What are the spiritual and corporal works of mercy?

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As the church celebrates the opening of the Year of Mercy and one of the greatest acts of mercy in salvation history - the birth of Christ - the faithful are called to consider more attentively the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.

"We have to put mercy before judgment, and in every case God's judgment will always be in the light of His mercy," said Pope Francis as he opened the jubilee year Dec. 8.

But what are the works of mercy, and how do we put them into practice?

The seven works largely were drawn from the Gospels, and by the medieval period they were codified as a way to "alleviate the distress of a person, body and soul," according to Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University in Washington and a parishioner of St. Mary Church in Alexandria.

In Matthew 25, Jesus describes how in caring for people's bodily needs, we show love for God: "for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in."

The number seven is tied to Christ's words in the Gospel and is "the number of perfection and describes the completion of creation," Pecknold said. Seven is the number of sacraments, gifts of the Holy Spirit, and joys and sorrows of Our Lady.

Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father Lewis S. Fiorelli, parochial vicar of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Vienna and a spiritual director for nearly a half-century, said that because "the human person is an embodied spirit," mercy requires both a physical and spiritual expression. That is why the sacraments often make use of material elements, like bread and wine, water and oil, to convey realities such as spiritual food and healing.

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 and bury the dead - are "pretty straightforward," said Father Fiorelli. "It is clear just by naming them as to what is called for from believers who want to translate their faith in God into concrete and loving actions."

Father Fiorelli said that addressing bodily needs, such as offering food and shelter, is often the principal way to reach people's hearts and arouse their faith in God.

What motivates us as we perform the corporal works of mercy is important, said Pecknold. The corporal works are not "a Christian way of doing humanitarian aid," he said. "They are the fruit of being infused with divine love … and should be seen as a response to God's grace."

Unlike the corporal works, the spiritual works - counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, comfort the sorrowful, forgive offenses willingly, bear wrongs patiently, and pray for the living and the dead - are "not so readily understood," said Father Fiorelli. The first three can be especially confusing to put into practice.

"'Counseling the doubtful' often implies the buffeting of one's faith in a good, loving and all-powerful God when personal tragedies occur," said Father Fiorelli.

"How often did we hear the question, 'Where was God?' when the (twin) towers fell? How often do we hear a spouse ask, 'Where was God?' when their beloved dies or the same question from parents when their children suffer? Doubt here suggests a bruised and hurting faith, not its total lack," he said. "When the tragedy or the hurt or the pain is raw, counseling the doubtful is not done so much in words as in loving presence.

"As St. Francis de Sales so wisely said, 'Heart speaks to heart; words speak only to ears.'"

When we are asked to "instruct the ignorant," said Father Fiorelli, "ignorance implies being uninformed or perhaps inadequately informed of the truths of our faith and in its moral imperatives. Thus, (the ignorant) need teachers who know how to win hearts by gently but persuasively presenting the truth of the Gospel and the teachings of the church.

"Jesus, 'gentle and humble of heart,' knew that to reach the head, one must first win the heart."

Father Fiorelli said the directive to "admonish the sinner" especially is challenging because "all of us are acutely aware of our own sins."

Though sinless, Jesus can be our model, he said. "While Jesus readily forgave the sinner, He never dismissed the sin. Jesus knew just how to speak to the sinner so that, while He clearly denounced the sin, He never rejected the sinner."

Father Fiorelli pointed out that this spiritual work should not be left solely to bishops, priests and deacons. Parents have an important role to play, as do all Christians, who "ought to admonish and encourage one another."

"On a larger level," said Father Fiorelli, "believers need to admonish the sinfulness that is rampant in our world today, from indifference or hostility to human life, to the cheapening of human love and the denigration of the human body, as well as to the misuse and abuse of our fragile planet and its limited resources."

All of the acts of mercy, added Pecknold, are not mere suggestions. They are a response to "the mercy that is poured out for us from God," he said. "We, in turn, must pour out our mercy and love for others."

Scott can be reached at kscott@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @KScottACH.

Find out more

For the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' information on the works of mercy and ways to incorporate them into your life, click here.

For the Year of Mercy website of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, go here.

A Franciscan Media website dedicated to the Year of Mercy includes background about the jubilee year, FAQs and social media memes; go here.

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

Spiritual works of mercy

counsel the doubtful

instruct the ignorant

admonish the sinner

comfort the sorrowful

forgive offenses willingly

bear wrongs patiently

pray for the living and the dead

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015