You Can Help Save the World

by Catherine Doherty

In a time of crisis and suffering, what can one person do? The sufferings Catherine wrote about many years ago are still with us, as well as some new ones. Here is one of her ideas—not a new one but one that isn’t spoken much about these days.


When I see or hear about my brother or sister suffering, what can I do? I do everything I can to assuage that pain, like the Good Samaritan did. I bring him into the inn of my heart, and do all the things that are needed to care for him.

But after I have done that, I begin to think about the robbers who reduced that man to the state in which I had to help him, and into my heart comes a voice saying, Love your enemies (Mt 5:44).

I say to myself, “I don’t even know the names of those people. I don’t know where they are from or where they are going. What can I do for them, or be for them?”

In my heart, I hear the answer, “They have hurt this man.” Now I can atone for them. I do not know their names, but I can atone.

When people in another part of the world are struck by disaster of one kind or another, you and I can send them money, and nations do, too. But we who belong to Christ can also atone for them. Or perhaps I should say, with them.

My sister is hungry. Shall I eat my fill? My brother is sleeping in the mire. Shall I sleep on a soft bed? My brother is in pain. Shall I refuse to bear the pain which comes to me daily through the difficulties of just being alive and living in any kind of community: marriage and family, village, or nation?

We are hair shirts to one another. I can be angry and hostile toward that one who is my hair shirt, and then I suddenly remember a woman giving birth in the dirt of a slum. Then I can bear with love that which comes to me. Because there is something mysterious in this world that we cannot fathom.

When I love enough to offer my body for another in a small way—perhaps by fasting from food in some way, or by refusing a pleasure, and by accepting such mortification and penances as come to each of us every day—something happens.

One of the most mysterious things that the Lord Christ left to us were these words of his: Greater miracles than I, you will perform (cf. Jn 14:12).

This is one of the great miracles: that utterly unknown to anyone in a slum or hidden in a corner in Canada, I, by accepting such mortification and penances, help those people. How I have helped, in what way, I do not know. Only love knows, and love is God.

Love communicates itself to us. Faith is ready to walk in total darkness, dumb, blind, without hearing, for that is what faith is.

If I am willing to move into the realm of faith because I love Him who has given me faith, then in that fantastic warm darkness of faith I help the person in the slum, the one victimized by disaster. I may not know it. But this is the strange power of penance and mortification, this taking up of the physical burdens of others.

But there is another side. If I can atone for the ones who have sent the wounded man into that place where the Good Samaritan found him, if I can atone for the sins of others, I can also atone for my sins.

God is all-merciful. He does not ask me to atone because of fear. No. He asks me to atone because of love.

He atoned for you and me on the cross. As St. Paul says, “[You can] make up what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ” (Col 1:24). Nothing is wanting in the sufferings of Christ, but because I am in love with God, I can pick up others’ sufferings and carry them.

Christ has left to me the restoration of the world by his commandment of love—the restoration of the world, politically and economically, and also spiritually. By entering into that task of restoration, I pick up his burden, which is the cross. Carrying the cross, invisible as it may be, is mortification, a heavy thing. It is penance.

So penance is for loving. Penance is for atoning. Penance is for identification. The only reason I can engage in penance, or desire to, is because I love. No other reason should ever be in my mind.

I am not doing penance and mortification because I want to earn God’s love or to deflate the wrath of God. There is no wrath; God is merciful.

Nor do I have to do penances in order to appear a little holier than the other person. That would destroy me totally.

But faith is the cradle of love and the cradle of hope. Have you ever seen a man or woman whose eyes have lost or almost lost, hope? Do you realize what you have to do when you meet those people? You have to render “first aid”.

When we see hopelessness, we must give love. And love, like a fire, will bring forth hope. For we too can resuscitate others. Even as Christ brought forth Lazarus from the tomb, so can you and I. Christ has given us this power. It is not my power, nor yours. It is Christ’s power:

Men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another, as I have loved you (Jn 13:35).

I cannot love like God; neither can you. But I can cleanse myself. I can dispossess myself of myself, so that God can walk through me towards you.

God so loved the world that he sent his Son to atone for it. To atone is to put yourself in the place of another.

In a Nazi concentration camp, Father Maximilian Kolbe offered himself to be executed by starvation in place of a Polish man who had a family. In doing so, he atoned for the sins of the Nazis. He substituted himself for another who was condemned to death, and in so doing he atoned for his murderers.

Atonement means reparation for a wrong or an injury.

It means reconciliation of God to man. It is sewing up the torn cloak of Jesus Christ. Those who sin tear it, and those who atone, repair it. We all tear the seamless garment of Jesus Christ, but only some of us are menders. But mending is something everyone of us can do.

Christ in his goodness thus allows us to give this passionate response to his passionate love for us. He allows us to partake in his work of saving the world.
—Excerpted and adapted from Season of Mercy, (2011), p. 24-28, available from MH Publications