(This article and many more, can be found in our Spirit of Carmel Publication)
During His earthly life, Jesus taught the importance of loving our neighbor in word and deed through His miracles and parables. The Church now calls these actions the “corporal” and “spiritual” works of mercy.
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me food, I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink, a stranger, and you welcomed Me, naked, and you clothed Me, ill and you cared for Me, in prison, and you visited Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, and say, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger, and welcome You, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison, and visit?’ And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of Mine, you did it for Me’” (Matthew 25:34-40).
Jesus’ example serves as a blueprint for us, encouraging us to see Christ reflected in others, and to treat them accordingly. Practicing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy play an integral part in our salvation. Pope Francis recently noted: “God’s mercy transforms human hearts; it enables us, through the experience of a faithful love, to become merciful in turn. The spiritual and corporal works of mercy remind us that faith finds expression in concrete, everyday actions meant to help our neighbors in body and spirit: by feeding, visiting, comforting and instructing them. On such things will we be judged,” he said.
There are seven corporal works of mercy and seven spiritual works of mercy, and we have many examples among the saints who, for love of Jesus, tirelessly endeavored to follow His example in loving their neighbor. We can draw inspiration from them for our own lives.
The 7 Corporal Works of Mercy and 7 Saints who practiced them
Feed The Hungry
Hunger remains a concern in both poor and rich countries. For those of us blessed to not have to face hunger, better stewardship of food can help reduce the amount that is wasted, and in turn can benefit those who are forced to do without.
The saint who fed the hungry:
As a member of the royal family with access to ample stores of food, St. Elizabeth of Hungary was nonetheless keenly aware of the fact that many of her husband’s subjects had no food, and that their situation grew direr during times of famine. Knowing that his silos were filled to the brim with grain, Elizabeth ordered her bakers to take grain from the silos, and bake enough bread each day, which she would distribute among those in need. Some of the Landgrave’s family opposed Elizabeth’s actions and complained that the silos would soon be empty. Upon checking the stores, they were all astonished to find the silos filled to the brim with grain! No matter how much was used each day, the supply never depleted! The Landgrave, who had always been convinced that God was pleased with Elizabeth’s charitable activities, encouraged her work all the more. In our own day, we can imitate St. Elizabeth’s example by volunteering in soup kitchens or donating food stuffs to local food pantries or to our parish food drives during the holiday season.
Give drink to the thirsty
As those who live in drought-stricken areas know all too well, water is a very precious commodity, and water that is safe to drink, even more so. Far too many people do not have access to clean water because their water sources are contaminated. It is easy to take this precious resource for granted.
The saint who gave drink to the thirsty:
St. Peter Claver arrived in Cartagena in 1610, when the city was a hub for the slave trade. During his final studies for the priesthood, Peter became aware of and was greatly disturbed by the harsh treatment of the slaves. This inspired him to devote his priestly ministry to serving their needs. Peter would stand on the wharf awaiting the arriving ships. Once the ship docked, Peter would go aboard armed with fresh water and medicine to tend to the most immediate needs of the slaves. Today, we can imitate St. Peter Claver by supporting organizations that work to bring clean water to developing nations, by turning off faucets to cut down on waste, and by buying cases of drinking water and donating them to homeless shelters.
Shelter the homeless
Many circumstances can lead to homelessness. But we can do things to help those in need, such as donating time, money or supplies to homeless shelters or even by volunteering with organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.
The saint who welcomed and gave shelter to the homeless:
When St. Benedict founded his own monastery, he wrote a set of precepts for his community, known as the Rule of St. Benedict, which would go on to influence monastic life for the next 1500 years, and earning St. Benedict the title “Father of western monasticism”. One of his rules pertains to hospitality, where St. Benedict instructs that all guests are to be welcomed with courtesy and in the manner as one would welcome Christ Himself.
Visit the sick
In the hectic pace of modern life, it is easy to forget those who are sick, or to avoid them altogether because one feels awkward or does not know what to say to a person with a serious health problem. However, taking the time to visit someone in the hospital or the elderly in a nursing home is a loving act that can bring great consolation and comfort.
The saint who visited the sick:
St. Catherine of Genoa began to venture out into the slums of Genoa to tend to the poor and sick as a means of escaping an unhappy marriage. She was greatly repulsed in nursing the ill – a reaction she found difficult to overcome. It was only after a mystical experience during Confession, that Catherine overcame her revulsion and began to see the suffering Christ in the faces of those she tended. Catherine eventually moved into the city hospital, where she spent her personal means serving and caring for the sick. When the bubonic plague came to Genoa in 1493, Catherine refused to leave the city, and remained at the hospital caring for the dying, doing all she could to alleviate their suffering.
