Pope Francis says, “[i]t is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty. . . . Jesus introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples” (Misericordiae Vultus, 15). While the list of mercy “works’ is not meant to be exhaustive, it does help to keep us “Christian” by providing us with a daily strategy for living.
Corporal Works of Mercy
The Corporal Works of Mercy are a series of practical actions, by means of which we reach out to those in need in the world around us. Six of the seven are mentioned in Matthew 25:31-40. As deprivation of burial was viewed with horror by the Jews, the seventh Corporal Work of Mercy (Tobit 1:17-19) was later added.
Feed the Hungry
Archbishop Oscar Romero once said: “It is not God’s will for some to have everything and others to have nothing.” Poverty has many guises. It is for us to make a decision that we have enough so that everyone may have enough. We should feed the hungry when we can for two reasons: because the hungry are hungry; and because the hungry are Jesus.
Give drink to the Thirsty
Water is a matter of life or death. In many respects giving drink to the thirsty is also giving them life. Through it life is sustained. This makes it a fitting expression of God’s grace. In the waters of baptism new life is born into eternity. May our works of mercy be motivated by love of Him who promises living water, since every human person suffers a thirst which no earthly water can satisfy (cf. John 4:7-14).
Clothe the Naked
In almost every culture, clothing is a source of identity, and a basis for self-worth. Clothes keep us warm and are a sign of respect for the person. As we go about working to find practical ways to clothe ourselves and others, in our mind’s eye, let us “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14) – the source of Christian dignity.
Shelter the Homeless
The tradition of hospitality is deeply rooted in us. It is biblical in its orientation. Despite the fact that we live in a technological age which prides itself on problemsolving, the number of homeless people and migrants remains persistently high. Despite the scale of this challenge, let us seek to do little things with great love and holiness of life.
Visit the Sick
Making time to be present to a sick person, at a moment when he or she has nothing material to give, is an act of mercy. It demonstrates a belief in the dignity of the human person at every stage of life’s journey. Through such a visit – when our simple presence communicates more than our words ever could – we bring dignity into the life of the one who needs healing – be it physical or spiritual or both.
Visit the Imprisoned
Prison can seem a remote place unless the sinister effects of crime have been visited upon us, or we learn about someone’s son, daughter or other family member in there. Choosing to visit those in prison is not a question of condoning crime but making a valid distinction between the crime and the criminal. While Jesus was not a political activist, he did announce that he was sent to “proclaim liberty to captives” and to “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).
Bury the Dead
Care for the dying and burial of the dead with dignity gives eloquent testimony to the full meaning of the victory won for us by Jesus over death: “when this perishable nature has put on imperishability, and when this mortal nature has put on immortality, then the words of Scripture will come true: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. Death where is your victory? Death where is your sting?'” (1Cor 15:54-55)
Spiritual Works of Mercy
The Spiritual Works of Mercy are oriented toward the soul. Though ideally applicable to all the faithful, not everyone is considered capable or obligated to perform the first three
Spiritual Works unless they possess the proper tact, knowledge and/or canonical training to do so. The remaining four Spiritual Works are considered to be an obligation on all the faithful.
Admonish the Sinner
This relates to the universal call to holiness which all the baptised share. It asks that we help others see their life-situation more clearly, to gently alert them to behaviour harmful to themselves or others. It is a work requiring sensitivity and understanding on our part so that we support another person in renouncing harmful behaviour. It is equally important to pray for humility in this, so that others would be willing to provide the same sensitive accompaniment for us. It is a great act of friendship to admonish, and to be admonished in the name of Christ the Teacher.
Instruct the Ignorant
As in all areas of life today, life-long learning and formation in the Catholic faith is both a right and a responsibility. God calls us to grow in our understanding of faith, and to help others to do likewise. In a secular environment, those who do not build their house on rock will be washed away by the ideological storms and floods that come their way (Matthew 7:24-27; Genesis 6-8).
Counsel the Doubtful
Doubt is a natural component of a living faith. At first, it can be a disconcerting and uncomfortable experience. However, it is a moment to surrender more wholeheartedly to God. We should not be afraid of moments of doubt but seek to live in, and through them. It may, for example, be the Holy Spirit’s way of prompting you to establish a parish faith formation programme. Provided we are open to the promptings of God’s Spirit, doubt can be the beginning of a more informed, intentional discipleship.
Comfort the Sorrowful
All of us – rich or poor, strong or weak, celebrity or outcast – are “the sorrowful” at one time or another in life. Being sorrowful can be the consequence of our wrongful actions, or it can be the consequence of living in a fallen world that tends towards untold anxieties and a sense of alienation. We comfort the sorrowful to the best of our ability by being the first to reach out to someone who is interiorly suffering, and by striving to be a person who is approachable in the eyes of others.
Bear Wrongs Patiently
Even if we can bring ourselves to forgive a heinous offence committed by another, it is often a basic fact that this will not bring closure to the pain and grief which is experienced. It can help to pray for the one who has caused hurt and pain.
Forgive All Injuries
Peace of mind is a precious gift for those who experience it. The anger and resentment which can accompany the refusal to forgive another person is always a great wound on our souls and, over time, hurts nobody more than ourselves. Even when we cannot bring ourselves to forgive an offence willingly, we must be patient. God is a champion in finding solutions, so ask him to find a way.
Pray for the Living and the Dead
To pray is to cultivate in us the habit of talking to God. Praying for others is a way of giving of ourselves for the good of others. To pray is to discipline oneself into making an act of self-sacrifice on behalf of another – either living or deceased. Our prayer of intercession has its place in heaven by uniting it with the prayer of Jesus who never ceases to intercede for us with the Father. In fact, Christ “is living forever to intercede for all who come to God through him” (Heb 7:25).