Works of Corporal Mercy

12998370_473706396167871_2745217035303942483_oSessa Aurunca 18 April 2016

Fr. Luciano Sandrin, Camillian

We are invited, still today, to express our mercy through works of corporal and spiritual mercy. ‘This will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty, and to enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel where the poor have a special experience of God’s mercy’ (Pope Francis). Works of corporal mercy are the following: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming foreigners, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, and burying the dead. And works of spiritual mercy are: counselling the doubtful, teaching the ignorant, warning sinners, comforting the afflicted, forgiving offences, patiently bearing people who molest us, and praying to God for the living and the dead.

‘Be merciful as your Father is merciful’ (Lk 6:36). Jesus’ invitation expresses with clarity the possibility that each one of us can take part in the mercy of God. ‘Merciful and compassionate’ is the name of God; ‘merciful and compassionate, slow in anger and rich in love and faithfulness’ (Ex 34:6; psalm 86:15; 103:8; 111:4, etc.). Jesus gave a human face to this mercy-compassion; he bore witness to it in his life and today he asks us to be this merciful and compassionate ‘face’ through the practical nature of works. The biblical text from which corporal works of mercy derive is the discourse that Jesus will make at the last judgement, as is narrated in the Gospel according to St. Matthew chapter 25, with the addition of the burying of the dead attested to in the book of Tobit. Works of mercy still have their full contemporary relevance but they should be updated at the level of their application. Let us analyse, today, first of all, works of corporal mercy.

    Feeding the hungry. We cannot live without eating and yet many people, still today, cannot satisfy their hunger whereas other people waste food in great quantities. And the faces of malnourished children break our hearts and have become a compelling question that we often hand on to others. We also address this question to God so that he may intervene and solve the great problem of hunger in the world. But the strategy that it involves also appeals to our responsibility, our cooperation and our sharing. As in the case of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes which is narrated by the evangelists.

     Giving drink to those who are thirsty. We cannot live without water: to keep clean, to cook food but also to quench our thirst and to feed ourselves. It is thus important that we treat it as a thing of great worth: using it well, not polluting it and not wasting it. To offer something to drink to another person is a quintessential form of hospitality and care. Thirst can also be an image of deeper wishes. A fine example of this is the dialogue of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:5-30). Although it is important to give that water which the body needs, it is equally important to quench the thirst of the heart: a thirst for love, for tenderness and for understanding. The problem of water involves us all, as individuals and as a community, and the response can only be choir-like.

    Clothing the naked. Many of us offer clothes, including new ones, to help those people who, because of poverty or unexpected tragedies, find from one moment to the next that they are completely naked and defenceless. But we should also be concerned that people have an opportunity to work and to earn enough to obtain clothing for themselves and their family relatives. The invitation to engage in this kind of mercy also means clothing other people with our respect and ensuring that those who have lost their dignity regain it. Clothing a person, or clothing him or her anew, is to recognise a value that should be protected and defended not only against the attacks of cold but also against the violence to which that person is exposed.

misericordia1-1024x602    Welcoming foreigners. To speak about welcome means to reawaken the practice of hospitality which has traversed the various cultures of the world down history and in various settings. We may remember the story of Abraham who welcomed three visitors who then revealed that they were messengers of God and rewarded him with the gift of a happy message: a son for his wife Sarah, even though she was advanced in age, and a great line of descendants (Gen 18:1-8). Welcoming foreigners, those people who flee from deadly dangers – such as wars, persecution, a lack of water and food, and other forms of violence – today has acquired a social and political dimension. It brings out starkly the problems of understanding and integration with peoples of different cultures, the real possibilities of welcoming them and of offering them a life of dignity, having a job and a more serene future for themselves and their families.