Visit the imprisoned
Most people tend to shy away from those in prison, many of whom are often without hope. Jesus died for them, too, and despite their circumstance, perhaps all the more because of it, need to hear the truth of the Gospel and of Christ’s love for them. Many parishes have a prison ministry, often for both youths and adults, and is a good way to become involved in bringing Jesus’ message of hope and love to the incarcerated.
The saint who visited the imprisoned:
St. Peter Nalasco was a co-founder of the Mercedarian religious community, which was devoted to ransoming themselves for Christian prisoners held as slaves during the time of the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. Peter journeyed twice to Algiers expressly to offer himself as ransom for Christian prisoners. It was reported that during one such journey, on stops in the kingdoms of Valencia and Granada, Peter secured the release of 400 captive Christians from Moorish prisons.
Clothe the naked (Giving alms to the poor)
Too many people live below the poverty level in our country, requiring not just food, but basic items for day-to-day living, such as clothing. There are many reputable, non-profit organizations that have the ability to provide services and supplies to those in need. We have the opportunity to help these organizations serve others by donating money, as well as clothing, bedding, and even small appliances.
The saint who clothed the naked/gave alms to the poor:
As a young noblewoman, St. Frances of Rome committed herself to serving the needs of the poor. Together with her sister-in-law, Frances would visit prisons and hospitals and distribute food and clothing to the poor. In the early 15th century, after severe flooding brought disease and famine to Rome, Frances instructed her household staff that no one coming to their door asking for alms was to be turned away. She personally supervised the distribution of clothing, supplies and alms to the poor, eventually founding a group of noble lay women inspired by Frances’ example, called the Oblates of Mary, dedicated to clothing the poor and giving alms.
Bury the dead
Death is the natural culmination of our earthly lives. We attend funerals to grieve for the deceased and support and comfort the family in mourning. Helping someone make funeral arrangements, preparing a meal for the bereaved, offering our company by visiting someone who has lost a spouse (especially among the elderly), are just some of the ways we can offer comfort and support to those who grieve.
The saint who buried the dead:
In the mid-1300s, the city of Siena suffered a terrible outbreak of the plague that would ultimately claim nearly 60% of the city’s inhabitants. The dying and dead were everywhere, and the few citizens who remained in Siena refused to care for the dying or bury the dead for fear of contagion – all that is except for St. Catherine. With no concern of contracting the plague herself, Catherine fearlessly moved among the dying doing her best to alleviate their suffering, offering comfort and consolation. As for the dead, she lovingly prepared and buried the bodies herself.
The 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy and 7 Saints who practiced them
Counsel the doubtful
We live in difficult times. 24/7/365 access to “news” means we are under a constant bombardment of information, often misinformation, which can be overwhelming and can sow confusion and doubt. However, we must remember one thing – Christ never changes. He “…is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by varied and strange teachings…” (Hebrews 13:8-9). We must be witnesses to the truth of Jesus’ words, so that others might come to see Him as “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” We can be examples to those in doubt, even in the midst of the most trying times, by steadfastly trusting in God’s loving plan for each of us, and His ability to bring good out of evil.
The saint who counseled the doubtful:
As Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney experienced first-hand the devastating consequences of the French revolution. Peoples’ attitude toward religion was at best apathetic, preferring to spend Sunday in the taverns rather than at Mass. St. John fervently preached about keeping the Lord’s Day holy, going so far as to refuse absolution if they didn’t mend their ways. He reinvigorated people’s faith by his teaching and by the advice and encouragement he offered penitents in the many hours he spent in the confessional. By the last decade of his life, St. John spent 12-16 hours a day hearing confessions.
Instruct the ignorant
There are so many who do not know Christ. There are also many searching for the truth and are taking tentative steps toward the Catholic faith. We must instruct and encourage them in seeking Christ, and there are a number of ways to do this. Most parishes have religious education programs for children, teens and adults. By volunteering as a catechist, not only is it a great opportunity to instruct those who are ignorant, but it is a great chance become “reacquainted” with the faith ourselves.
The saint who instructed the ignorant:
A little more than a year after being widowed, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was received into the Catholic Church. In order to support herself and her five children, she moved to Emmitsburg, Maryland in 1809, where she established the first Catholic school in the U.S. dedicated to the education of Catholic girls – Saint Joseph’s Academy and Free School, accepting all students regardless of ability to pay. This humble beginning became the foundation of the Catholic parochial school system in America. She also established a religious community, the Daughters of Charity, whose members taught at the school. Mother Seton personally wrote textbooks and lesson plans and trained her spiritual daughters to become teachers. St. Elizabeth Seton’s legacy of educating children continues in Catholic elementary and high schools across the country today.
“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). By His words, Jesus admonished the woman caught in adultery; not condoning her sin, but rather gently correcting her. He sets a perfect example for us in how we should help guide others toward our ultimate goal of salvation without judgement, and that while charitably pointing out sinful behavior, remembering we all share in humanity’s fallen nature.
