Living the Corporal Works of Mercy
Most of my readers will be familiar with the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I will focus on the former: those that tend to the bodily needs of others.
Most of the list comes from Matt 25:31-46. The corporal works are: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. (The final one comes from the Book of Tobit.)
As Christ’s disciples, the gospel is a normative starting point. What does Christ’s final discourse in Matthew teach us? First, the corporal works of mercy will be the criteria for the Last Judgment. Second, there will be a separation into two groups of people: those who do them, and those who do not. Third, both groups will be surprised that the response or lack of response to the needs of the poor is equated with Jesus: “What you did or did not do, you did to Me.” Fourth, there will be a consequence: “These will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The teaching clearly links the corporal works of mercy to one’s salvation; therefore, this not optional, but requires our attention and action.
Many of the corporal works of mercy are not necessarily unique to Christians. A humanitarian can do them. This person doesn’t do them as a believer; rather he recognizes that a good person helps people in need. Also, in our post-Christian culture, there are many unchurched Christians who participate in acts of mercy but who sadly don’t value the connection between this service and growing in their relationship with God.
A disciple of Jesus may “look” like a humanitarian, but there is an important difference. A disciple doesn’t do corporal acts of mercy merely out of social concern, self-satisfaction, or to be noticed. He does them because of his relationship with Jesus Christ and the commitment to following his teaching. What does this concretely mean for us? It means that it’s an integral part of a Christian lifestyle. A faithful Catholic isn’t limited to the occasional sharing of surplus from her food pantry or closet. It’s not just the occasional visiting a family member or friend in the hospital or prison. It is participating in or supporting a vital ministry.
Where are the corporal works of mercy found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church? They’re found in the section that explains the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal!” Why? We may think this commandment only refers to taking things that don’t belong to us. However, the Church teaches that the broader understanding of this commandment is justice and charity.
“Christian life strives to order this world’s goods to God and to fraternal charity” (#2401). This commandment includes the Church’s social doctrine, which relates directly to Legatus members: “Those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits. Profits are necessary, however. They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment” (#2432).
The second important aspect of the corporal works of mercy is that “whenever you did for one of these least [brothers and sisters] of mine, you did for Me” (Mt 25:41) or the contrary (Mt 25:45). To believe this takes an act of faith. To see Jesus in the poor is not a pious statement but an act of contemplation. Our spiritual life opens our eyes to see the suffering Jesus in the poor. Many saints understood and experienced this truth. My favorites are St. Francis of Assisi and St. Vincent de Paul. One of the best teachers of his truth is Blessed Frederick Ozanam, founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Recent popes have continued to develop the Church’s understanding of the corporal works of mercy. Pope St. John Paul II’s Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) makes the connection between receiving God’s mercy and showing mercy to others, especially the poor. Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est links the love of God with the practice of love by the Church.
Pope Francis has made the importance of the corporal works of mercy a central part of his papacy. He makes clear the importance of living the Word of God in our daily life, especially with regard to creation — humanity and the care of the earth.
MONSIGNOR CHARLES KOSANKE is pastor of St. Regis Church, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., chairman of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, spiritual advisor to the Detroit Archdiocesan Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and chaplain of Legatus’ Detroit Chapter.