Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Apr 30, 2009)
For many centuries, our Holy Mother the Church has encouraged her children to practice the "corporal" and "spiritual" works of mercy. These merciful "works" were summarized in two traditional lists.
The seven corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, to visit and comfort those in prison, and the sick, and to bury the dead. A couple of weeks ago, one of our readers, named Danielle, asked for specifics as to how we can possibly practice such works of mercy when most of us are already so busy that we have little time and energy to spare. Thus, the question arises: Is the list of corporal works of mercy really relevant to our situation in the contemporary world?
Let's take a walk through the corporal works of mercy and try to discern whether they are still possible to practice today, and if so, how we can do it.
Feed the Hungry
The first of the corporal works of mercy is to feed the hungry. On the surface, at least, this one seems fairly straightforward. We can help the hungry in simple ways. For example, by making donations to the local food bank or, if we have the time, by helping at a local soup kitchen for the homeless. In addition to that, unlike Christians in the ancient and medieval world (when these lists of corporal works of mercy were compiled), we have another way to reach out to the hungry: We can do so through the voting booth. We can take the time to educate ourselves about the problem of hunger in the world, and use our voice and vote to petition and pressure our politicians to make the fight against world hunger more of a priority for our government.
I remember a comment made some years ago by a Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Helder Camara. He said, "When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint; when I asked why there are so many hungry people in our land, they called me a communist." In short, it is a good and compassionate thing to donate money to food banks to help the hungry in our local area. That is our first duty, and perhaps that is all we have the time and resources to do. But it is even better if Christians can also work together to find ways to prevent widespread hunger in the world in the first place. That doesn't make you a communist a fascist, or anything in between. It just makes you a concerned Christian and a responsible citizen.
That is not to say that there are easy answers to the world hunger problem. Don't be misled by the literature put out by some hunger-advocacy groups, with simplistic slogans and solutions! There is a genuine distribution problem, since the world already produces more than enough food to feed everyone in the world adequately. But there is also a genuine production problem. The simple fact is that the wealthy nations not only can afford to buy much of the world's food, they also produce most of the world's food! The biggest food producing nations in the world by far are countries like the United States, Canada, Argentina, France, and Poland. These nations alone produce half of the world's food supply. Meanwhile, African nations, beset by civil wars and the AIDS epidemic, cannot produce enough to feed themselves, and Russia, with vast tracts of the world's most fertile farmland, cannot even produce enough to feed its own population.
I do not claim to know all the answers to these problems. There are complex issues here, such as the need for adequate farm equipment in poor countries, land reform in some areas, and the opening of free markets for farm goods. In any case, I am pretty sure that the present world situation, in which close to one billion men, women and children go to bed each night malnourished, is not an acceptable situation to our Lord Jesus Christ. It should not be acceptable to his disciples either.
Give Drink to the Thirsty
The second corporal work of mercy is to give drink to the thirsty. These days we do not meet many thirsty people by the roadside, as the early Christians did. But again, we are citizens and voters in ways in which they were not. Supporting "clean water" policies to insure that there will be clean water for future generations to drink is one way to give drink to the thirsty in our context. Using environmentally friendly laundry detergents and trying to conserve fresh water (easy on the lawn!) are other things we can do.
Here is another way. In some countries, and in some states in the U.S., it is now legal to stop providing food and water to a patient who is terminally ill, or in a seemingly irreversible comatose or vegetative state. This is a serious moral evil that the Church has repeatedly condemned. It is one thing to cease painful or expensive medical treatment that has little chance of significantly improving a patient's condition. But food and water does not constitute medical "treatment": It is basic human care, providing essentials that we all need, at every stage of life. A person's life has certainly not reached its natural end, its natural time to die, in God's plan, if that person can still survive with the basic care of adequate food and water. If we want to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, therefore, let's be aware of the distinction between "treatment" and "care" of the seriously ill, and the importance of the natural end of life, and the process of dying, which is a natural part of every human life, and must not be hastened through lack of "care."
The right to life, according to the Church, extends from conception to its natural end. As Jesus would say, the right to life extends even to "the least of my brethren" (Mt 25:40), whether these helpless ones are unborn children in the womb or the terminally ill or comatose, nearing their journey's end. On these important Pro-Life issues, w can be witnesses to our family and friends.
Clothe the Naked, Shelter the Homeless
The third and fourth corporal work of mercy are to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. Is it not scandalous that in North America today, one of the per capita wealthiest areas of the world, there are millions of individuals and families who cannot find affordable housing — roofs under which they may live with dignity? Is there really nothing that can be done to insure that there is an adequate supply of low-cost, dignified housing available for the poor? How about urban enterprise zones? Housing subsidies or housing vouchers for the poor? Is there really nothing that can be done? It's time to insist that our politicians take this problem seriously. In the meantime, we can all donate whatever we can to support shelters for the homeless, to help alleviate immediate, urgent needs.
You may already be thinking: "I cannot do all these things; I just don't have the time." But nobody said you were morally required to do all these things. Just do what you can. Actually, I can recommend at least one way that about 90 percent of North Americans can set their priorities straight, so they have a bit more time for practicing the works of mercy. How about turning off the TV set, except when there is a special program that you want to watch? The TV is going on average about seven hours per day in most North American homes! Try turning it off, so you do not get sucked into time-wasting programs that you really do not need to watch. Then see how much extra time you've got. You will be pleasantly surprised!
Also, consider that those of you who are working hard each day to earn the money to provide food and drink, clothing and shelter for your own families, or to cook and clean at home, are already practicing these corporal works of mercy, outwardly. Now practice them inwardly too, from the heart, with compassion and love for your spouses and your children, doing all to the glory of God, and giving thanks to God the Father for providing for all your needs (1 Cor 10:31; Col 3:17). In this way, as St. Paul wrote, the most simple daily chores become a "living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God," a true "spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1).
To be continued...
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.