The saint who admonished sinners:
St. Ignatius of Loyola experienced his religious conversion after reading a great number of books about Jesus while convalescing after being injured during a military campaign. His readings kindled great fervor in Ignatius inspiring him to a life of great asceticism. He traveled to Paris to complete his studies, and it was there that other students were drawn to Ignatius as a spiritual director. He and these companions eventually became the Society of Jesus. It was Ignatius’ great concern for saving souls that he would beseech his missionaries to “hurry to any part of the world where…the needs of the neighbor should summon them…and to serve without hard words or contempt for people’s errors.”¹
Comfort the afflicted/sorrowful
Sometimes, it is difficult to find the right words to say to one who is grieving. However, simply lending an ear or offering a shoulder to cry on can be a source of tremendous consolation to one who is experiencing trials. Taking a few minutes to telephone or even visit someone who is hurting can make a world of difference because our presence will make him/her feel less alone and be comforted by knowing that someone cares.
The saint who comforted the afflicted:
Blessed Margaret of Castello knew first-hand how it feels to be unwanted and abandoned. She was born blind, with severe curvature of the spine, had one leg significantly shorter than the other so that she could only walk with a crutch, and had a malformed arm. Embarrassed by her, Margaret’s family kept her locked in a room with only a small window that looked into a chapel. It was through this window that the family chaplain instructed Margaret about God and the Catholic faith. When Margaret was six, her parents took her to a pilgrimage site hoping for a miraculous cure for her infirmities. When there was no miracle, Margaret’s parents abandoned her. A husband and wife found the frightened child and took her in. Despite her sufferings and rejection by her family, Margaret remained hopeful and cheerful and keenly sympathetic to the sufferings of others. She would instruct the neighborhood children in the faith, cared for the poor, and nursed the sick. Margaret encouraged others to view their sufferings in the light in which she saw her own – that by uniting their sufferings to those Jesus endured on the cross, their sufferings would be the meritorious path leading to heaven.
Forgiving others can be a difficult thing to do. However, we are reminded of what Jesus taught in the words of a prayer we utter at every Mass – “…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us….” We should not speak ill of those who hurt us, but rather forgive and pray for them, and we should not return unkindness with unkindness.
The saint who forgave offenses:
St. Stephen was one of the seven deacons appointed by the Apostles in the nascent days of the church shortly after Jesus’ Ascension. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he preached fervently about Jesus as the Messiah. Soon, he was taken before the Sanhedrin, accused of blasphemy. It was here Stephen had his vision of the heavens opening where he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. His listeners were enraged, and they dragged him outside the city where “…they went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:59-60).
Bear wrongs patiently
We hardly need to go looking for trouble – it has an uncanny knack for finding us on its own. When someone wrongs us and there seems to be no way toward a resolution, it is oftentimes best to simply remove ourselves from the situation and prayerfully ask for patience as we place the situation in God’s hands.
The saint who bore wrongs patiently:
The 18 apparitions of Our Lady to St. Bernadette at Lourdes caused a considerable stir amongst the townspeople. While there were those who believed that Bernadette was indeed seeing the Blessed Virgin, more often than not, her accounts of the visions were met with considerable skepticism (on the part of Church authorities) and outright hostility (from town officials). Bernadette was ridiculed for her piety, called a liar and simple-minded and was even accused of being mentally ill. Through it all, St. Bernadette maintained her simplicity, goodness and courage, never retaliating against the mocking and cruel words of those who doubted her honesty.
Pray for the living and the dead
St. John Damascene beautifully defines prayer as “…the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” Praying for one another is the most powerful and efficacious gift we can give. Through our prayers, we place those for whom we are praying in God’s care. As for the souls in Purgatory, since they can no longer gain merit for themselves, they are especially in need of our assistance in helping them gain admission to the Beatific Vision. Requesting Masses be offered in memory of the deceased or for the intentions of a still-living friend, remembering to personally pray for those with a particular need, praying the Rosary on behalf of the poor souls, particularly those abandoned, are a just few ways we can pray for the living and the dead.
The saint who prayed for the living and the dead:
St. Gertrude the Great’s mystical union with Our Lord was so ardent by the time she was five years old, that He privately revealed to her the grace-filled devotion to His Sacred Heart 400 years before it would be made known to the rest of the world through St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. Gertrude had great empathy for anyone suffering temporally or spiritually and would immediately beseech Jesus’ Sacred Heart on behalf of the one in need. In her writings, Gertrude reveals that once when she was fervently praying for the souls in Purgatory, Our Lord permitted her see their sufferings. She was greatly moved and she heard Him say: “I accept with highest pleasure what is offered to Me for the Poor Souls, for I long inexpressibly to have near Me those for whom I paid so great a price. By the prayers of thy loving soul, I am induced to free a prisoner from Purgatory as often as thou dost move thy tongue to utter a word of prayer!” (from The Life and Revelations of St. Gertrude)