Visiting the sick and taking care of them. The visit is important but this involves going beyond drawing near to someone in a physical sense: it means taking an interest in them, entering their human and spiritual territory, and offering ourselves to do what is possible to take care of them and help them. Every sick person is a mystery. For this reason, it is important to enter into his or her life with respect, without undue curiosity and invasions, taking off one’s sandals so as not to tread upon a terrain that is holy and which reveals to us not only something about that other person but also something that is important about ourselves. When visiting a sick person we are that person’s guests, we are in his or her home, and it is that person that will open up his or her life, allowing us to enter and also to learn the rules of good ‘coexistence’ with him or her. To visit a sick person, to take an interest in that person, means committing oneself to everybody having the care to which they have a right, even when they cannot pay for it. Compassion becomes political and social action. To help a sick person, however, it is important take care of his or her family as well and the problems that he or she has to endure, even for long periods of time.

     Visiting people in prison. The invitation to visit people in prison is an invitation to forego our judgements. It is not for us to judge. Amongst other things, a person in prison many be innocent and this is discovered only after years of being in prison and, at times, when there is the death penalty, only when it is too late. A visit creates ties where there is isolation and affection where there is loneliness. An invitation to visit those in prison is also an invitation to ensure that their conditions of life are dignified and humane. They are people who need respect and trust. And this can also take place through instruction, through learning a job and practising it while they are in prison. They thus rediscover the will to change and hope is reborn within them. We must make an effort to see the world from the other side of the bars, without condemning or justifying, but only in order to understand and to help.

   Burying the dead without removing death. The model for this is the elderly Tobit who, in the Book of Tobit, relates that he has always helped his brethren in difficulty and buried their bodies that had been thrown in one way or another behind the walls of Nenive (Tb 1:17). In all cultures and religions there are different rituals for burial and giving the final farewell to the dead: a sign of respect for that body that we have loved, and also embraced and kissed; an assurance that our own loved ones are not forgotten and that, after a certain fashion, they will go on living, even though in a  new way, in our memories, in our love and in places with different names and characteristics. When one cannot say adieu to a loved one, to his or her body, and there is no place (a grave) when one can weep for him or her and mourn, a great emptiness and a great pain remains. Burying the dead must make us careful not to ‘bury’ and remove death from our lives and to accompany those who die in a way that respects their dignity. But to bury the dead also means ‘allowing them to go’, mourning their physical presence, and drawing up new methods of expressing to them our ties of love.

       The creativity of charity. True charity opens itself by its nature to universal service, projecting us into a commitment to industrious and concrete love towards every human being. Works of corporal mercy are a valid expression and concrete testimony to this. In our epoch, there are still very many needs that call on our mercy and our compassion. John Paul II reminded us that today, in this new millennium, the hour has come for a new ‘creativity of charity’ which is expressed not only in the efficacy of the help that is given but also, and above all else, in a capacity to make ourselves neighbours to, and supportive with, those people who suffer, in old and new ways, so that the charity of works will assure that the charity of words will have an unequivocal force.

When speaking about works of mercy, it is also possible to speak about the other side of the coin: giving food to the hungry has as its other side the new need to reduce the eating of those who eat too much; giving drink to those who are thirsty has on the obverse the need to restore control of their thirst; clothing those who are naked becomes resisting the influences of fashion; welcoming foreigners also means not rejecting immigrants; visiting the sick involves not only giving but also receiving and learning from them; visiting people in prison is transformed into not adding suffering to punishment; and burying the dead reminds us of the duty not to abandon those who die.

Further reading

Papa Francesco, Misericordiae vultus. Bolla di Indizione del Giubileo della misericordia (LEV, Vatican City, 2015).

Cosmacini G., Compassione. Le opere di misericordia ieri e oggi (Il Mulino, Bologna, 2012).

Fasani B., Il bene del fare. Le opere di misericordia per un mondo indifferente (Lindau, Turin, 2012).

Grün A., Perché il mondo sia trasformato. Le sette opere di misericordia (Queriniana, Brescia, 2015).

Kasper W., Misericordia. Concetto fondamentale del vangelo – Chiave della vita cristiana (Queriniana, Brescia, 2013).

Manicardi L., La fatica della carità. Le opere di misericordia (Qiqajon-Comunità di Bose: Magnano (BI), 2010).

Sandrin L., Aiutare gli altri. La psicologia del buon samaritano (Paoline, Milan, 2013).

Sandrin L., Psicologia del malato, Comprendere la sofferenza, accompagnare la speranza (EDB, Bologna, 2015).