One of the lamentable pendulum swings in the Church today is to associate the works of mercy we are commanded by the Lord throughout scripture to perform with the “SJW” camp. It’s not an unmerited reaction: at the small CINO college where I used to work, the Catholic identify of the institution was summed up in a pithy “we do service.” And indeed, the students made sandwiches for the homeless, ran clothing drives, and visited the elderly sisters in the convent’s nursing home. All good things that we are called to as Christians–and all things a secular humanist could do just as well.
So what makes Christian charity different? Love undergirds everything in the true Christian life, as the Apostle writes, “let all your things be done in charity” (1 Cor 16:14), while charity comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and an unfeigned faith (1 Tim 1:5).
In the fourth chapter of his epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul also writes of the different gifts of the Spirit given to the brethren:
“And he gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Ep 4:11-12)
Likewise, the Church lays out for us once again a “both/and” charge to do the works of mercy– corporal and spiritual. Whereas a Social Worker (who may or may not be Christian) may devote his or her life to the former as a matter of vocation (in the secular sense), a devout Christian may see his work primary as spiritual in nature: praying, making reparations, etc. And indeed some cloistered religious do devote their life to this noble calling 24/7 (Carthusians, Carmelites, etc)
But for many of us lay persons living in the world, I think a both/and approach is appropriate for our state in life. The degree to which we are able to serve and in what capacity given our constraints varies, but I do think many of us do structure our lives in a way which precludes much “space” for charity–the way we often given “from our surplus, not our need” (Mk 12:44) when God calls for first fruits. As Catholics, we know we are capable of structuring our lives to put “first things first,” i.e., the Divine Law, as evidenced in making Sunday Mass and the laying fallow of the Sabbath a priority regardless of our schedules and circumstances. But do we also prioritize the practical exercise of charity to evidence our faith in the same way?
It is harder to do when we see the exercise of charity and the works of mercy as an obligation (which it is) rather than an opportunity and means of blessing for both giver and those that receive it. This is not always easy to do, especially for those who tirelessly work in fields in which their exercise of this work goes unappreciated and taken for granted. But this, too, is a blessing from the Lord, who sees in secret and repays in kind (Mt 6:4). And the Lord makes this a practical opportunity, for “when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind; And thou shalt be blessed, because they have not wherewith to make thee recompense: for recompense shall be made thee at the resurrection of the just (Lk 14:13-14).
So, we are called to exercise charity, to perform the works of mercy–both corporal and spiritual. So, what are they, and what are some ways we can live them out in a concrete manner? See below (note, in the interest of brevity I may share some links of things I’ve written already on the particular work of mercy from past posts):
Feed the Hungry
Give Drink to the Thirsty
Clothe the Naked
I am grouping these three corporal works together because in the hierarchy of human needs and in our modern society, they can be performed simultaneously. At our old parish, we would pack snack bags with granola bars, fruit, sandwiches, etc with bottles of water and do a “walk around the block” before Mass so our kids could hand them out to the veterans and others who seemed like they could use some nourishment. We also encouraged them to pray beforehand and ask the Holy Spirit to “send someone” into their purview to receive this offering.
In recent years we have pulled back on donations to formal charities and instead have also prayed for opportunities to exercise this in a way that hurts a little more with particular families in need. In more than one occasion we were made aware of large families in which the husband had been laid off, or injured; in many of these instances the families were not destitute but it was also harder for them to qualify for aid (the “fall through the cracks” dilemma) and we wanted to simply ease the burden for them. In every circumstance so far, they were eventually able to get back on their feet and use the money for groceries, mortgages, and other necessary expenses. I try to write the check quickly, for an amount bigger than I would rationalize if I was using my head, send it off and forget it was ever written.
Visit the Imprisoned
This work of mercy, too, can be a literal application. It took me a while to get clearances at our local county prison, but once I did I made monthly visits to both large groups of men (to read the scriptures to them out loud) and to individual inmates. Not everyone may be able to do this, but in lieu of physical visits there is always the opportunity to be a pen-pal to someone who is incarcerated. What’s nice about this is even busy homemakers or working dads can carve out a half hour to write a letter and all it costs is the price of a stamp. When was the last time you got a letter in the mail? Isn’t it nice?
