The spiritual and corporal works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in
his spiritual and bodily necessities. Jesus’ definition of our “neighbor” is not just the people we know and want to help, but anyone who needs help, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. The spiritual and corporal works of mercy seek to help alleviate human misery – material deprivation, unjust oppression, physical and psychological illness and death. Everyone is obliged to perform the works of mercy, according to his own ability and the need of his neighbor. Mercy is more than simply being compassionate. Mercy is the overflow of charity, which brings with it also an overflow of justice. Mercy means keeping one’s heart totally alive, throbbing in a way that is both human and divine, with a love that is strong, self-sacrificing and generous.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
Nevertheless, money cannot buy happiness. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. Clearly, many wealthy gentlemen suffer from moral poverty. Works of mercy can be directed not only toward the needs of the body, but the needs of the soul as well. Indeed, the most serious form of poverty of all can be the poverty of the spirit, not only because it drains life of all energy, joy, and sense of purpose, but also because it is the one kind of poverty that can last forever
To admonish the sinner.
This work of mercy — “tough love,” you could call it — is one of the hardest to practice in the western world today. Why? Because we live in the “I’m-OK-you’re-OK” culture! We are each free to practice those values to our heart’s content just as long as we do not do grievous bodily harm to others in the process (unless the “others” in question are unborn children, the chronically ill, and elderly). It is an act of love to try to make another realize how bad sin is. Nine times out of 10, the end result of these attempts to “admonish sinners,” no matter how gently and compassionately they are performed, is that one is branded an intolerant bigot. But we must never turn a blind eye to the widespread moral decadence. It is certainly not easy to do. It takes the virtue of prudence as well: finding just the right moment and just the right words, and saying them in a way that clearly affirms the human dignity of the person you are admonishing, even as they challenge him or her to fulfill his or her highest potential. This might also be done by trying to keep him out of sin or an occasion of sin, or by trying to get him to confession if he is catholic or talk to her pastor or spiritual director. The best way is always to admonish is through our good examples.
- To instruct the ignorant.
It is an act of love to help others in one way or another to learn the truths they need to know to save their souls. As family is the basic unit of the society, we will start with our parents. Mum and dad you have the God-given responsibility to be the primary source of religious education and formation for we your children. This includes, providing them with a steady diet of good Christian CDs and videos and weeding out all the dubious ones from our collection that can only cause the loss of their innocence and the confusion of their developing moral characters. It means tight restrictions on the cultural rot flowing into our homes through the TV set and the Internet. It means praying together as a family. We don’t have to turn our homes into monasteries but we have to do what is needful. Beyond our homes, of course, the need for instruction in the basic truths is equally urgent. Often there is no more effective (and no less threatening) way to share these truths than to do so in the natural course of friendship itself.
- To counsel the doubtful.
It is an act of love to help others to be certain about what they should do to love and serve God. Many souls could be saved if true Christians would make the effort to speak the truth in love to their neighbors. There are so many wrong ideologies flying around – Abortion, Euthanasia, LGBTQ Agenda, IVF, Designer babies – and many of our friends need someone to point them in the right direction. You could be that person. That means that you have to have the right formation and be very convinced about the truths you stand for.
- To comfort the sorrowful.
It is an act of love to help another person in any kind of sorrow, and to refrain from doing anything that would unnecessarily cause another person more sorrow. What a tremendous gift it is when you find someone who really listens to you, who really lets you pour out your heart and share your troubles and miseries, and who then really takes your whole situation in prayer to the Lord before presuming to dole out advice to you. Plenty of people are quick to give out half-baked, ill-considered advice! But how many people do you know who really listen to you and think before they speak? Learn to be that person for others.
- To bear wrongs patiently.
This is a tough one. It is an act of love to accept the consequences of another’s thoughtlessness or carelessness and to suffer inconveniences which another should bear. This is the example given to us by Jesus who suffered greatly for us all when he was innocent. We must be patient with God’s work in other people’s lives. We must never harass, pressure, or manipulate anyone. There is a famous bumper sticker that reads, “Please be patient: God is not finished with me yet!” That sums up pretty well what our attitude should be. Our job is but to sow the seeds of faith in the hearts and minds of those who are in grievous error. But change has to come in God’s own time. Until then, we are just to be patient with those in error, to share the truth with them as best we can and to pray for them, trusting in God’s mercy and patience with us all.
- To forgive all injuries.
If there is any vengeance that needs to be “dished out,” in this life or the next, the only One qualified to do it is the Lord, for He alone knows the secrets of all hearts. Thus, we must always let go of any desire in our hearts for vengeance, and in that sense at least, to forgive our enemies. That means stopping ourselves from exacting “petty vengeance” as well, which includes the use of detraction or slander or gossip to get back at people for the evil they may have done to us.
Clearly, the duty to forgive your enemies is compatible with protecting yourself and your loved ones from harm and demanding high standards of conduct from those close to you, including your own close family members. To prevent and block the spread of evil in these ways is actually a work of mercy, not only toward yourself and your loved ones, but even toward the perpetrators of evil. In other words, to love and forgive your enemies is not necessarily to let them trample all over you. When there is no effective way to defend oneself or others from harm, then that may be the time and the place meekly to carry the cross of persecution. But that time and place is certainly not every time and every place!
- To pray for the living and the dead.
Sharing in the communion of saints demands that we pray for everyone. This is a great means of spreading the fires of love to others. Prayers for the dead at a cemetery carry special graces.
So there it is! The seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.