What are the corporal works of mercy?

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Invite a lonely person to join you for a meal. Photo: Shutterstock

Dear Father, Now that the Jubilee Year of Mercy has begun, can you please remind me what the works of mercy are, and how I might live them in practice this year?

The Church has traditionally taught that there are seven corporal works of mercy that refer to helping our neighbour in his or her bodily needs, and seven spiritual works of mercy that refer to our neighbour’s spiritual needs.

In this column I will write about the corporal works and in the next column I will discuss the spiritual works.

Pope Francis in Misericordiae Vultus, the Bull of Indiction of the Jubilee Year, speaks of the importance of doing the works of mercy: “It 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. And let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy. 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. Let us rediscover these corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead” (n. 15).

The corporal works of mercy, with the exception of the last, are mentioned by Jesus himself in his description of the Last Judgment: “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘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).

How can we live these works of mercy in practice?

We tend to limit our thinking to the relatively few opportunities we may have to help the truly down and out: those begging on a street corner, those in hostels for the homeless, refugees, the poor in other countries through international charities, etc.

We should most certainly do all we can to help people in these ways, seeing Jesus in them and knowing that he will reward us for our generosity.

But we should not forget that charity begins at home and we have abundant opportunities to live the works of mercy within our family and extended family and in our neighbourhood.

Mothers of families and all who help them in domestic chores are living most of these works all the time. Simply preparing the family meal, setting the table and cleaning up afterwards are examples of feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty.

If visitors come, especially if they arrive unexpectedly, there is an opportunity to welcome the stranger. Moreover, we can invite a lonely person or a whole family to join us from time to time, extending our hospitality to them.

These works can also be done to help the family of a relative or friend in special circumstances, such as a death or serious illness, financial hardship, moving into a new home, etc.

Taking them a meal when we know it would be difficult for them to prepare it themselves is always greatly appreciated at these difficult times.

Similarly, helping an infant or an elderly or handicapped person to get dressed, and doing the laundry with all it entails are ways to clothe the naked.

We can also give unused clothing to the St Vincent de Paul Society or some other charity, making sure that it is clean and in a good state of repair.

We can make sure that we visit regularly friends and relatives in hospitals and nursing homes, and those confined to their own homes, as ways of visiting the sick.

If we know someone in prison, we should endeavour to visit them too or at least write to them.

And of course we should attend funerals whenever we can, showing the bereaved our love and support, thus living out the work of burying the dead.

In short, we don’t have to cross oceans to find the poor, “For you always have the poor with you” (Mt 26:11).