Mercy Extended: The Corporal Works of Mercy

By Father Christopher R. Seibt

Contributing writer

  Editor’s note: Pope Francis has declared an Extraordinary Jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8, 2015, and will conclude Nov. 20, 2016. Father Christopher R. Seibt will explore various aspects of the jubilee in a series of Sun columns throughout the year. This is the latest column in the series.

DWJD — “Do what Jesus did.”  It is not as catchy as WWJD — “What would Jesus do?”  However, it is a bit more accurate since the gospels tell us what Jesus himself actually did to extend God’s mercy to those in need of it. DWJD is also a bit more mission-oriented because it is an imperative for those of us who are followers of Christ. For us it is not an option. We must help to address both the physical and spiritual needs of others. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy serve as concrete ways for us to do so, to “do what Jesus did.” 

   The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are signs of the Good News. That is to say, they are visible actions that let others know they are created, loved, and redeemed by God. And, they are indicators of hope. The works of mercy remind the poor, broadly understood, that their suffering will not last forever, that “this” is not all there is. On the contrary, God has prepared a place for them, for all of us, where there shall be no more sorrow, where we shall want for nothing. During this Jubilee Year of Mercy our Holy Father Pope Francis has asked us to reflect on the works of mercy. So, we begin with the corporal works of mercy.   

   Why is there a need for the corporal works of mercy? Each person, created in the image and likeness of God, has the right to life. Basic necessities needed not only to survive but also to flourish are part of this fundamental right. Yet, because we live in a world still very much affected by the consequences of original sin, certain deficiencies exist: hunger, disease, homelessness, etc. These deficiencies cause our brothers and sisters to experience a lack of resources: those that are internal (food, drink), those that are external (clothing, shelter), and those that are related to suffering (sickness, imprisonment, burial).   

   What, specifically, are they? There are seven corporal works of mercy that address this lack of resources. They are charitable actions, a form of almsgiving, by which we come to the aid of those in need in a physical or material way.  Moreover, they are the ways by which we can establish relationships with those in need. Doing so opens the door for us to extend the love and mercy of God to them that we ourselves have encountered. These seven works of mercy come from Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46) and from the Book of Tobit (1:17; 12:12). They are the following: (1) feed the hungry, (2) give drink to the thirsty, (3) clothe the naked, (4) welcome the stranger, (5) visit the sick, (6) visit the imprisoned, and (7) bury the dead.

   Why do we do them?  As human beings, we belong to the same family. At the very least, it is common decency to help someone who is hungry or thirsty, someone who needs shelter and clothing, someone who is sick, or someone who has lost his or her way and is in prison, and to show honor and respect to someone who has died. As Christians, however, we are to “do what Jesus did”; extend God’s mercy to others. We give the very gift of ourselves to serve and to be with our brothers and sisters in their need. What’s the difference?

   When we perform the corporal works of mercy we know that they are more than simply remedies or solutions to the problems and injustices that are part of this world. Because no matter how much we do to alleviate the physical suffering of others, it will remain until the end of time, at which point God will be “all in all.”  So, why do we continue to perform these works here below? The Gospel according to Matthew provides us with the answer.

   First, these are part of the criteria by which we will be judged. Jesus tells us that those who were engaged in the corporal works of mercy will be “blessed.” They will inherit the kingdom and go off to eternal life. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the corporal works of mercy are one of the ways that we serve Christ himself. This notion is based upon the fact that all of us are made in the image and likeness of God. God is in us. Moreover, those who are baptized have been united so closely to Christ. They have died and risen again with him.  Christ is in them. So, Jesus says, “Whatever you did for these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

   This is at the heart of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. As Christians this is what sets us apart and motivates us — whatever we do for others to bring some comfort and relief to them, we do in imitation of Christ who came to serve, not to be served,  and we do to Christ himself.  DWJD — “Do what Jesus did.”

   Prayerfully consider each of the corporal works of mercy and ask yourself, “How have I done so?” “How have I helped to alleviate the physical and material needs of others?” “How have I served them in the name of Christ and Christ himself through them?”    

   Father Christopher R. Seibt is parochial vicar of the Church of Sts. John and Andrew in Binghamton.

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