Part 10: The Corporal Works of Mercy

The following is part 9 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.

Let us now sum up the pattern of life to which our Lord is calling us. Centered on the Merciful Heart of Jesus, whose love is poured into our hearts especially through prayer and the Eucharist, we are to let His merciful love flow through our hearts toward anyone in need whom we meet along life's way.

One person who taught this way of life clearly, and who manifested it so beautifully in her apostolate, was Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She used to say that there are two kinds of "Real Presence" of our Lord in this world: the Lord's Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament, where He fills us with His light, His life, and His love, and our Lord's real presence in the poor, both in those materially poor and those spiritually poor, where He is waiting for us to give Him back His light, His life, and His love. Living on the Bread of Life, we receive our Savior's merciful love; sharing our bread with those who hunger physically and spiritually, we return that love back to Him, giving His compassionate Heart solace and joy.

Mother Teresa dedicated her life to picking up the poor and the suffering from the streets of Calcutta and other major cities in India and providing for them the most basic necessities: food, shelter, a blanket, and a bit of human warmth and kindness. Many were desperately sick with incurable illnesses, but it made no difference to Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity. They were committed to loving the poor as "Jesus in disguise," so to speak. The sisters saw the Lord as truly present in all who suffer.

The Catholic Church has traditionally encouraged her children to understand the practice of merciful love by dividing the works of mercy into two kinds: corporal (that is, bodily) and spiritual. What we see in the life of Mother Teresa is a shining example of a life dedicated especially to practicing the corporal works of mercy:

(1) Feed the hungry.
(2) Give drink to the thirsty.
(3) Clothe the naked.
(4) Shelter the homeless.
(5) Visit those in prison.
(6) Comfort the sick.
(7) Bury the dead.

Perhaps your first reaction upon reading this traditional list might be, "This list is a bit out of date. After all, when do we ever have the opportunity in the modern world to 'give drink to the thirsty' or to 'clothe the naked'? And who in their right mind would fail to bury their loved ones these days!"

Don't be too hasty, however, in dismissing the usefulness of this old list of the corporal works of mercy. It may be more helpful than you think in challenging us to discern new ways that our merciful Savior is calling us to follow Him.

Moreover, as we shall see, in the practice of each of the corporal works of mercy there is both a personal and a wider social dimension, and a true disciple of Jesus Christ will not want to neglect either one. Our merciful Savior, after all, is the true and rightful "Lord" of all creation, and that includes every aspect of human life: personal life, married and family life, ecclesiastical life, and even the social, economic and political dimensions of our lives. Do not be afraid of seeking our Lord's will in the latter areas: it does not necessarily mean we must engage in "partisan politics," but we are sometimes called to struggle against extreme and manifest social evils that degrade the human person, such as racism, poverty, tyranny, or violations of the fundamental human right to life, such as abortion and euthanasia. Accepting Jesus as our Lord and Savior includes rejecting everything incompatible with His reign of compassion and merciful love.

First and Second: Feed the Hungry and Give Drink to the Thirsty
On the surface at least, feeding the hungry 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. Moreover, unlike Christians in the ancient and medieval world (when this list of corporal works of mercy was first compiled), we can take the time to educate ourselves about the problem of hunger in the world, and we can use our voices and our votes to petition and pressure our politicians to make the fight against world hunger a higher priority for our government.

Giving drink to the thirsty can also be accomplished through our role as voters: for example, by supporting clean water policies to ensure that there will be clean water for future generations to drink. Meanwhile, right in our own homes we can make our contributions to the effort to preserve clean, fresh water: for example, by using environmentally friendly laundry detergents or by trying to be moderate in the amount of water we put on our lawns.

The Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, have done remarkable work in bringing fresh water to areas of the world suffering without it. The founder of EADM, Dr. Bryan Thatcher, tells the following story of how some students at his local Catholic high school made a big difference to people on the other side of the world who lack fresh, clean water:






I knew that typhoid and other diseases were rampant in part related to a lack of fresh drinking water in developing countries. A seminarian from Nigeria told me once during a visit there that I had saved his life. I looked at him in surprise and asked why. He said the antibiotics we had sent over had treated his typhoid, and without them he would have died.

