Saintly Examples of Mercy in Motion

Saints from various walks of life lived mercy in action, from Mother Teresa to St. Thérèse and Padre Pio.

Mother Teresa, St. Thérèse and Padre Pio exhibited mercy in their lives.
Mother Teresa, St. Thérèse and Padre Pio exhibited mercy in their lives. (photo: Unsplash)

When Divine Mercy Sunday comes every year on the Sunday after Easter, St. Faustina Kowalska and St. John Paul II come to mind. Undoubtedly, in the last decades, they are the two great lights spreading the fire of Divine Mercy to the world.

In his homily for the canonization of St. Faustina, St. John Paul II reminded the faithful that Christ has taught us “man not only receives and experiences the mercy of God, but is also called to practice mercy towards others: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’ (Matthew 5:7). … Jesus bent over every kind of human poverty, material and spiritual.”

John Paul II also said in his homily, “This led to the spiritual and corporal ‘works of mercy.’ Here mercy became a concrete way of being ‘neighbor’ to one’s neediest brothers and sisters.” 

This is what the saints exemplify, through practicing works of mercy and other acts of holiness. They truly practiced the ABCs of mercy. As Jesus tells us through Faustina, as recorded in her diary, “I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first — by deed; the second — by word; the third — by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to my mercy” (742).

The saints teach us we all can follow Jesus’ directives to practice mercy — among the poor, in hospitals and among the troubled, in the confessional, in a cloister or at a convent door.


‘Jesus in Disguise’

St. Teresa of Calcutta picked up the dying and the poor literally from the gutters, treated them with great kindness and dignity, fed them and attended to them as they lay dying — truly putting the corporal works of mercy in action.

She called them all “Jesus in disguise” and was ever-joyful doing these works of mercy: “Speak tenderly to them. Let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart, as well.” She told us to do the same, in our own way. “Calcuttas are everywhere, if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.” She also underscored, “Jesus made it very clear: Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do it to me. Give a glass of water, you give it to me. Receive a little child, you receive me.”


Mercy Knows No Age

“Let everyone who comes be received as Christ,” St. Benedict of Nursia instructed in his famous rule for how his monasteries were to welcome others as an act of mercy.

Fast-forward seven centuries to St. Catherine of Siena. In the 14th century, she put tremendous mercy into action in her 33 years — the same age Faustina died. Catherine patiently advised, spiritually counseled and prayed for endless lines of troubled people seeking her help. Three priests were assigned full time to hearing the confessions of those she counseled. Declared a doctor of the Church by Pope St. Paul VI, she was even an adviser to popes.

As if this were not enough, at the same time, like many saints, Catherine engaged in caring for the sick and feeding the elderly. Fearlessly, she tended to those stricken during a plague in 1374, comforting the dying and even burying the dead herself. Many times her acts of mercy included the miraculous: God would multiply food in her hands. An example of her constant patience came as she tended to one woman banished from the city because of her horrible leprosy. Eventually, the woman converted through Catherine’s prayer and patient attendance. Many others converted through Catherine’s prayers and sacrifices. Her every deed was mercy in action.


Mercy in Forgiveness

St. Pio of Pietrelcina exemplifies mercy in action. Absolving penitents for 12 hours in the confessional every day, he practiced mercy to countless repentant sinners. 

As St. John Paul II said of him in his canonization homily, “Padre Pio was a generous dispenser of divine mercy.” 

Yet Padre Pio saw his own need of it, stating that Christ “has forgotten my sins, and I would say that he remembers only his own mercy.”

St. Thérèse of Lisieux recognized such mercy, too: “How happy I am to see myself imperfect and be in need of God’s mercy.”

The Little Flower was also a great practitioner of mercy. 

As she wrote in The Story of a Soul, “I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”

“I ought to seek the company of those Sisters who according to nature please me least. I ought to fulfill in their regard the office of the Good Samaritan,” she said. “A word, a kindly smile, will often suffice to gladden a wounded and sorrowful heart.” And, as she promised she would spend her heaven letting fall a shower of roses on earth, she continues her acts of mercy for countless souls by answering petitions.


Mercy Everywhere

St. Marianne Cope helped found two of the first Catholic hospitals in central New York. At St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse, many times she was criticized for treating alcoholics and others in need. Her attentive kindness was a hallmark of her ministry.

In 1883 a letter arrived asking her to go to the Hawaiian Islands to work with those suffering with leprosy. She wrote: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones, whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor islanders. ... [I]t would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned ‘lepers.’”

With six sisters, St. Marianne first supervised the Oahu hospital that received leprosy patients from all the islands. They also cared for the patients’ children who were rejected by society. When the government exiled the lepers to the island of Molokai, Mother Marianne and her sisters went, too.

They helped the dying Father Damien de Veuster, later to be canonized a saint, whose life was an act of continual mercy. He ran homes for the girls and boys. St. Marianne said their primary duty was “to make life as pleasant and as comfortable as possible for those of our fellow creatures whom God has chosen to afflict with this terrible disease.” Her own words show her desire to practice mercy: “My heart bled for the children, and I was anxious and hungry to help put a little more sunshine into their dreary lives.”


Mercy Messenger

St. Faustina Kowalska not only brought the world the message of Divine Mercy given by Jesus, but she acted with that mercy even in the simplest service as porter of the convent gate.

“I understand that mercy is manifold; one can do good always and everywhere and at all times. An ardent love of God sees all around itself constant opportunities to share itself through deed, word and prayer” (diary, 1313).

What prompted this response in Faustina was an experience similar to that of St. Martin of Tours many centuries earlier: an encounter with Christ. She described the story in her diary (1312; italicization in original):

“Jesus came to the main entrance today, under the guise of a poor young man. This young man, emaciated, barefoot and bareheaded, and with his clothes in tatters, was frozen because the day was cold and rainy. He asked for something hot to eat. So I went to the kitchen, but found nothing there for the poor. But, after searching around for some time, I succeeded in finding some soup, which I reheated and into which I crumbled some bread, and I gave it to the poor young man, who ate it. As I was taking the bowl from him, he gave me to know that he was the Lord of heaven and earth. When I saw him as he was, he vanished from my sight. When I went back in and reflected on what had happened at the gate, I heard these words in my soul: My daughter, the blessings of the poor who bless me as they leave this gate have reached my ears. And your compassion, within the bounds of obedience, has pleased me, and this is why I came down from my throne — to taste the fruits of your mercy.”

This is an adapted version of a 2016 Register article.