The Works of Mercy
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"Then the just will ask him: 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or see you thirst and give you drink? When did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were ill or in prison?' The king will answer them: 'I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me'" (Mt 25:37-40).
We grow in virtue, particularly in practicing the works of mercy. In these acts we show our love for Christ by helping our neighbor. Our Lord told us, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40).
Since we have both bodies and souls - and both require care - the works of mercy are divided into two groups. We care for our neighbors' souls and spiritual needs through the spiritual works of mercy. We care for their bodies and physical needs through corporal works of mercy (the Latin word corpus means "body").
Because our souls are the most important part of our human nature - the part by which we can think, know, and freely choose good or evil - the seven spiritual works of mercy are the most important. As we consider each of them, think of how you can practice these in your life. Remember that the heart and soul of each of these works is love; love is their moving force.
Admonish the sinner. Because sin separates one from God, it is truly an act of love to help another person realize the seriousness of sin and the need for forgiveness. This does not mean humiliating someone in public or acting as if we ourselves have never sinned. Rather, we should quietly and tactfully steer our friends away from occasions of sin or encourage those who have sinned to seek forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance, giving them hope that they will be able to overcome sinful ways with the mercy of God.
Instruct the ignorant. Helping a person to learn or understand the truths that God has revealed to us is a second way to nourish another's spiritual life. Our religions teachers and parents, of course, do this for us, but there are also other ways to practice this work of mercy as well. There are many people who have not heard the message of the gospel in its fullness. We can often find opportunities to tell them about it, remembering the words of Our Lord: No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a bushel, but on a stand, that those who enter may see the light (Lk 11:33).
We have been given the "light of faith" and should not hide it but should let it shine forth. However, we must avoid preaching or acting as if we know all the answers.
Counsel the doubtful. To counsel someone means giving him advice or guidance. Those who most need this counsel are people who are weak in the virtues of faith and hope. For example, someone may reject certain beliefs of the faith - or at least question them - or may fall into despair, doubting that God will forgive him for his sins. These people need loving guidance and encouragement to strengthen them, thus bringing them closer to God once more.
Comfort the sorrowful. Suffering is a part of our life in this world. Indeed, Our Lord told us that those who wish to follow him must first take up their cross, just as he took up his Cross for us. Each of us has our own specific crosses that Our Lord asks us to bear out of love for him. This is not always easy, and this work of mercy reminds us that we should help one another to bear the sufferings in our lives. Sometimes a word of love and understanding can help. Sometimes a kind deed can lighten the burden of someone else's suffering.
Bear wrongs patiently. It is important to remember that it is better to suffer an injustice than to be guilty of committing one ourselves. In his Sermon on the Mount, Our Lord said: I say to you. . . Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your cloak do not withhold your coat as well (Lk 6:27-29). This true charity is the mark of the Christian, and we must learn to be patient and strong when we are the victims of injustice. It is by such actions that we may draw others to Christ.
Forgive all injuries. Not only must we patiently bear these wrongs, we must also forgive those who injure us. In the Lord's Prayer, which Jesus taught us, we say, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" (see Mt 6:12). This means the measure by which we forgive will be the measure by which God will forgive us. By forgiving others we imitate the love that Christ shows for us. He offers forgiveness to all - even those who put him to death on the Cross.
Pray for the living and the dead. We have already seen that the communion of Saints means that we can pray for one another. This act of love is one of the easiest - and one of the most important - ways to help others. We recall that charity toward our neighbor includes our enemies, and our prayers should extend to them as well. When we pray for those who have died, let us remember not only our relatives and friends, but also those souls who are most forgotten.
The seven corporal works of mercy are those acts of love that Our Lord spoke about when he described the Last Judgment. To those who practice these works Our Lord will say:
Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me (Mt 25:34-36).
Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked. Most of us have been greatly blessed by God. Nevertheless, there are many people in the world - even some in our country - who lack many of the basic needs of life. We must not neglect these people. It is an obligation of charity to help them. While we may not be able to help these people directly or dramatically, we can contribute money or possessions to groups whose works are such charitable activities. For example, there may be an organization in your parish - such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society - which carries out these works of mercy.
These works of mercy start in the family. Parents are responsible for seeing that their children are fed and clothed. In the same way, when the children are older they are responsible for taking care of these needs for their aging parents. At this point in our lives we can practice these works of mercy in simple ways. For example, we can help a brother or sister who is in need for certain assistance. We can share unused and unnecessary clothing or possessions with poorer families. These acts of mercy will prepare us for greater works as the need arises.
Visit the imprisoned. There are many kinds of people in prison. There is the hardened criminal. Some great conversions have taken place among the most hardened, and perhaps the grace they received came through the prayers or kindness of people who knew them. There are some who were weak and made mistakes but are now sorry for what they have done. These need to be encouraged, so that they will continue to reform their lives. Some are innocent. If we are able, we should help them obtain justice. In the meantime, they need our moral support.
There are still other people who are not in jail, but whose state in life can be like a prison - separating them from other people and the support such contact brings. For example, some who, for a long period of time, must care for a sick relative at home may need our visits to help him accept his present cross.
Shelter the homeless. There are many homeless people in our cities. We should pay attention to their great need. For example, Trevor Ferrell, a twelve-year-old boy in Philadelphia brought the street people blankets from his own home. The word got around and soon the whole neighborhood was helping. Finally they even rented a house for the homeless. We may not always be able to do much directly for those people who are homeless. However, we can practice this work of mercy by being willing to share our homes with someone in need - for example, a friend whose home has been damaged by a fire or flood. We can also willingly share our room with a brother or sister if this is needed in our family.
Visit the sick. The sick are often frightened and may be in particular need of encouragement. It is not always easy for us who are healthy to understand the suffering sick people go through. Visiting them may give them the strength they need to bear their cross. Perhaps they may need us in some practical way. Christ can touch them through our acts of love.
Bury the dead. The final act of mercy is mentioned in the Old Testament. The angel Raphael praised Tobias for this charitable act: And when you buried the dead, I was likewise present with you. When you did not hesitate to rise and leave your dinner in order to go and lay out the dead, your good deed was not hidden from me (Tob 12:13).
By this action we show respect for the body, because it is part of the human being. We can practice this work of mercy by attending a funeral of someone we knew - and offering consolation to those who are bereaved - or by respecting cemeteries, perhaps leaving flowers at the grave site of a relative.
By living the virtuous life and practicing the works of mercy, we will be happy forever with God in Heaven. This is the happiness of which Our Lord spoke in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:3-11). He promised this happiness to those who live the Christian life, which he summarized in the eight Beatitudes.
"Beatify" means "to make happy". A beatitude is a special happiness or blessing of a spiritual nature. These eight Beatitudes are the promises for happiness that Christ makes to those who faithfully accept his teaching and follow his example.
The happiness of which Our Lord speaks, however, is not what the world identifies with happiness - money, power, fame, and so on. Even when such things bring us pleasure or happiness, it is fleeting. The happiness that belongs to the meek, the pure in heart, and so on is the lasting happiness of eternal life. This happiness brings us true joy and peace even in our life on earth. It is the happiness which no one can take from us. It lasts forever.
Used with the permission of The Ignatius Press 800-799-5534
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