank you Msgr Pope. Keep fighting the good fight. This reminds me of an Old Testament scripture verse on the importance of Catholic Truth. Hosea 4: 6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.

  7. I heard you on Immaculate Heart Radio in Los Angeles. I am blessed to have this media format where I live. There approach like yours, if I could so boldly assert, is a straight ahead, non fluffy presentation of Catholic Christianity. Thank you for the work you do.

  8. When my children came along the realization that i needed to instruct them in the faith became quite intense. I had this idea that the faith had come down to me, from person to person over the centuries and i was not going to have the chain end with me…I did not want to let down alll those in heaven. I get those kids to mass and cathechism sometimes kick’en and scream’en but i explained to them my responsibility. i think… i pray … its working… thank you Monsignor…

  9. You are so right about Catholic school. I went for 12 years and loved it, but my siblings had an opposite response. I think the difference was that my Grandmother came to live with us when I was born. She held fast to the faith where my own mother did not. My mom was obedient (raised us in the faith by sending us to Catholic school and Church every Sunday and Holy Day), but she did practically nothing to model the faith to us. No icons, crucifixes, rosaries, bibles, no family prayer, heck, no religious discussions at all. My Grandmother on the other hand embraced all those things. Because I had the most exposure to her and because it began prior to my formative years, I believe I received a blessing that my siblings did not. Sadly, they all walked away from the faith so far that none had any idea what to do during my father’s funeral mass. Tragic if you ask me.

  10. I have always found it very ironic (and funny) when someone uses the word “ignorant” to mean stupid or rude. I have thought (but never said) “you are ignorant of the meaning of the word “ignorant!”

  11. Thank you Msgr Pope and all who have commented. My experience tallies with that of Marguerite. Patty’s input would seem to identify a cause for the phenomenon: the level or inadequate level of knowledge and commitment on the part of some who teach the Faith. The lesson for me is that I must see to it that I thoroughly learn the Faith.

  12. Thank you for all your instructions! I pray that all priests and Bishops possess the same zeal for catechizing! Most waste their homilies.

  13. When Wisdom and Life died on the Tree of the cross, no one knew that He came to restore the Tree of Life but today you will. For “Wisdom is a tree of life…” – Proverbs 3:18

    “But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the WISDOM of God.” -1 Corinthians 1:24

    “But the author of LIFE you killed, whom God hath raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses.” – Acts 3:15

    “The God of our fathers hath raised up Jesus, whom you put to death, hanging him upon a TREE.” – Acts 5:30

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