When I was a reporting for a Catholic newspaper in Florida, I visited Haiti to report on the work being done by parishioners who had founded a humanitarian aid organization. Ever since Pope Francis opened the Jubilee Year of Mercy last month I keep coming back to this experience — it’s where I felt mercy’s bones.
We spent a few hours at a clinic serving men dying of AIDS and tuberculosis: cinderblock walls, tin roof, metal-framed cots with thin mattresses, cement-slab floors. There were about 30 men — young and old — reclining in beds, languid and still. They were so very thin.
The people I was traveling with put on latex gloves and began to massage the men’s limbs with lotion to prevent them from getting bedsores and to improve their circulation. “We are just touching them, showing them that we love them,” one fellow traveler told me. I clung to my camera and notebook like a drowning man clutching a life-preserver.
I walked around the clinic taking photos. The men sat up straight and lifted their chins when I pointed my lens at them. I felt like I was offering them a small measure of dignity.
Soon enough, though, I ran out of subjects to photograph and notes to take. When a volunteer asked me to help, I had no more excuses — I had to set down my camera and notepad. She handed me a pair of latex gloves and a tube of lotion.
‘The other person is also us at some mystical level, and the other person is also God at some mystical level.’
I approached a man who looked at me without expression and could only speak when several breaths built up enough steam. His name was Louis — he was 51 and dying of liver failure. He had two grandchildren, but had not seen his family for many years.
I started at his knees — two knobby roots — oiling his flesh and stretching the sinewy muscles. I made little flourishes down his legs. I worked my thumbs into the arches of his feet.
His left arm was attached to an IV, so I massaged his right arm. Our hands pressed together in a slippery handshake and my left thumb sought what little tissue remained in his inner forearm. He returned pressure to balance my pushing. It was a silent giving and taking.
The encounter reminded me of my son, just approaching his first birthday. After his nightly bath, we would apply lotion to his skin, so pearly and pliant.
I looked at Louis’ limbs. His arm had the diameter of a bike-tire innertube. His skin was thin and dry — sores dotted his body like drying pools on a cracked salt flat. I could feel his bones. They were nearly the only thing left as sickness melted the rest of him away.
Louis knew he was dying and that he would die alone. For a few moments, I shared a caress with him. Mercy called me out from my castle and stripped me of my armor — mercy placed Louis’ breaking body in my hands.
In announcing the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis said, “it is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters.”
Mercy is a nebulous term, especially in our culture, where it is associated with meek docility or clemency. Francis’ “bearing the struggles of others” is more useful. In fact, the Latin root for mercy, misericordia, roughly means “heartfelt misery.” It is a willingness to adopt someone else’s suffering or brokenness as our own and to act to relieve it. Mercy is more than compassion — it is action born of understanding that we are all members of one body, even when those connections seem distant.
In the few days I spent in Haiti, I met Father Rick Frechette, a Passionist missionary and doctor. He traveled six days a week to clinics, orphanages and hospitals. Everywhere he went he found suffering, much of it preventable. He told me how he navigated this sea:
“The details can pile up if you keep your eyes too broad. So many of the problems are unsolvable. If we can discipline ourselves to see only one person, the person in front of us, then we can do it. As soon as we open our eyes and see all of them floundering and failing, we despair and can’t do anything. That is God’s economy—all the value is placed on the one other person.
“The preeminent value of the Gospel is to take responsibility for others. The other person is also us at some mystical level, and the other person is also God at some mystical level.”
I had trouble wrapping my mind around that until my last day in Haiti, when Louis let me do as Father Rick did: to see and touch one other person in need.
Now the Church is calling us to open our hearts to those living on the margins of society, but one does not need to travel to Haiti to do so. If we know where to look, we’ll find brokenness everywhere. We can free our hands to act: We need only let go of our life-preservers.
Josh Noem is a freelance writer and the editor of the Notre Dame Alumni Association’s FaithND website, where you can sign up to read daily gospel reflections written by Notre Dame faculty, staff and alumni.