"And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" He said to them in reply, "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise." - Luke 3:10-11
The 7 Corporal Works of Mercy are:
- To feed the hungry;
- To give drink to the thirsty;
- To clothe the naked;
- To harbor the harborless;
- To visit the sick;
- To ransom the captive;
- To bury the dead.
Faith calls us to follow the 10 Commandment, to receive the Sacraments, and to pray, but it also calls us to practice charity for our neighbors when they are in need. While we know that faith is essential for our salvation, we also know that we cannot be saved by faith alone. As we see in the Book of James:
"You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,' and he was called 'the friend of God.' See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." - James 2:22-24
These works of Mercy are the more practical and visible ways to exercise our faith to those in need. The first and second of these works are closely related. In contemplating them, we ask ourselves, how often do we help provide for the needs of those who are hungry and thirsty? Do we help out at food pantries; do we donate food or money to buy food for the hungry? Our witness can be extremely powerful by giving "our daily bread" to those who so desperately need it.
We are called to give clothing to the naked. This thought should compel us to consider the excess of clothing that many of us have. How many pairs of shoes do we need? How many pairs of pants and shirts are really necessary for us? Is it possible for us to donate these excesses of ours in order to bring hope to those who need it?
The issue of homelessness is very prominent in our world. Imagine the pain of those who truly have nowhere to go. Are our doors open to those who are in need? Do we offer to take in the homeless? Do we give money to the many Catholic shelters that provide such crucial aid to those who are unable to provide for themselves?
We must visit the sick. In doing so, we uphold the dignity of the human person. Consider the feelings of those who spend so much time in hospitals and nursing homes without the comfort of those they love. How many of our elderly are permanently confined to stark building with little love or attention paid to them? We should freely choose to visit the shut-ins, the sick, and the lonely. We can be a great source of hope in their lives.
Now the sixth work of mercy will undoubtedly perplex many. How many captives do we know? People are not kidnapped in our presence very often. This particular act of mercy is always of some value to us, however. Consider those in places without the right to freely practice religion. The mere act of going to mass likely brings the threat of imprisonment. Do we offer any help to these destitute faithful? Do we offer or even investigate the options available to us in providing help to them? Do we even pray for them? Consider also the possibilities of visiting the imprisoned. Do we care for those in jail? Let us not forget those who are imprisoned, especially those who are held captive because of their love for God.
Finally, the last of the works of the corporal works of mercy urges us to bury the dead. Fortunately, in our society, burying the dead is normally done with the necessary respect. There are situations, however, where this respect is forgotten and we treat the dead with neglect. Consider the cases of cryogenic freezing in the hope of reviving them many years later. Clearly this does not show the proper respect for their bodies. Consider those who turn their loved ones ashes into diamonds or other types of jewelry or who scatter their ashes. Of course there is also the disrespect show to those who are aborted. They are thrown in the dumpster as medical waste. Let us always show due respect for the bodies of those who have gone before us.
In practicing these corporal works of mercy, just as with the spiritual works of mercy, we build up the dignity of the human person. These are opportunities for grace in our daily lives. In exercising the works of mercy, we truly follow the commands that Christ gave us:
"Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by 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 ill or in prison, and visit you?' 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 for me.'" - Matthew 25:34-40