The Corporal Works of Mercy

Both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy are, at their heart, acts of charity. The seven spiritual works of mercy assist others in the needs of their souls. The seven corporal works of mercy treat the physical needs of others. Combined, they are concrete ways by which each one of us can immerse ourselves in “the ocean of mercy,” and with God’s help, defeat (or lessen) that torrent of misery increasingly present in our world.

Or, as Pope Francis said in his new book, The Name of God is Mercy, “By welcoming a marginalized person whose body is wounded and by welcoming the sinner whose soul is wounded, we put our credibility as Christians on the line” (p. 99).

At a recent meeting in Rome, Pope Francis addressed participants in the plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He recounted that, in one of his Wednesday audiences, he touched on the subject of the works of mercy. Pope Francis said, “I paused, and I asked the question: ‘Which one of you remembers well what are the spiritual and corporal works of mercy? Whoever remembers them, raise his hand.’ There were no more than 20 in a hall of 7,000. We must teach this to the faithful again, which is so important.”

This article is about the corporal works of mercy. They, like the spiritual ones, number seven. They include: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the imprisoned, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and to bury the dead.

Speaking of both sets of works of mercy, Pope Francis, in the document that triggered this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, writes: “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.”

We cannot escape the Lord’s words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged: whether we have fed the hungry and given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger and clothed the naked, or spent time with the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-45) [Misericordiae Vultus, The Face of Mercy, No. 15].

It is important to see Christ himself in each of these. Moreover, Christ is present in each of these “little ones.” The pope continues by asserting that Christ’s “flesh becomes visible in the flesh of the tortured, the crushed, the scourged, the malnourished, and the exiled. . .to be acknowledged, touched, and cared for by us. Let us not forget the words of St. John of the Cross: “As we prepare to leave this life, we will be judged on the basis of love” [12] [MV 15]. Both the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are akin to an examination of conscience in Christian living.

And so we begin:

1. To feed the hungry

Among the corporal works of mercy, most of us give feeding the hungry a priority. No one wants another to be physically hungry. This desire reminds us not to waste food and to share generously what we have. I can only think of the various monthly can drives in parishes throughout our nation, as well as chicken, ham and turkey collections especially at Christmas and Easter. There exist so many regular opportunities to make sandwiches for those in need. In addition, there are so many soup kitchens in our nation which are often run by Catholic Charities in our various dioceses and archdioceses. And many of you, and parishioners throughout our land, assist regularly at these organized efforts to get food to those who are hungry — this first corporal work of mercy.

It also reminds me that the important text of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes appears in all four of the Gospel accounts — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — so essential in the public ministry of Jesus was feeding those who were hungry. As well, those Scripture texts foreshadow the Eucharistic food that satisfies our “deepest” hunger, the bread of life. When we think of hunger, we can never forget this deeper hunger, which each of us experiences whether we have food in our homes or not, a hunger for Christ in the Eucharist.

World hunger is another essential dimension of our present challenge to feed the hungry. Programs in conjunction with Catholic Relief Services enable parishes and groups to bag food for shipping to Africa. Not only do such opportunities as this heighten our sensitivity to this perduring challenge, but they give us a practical opportunity to participate in feeding the hungry in another country, so increasing is our globalized world.

2. To give drink to the thirsty

What was said about the hungry applies equally to those without water. We also need to look to Jesus. How can we forget the fifth word of Jesus from the gibbet of the cross: “I thirst” (Jn 19:28). Loss of blood caused Jesus to be thirsty, but there is a deeper cause of His thirst. It is the reason for His whole life, His whole ministry that found its fulfillment on the cross. Jesus thirsts for each one of us. If any single theme dominates the ministry of Jesus, it was His thirst for souls. This desire is the key to this fifth word from the cross. Even from the gibbet of the cross, Jesus reminds us of His thirst for us, His desire for us. As He thirsts for us, so must we thirst for Him and His presence in each other.

On another level, in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’ (on the care of creation), Pope Francis wrote about the larger context of water and the challenges that exist and will exist if we are to be able to give drink to the thirsty and each human person.

