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Christ of the Breadlines, woodcut by Fritz Eichenberg Works of Mercy

by David E. Walker

The Works of Mercy provide the cornerstone for understanding Catholic teaching on social justice. They stand at the very heart of the Catholic Worker movement.  This web page will attempt to list and define the Works of Mercy from a distinctly Catholic point of view, being identified in scripture as necessary for our salvation, drawing upon CW founder Peter Maurin’s Personalist philosophy in their implementation within the construct of the Catholic Worker movement itself.

Definition of the term Mercy:

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines mercy as a “virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune."1  St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that although mercy is the spontaneous product of charity, it is a distinct virtue in and of itself.2 The Scholastics refer mercy to the quality of justice because, like justice, it controls relations between distinct persons.3  The motivation for mercy is the discernment of misery one senses in another, especially to the extent that it is involuntary.4 Since man is made up of body and of soul, the Catholic Church has conveniently enumerated seven corporal (bodily) works of mercy and seven spiritual works of mercy, as follows:5

The Corporal Works of Mercy:

  • To Feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To house the homeless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

The Spiritual Works of Mercy:

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

The works of mercy coincide with the various forms of almsgiving. In fact, the word alms is a corruption of the Greek word for mercy: elenmosyne.6

Condition for Salvation:

Scripture tells us that mercy is the condition for salvation.  Matthew 25, 31-46 (the parable of the last judgment) enumerates six of the corporal works of mercy as follows:  

  • Feed the hungry;
  • Give drink to the thirsty;
  • Welcome the stranger;
  • Clothe the naked;
  • Visit the sick;
  • Visit the imprisoned.

In the parable, the “Son of man” comes in glory with the heavenly host to judge men according to their works, separating them, just as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Those who accomplished the above works of mercy (the sheep) sit on his right side and inherit the kingdom of heaven, because whenever they ministered to “the least of my brothers”, it was as though they ministered to Christ Himself. The others, the “goats” sit on His left side and inherit eternal damnation because they did not do the above works when they saw their neighbor in need. To the goats, his reply is “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me (Mathew 25:45, ESV).”  It is worth noting here that man is created in God’s image and likeness. It follows that we are capable of loving God only insofar as we are capable of loving our neighbor.

Other sources of scripture that identify the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and that underscore the importance of mercy as necessary for salvation are as follows7:

  • Isaiah 58: 6-7 emphasizes addressing injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, harboring the homeless, and clothing the naked;
  • Hebrews 13:3 encourages the early Christians to continue their ministry towards the imprisoned and those who have been mistreated;
  • 1 John 3: 17 admonishes those who have material possessions who don't take pity for those in need;
  • Tobit 4: 5-11 instructs the reader to be generous to the poor, giving "according to what you have";
  • Matthew 6: 2-4 emphasizes the use of discretion when giving, so as not to make a big show of it;
  • Luke 3: 11 & 11: 41 admonishes us to give to those without what we have in excess, emphasizes mercy over empty rituals;
  • James 2: 15-16 rebukes those who bless the needy without providing substantially for their needs.

In addition, 2 Maccabees 7, 40-46 underscores the importance of prayer for the dead. Whereas the book of Maccabees is not included in the Protestant cannon of scripture, (it is included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox cannons), the passage above provides proof that 2nd century Jews believed in the immortality of souls and prayed for their dead.

Works of Mercy in the Catholic Worker Movement:

"Our rule is the works of mercy," said Dorothy Day. "It is the way of sacrifice, worship, a sense of reverence."8

Peter Maurin, who with Dorothy Day was instrumental in founding the Catholic Worker Movement, urged individuals to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; he urged Bishops to establish Houses of Hospitality. He wrote a series of essays addressed to the Bishops, pointing out to them that canon law called for the establishment of hospices in every bishopric.  When someone who had been sleeping in the subway came into The Catholic Worker office one day and disclosed her need, Peter’s literal acceptance of the scriptural commandment of feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless led to the decision to rent a large apartment a block away which became the first House of Hospitality for women. Today 213 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, the exiled, the hungry, and the forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.9

Applying Works of Mercy to our daily lives:

Fr. James Keenan, S.J. warns that living according to the works of mercy can be “a messy business”. The reason is that we end up entering into the chaos that exists in the lives of other people. When we do this, we follow in the footsteps of the Triune Godhead, who created order out of nothing, and of Christ himself, who took on flesh to save humanity from the chaos resulting from sin and death. That being the case, it is every Christian’s vocation to live a lifestyle rooted in mercy:

“It is through the practice of these spiritual and corporal works of mercy that we concretely practice our Christian faith. As Catholics, we cling to these as beacons for living the Christian lifestyle. Through them, we show our willingness to enter into the chaos of another. Perhaps more than anything else, that’s what uniquely defines us as Catholics: It’s our legacy.”10

Maryknoll Publications provides an excellent study guide that gives practical advice on how we can apply works of mercy to our daily lives.  A pdf version of this study guide is available here: http://www.maryknollsocietymall.org/studyguides/10447_112.pdf

Sources:

1-6: Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10198d.htm

7: The Catholic Worker Movement website, www.catholicworker.org

8,9: Griffeth, Carolyn: Peter Maurin’s Personalist Gift to the Catholic Worker. Jesus Radicals, October 18, 2010. http://www.jesusradicals.com/peter-maurins-personalist-gift-to-the-catholic-worker/

10: Keenan. S. J., James J., The Works of Mercy: Heart of Catholic Identity. The American Catholic, http://www.americancatholic.org/newsletters/CU/preview.aspx?id=237.

© Mary House Catholic Worker of Austin, Inc. all rights reserved. This web page may be cited as follows:

Walker, David E., Works of Mercy. Mary House Catholic Worker, Inc., http://www.catholicworkeraustin.com/mercy.html.