With Advent arriving in just a matter of weeks, it is important that we, as a people of faith, reflect on the areas where we need to improve. For many people I know, that means looking for more opportunities to give of their time and energy. The Church provides many opportunities for us to grow in our faith, and among the most powerful things we can do during a season of preparation is to engage in the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.
Mercy is a virtue that influences our behavior. It can assist us in understanding and assisting those around us, while not allowing us to become confused by false charity. False charity must be resisted with all possible strength because it is an offense against justice. In that mindset, we approach the works of mercy that allow us to serve God’s children.
The Corporal Works of Mercy are:
- To feed the hungry: It is estimated that over 30% of food purchased by Americans goes to waste. Could we fast on Friday and give that money to a food bank? The Catholic Worker and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul both provide food to the hungry.
- To give drink to the thirsty: One does not need to visit a third world country to find people who lack access to clean water. Remember Flint, Michigan? That city is less than 200 miles from where I live. People in every community are sometimes poor enough that they cannot afford their water bill. The homeless often lack access to safe, clean water.
- To clothe the naked: In Northern Indiana it is imperative that people have coats. My family would carry around extra scarves, gloves, and hats in order to give them away to people we encountered who need them. This is also something the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul excels at.
- To harbor the harborless: Do you have friends who have lost jobs? Lost their home? Even if you cannot provide them with housing, letting people know that you care about them provides them a type of harbor.
- To visit the sick: When my mother had meningitis, she was greatly comforted by a visit from a priest friend. Any of us, though, can provide some comfort to those in hospitals, retirement homes, and disabled veterans centers.
- To ransom the captive: The modern iteration of this is stated as, “visit the prisoners.” While that is important, the original statement is equally true. How many people are taken captive who need our help to be released? There are many types of prisons in our modern world, and sin is the most pernicious of them all.
- To bury the dead: 1st Corinthians 6: 19-20 tell us that God lives in us. Not in a metaphorical way, but directly. We, therefore, should treat the body with respect. Catholics absolutely have God living in us because we receive him throughout our lives – body, blood, soul, and divinity. This physical reception of him further ennobles the human body, requiring that we respect it even in its passing. We are also pledged in the Creed to believe in the resurrection of the body, which at least implies that our bodies are important and play a role in salvation history.
The spiritual works of mercy are:
- To instruct the ignorant: Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church.” So much ignorance is peddled by atheists, ex-Catholics, disgruntled protestants, and people with nefarious agendas that it would be a full-time job for a thousand men to make a dent in the incorrigible ignorance regarding the faith.
- To counsel the doubtful: The most important element of this work is to listen. Often we are busy thinking about what we are going to say in response to someone rather than really hearing their concerns. Especially in today’s argumentative culture, it is imperative to hear the person talking so that we understand if they are doubtful, and about what they are doubtful.
- To admonish the sinner: We all fall short of the glory of God. That does not relieve us from our responsibility to those around us. When we see sin, we must correct the person who is sinning so that they might correct themselves. To fail to do so is in itself a sinful act, as it cooperates in that person’s sin.
- To bear wrongs patiently: I find the more I practice being patient, the better I get at it. It has sometimes been difficult to be patient in the face of betrayals, calumny, and derision. But remembering what Christ bore for me assists me with this endeavor.
- To forgive offenses willingly: I must forgive because I have been forgiven. If I hold onto a grudge I am not forgiving. By practicing forgiving I get better at it as well and enter further into the mystery of Christ’s love for us at Mass.
- To comfort the afflicted: I remember reading somewhere that a person contemplating suicide will often abandon those plans if someone smiles and says hello. Reaching out to one another, especially to those in pain, is important. It gives to others the comfort they desperately need and provides us an opportunity to grow in faith, hope, and love.
- To pray for the living and the dead: Prayer is our most powerful tool in this world. It is the primary way we can assist one another, as our most important destination in life is heaven. Joining our prayers with the Church magnifies them, and entrusts all of our loved ones and all those we pray for to Her care.
This list comes at least partially from the Gospel according to Matthew (25:41) in which Jesus tells us that He knows whether we fed him, gave him drink, took him in, clothed him, visited him in prison and in his sick bed. This list is the corporal works of mercy, but innumerable times we are told that it is pointless to give a meal to the body without feeding the soul. We can infer, then, that Christ means that here as well. In other parts of Matthew, he talks directly about forgiving sins and fraternal correction.
Advent is a season of preparation, not specifically a season of penance like Lent. But even in our preparations there should be an element of penance and almsgiving. We should always be mindful that Our Lord gave up more than we could possibly imagine when he took on the mantle of a baby, and suffered more than we ever could when he was humiliated and tortured to death. The resurrection heals us all and gives us the possibility of salvation. The works of mercy give us a glimpse into His divine generosity.