Part 2: The corporal works of mercy

Illustration by Ellen Bollard Illustration by Ellen Bollard

Second in a three-part series marking the Year of Mercy

The works of mercy differ from simple volunteer work because they have as their deepest foundation an understanding that we meet Christ in those in need. Whether that encounter involves tending to others’ physical needs or their spiritual needs, it is the presence of Jesus that makes a difference.

Works of mercy are rooted in profound respect for others as persons made in God’s image and likeness. Moreover, they are the response we give to Christ in the poor: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) This month I will reflect on the corporal works of mercy.

The first two corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. Living out these two can range from making cash contributions to programs that relieve hunger to participating in a local food drive or helping in a soup kitchen. Feeding children, the elderly or those with physical disabilities can likewise be a work of mercy. Cooking a family meal with love, even when our efforts do not seem appreciated, is an expression of God’s loving care to his children. Employers can provide a living wage to those who work for them.

Clothe the naked. Yard sales can be a source of quick cash, but an alternative could be to give unused clothing to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul or another local thrift shop or shelter. Many of us have more clothing than we need, and the coat that hangs unused in our closet would keep someone else dry and warm in winter.

Shelter the homeless. Besides contributing to homeless shelters or offering our time to staff them, sheltering the homeless could involve anything from offering loving hospitality to guests in our home to taking part in programs that rehab houses for the poor. Many people have skills that could be used to help keep their homes in good repair if they do not have funds to hire professionals. After his retirement, a man in my home parish offered his handyman skills free of charge to widows in his neighborhood.

Visit the sick. There is no end to the opportunities we have to love and care for the sick. Looking after family members and friends when they are ill brings them comfort beyond the physical things we do for them; they experience love in a way that makes the isolation of sickness dissipate. Many parishes now have programs for visiting the sick and homebound, sending them greeting cards, and relieving full-time caregivers who need personal time. Health care professionals could see in their vocation the opportunity to bring Christ to each patient; they might also offer their services free of charge to the needy or offer time in a free clinic. The healthy could donate blood or make provision for organ donation at the time of their death.

Visit the imprisoned. Our state has many correctional facilities, and although they do not have an open-door policy for visitors, there are many of us who could qualify as volunteer visitors. The incarcerated long for human companionship and personal support; they worry about their families and their future, and ministers to the imprisoned can bring the presence of Jesus to them in a powerful way. At various times throughout the year, parishes and organizations have special drives to provide for the physical needs of inmates (personal items, stationery, reading material, etc.). A prayer for the imprisoned and those who work in prisons brings us into their presence. Working for an end to capital punishment or any needed change in our criminal justice system can indirectly provide a crime-free future for one who seeks to change his or her life for the better.

Bury the dead. The body is precious and destined for resurrection; it is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Christians always treat the body with great respect, in life and in death. There are those who cannot afford proper burial and need financial assistance when a loved one dies. Others may be caught off guard by an unexpected death and need help making funeral arrangements. Attending visitations, wakes and funerals is a way of honoring the dead and supporting the grieving; even if we did not know the one who died, it is a sign of our oneness in Christ. We could pay special attention to families who have no local relatives or to the elderly who have outlived friends and family. Some parishes have special choirs that sing for funerals. Writing cards of prayerful support, serving for a parish luncheon after a funeral, and visiting the grieving after out-of-town family members have returned home provide welcome comfort. Some of our parishes have cemeteries, and volunteering to keep the property in good shape is a way of honoring the dead. Making provision for our own burial and that of loved ones in Catholic cemeteries is a way of ensuring that our remains will be reverenced and protected in sacred ground.

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

This is the English translation of Archbishop Sartain's column "Las obras corporales de misericordia" that appeared in the December 2015 issue of NORTHWEST CATHOLIC.

Archbishop J. Peter Sartain

Send your prayer intentions to Archbishop Sartain’s Prayer List, Archdiocese of Seattle, 710 Ninth Ave., Seattle, WA 98104.