by David E. Walker
The Works of Mercy provide the cornerstone for understanding Catholic teaching on social justice. They stand at the very heart of the Catholic Worker movement. This web page will attempt to list and define the Works of Mercy from a distinctly Catholic point of view, being identified in scripture as necessary for our salvation, drawing upon CW founder Peter Maurin’s Personalist philosophy in their implementation within the construct of the Catholic Worker movement itself.
Definition of the term Mercy:
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines mercy as a “virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune."1 St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that although mercy is the spontaneous product of charity, it is a distinct virtue in and of itself.2 The Scholastics refer mercy to the quality of justice because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons.3 The motivation for mercy is the discernment of misery one senses in another, especially to the extent that it is involuntary.4 Since man is made up of body and of soul, the Catholic Church has conveniently enumerated seven corporal (bodily) works of mercy and seven spiritual works of mercy, as follows:5
The Corporal Works of Mercy:
- To Feed the hungry;
- To give drink to the thirsty;
- To clothe the naked;
- To house the homeless;
- To visit the sick;
- To ransom the captive;
- To bury the dead.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy:
- To instruct the ignorant;
- To counsel the doubtful;
- To admonish sinners;
- To bear wrongs patiently;
- To forgive offences willingly;
- To comfort the afflicted;
- To pray for the living and the dead.
The works of mercy coincide with the various forms of almsgiving. In fact, the word alms is a corruption of the Greek word for mercy: elenmosyne.6
Scripture tells us that mercy is the condition for salvation. Matthew 25, 31-46 (the parable of the last judgment) enumerates six of the corporal works of mercy as follows:
- Feed the hungry;
- Give drink to the thirsty;
- Welcome the stranger;
- Clothe the naked;
- Visit the sick;
- Visit the imprisoned.
In the parable, the “Son of man” comes in glory with the heavenly host to judge men according to their works, separating them, just as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Those who accomplished the above works of mercy (the sheep) sit on his right side and inherit the kingdom of heaven, because whenever they ministered to “the least of my brothers”, it was as though they ministered to Christ Himself. The others, the “goats” sit on His left side and inherit eternal damnation because they did not do the above works when they saw their neighbor in need. To the goats, his reply is “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me (Mathew 25:45, ESV).” It is worth noting here that man is created in God’s image and likeness. It follows that we are capable of loving God only insofar as we are capable of loving our neighbor.
Other sources of scripture that identify the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and that underscore the importance of mercy as necessary for salvation are as follows7:
- Isaiah 58: 6-7 emphasizes addressing injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, harboring the homeless, and clothing the naked;
- Hebrews 13:3 encourages the early Christians to continue their ministry towards the imprisoned and those who have been mistreated;
- 1 John 3: 17 admonishes those who have material possessions who don't take pity for those in need;
- Tobit 4: 5-11 instructs the reader to be generous to the poor, giving "according to what you have";
- Matthew 6: 2-4 emphasizes the use of discretion when giving, so as not to make a big show of it;
- Luke 3: 11 & 11: 41 admonishes us to give to those without what we have in excess, emphasizes mercy over empty rituals;
- James 2: 15-16 rebukes those who bless the needy without providing substantially for their needs.
In addition, 2 Maccabees 7, 40-46 underscores the importance of prayer for the dead. Whereas the book of Maccabees is not included in the Protestant cannon of scripture, (it is included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox cannons), the passage above provides proof that 2nd century Jews believed in the immortality of souls and prayed for their dead.
Works of Mercy in the Catholic Worker Movement:
"Our rule is the works of mercy," said Dorothy Day. "It is the way of sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence."8
Peter Maurin, who with Dorothy Day was instrumental in founding the Catholic Worker Movement, urged individuals to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; he urged Bishops to establish Houses of Hospitality. He wrote a series of essays addressed to the Bishops, pointing out to them that canon law called for the establishment of hospices in every bishopric. When someone who had been sleeping in the subway came into The Catholic Worker office one day and disclosed her need, Peter’s literal acceptance of the scriptural commandment of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless led to the decision to rent a large apartment a block away which became the first House of Hospitality for women. Today 213 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, the exiled, the hungry, and the forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.9
Applying Works of Mercy to our daily lives:
Fr. James Keenan, S.J. warns that living according to the works of mercy can be “a messy business”. The reason is that we end up entering into the chaos that exists in the lives of other people. When we do this, we follow in the footsteps of the Triune Godhead, who created order out of nothing, and of Christ himself, who took on flesh to save humanity from the chaos resulting from sin and death. That being the case, it is every Christian’s vocation to live a lifestyle rooted in mercy:
“It is through the practice of these spiritual and corporal works of mercy that we concretely practice our Christian faith. As Catholics, we cling to these as beacons for living the Christian lifestyle. Through them, we show our willingness to enter into the chaos of another. Perhaps more than anything else, that’s what uniquely defines us as Catholics: It’s our legacy.”10
Maryknoll Publications provides an excellent study guide that gives practical advice on how we can apply works of mercy to our daily lives. A pdf version of this study guide is available here: http://www.maryknollsocietymall.org/studyguides/10447_112.pdf
1-6: Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10198d.htm
7: The Catholic Worker Movement website, www.catholicworker.org
8,9: Griffeth, Carolyn: Peter Maurin’s Personalist Gift to the Catholic Worker. Jesus Radicals, October 18, 2010. http://www.jesusradicals.com/peter-maurins-personalist-gift-to-the-catholic-worker/
10: Keenan. S. J., James J., The Works of Mercy: Heart of Catholic Identity. The American Catholic, http://www.americancatholic.org/newsletters/CU/preview.aspx?id=237.
