By David Mills
He was a stern and even a stiff man, named (I am not making this up) Homer Smith, who loved God and loved children. Long ago he had realized that between the end of the average summer camp and the beginning of school were a couple of weeks in which some parents would be desperate to offload their children.
He started a children's camp, at which unchurched children would be exposed to the faith, at least for a week every year. All year long he would spend evenings and weekends organizing the volunteers, dealing with the health inspector, canvassing businesses for donations and doing all the other work needed to get even a weeklong camp running. Every summer, he headed to the camp a few days early and stayed a few days late.
Dragooned by some friends, I worked there as a teenager for two or three summers. Someone told me Homer had only three weeks of vacation, and he used up two of them just for the camp. That meant nothing to me, as a kid whose time was mostly his own. Only many years later, when I found out how precious were vacation days, did I realize how much Homer sacrificed for a chance to spread the truth about Jesus to children he didn't know.
Being as loutish and insensitive as most boys my age, I thought Homer slightly comical, with his earnest speeches and his black suits and thin black ties, which he wore even at a summer camp in the hottest days of August.
I have since learned better. Homer remains for me an image of a man who lived a sacrificial life of practical mercy.
And that is what we need, now that the economy has crashed: more sacrificial lives of practical mercy. Or maybe more practical lives of sacrificial mercy. In either case, though the times are hard, Catholics have an advantage in knowing how to live in times like these -- the traditional corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
They may be even more important than usual, now that even middle-class Catholics find themselves financially stretched and even threatened. When you can no longer afford to give away as much money as you used to, you can still afford the cost of a work of mercy, or several.
For many of us, being forced to practice these works is in fact a blessing, because in some ways giving away money makes it easier to be merciful -- at least for the busy, the shy, the overscheduled, the homebody, the introverted, the overworked and everyone else for whom an actual encounter with the needy and the poor would be difficult. (I write as someone to whom each one of those categories applies.) Some of us would rather pay others to deal with real people.
When you give money to your church, charities or other good causes, you have usually budgeted for it, making sure that all the necessities are taken care of. You get used to living on the amount left to you. The giving is still a sacrifice, since you always remember it when you want to go out for dinner but can't, or want to buy a nicer car but can't, or want to splurge at the bookstore or the hobby shop or the nursery but can't, or when the refrigerator breaks down or the stereo stops playing, or when a child asks for riding lessons or money to join the ski club, or when the price of gas or meat shoots up.
But still, most of us get along all right, giving away some of our income. Until the economy crashes, that is. Suddenly, giving money away is not just a matter of sacrificing luxuries but of risking or even giving up necessities.
The traditional works of mercy provide a simple but comprehensive list of the kindnesses we ought to do to others. They make practical Jesus' instruction: "Do to others as you would have them do to you " (Lk 6:31). They make sure that we remember all of man's basic physical and spiritual needs, and attend to all and don't neglect any.
There are seven traditional corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting the imprisoned and burying the dead. ("Corporal" means bodily, the word coming from the same root as "corpus" and "corpse.")
Not surprisingly, given the Catholic taste for order and symmetry, there are seven traditional spiritual works of mercy as well: to teach the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, bear offenses patiently, forgive others, comfort the suffering, and pray for both the living and the dead.
The fruits of the second grouping are usually less obvious than the first, but they are more important. A man can starve to death and go to heaven because someone told him about Jesus, warned him what his sins would do to him and prayed for him. A man can eat at banquets every day and go to hell because no one told him about Jesus or warned him what his sins were doing to him or prayed for him.
But they come as a package, the corporal and the spiritual works. People suffer in both body and spirit, so we are called to reduce both their bodily and spiritual suffering as well as we can. There is a reason Catholics have founded so many hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens and everything else.
And lest we forget, Jesus stressed the corporal acts of mercy in one of his most sobering lessons. In Chapter 25 of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples about the Last Judgment, when he will invite "the righteous" into heaven because they fed him when he was hungry, gave him a drink when he was thirsty, and in fact performed all the corporal works of mercy but the last. They did this for him, he tells them, when they did them for others -- the "least of these my brothers."
And then he turns to the others and tells them, "Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels," because they did not help him. When they protest, understandably, that they never had a chance to help him, he tells them, "What you did not do for these least ones, you did not do for me."
Scholars argue about who are the "least" with whom Jesus identified. Without a definitive answer, the safer reading is that "least of these my brothers" refers to the poor and the needy, and that we will be judged by how merciful we have been to them. This has always worried me.
This is why our economic troubles can be a blessing, if they drive us to a more intentional practice of the works of mercy -- corporal and spiritual. That can only be good for us, for the Church and for the world.
One last point: The works of mercy are not just good for others; they are good for us. The traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer teach us how much hold the things of this world have on us and give us a little help in breaking free. The works of mercy do the same, but they also help us break free of our egotism and selfishness, by forcing us to look more closely at others and their needs, and to practice being less selfish than we are.
There is much to be done, with the economy the way it is. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy show us in outline what needs to be done. All we need do is look around and see what God has given us to do.
Here a few examples of the works of mercy in action:
BURY THE DEAD: You may not have any dead to bury, but that work of mercy can include acts of honoring the dead. You might take time from work to go to the funerals of people from your parish, even if you weren't close to them, and commit yourself to take extra time at the beginning or end of the day to pray for the departed of your parish for a set period after their death.
TEACH THE IGNORANT: This may require sitting down at a set time every day with a long and difficult book and plowing through it with a dictionary and a pencil at hand, so you will know what you need to say. However much you know, you can always learn more, if you work at it. But it may also require listening to people who don't know the faith to find out what they don't know, so that you will say what they need to hear. That is also work.
VISIT THE SICK: Visiting the sick might mean a weekly visit to a nursing home, and making a point to talk with the loneliest or the most disagreeable people there, and to run errands for them and otherwise help make their lives easier. It may mean visiting an Alzheimer's ward, and playing the simple, repetitive games some of the people there enjoy, which may give them the most interaction they have all day.
PRAY FOR LIVING AND DEAD: Although you already do this, you can always pray more. You might rise early to pray or add a fast day to your week. There are always people who need prayer, and people who don't have anyone to pray for them, like some souls in purgatory.
HOUSE THE HOMELESS: You might put up someone who needs a home, if you have room, but most of us don't. Housing the homeless can include seeking out the stranger, the person who does not fit in, and being his friend. Instead of dashing out of church after Mass, you might take time to find and welcome such people, and have them over for a meal once in a while or bring them on a family outing.
FEED THE HUNGRY: In the same way, feeding the hungry can mean working in a soup kitchen or collecting supplies for one. But it can also mean putting on a nice meal for a struggling family who have to watch every penny and eat lots of beans and rice. To stretch the work a little farther, it can mean baby-sitting for the working mother, so she has some time on her own, when that is what she's hungry for.
David Mills, whose "Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions on the Mother of God" will be published by Servant this summer, writes from Pennsylvania.