What are the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy?
It is well to remember the teaching of the Church about the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Mercy is said to be a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune. Practicing the works of mercy is extending God’s compassion to those around us. Its motive is to alleviate the misery which one discerns in another, particularly in so far as this condition is deemed to be, in some sense at least, involuntary.
The Divine command is set forth in the most stringent terms by Christ, and the failure to comply with it is visited with the supreme penalty (Matthew 25:41): “Then He shall say to them, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in; naked, and you covered me not; sick and in prison, and you did not visit me,’” etc. The Corporal Works of Mercy give us a model for how we should treat others in their physical needs, as if they were Christ Himself. They are charitable actions by which we help our neighbors in their needs. They respond to the basic needs of humanity as we journey together through this life. The seven Corporal Works of Mercy are: To feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to shelter the homeless; to visit the sick; to visit the imprisoned; and to bury the dead.
Since the Spiritual Works of Mercy also deal with distresses whose relief is even more imperative, the injunction must extend to them also. Including the plain references of Christ to such works as fraternal correction (Matthew 18:15) and the forgiveness of injuries (Matthew 6:14), the Spiritual Works of Mercy are also found in the teachings of Jesus. The Spiritual Works of Mercy have long been a part of the Christian tradition, appearing in the works of theologians and spiritual writers throughout history. Just as Jesus attended to the spiritual well-being of those He ministered to, these Spiritual Works of Mercy are acts of compassion which guide us to help our neighbor in their emotional and spiritual needs. The seven Spiritual Works of Mercy are: To instruct the ignorant; to counsel the doubtful; to admonish sinners; to comfort the sorrowful; to bear wrongs patiently; to forgive offenses willingly; and to pray for the living and the dead.
Though generally enjoined upon all the faithful, often, in particular cases, a given individual will not be obligated or even competent to perform three of the seven spiritual works of mercy, namely: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, and admonishing sinners. These works may generally require a superior level of authority or knowledge or an extraordinary amount of tact. The other four works (comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses willingly, and praying for the living and the dead) are considered to be an obligation of all the faithful to practice unconditionally.
In sum, our Final Judgment will be based largely on love of God but manifested in our love for neighbor. Indeed, using the words of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “We must find Jesus present in the distressing disguise of the poor.”