He writes, “Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Sources of fresh water are necessary for health care, agriculture and industry. Water supplies used to be relatively constant, but now in many places, demand exceeds the sustainable supply, with dramatic consequences in both short and long term. Large cities dependent on significant supplies of water have experienced periods of shortage, and at critical moments these have not always been administered with sufficient oversight and impartiality. Water poverty especially affects Africa where large sectors of the population have no access to safe drinking water or experience droughts which impede agricultural production. Some countries have areas rich in water while others endure drastic scarcity” (LS, No. 28).

Pope Francis writes as well that “[o]ne particularly serious problem is the quality of water available to the poor. Every day, unsafe water results in many deaths and the spread of water-related diseases, including those caused by microorganisms and chemical substances. Dysentery and cholera, linked to inadequate hygiene and water supplies, are a significant cause of suffering and of infant mortality. Underground water sources in many places are threatened by the pollution produced in certain mining, farming and industrial activities, especially in countries lacking adequate regulation or controls. It is not only a question of industrial waste. Detergents and chemical products, commonly used in many places of the world, continue to pour into our rivers, lakes and seas” (LS, No. 29).

The Pope concludes: “Greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food and the various products which depend on its use. Some studies warn that an acute water shortage may occur within a few decades unless urgent action is taken” (LS, No. 30).

An integral precondition of giving drink to the thirsty, this second corporal work of mercy, is thus making sure water is safe for drinking — here and abroad. We need to be vigilant in our own efforts to bring this issue to public discussion and resolution. That effort is also a work of mercy for those in great need in our increasingly globalized world.

3. To clothe the naked

By way of an example, “Coats of Many Colors” clothing drives in various Catholic schools collect coats for those who are in need. In so doing, the students reflect on the teaching of Jesus who said, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. . .” (Lk 3:11). Or as St. Basil the Great writes, “When a man strips another of his clothes, he is called a thief. Should not a man that has the power to clothe the naked but does not do so (also) be called the same?. . .The cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked. The shoes you allow to rot belong to the barefoot. . . You do injustice to every man whom you could help but do not.”

Through the Coats of Many Colors and other clothing drives, Catholic school students and parishioners are like Jesus in their service to the needs of others. At least in our parish school, the Coats of Many Colors Drive is a coat collection campaign with a special twist. Students typically write a note or prayer to be inserted into the pocket of every coat that is collected. They are then distributed back into the community to those in need. In addition to providing warmth for those who receive a coat, it is hoped that the personal note will be a genuine source of inspiration and will remind each recipient that God loves him or her.

And, on a very practical level, many of us assuredly have extra coats, sweaters and other clothing in our closets that we can give to those in need.

4. To visit the imprisoned

During his recent pastoral visit to the United States, Pope Francis visited the Philadelphia Correctional Facility. His example and words are most instructive of this corporal work of mercy. Thanking the inmates and referring to their situation, he said to them, “It is a difficult time, one full of struggles. I know it is a painful time not only for you, but also for your families and for all of society. . . .I am here as a pastor, but above all as a brother, to share your situation and to make it my own. I have come so that we can pray together and offer our God everything that causes us pain, but also everything that gives us hope, so that we can receive from him the power of the resurrection. This time in your life can only have one purpose: to give you a hand in getting back on the right road, to give you a hand to help you rejoin society. All of us are part of that effort, all of us are invited to encourage, help and enable your rehabilitation. . . .A rehabilitation which benefits and elevates the morale of the entire community. . . .All of us have something we need to be cleansed of, or purified from. May the knowledge of that fact inspire us to live in solidarity, to support one another and seek the best for others.”

For sure, Jesus identified with those in prison when He said: “For I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt 25:36). And Pope Francis and each of us can have no better model.

In his new book, The Name of God Is Mercy, the Pope shared a beautiful vignette that struck me deeply. It relates to this corporal work of mercy. He writes, “Another example of a gesture that seems small but that really is large in the eyes of God is what a lot of mothers and wives do on Saturdays and Sundays: they line up in front of the jails to bring food and presents to their imprisoned sons and husbands. They undergo the humiliation of being searched. They don’t disown their sons or husbands; even though they have made mistakes, they go and visit them. This seemingly small gesture is great in the eyes of God. It is a gesture of mercy, despite the errors that their dear ones have committed” (p. 73).

