By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Apr 30, 2008)
In response to Danielle's question a couple of weeks ago about how we can practice the works of mercy today (see here and here), let's continue our walk through the corporal works of mercy by looking at the fifth, sixth and seventh on the traditional list: to visit and comfort those in prison and the sick, and to bury the dead.
Visiting and comforting those in prison certainly does not mean being "soft on crime." On the contrary, there are some crimes so horrible that their perpetrators must be completely and irrevocably quarantined, put behind bars for a long time, or even for life, for the protection of society from further harm, and to deter other criminals from daring to commit such evil acts in the future. With some violent criminals, society has little choice but to "lock them up and throw away the key."
Throw away the key, indeed — but not the person. Punishment deters and quarantines and gives the criminal the opportunity to do penance, but friendship and prayer have the capacity to reform and to heal. A true work of mercy is done by Christians who befriend those in correctional institutions in the name of Jesus Christ, thereby affirming their human dignity as persons made in God's image.
Charles Colson, for example, the former Watergate conspirator, was converted to the Christian faith while serving time in prison, and now runs a major prison outreach ministry. Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy cenacles sometimes take on the work of visiting those behind bars and starting EADM cenacles in their local correctional institutions. Such cenacles help enable prisoners to study the Diary of St. Faustina, the Scriptures, and the Catechism. In short, needy persons on our "doorstep" that we are not supposed to "step over" (i.e., neglect; see Lk 16: 19-20) can sometimes be those in the prison right nearby.
The sixth corporal work of mercy is to visit the sick. At the Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Bulaclan, the Philippines, for example, they have had a medical clinic open each week. Qualified doctors and nurses donate their services to provide free medical care for those who cannot afford any. There are inner city parishes in the United States that have done much the same thing. In part, then, to "visit the sick" means, first of all, to visit them with something they urgently need: namely, proper medical assistance. Sadly, in the U.S. today some 40-to 50-million people have to rely almost exclusively on the hospital emergency rooms for family or personal medical care because they cannot afford to purchase medical insurance. An adequate medical "safety net" for the poor is still badly needed.
Of course, there are some people who are "sick" not so much in body, but from social isolation. One thinks especially of the elderly in our communities living in geographical isolation from their loved ones. They can be elderly who live at home or in long-term care facilities. "Visiting the sick" in our world can mean reaching out to the friendless in our local nursing homes, those who are "sick at heart" from being lonely and forgotten, regularly deprived of the basic human need called "friendship." This corporal work of mercy is relatively easy to do. It takes no extensive background reading in economics and no training in political activism to accomplish. The socially-isolated-elderly are usually not far away. They often live just around the corner from us, or they are members of our own parish. Simply volunteer with the Meals-on-Wheels program and you will find them. Ask your parish priest to direct you toward those who need visiting in the parish; he will gladly tell you. Most of all, do not forget that some of them may even be members of your own family, relatives too much overlooked and too often forgotten.
The seventh corporal work of mercy is to "bury the dead." The bodies of the dead, of course, are automatically buried in our society; and no doubt most of us make sure that our relatives and friends have a proper funeral service. But we also need to be aware of the needs of those who are grieving, and struggling to "bury their dead" emotionally. Grieving can be a long and arduous process. It is rarely completed just by the tears that may be shed at a funeral. We need to help one another truly bury our dead by letting go of them and entrusting our lost loved ones into the hands of our merciful Creator and Savior. That takes friendship: a patient friendship that keeps on visiting the bereaved, keeps on helping them dry their tears, even when the grieving process takes many months or even years. This is a precious work of mercy: to help one another emotionally "bury the dead," entrusting them finally into the merciful Heart of the Redeemer.
[A very salutary way is to have Masses offered for the Eternal repose of souls, as is also offered by membership in the Association of Marian Helpers. The Marians of the Immaculate Conception have as a prime spiritual reponsibility parying for the deceased, especially the most forgotten souls and those abandoned. Thus membership in the Association of Marian Helpers strengthens ones ability to fulfill this work of mercy.]
Saint Faustina was an outstanding model of the practice of the corporal works of mercy On one occasion she had a supernatural experience that confirmed for her the truth of Jesus' saying, "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to Me."
[A poor young man] came to the main entrance [of the convent] today. This young man, emaciated, barefoot, and bareheaded, and with his clothes in tatters, was frozen because the day was cold and rainy. He asked for something to eat. So I went to the kitchen, but found nothing there for the poor. But after searching around for some time, I succeeded in finding some soup, which I reheated, and into which I crumbled some bread, and I gave it to the poor young man, who ate it. As I was taking the bowl from him, he gave me to know that He was the Lord of heaven and earth. When I saw Him as He was, He vanished from my sight. When I went back and reflected on what had happened at the gate, I heard these words in my soul: "My daughter, the blessings of the poor who bless Me as they leave this gate have reached my ears. And your compassion, within the bounds of obedience, has pleased Me, and this is why I came down from My throne — to taste the fruits of your mercy" (Diary, 1312).
At this point, after reading about all seven of the corporal works from today's column, and the one last week, some readers may be thinking, "It all sounds inspiring, in principle, but what can I possibly do? I am already so weighed down with my own personal and health issues, and my own work and family duties. I cannot possibly take on any more burdens. I cannot possibly do all these things you suggest!"
Of course you can't, and no one is asking you to do so. Not all these things. Perhaps just one, if you have the opportunity. And if not, then you can always pray for those who are doing such works of mercy. Pray for the Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy especially, and their special discipleship of mercy. And remember St. Faustina's words of wisdom about living mercifully:
You yourself command me to exercise the three degrees of mercy: the first: the act of mercy, of whatever kind. The second: the word of mercy — if I cannot carry out a work of mercy, I will assist by my words. The third: prayer — if I cannot show mercy by my deeds or words, I can always do so by prayer. My prayer reaches out even where I cannot reach out physically. ... I want to be completely transformed into Your mercy and to be Your living reflection, O Lord. May the greatest of all divine attributes, that of Your unfathomable mercy, pass through my heart and my soul to my neighbor (Diary, 163)
(Continued next week: How to practice the "spiritual" works of mercy.)
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.