© Mary House Catholic Worker of Austin, Inc. all rights reserved. This web page may be cited as follows:
Walker, David E., Works of Mercy. Mary House Catholic Worker, Inc., http://www.catholicworkeraustin.com/mercy.html.
Works of Mercy (sometimes known as acts of mercy) are practices which Christians perform.
The practice is popular in the Catholic Church as an act of both penance and charity. In addition, the Methodist church teaches that the works of mercy are a means of grace which lead to holiness and aid in sanctification.
The works of mercy have been traditionally divided into two categories, each with seven elements:
- "Corporal works of mercy" which concern the material needs of others.
- "Spiritual works of mercy" which concern the spiritual needs of others.
Pope John Paul II issued a papal encyclical "Dives in misericordia" on 30 November 1980 declaring that "Jesus Christ taught that man not only receives and experiences the mercy of God, but that he is also called 'to practice mercy' towards others." Another notable devotion associated with the works of mercy is the Divine Mercy, which are reputed to be apparitions of Jesus Christ to Saint Faustina Kowalska.
In the Catholic Church
Based on Jesus' doctrine of the sheep and the goats, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are a means of grace as good deeds and their omission is a reason for damnation. Because the Messianic Age will be a time of mercy, and because the church believes this age began at Jesus' coming and believes Jesus obeyed every mitzvah and fulfilled the Scriptures, Catholics perform the works of mercy.
In particular cases, a given individual will not be obligated or even competent to perform four of the spiritual works of mercy, namely: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, and comforting the afflicted. These works may require a definitely superior level of authority or knowledge or an extraordinary amount of tact. The other works of mercy, however, are considered to be an obligation of all faithful to practise unconditionally. In an address on the 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation, Pope Francis suggested "care for creation" as a new work of mercy. Corporally, it means simple daily gestures of peace and love; spiritually, it means contemplation of the world.
Corporal Works of Mercy
Corporal works of mercy are those that tend to the bodily needs of other creatures. They come from Isaiah 58 and the mitzvah of hospitality. The seventh work of mercy comes from the Book of Tobit and from the mitzvah of burial, although it was not added to the list until the Middle Ages.
The works include:
- To feed the hungry.
- To give water to the thirsty.
- To clothe the naked.
- To shelter the homeless.
- To visit the sick.
- To visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.
- To bury the dead.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
Just as the corporal works of mercy are directed towards relieving corporeal suffering, the aim of the spiritual works of mercy is to relieve spiritual suffering. The first four come from Ezekiel 33, the fifth comes from the mitzvah of forgiving others before receiving forgiveness from God, the sixth comes from Deuteronomy 15, and the seventh comes from Maccabees 2.
The works include:
- To instruct the ignorant.
- To counsel the doubtful.
- To admonish the sinners.
- To bear patiently those who wrong us.
- To forgive offenses.
- To comfort the afflicted.
- To pray for the living and the dead.
Representation in art
The Corporal works of mercy are an important subject of Christian iconography. In some representations of the Middle Ages, the seven works were allegorically juxtaposed with the seven deadly sins (avarice, anger, envy, laziness, unchastity, intemperance, pride). The pictorial representation of the works of mercy began in the 12th century.
The Master of Alkmaar painted the polyptych of the Seven works of mercy (ca. 1504) for the Church of Saint Lawrence in Alkmaar, Netherlands. His series of wooden panel paintings show the works of mercy, with Jesus in the background viewing each, in this order: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveler, comfort the sick, and ransom the captive.
The painting of the Seven Works of Mercy by Frans II Francken (1605) represents the acts not as a picture cycle, but in one single composition.
A major work of the iconography of mercy is the altarpiece of Caravaggio (1606/07) in Naples, which was commissioned by the Confraternità del Pio Monte della Misericordia for their church. This charity brotherhood was founded in 1601 in Naples. The artist painted the Seven Works of Mercy in one single composition. Regarding the sharp contrasts of the painting’s chiaroscuro, the art historian Ralf van Bühren explains the bright light as a metaphor for mercy, which "helps the audience to explore mercy in their own lives".
In Methodist teaching, doing merciful acts is a prudential means of grace. Along with works of piety, they are necessary for the believer to move on to Christian perfection. In this sense, the Methodist concern for people at the margins is closely related to its worship. As such, these beliefs have helped create the emphasis of the social gospel in the Methodist Church.