Each one of us might not be able to visit a prison and encourage inmates personally as the Pope so often does, and those he speaks about do, but we can assist in the various ministries for the imprisoned including programs that seek to rehabilitate prisoners when they are released and to support families of those imprisoned. These outreach efforts are true works of charity.

5. To shelter the homeless

Next to feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless has to be the most organized of all of the corporal works of mercy. There are many opportunities to work in a shelter or support it financially in our day. There are, moreover, homeless shelters throughout the cities of our land and even in the suburbs. To volunteer at a homeless shelter is a concrete way of living out this work of mercy. It is also a concrete way of showing personal support for those who have no roof over their heads. It can be an opportunity to engage our children (for sure under your supervision).

In a certain sense, as an itinerant preacher, Jesus himself must have identified with those who have no place to lay their heads. Responding to a would-be follower, Jesus told him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Lk 9:58). There is, therefore, a homelessness in each follower of Jesus, those of us who seek to follow Him faithfully, for He had nowhere to rest His head. It is a privileged place to encounter Him among those who likewise have no physical place to lay their heads. It is a concrete work of charity.

6. To visit the sick

The Scriptures are replete with examples of Jesus healing the sick. In fact, one such example is the visit of Jesus to the house of Simon’s mother-in-law who was sick. “He approached, grasped her hand, and helped her up. Then the fever left her, and she waited on them” (Mk 1:31). This miracle was the result of a visit to the house of Simon and Andrew.

The sixth corporal work of mercy does not mention healing the sick, as Jesus did, but simply visiting the sick. Jesus did both. But a visit to a sick person can and does so often have a healing effect. I can personally attest to that experience, as can so many of you. It is being in touch with someone who is ill at home or in the hospital or housebound or simply in need of company. It might, as well, involve bringing a meal to that person.

Driving the sick, or those preparing for an operation, to the doctor or the hospital is effectively visiting the sick. It is bringing the sick to an appointment, which is often difficult for an ill person to do alone.

One of the most treasured ministries of the church is that of an extraordinary minister of communion to the homebound. Not only is there a visit to the home (or hospital), but the bringing of Holy Communion to that person. It is a particularly beautiful way to visit the sick, to bring Jesus to that person in the Blessed Sacrament. That is truly a corporal work of mercy — bringing Jesus, the face of the Father’s mercy, to one who is sick. In effect, it is to be like Jesus who “majored,” if you will, in communicating the mercy of God to those in need, particularly those sick and those alone.

7. To bury the dead

At the outset, I draw your attention to the burial of Jesus himself and to Joseph of Arimathea who buried Him in a new tomb hewn out of the rock. St. John tells us that Nicodemus also came “bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds” (Jn 19:39). In addition, they took His body “and bound it with burial cloths along with spices, according to the Jewish burial custom” (Jn 19:40). The women followed behind “and when they had seen the tomb and the way in which his body was laid in it, they returned and prepared spices and perfumed oils” (Lk 23:55-56).

From the very beginning, cemeteries have been considered holy places, places of prayer, places to bring flowers and make visitations. That tradition continues in our own day.

The giving of a donation for Mass cards for the deceased is a wonderful way to remember and pray for the deceased. These prayers typically take place after the person is buried. They are ways to remember someone on that person’s anniversary of death.

As well, there is a tradition of accompanying the body to the cemetery, often in procession. The rite of committal there, which concludes the funeral rites, is the final act of the faithful in caring for the body of the deceased person, truly a corporal work of mercy and love.

The spiritual and corporal works of mercy can be for us and for our families the backbone of this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. We can never do, or give, enough for others out of love and mercy. The name of God, after all, is Mercy. Making the corporal and spiritual works of mercy concretely our own is the sure path to encounter God, who is Mercy personified.

MSGR. VAGHI, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, is pastor of Little Flower Parish in Bethesda, Maryland. Msgr. Vaghi practiced law for many years and remains a member of the Virginia State Bar and the District of Columbia Bar.