By Kenneth J. Souza
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — When she first planned to write a book about the Corporal Works of Mercy in 2013, author Kerry Weber never dreamed that Pope Francis would declare the current Jubilee Year of Mercy.
“I wish I could say it was all a genius marketing plan, but it was just providential, really,” Weber recently told The Anchor. “My sister jokes that we should be paying Pope Francis for PR, but I think he has just tapped into something that really resonates with people — this concept of mercy as it’s associated with service, with forgiveness, with giving of oneself.”
Weber’s book, “Mercy in the City: How to Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty, Visit the Imprisoned, and Keep Your Day Job,” was first published by Loyola Press in January 2014, but it has since found new life with the beginning of the Holy Father’s Year of Mercy in November.
“It’s been out for about two years now, but the Year of Mercy has obviously inspired a lot of people to look for ways to celebrate that, so I’m really grateful that the book and the Works of Mercy can be part of that for people,” Weber said.
To that end, the book — which won the 2015 Christopher Award — was the subject of a recent “parish read” project at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Attleboro, which also precipitated the author’s coming to speak about her experiences recently at La Salette Shrine, one of the official locations where a “mercy door” has been designated by Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., in the Fall River Diocese.
“The response to our parish read was overwhelming,” said Chris Donoghue, a member of the evangelization committee at St. John the Evangelist Parish. “We estimate that as many as 400 parishioners participated in some way in the event and we are thrilled to be co-hosting Kerry’s Attleboro visit with La Salette Shrine.”
Donoghue said the presentation by Weber and the parish read were planned as part of the observance of the Jubilee Year of Mercy — a holy year declared by Pope Francis during which the pope has asked the Church to focus on mercy, a major theme of his pontificate.
“One of the things the pope has suggested for this Jubilee Year is to focus on the traditional Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, and Kerry’s book documents her own attempt to complete each of the seven Corporal Works of Mercy during the 40-day period of Lent,” he said.
Weber said she first felt compelled to learn more about the Corporal Works of Mercy while researching an article for America magazine, the Jesuit publication where she currently serves as managing editor.
“I was writing about this Jesuit who is teaching theology classes at San Quentin State Prison in California,” she said. “I was Googling around about prison and Catholicism and up pops this list of the Corporal Works of Mercy. I remembered memorizing them for a test in Catholic school, but as I was looking at them I realized that I hadn’t been committed to many of them and they seemed like worthwhile things.”
Weber then pledged herself to practice the Corporal Works of Mercy during Lent and to document her experiences as part of the project.
“I wanted to use a concentrated period of time to really start making a commitment to them,” she said. “Not just to say: ‘Let me do seven Corporal Works of Mercy for seven weeks.’ But I wanted to know which of these resonated with me and how could I be more involved in making these connections and building community. So that’s what I tried to do with the project and then decided to write about it.”
One of the things that immediately struck Weber while examining the often-cited but sometimes forgotten Works of Mercy was how challenging it is to put them into practice.
“A lot of us are struggling with this and aren’t quite sure what’s the best way to serve or be present to others,” Weber said. “Part of the way to learn is just to talk about it and go out and do it and make mistakes and learn from them — and go from there and be honest and authentic about it. Being present to each other is a good first step.”
Admitting that she didn’t have any particular expertise in the subject, Weber soon found it to be a matter of baptism by fire.
“When I was writing the book I felt like maybe I was going to put myself out there and say: ‘Look, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m trying, but I have no idea how to do this. So here’s what I’m trying,’” she said. “And I think I assumed that most other people would know better than I. But I realized, actually, in having conversations with people that we’re all in this together.”
Weber’s inquisitive nature lent itself to a career in journalism that began with her involvement with the Catholic press at age 16, when she joined the summer staff of the diocesan newspaper and hosted a television program in Springfield, Mass.
“I went to Providence College, so I’m familiar with this general area,” Weber said. “We used to come to La Salette Shrine when I was little to see the Christmas lights. I haven’t been back for a few years, but it’s nice to be here.”
After graduating from Providence College, she spent one year as a full-time volunteer with the Mercy Volunteer Corps. Through MVC, she worked as a special education teacher in St. Michaels, Ariz. on the Navajo Nation.
She then worked as an associate editor for Catholic Digest magazine before moving to New York City, where she earned a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Kerry deepened her connection to the Mercy charism when she became a Mercy Associate with the Sisters of Mercy Mid-Atlantic Community.
“Mercy in the City” not only details Weber’s experiences in performing the Corporal Works of Mercy, it also sheds a little light on the resulting benefits to those who give and receive.
“I wanted to capture my emotions throughout,” she said. “I didn’t want to get to the end and look back and just say: ‘Gee, I’m glad I did that.’ I didn’t want to forget about the struggle that was part of it. That was important to me — to make sure it wasn’t a preachy book. It was more an example of ‘here’s how I tried it’ and we should all keep trying this together.”
Weber said it’s important for Catholics to not only know the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, but also to put them into practice on a regular basis — whether it be during this Year of Mercy or beyond.
“They leads us, ideally, in this sort of cycle where service leads to prayer and community, which leads us back to service,” she said. “It’s all kind of connected — it’s not just a matter of checking these boxes off, so when I get to Heaven I can show St. Peter the list of what I’ve done. It’s the idea of really integrating these works into our lives and into our community.”
For Weber, the Works of Mercy are concrete, tangible ways for us all to put our faith into action.
“I think a lot of young people today are longing for community, and these acts help to bring us together and remind us of our shared humanity as people of God and people of goodwill,” she said. “I think it shows just how mercy connects us all. It really brings people together in a form of community and then that community is so important to supporting the continuation of mercy in our world — it gives us that energy, it gives us the motivation, it gives us the support we need to actually try to live it out.”
For more information about Kerry Weber or her book, visit www.loyolapress.com/mercy-in-the-city.htm.