Doing Mercy: Jesus' Distressing Disguise

Author: Father Joseph V. Corpora, CSC, ’76, ’83M.Div.

Pr 9 As Fr. Joe Corpora begins an active sabbatical around the world, the tone of his column has shifted — from Being Mercy to Doing Mercy. Photo by Peter Ringenberg

Sometime in the fall of 2018, I met with my religious superior at Notre Dame to request a one-semester sabbatical. After 35 years in the priesthood, I told him, I really needed some time to renew and deepen my relationship with Jesus. My only goal for my sabbatical was to become a better person and a better priest. He graciously agreed to my request.


I am a person who learns much more by doing than by studying. That means that I was not interested in any kind of priest-renewal sabbatical program. One such program at the North American College in Rome seemed compelling, but I quickly realized that the thought of eating pasta twice a day and gelato every evening was the main draw there — and probably not a good enough reason to sign up.


So I set out to put my own sabbatical program together. I wanted it to be a combination of different opportunities, beginning with two weeks spent with my aging father. My dad will turn 90 in December, God willing, and I had not spent this much time with him since I entered Holy Cross in 1977.


Though I did not know it when I made the plan, spending two weeks with my dad has been a great way to begin my sabbatical.  I have learned so much in these 14 days.


My relationship with my dad has flipped. He, the longtime host, has become the guest. And I, the longtime guest, have become the host. That might not be quite the correct language, but when my dad asks me if he can sleep for another 30 minutes or take a shower tomorrow, it’s clear that we have flipped roles. It feels weird. It doesn’t seem correct. But this is what has happened. When he’s sleeping at 7 a.m. and I am up, I’m tempted to turn the lights on and shout “rise and shine” as he did each day for years when I was growing up! But I don’t do it, of course. 


The most common words out of my dad’s mouth are “thank you.” No matter what I do for him — make breakfast, push his chair closer to the table, bring him a drink of water, do the wash, help bathe him, organize his medicines, mop the kitchen floor, clean up after dinner — he says “thank you” constantly. As he has aged, he has become more merciful, more forgiving, more understanding. In a way, I tease him, he’d make a great confessor — merciful, forgiving, understanding . . . and on top of that, he can’t hear! But in seriousness, growing in gratitude is a great way to age. My father seems truly grateful for everything. I hope that, as I age, I follow this same path.


Without children of our own or the opportunity to live in close quarters with our aging parents, we priests don’t often have the opportunity to care for other people in their very human needs. When it’s our turn to need care, we hire people to do this for us. I understand this, of course — the excellent 24/7 care given to the 60-odd priests and brothers at Holy Cross House, for instance, could never be provided by a group of simply other CSCs — but it can nonetheless leave you feeling excluded from the cycle of familial care.


These two weeks with my father have allowed me to do and feel what families do in their care for loved ones. They prepare meals. They do the wash. They help bathe. They clean up. They do the next thing that needs to be done.


Sometimes, just as I’m sitting down after a long day, my dad will call me six times in a 30-minute period to get him a drink of water. In these moments, I try to keep in mind a reflection from Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, James Finley, and Brie Stoner. Essentially, they say, God has moments in which He says, “I just can’t bear how much I love you. It’s too much!” So He takes on the disguise of my aging father, calling my name over and over because He wants to know what it feels like to be loved, to be attended to, and to be served by me, His son. This thought is so helpful to me. 


I can also see in my dad that every person battles selfishness to the very end. We are born selfish and spend an entire lifetime trying to grow in being other-centered, rather than being self-centered. No easy task. No easy journey. 


We never quite make it all the way, as my 89-year-old father attests.


My dad takes forever to get ready to go to the car. But the second that he is ready, he wants to leave. Because I have been the one spending the last 45 minutes getting him ready, I’m not ready. Doesn’t matter. He wants to go — now. We never quite stop being somewhat selfish. There is always, as the Constitutions of the Congregation of Holy Cross remind us, more dying to God to do along the way.


Over the summer I was involved with several ACE conferences. One was our annual School Pastors’ Institute. About 100 school pastors attended this year, joining a community that now numbers almost 1,100 participants in nine years, drawn from 143 archdioceses and dioceses. As I reflect on directing those Institutes and on taking care of my aging father, it seems clear that what we try to do for the Kingdom of God does not matter nearly as much as why we do what we do. If we try to do everything for the love of God, that’s enough.


My friend Mike Baxter once said that the hardest way to serve Christ is in the distressing disguise of your parents. While it might sound harsh at first, I find it to be so true. Paula D’Arcy says, “God comes to us disguised as our very lives.”  I have sensed the presence of God disguised in the life of my aging dad — and I hope that he has sensed the presence of God in my attempt to serve him. 


Fr. Joe Corpora, C.S.C., is on sabbatical for the Fall 2019 semester, during which time he plans to hear confessions at Lourdes, France; volunteer with immigrants and refugees in McAllen, Texas; and spend three weeks on silent retreat, among other missions. In light of this active sabbatical, his regular “Being Mercy” column for this website has been renamed “Doing Mercy” for the duration of the semester.