Sometime later I coordinated efforts with Bishop Martin Uzuokwu of the Diocese of Minna, Nigeria, and Tampa Catholic High School to raise monies for a well in Nigeria. At that time, a well could be dug and provide fresh water for an entire village for $3,000. The students raised monies in a variety of ways, and I was amazed that when it was all done we had $9,000 - enough for three wells. So, through these efforts, men, women, and children of three separate villages were able to get fresh drinking water!

It was a small effort, and the students may never meet the people that benefited. But it was a work of mercy that will bear good fruit for many years to come.

Third and Fourth: Clothe the Naked and Shelter the Homeless
We can practice these works of mercy by using, once again, our votes: this time to support policies of the local and national governments that lead to the creation of jobs and that provide an adequate "safety net" for the poor and the homeless. There is room for honest disagreement among Catholics, of course, as to what kinds of governmental policies will most effectively achieve those goals, but our universal concern for the plight of the poor must beacknowledged as a genuine priority. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: "[Human] misery elicited the compassion of Christ the Savior ... Hence, those who are oppressed by poverty are the object of a preferential love on the part of the Church" (2448).

There are also well-established groups that specialize in relieving the problem of homelessness. Supporting their work is almost always a great way to practice these works of mercy. For example, Habitat for Humanity enables volunteers to actually lend a hand in building brand-new homes for the poor and underprivileged. If you have ever seen their volunteers in action, it is reminiscent of the old prairie tradition of a "barn raising," during which the whole local community would come together to help a farmer who needed a new barn, and they would put it up in a single day! Many of the homeless people in urban areas are young people - often runaways from difficult family situations - kids who live on the streets who often sink into the mire of the drug and prostitution culture. A group known as Covenant House now operates in a number of North American cities, providing food and shelter and a fresh start for many of these troubled young people, some of whom only need a helping hand and a second chance to get back up on their feet (visit Why not see if either Habitat for Humanity or Covenant House is operating in your area, and find out what you can do to lend a hand? Remember that our Lord himself started His life as a homeless child--born in a manger because there was no room at the inn--and often, throughout His ministry, He had nowhere to lay His head. He must have a special compassion for those who have had to share so closely in His experience of periodic homelessness.

As for "clothing the naked," you can always go through your closets and find garments to donate to the needy. Local thrift shops would be happy to make them available to the needy at a low cost (and often those thrift shops are selling their items to raise money for other good causes, too, such as a local hospital or hospice).

Finally, bear in mind 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, and those of you who cook and clean at home, are already practicing these corporal works of mercy, at least outwardly. Why not practice them inwardly now as well, from the heart, not grudgingly or merely out of routine, but with compassion and love for your spouse and children, doing all to the glory of God and giving thanks to God the Father for providing for all your needs (see I Cor 10:31, Col 3:17). In this way, as St. Paul wrote, the simplest daily chore becomes "a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God," a true "spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1).

Fifth and Sixth: Visit those in Prison, Comfort the Sick
Visiting 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 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.

For example, Charles Colson, the former Watergate conspirator, was converted to the Christian faith while serving time in prison. Now he 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, and grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord. 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 nearby.

The sixth corporal work of mercy is to comfort the sick. At the Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Bulaclan, the Philippines, for example, there is 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 "comfort the sick" means, first of all, to comfort them with something they urgently need: namely, proper medical assistance. Sadly, in the United States today approximately 40 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 from physical illness but from social isolation. One thinks especially of the elderly in our communities who, whether at home or in long-term care facilities, live in geographical isolation from their loved ones. "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 and who are 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. 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.

Visiting the housebound elderly and the chronically and terminally ill is no easy task. Trying to do it on a regular basis can take us right out of our "comfort zones" because it confronts us with real human lives for which, in earthly terms, there seems to be so little hope. Such people often live in squalor and with the constant stench of sickness or the wince of chronic pain. But our mere presence, as someone willing to be a friend and a listening ear, can mean much more to them than we can imagine, and along the way they will be giving a precious gift to us as well: the gift of growth in the virtue of compassion.

Seventh: Bury the Dead
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: struggling to "bury their dead" emotionally. Grieving can be a long and arduous process; shedding tears at a funeral rarely completes it. We need to help one another to truly bury our lost loved ones by letting go of them, entrusting them to 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 to the merciful Heart of the Redeemer.