Shelter the Homeless
Sheltering the homeless can be taken literally, but for many of us with families and small children, it is not always prudent and takes discernment. However, one thing we have done as a family is host families of limited means for a few nights whose child with cancer needed treatment at a nearby city hospital when Ronald McDonald house was full. We did this through this organization, which is not religious but nevertheless provides a good service for those who may not be able to afford hotel accommodations.
Visit the Sick
This afternoon my daughter and I paid a visit to an elderly woman in a rehab facility. This is really low-hanging fruit that really cheers the neglected Christs in places like this, many of whom do not have families to visit and suffer from crushing loneliness. We brought some flowers from the yard in a jelly jar and a Miraculous Medal on a chain as a small gift. We stayed and chatted for about ten minutes total. It’s also a nice thing to do with your kids, since the elderly seem to really love seeing them. I got the contact from our parish secretary who knew of shut-ins and those unable to get to Mass. It wasn’t complicated, took no special skill, and took all of half an hour.
Bury the Dead
This is one where many us, unless we are undertakers, may not do. We have a funeral to go to in a couple weeks, but are of course not actually doing the burying. But we did have a Mass said for the deceased, which is a great spiritual benefit to their souls.
Admonish the Sinner
See my post Why (and How) To Admonish a Brother In Charity. This can be a very hard work of mercy, and takes discernment, but may save his soul in the end.
Instruct the Ignorant
I had a co-worker mention that she went to Mass recently because her son was going through CCD and doing his first Penance. I knew she didn’t go to Mass regularly, but mentioned she received Communion. I mentioned (as charitably as I could) that the Church expects us to go to Confession at least once a year, and always when we are in a state of mortal sin, and that not attending Mass every Sunday and HDO is a mortal sin. I emailed her a detailed examination of conscience and told her to read it and encouraged her to join her son and make use of the Sacrament of Penance. She admitted she is a “bad Catholic” for rarely attending Mass outside of Christmas and Easter and never going to Confession. But at least she can’t claim ignorance now.
Sometimes we need to pop people’s bubble as a spiritual work of mercy, regardless of how uncomfortable it is and how badly they have been catechized so they no longer have any excuse. We can do it charitably, but we need to do it when we have the opportunity, or we will be judged just as harshly as a sin of omission.
Counsel the Doubtful
Comfort the Sorrowful
My wife is good about being available to women with things like a kitchen table and a cup of tea. She’s a good listener, and a good encourager too. Many people today are struggling with doubts and anxiety, and we can encourage by making time and space for them in invitation. As St. Paul says, “encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (1 Thes 5:11) And when we encounter someone who is downcast and hurting, we share their cross, mourning with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). “Love and hurry are fundamentally incompatible. Love always takes time, and time is the one thing hurried people don’t have.”
Bear Wrongs Patiently
See what this looks like in my post By Your Words You Shall Be Condemned, where I cover some of St. Ambrose’s treatise on the matter.
Forgive All Injuries
Forgiveness can take really deep work, and grace is necessary for it to be perfected. See Forgive Quickly, Before You Change Your Mind. If we do not forgive our brother, our heavenly Father will not forgive us. So it’s important!
Pray For The Living And The Dead
See my article The Tender Favor of Indulgences for more on this efficacious and much neglected work of mercy.
We will be judged on our tangible charity (Mt 25) and true religion is caring for widows and orphans (Ja 1:27). But it doesn’t have to be complicated! As mentioned above, a lot of these are low-hanging fruit, and don’t take any special skill–just charity, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit given to anyone who asks (Mt 7:11). You may also find you do not hit all of these, and that’s okay too. But it’s also okay to “try out” different works to round out your character as a Christian. These are just some suggestions, and I only share what we have done not as any kind of merit, but to give some tangibility and examples of what one can do. The perfect is the enemy of the good. As one of my friends is fond of saying, “half the battle is just showing up!”