During the holidays there is much emphasis on food banks, giving trees, and other wonderful ways to help the poor. Caring for the poor is extremely important to many Americans today, but sadly it has become a political talking point for some. We are absolutely called to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; in Matthew 25 Jesus warns that on the day of judgment, if we have NOT been there to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, then we won’t go to heaven!
But let’s not forget the Catholic Church teaches the works of mercy as corporal AND spiritual. The traditional corporal and spiritual works of mercy are as follows:
The Corporal Works of Mercy
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Shelter the homeless
- Visit the sick
- Visit the imprisoned
- Bury the dead
The Spiritual Works of Mercy
- Admonish the sinner
- Instruct the ignorant (This and the next work are extremely pertinent categories today, when so many people are confused by what the Church teaches on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, etc.)
- Counsel the doubtful
- Comfort the sorrowful
- Bear wrongs patiently
- Forgive all injuries
- Pray for the living and the dead
Our culture gives a lot of attention to the poor, but there are so many different aspects to mercy, and we shouldn’t neglect others in need. Most men in prison have been physically abused and come from single parent homes, and many are hopeless and discouraged. I correspond with several men on death row, and the living conditions in their prisons are pretty miserable. The food and medical care are inadequate, and they generally have short life spans. They definitely need kindness and compassion, no matter how despicable their crimes.
Christians are quite generous and give an amazing amount of time and money to charities, more than any other group of Americans. They build homes for Habitat for Humanity, and donate time and money to St. Vincent de Paul, Catholic Charities, Goodwill, Mustard Seed Communities, CFCA, Salvation Army and a plethora of other organizations.
Even though the spiritual works of mercy are just as important as the corporal, feeding the poor seems to give us more satisfaction than simply praying for others and being kind. Yet in Luke 18, Jesus stresses the importance of praying continuously. In Acts 3 a lame beggar sat outside the temple and begged every day for alms. Peter replied “I don’t have any silver or gold! But I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ from Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Peter then took him by the right hand and helped him up.” Peter had no money, but he gave the lame man the incredible gift of prayer and healing. The beggar went in the temple “walking and jumping for joy”. I’m sure the beggar would attest to the importance of prayer, and wouldn’t trade his healing for any amount of money in the world!
I belong to a community called the Marian Servants, and our main charism is teaching the spiritual exercises and giving spiritual direction. Our foundress, Diane Brown, was conversing with Mother Teresa before her death, and was praising the impressive accomplishments of Mother Teresa all over the world. Mother Teresa replied to Diane “I feed souls for a day, you feed them for eternity”. So if you can’t give financially because you’re out of work, or your income is down, you can certainly pray; you can volunteer to teach, or share your love of Christ with everyone you come across. The greatest gift we can give anyone is the gift of salvation.
Sometimes when we pray, it doesn’t feel like we are accomplishing anything; does God really hear our prayers? Are we just spinning wheels and wasting time? I have taught confirmation for 20 years, and often it is wonderfully fulfilling. Other times I feel useless, especially when I have teens who simply don’t want to be there, or are apathetic about their faith. In the past I have gone to soup kitchens and served the poor, collected shoe boxes full of necessities and gifts for the poor in other countries, and collected money and household items for the Hurricane Katrina victims in ’05 and the flood in Atlanta in ’09. I have found it is extremely gratifying to physically take care of the poor, but we have to remember the spiritual works of mercy are just as, if not more important, than the corporal.
When Peter healed the beggar, the people were “filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened”. They too recognized the extraordinary power of prayer; they saw that when we tap into God’s power we can “move mountains”. We’re encouraged in Matthew 19:26 “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
We are all called to build the kingdom of Christ in our own special way, with our own personal calling. God has given all of us our own unique gifts, or charisms, some of which are listed in 1st Corinthians 12 “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit”. I believe God has given me gifts of teaching and healing, and He is calling me to use them in praying for others, teaching confirmation, explaining and defending the Catholic faith, and giving spiritual direction.
We shouldn’t emphasize one work of mercy as more important than another; instead, pray and discern the gifts that God has given you, and the way he is calling you to serve. Through prayer we tap into the divine life and share it’s supernatural power; when teaching religious education, or giving spiritual direction, we are given the sacred honor of walking with a soul on their journey to a deeper relationship with Christ.
One of my first experiences of a miracle from prayer came many years ago when a friend, Jack (name changed) had a lung problem and went in for surgery. During surgery the doctor discovered the damage to the lung was so severe, my friend should have died! It was an absolute miracle the doctors were able to repair the damage and heal my friend. Jack knew I had been praying, and called me to let me know how powerful prayer can be. I had given a mum to Jack, but it had died and he set it out on the back porch. On the day of his surgery the plant came to life and mysteriously bloomed!
Since then I have seen the entire spectrum of miracles; from bones mysteriously healing, to miraculous pregnancies, to emotional healing from abuse and addiction, to powerful conversion experiences. The power of prayer should never be underestimated. James 5:16-18 declares “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective”. Elijah was an ordinary man just like us; when he prayed for a drought, there was no rain for over three years. Then he prayed for the drought to end, and the rain poured from the heavens. In Matthew 7 we’re reminded that God hears and answers every prayer, but sometimes in unexpected ways. When we ask for bread, God’s response may look like a stone, but we can be assured His answer is the right one.
Many today are out of work, sick, discouraged and depressed. Whenever possible we need to be cheerful and encouraging, ready to lend an ear. There are a multitude of ways to make a difference in this world; offering to babysit for moms with small children can be a wonderful blessing; you can volunteer to teach religious education or get involved in some other ministry. There is a dizzying array of ways to volunteer, from hospitals, to grief ministries, to retreat leadership, to prayer groups, to animal shelters.
And first and foremost, we are called to pray “unceasingly” and be “faithful in prayer” (Rom. 12), whether intercessory, contemplative, with the rosary or with scripture, in the morning, in the night, alone or with others, with petition or with thanksgiving! Pray for your family, for your country, for your church, for peace and an end to violence. Pray for the homeless, the hungry, and the sick. Pray for the lonely, the abused, and for those with no faith. Pray for the unborn, for the lost, abandoned, or forgotten children of the world; for those under the power of addictions or bound by depression, anxiety, or bitterness; and for prisoners and service men and women. As you pray, stand firm in faith and be confident that God’s power can overcome any obstacle!