- Works of Mercy
- Doing Good
- Visiting the Sick and Prisoners
- Feeding and Clothing People
- Earning, Saving, Giving All One Can
- Opposition to Slavery
- ^John Stephen Bowden. Encyclopedia of Christianity. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
- ^John Wesley. The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M., Volume VI. J. Emory & B. Waugh; J. Collord, New York. p. 46. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
- ^R Mauriello, Matthew (2011). Mercies Remembered. pp. 149–160. ISBN 9781612150055.
- ^Pope John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, §14, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, November 30, 1980
- ^"CCC, 2447". Vatican.va.
- ^Matthew 25:31-46
- ^Isaiah 11:6-9
- ^"CCC, 1287". Vatican.va.
- ^Philippians 2:8; Matthew 5:17
- ^"CCC, 520". Vatican.va.
- ^Catholic encyclopedia: Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
- ^Pope Francis: Message on 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a “grateful contemplation of God’s world” (Laudato Si, 214) which “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us” (ibid., 85). As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world”
- ^Isaiah 58
- ^Jewish Library: Hospitality in Judaism In Judaism, showing hospitality (hakhnasat orchim) to guests is considered a mitzvah. When one knows of strangers who are hungry or need a place to relax, it becomes a legal obligation. Some rabbis consider hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”) to be a part of gemilut hasadim (giving of loving kindness).
- ^Tobit 1:16-22 16In the days of Shalmaneser I had performed many charitable deeds for my kindred, members of my people. 17h I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him.* 18Sennacherib returned from Judea, having fled during the days of the judgment enacted against him by the King of Heaven because of the blasphemies he had uttered; whomever he killed I buried. For in his rage he killed many Israelites, but I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them. So when Sennacherib looked for them, he could not find them. 19But a certain Ninevite went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them, and I went into hiding. When I realized that the king knew about me and that I was being hunted to be put to death, I became afraid and took flight. 20All my property was confiscated; I was left with nothing. All that I had was taken to the king’s palace, except for my wife Anna and my son Tobiah.* 21But forty days did not pass before two of the king’s sons assassinated him and fled to the mountains of Ararat. A son of his, Esarhaddon,* succeeded him as king. He put Ahiqar, my kinsman Anael’s son, in charge of all the credit accounts of his kingdom, and he took control over the entire administration.i 22Then Ahiqar interceded on my behalf, and I returned to Nineveh. Ahiqar had been chief cupbearer, keeper of the signet ring, treasury accountant, and credit accountant under Sennacherib, king of the Assyrians; and Esarhaddon appointed him as Second to himself. He was, in fact, my nephew, of my father’s house, and of my own family.
- ^Chabad: The taharah, funeral and burial Jewish law is unequivocal in its insistence that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth, in a way that allows for the natural process of its decomposition and re-integration with its primordial source--the soil of which it was formed. It also insists that in the interim between death and interment, the integrity and dignity of the body be respected and preserved.
- ^News.Va: New work of mercy Since biblical times, Christians have been called to carry out 6 acts of mercy, listed in St Matthew’s Gospel – giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners – with a 7th one, burying the dead, added in medieval times.
- ^ abCatechism of the Catholic Church par. 2447 The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.
- ^Ezekiel 33:7-9 7Now as for you, son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel; so you will hear a message from My mouth and give them warning from Me. 8“When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand. 9“But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way and he does not turn from his way, he will die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your life.
- ^Jewish Virtual Library: Forgiveness The rabbis go even further in the ethical demands made upon the injured party, for not only must he be ready to forgive his injurer, he should also pray that God forgive the sinner before he has come to beg forgiveness (Yad, loc. cit.; Tosef., BK 9:29; Sefer Ḥasidim ed. by R. Margalioth 1957, 267 no. 360). This demand is based on the example of Abraham, who prayed to God to forgive Abimelech (Gen. 20:17). The reasons the injured party should be ready to forgive the injurer are mixed. On the one hand is the self-regarding consideration, already mentioned, that forgiveness to one's fellow wins forgiveness from Heaven. As Philo states: "If you ask pardon for your sins, do you also forgive those who have trespassed against you? For remission is granted for remission" (ed. by Mangey, 2 (1742), 670; see also Yoma 23a). On the other hand there is the purer motive of imitatio dei. Just as it is in the nature of God to be merciful to His creatures, so man in attempting to imitate the ways of God should be forgiving toward those who have injured him (Shab. 133b; see Lev. 19:2). R. Naḥman combines both motives when he says: "Imitate God by being compassionate and forgiving. He will in turn have compassion on you, and pardon your offenses" (op. cit. 81–91).
- ^Deuteronomy 15:11 For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’
- ^2 Maccabees 12:42 Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen
- ^Ralf van Bühren, Caravaggio’s ‘Seven Works of Mercy’ in Naples. The relevance of art history to cultural journalism, in Church, Communication and Culture 2 (2017), pp. 63-87, quotation from pp. 79-80.
- ^ abcdef"Mission: The Works of Mercy". The United Methodist Church. Archived from the original on 9 December 2000. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
- ^"Mission: The Works of Mercy". The United Methodist Church. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
- ^John Stephen Bowden. Encyclopedia of Christianity. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 5 July 2011.
- ^Edward Craig. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Questions to sociobiology. Taylor & Francis. Retrieved 5 July 2011.