In this regard there is something very powerful about the Catholic Tradition of offering Masses for the eternal repose of souls. Contact your parish priest to arrange this for your own departed loved one or for that of a friend or relative. The Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception have a very particular commitment to pray for the deceased, especially for the long forgotten, the victims of plagues like AIDS and the soldiers lost in the field of battle. To this end, the Association of Marian Helpers holds these intentions in the minds, hearts, and spirits of all the Marian Fathers and the members of the Association of Marian Helpers - each one making the spiritual commitment to "bury the dead" with all confidence in God's promise of the Life of the World to Come. Thus, you could enroll your deceased family members, friends and coworkers in the Association or in another spiritual benefit society.

When we come to the Holy Eucharist, we are actually closer to the faithful departed than at any other time in our lives. After all, whether in purgatory or in heaven, they are in the nearer presence of Jesus Christ, who is also uniquely present to us here on earth in the Blessed Sacrament. To be at "Holy Communion" with Him, therefore, is to be gathered up in a mysterious way into the whole "Communion of Saints" in this life and the life to come. Thus, we can make every Holy Eucharist a time of prayer for departed loved ones and encourage others to do the same.

At this point, after reading about all seven of the corporal works, 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 issues and responsibilities. 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 two or three, as you have the opportunity.

To accept the challenge of being a true disciple of Jesus Christ, however, means making yourself available to whatever our Lord might call you to do in His service. It means opening your eyes, opening your hearts, and serving His children. It's our duty.

Even for those who, through circumstances beyond their control, cannot do much more than they are doing now, they can always pray for those who are doing works of mercy. Pray for the apostolate of the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society and Mary's House and its ministry to pregnant women in difficult circumstances. Pray for the Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy and their special discipleship of mercy, reaching out to the needy and the lost. Pray for those in prison ministry and those advocating for the needs of the poor. Most of all, pray for those struggling to provide food and clothing, shelter and health care for their own families.

Whether by deed, word, or prayer, it is always possible for us to practice these basic corporal woks of mercy.

Discussion Questions
1. In what new way could you practice one of the corporal works of mercy on a personal level?
2. In what new way could you practice one of the corporal works of mercy on a wider social or even political level?
3. People often say that practicing the corporal works of mercy is very rewarding. What do you think they mean by that?

Prayer to be Merciful to Others: St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (Diary, 163):
O Most Holy Trinity! As many times as I breathe, as many times as my heart beats, as many times as my blood pulsates through my body, so many thousand times do I want to glorify Your mercy.
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 soul to my neighbor.
Help me, O Lord, that my eyes may be merciful, so that I may never suspect or judge from appearances, but look for what is beautiful in my neighbors' souls and come to their rescue.
Help me, that my ears may be merciful, so that I may give heed to my neighbors' needs and not be indifferent to their pains and moanings.
Help me, O Lord, that my tongue may be merciful, so that I should never speak negatively of my neighbor, but have a word of comfort and forgiveness for all.
Help me, O Lord, that my hands may be merciful and filled with good deeds, so that I may do only good to my neighbors and take upon myself the more difficult and toilsome tasks.
Help me, that my feet may be merciful, so that I may hurry to assist my neighbor, overcoming my own fatigue and weariness. My true rest is in the service of my neighbor.
Help me, O Lord, that my heart may be merciful so that I myself may feel all the sufferings of my neighbor. I will refuse my heart to no one. I will be sincere even with those who, I know, will abuse my kindness. And I will lock myself up in the most merciful Heart of Jesus. I will bear my own suffering in silence. May Your mercy, O Lord, rest upon me.
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 deeds or words, I can always do so by prayer. My prayer reaches out even there where I cannot reach out physically.
O my Jesus, transform me into Yourself, for You can do all things.

A Hymn (Rev. Washington Gladden, 1880)
O Master, let me walk with Thee
In lowly paths of service free;
Teach me Thy secret, help me bear
The strain of toil, the fret of care.

Teach me Thy patience; still with Thee
In closer, dearer company,
In work that keeps faith sweet and strong
In trust that triumphs over wrong.

In hope that sends a shining ray
Far down the future's broadening way,
In peace that only Thou cans't give,
With Thee, O Master, let me live.

Read Part 11: The Spiritual Works of Mercy.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).


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