The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Spiritual works of mercy serve body of Christ

Published: February 9, 2008   

Denying oneself of normal pleasures is only a small part of participating in Lent. If the focus ends there, then our connection with one another and the Body of Christ is shallow.

As Christians, we are obligated to treat one another with compassion. Not only must we try to understand how others feel but we must also take action, whenever possible, to help those who cannot help themselves. We call this form of active compassion, mercy.

According to New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, mercy allows us to assist others who are experiencing misfortune, both spiritually and physically. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains further that works of mercy are charitable actions for the benefit of any neighbor in need of any spiritual and bodily necessity (2447).

Merciful behaviors are described in the Book of Isaiah, where we are called to release those bound unjustly, setting free the oppressed. We must share our bread with the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and not turn on our own. (58:6, 7)

Isaiah is describing two kinds of mercy, corporal and spiritual. Corporal works of mercy are actions to help our neighbors who are physically in distress. They are:

  • Feeding the hungry
  • Giving drink to the thirsty
  • Clothing the naked
  • Sheltering those without shelter
  • Visiting the sick
  • Ransoming the captive
  • Burying the dead

    We must reach out to help others physically, but our assistance can be both direct and indirect. Feeding the hungry can be accomplished by serving in a soup kitchen or by making a donation to help pay for the food. Sheltering the homeless can mean taking hurricane refugees into your home or donating furniture to a shelter. Either way, those in need have their minimal physical wants met through compassionate action for others.

    Not only do we help others by practicing merciful actions, we also seek God's mercy for ourselves through those actions. Luke wrote that we should produce good fruits as evidence of our repentance (3:8-11), sharing our possessions with those in need to show our desire for God's merciful justice.

    The Religious Sisters of Mercy are devoted to performing corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

    "The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are about making Christ's compassion known through interaction with others. Christ works and both the giver and the receiver are transformed," said Sister Deborah Troillett, RSM, president of Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock.

    This spiritual transformation occurs when we reflect on what our actions mean and how we are open to the Spirit through our actions. The spiritual works of mercy give us that thoughtful dimension. They call us to:

  • instruct the ignorant
  • counsel the doubtful
  • admonish sinners
  • bear wrongs patiently
  • forgive offenses willingly
  • comfort the afflicted
  • pray for the living and the dead

    There are physical actions attached to the spiritual works, but they also have a self-reflective faith dimension. While helping others, we must see Christ in both the giving and the receiving of mercy, for showing mercy is to receive God's mercy (Matthew 5:7).

    Instructing the ignorant may mean teaching in a school or religious education program.

    At Mount St. Mary, "we may think we are teaching math or science or foreign language, but the Holy Spirit, in one holy instant, because of one small act of kindness, counsel, comfort, forgiveness, prayer, admonition, patience or acceptance may touch a student's heart and soul in a life changing way in that moment of presence," Sister Deborah said.

    We must always be ready to answer the questions of those seeking a greater understanding of our faith or be ready to defend our beliefs when challenged by those who are misinformed.

    Given the importance of this work of mercy, we must first be properly instructed ourselves. We should continually seek training to better instruct others and read Arkansas Catholic regularly so we can share information about our faith with others. We are teacher and student, instructor and the ignorant, throughout our faith journey.

    Counseling the doubtful can relate to instructing the ignorant when someone has a crisis and needs reassurance in making a decision that reflects the teachings of the Church. Doubt arises when two contradictory solutions to a dilemma present themselves (New Advent).

    Being a well-informed, compassionate listener can help another talk out any confusion involving relationships, right-to-life issues, or guidelines for receiving the sacraments.

    St. Augustine urges us to be the spiritual caregivers of one another, and counseling the doubtful involves constant caring.

    Admonishing the sinner is explained by Matthew who says when your brother sins against you, go tell him his fault between you and him alone (18:15).

    We are obliged to help one another see our grievous sins, so as sinners, we can repent and seek reconciliation for the sake of our souls. We are not to give up if a fellow sinner won't respond to our counsel because serious sin is the ultimate separation from God.

    According to New Advent, the recognition of one's gifts or failings in performing an act of mercy is also an important consideration. One might need some particular gift of "tact and prudence" to admonish a sinner because the end result of helping someone move away from sin should be for the mutual salvation of both people involved.

    Comforting the afflicted can be as simple as listening compassionately to a bereaved member of your parish. Kathy Kordsmeier leads the ministry of consolation at St. Joseph Church in Conway.

    She leads 15 trained volunteers who make home visits and provide other types of support for the bereaved in her parish. But Kordsmeier said consoling others could be as simple as preparing a meal for a funeral or sending a sympathy card.

    Kordsmeier, a licensed psychological examiner, said there are many kinds of grief and the need for consolation covers a broad range of life-altering afflictions from depression to Alzheimer's to drug abuse.

    The three remaining spiritual acts of mercy flow from Paul's admonition in Hebrews to love one another mutually (13:1), putting us under an obligation to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offenses willingly and pray for the living and the dead. Bearing wrongs patiently is to believe that justice lies with God and that there is grace in trusting God to reveal his plan. In short, Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and "love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (5:44).

    We are also told explicitly to forgive others so that we will be forgiven by God for our own offenses (Matthew 6:14-15). And prayer -- unceasing prayer -- unites us with the entire communion of saints through conversation with God. We pray to God for others and we, ourselves, are transformed by prayer.

    The virtue in the spiritual works of mercy is that we make a choice to perfect ourselves by practicing these works joyfully and fully so that we might seek salvation together.

    Dr. Linda Webster, a member of St. Mark Church in Monticello, has a bachelor's degree in theology from St. Gregory University in Shawnee, Okla.

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