“As the years went by and the Church spread further afield, the exercise of charity became established as one of her essential activities, along with the administration of the sacraments and the proclamation of the Word: love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind is as essential to her as the ministry of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel.” Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 22.
One of the key points of focus that Pope Francis outlined in the official document announcing the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy was that of reflecting anew on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These are the works that “show you my faith” (Jas 2:18). Indeed, the “exercise of charity,” Pope Benedict taught in his encyclical on Love, Deus Caritas Est, “is as essential to [the Church] as the ministry of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel” (22).
In explaining his call for a renewed reflection on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, Pope Francis mentioned four purposes. First, he said that it would serve to “reawaken our conscience.” In the Christian life, we need exercise and renewal as much as our bodies do. Perhaps the greatest danger to Christians today is indifference; the lukewarm-ness and laxity that can creep in if we are not vigilant in prayer and work, the “ora et labora” for the Kingdom of God. The powerful Gospel account of the rich man and Lazarus that were part of this past week’s readings, serve to illustrate how blind and deadened our consciences can become through comfort and indifference. Prayerfully pondering the works of mercy sharpens our conscience, making us more mindful of opportunities we might take to perform these works of love.
Second, Francis says that our reflection will “let us enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel.” Indeed, the works of mercy are ways that we encounter God: in the one being shown mercy, and at work within us as members of Christ. The response in the teaching of Jesus concerning the Last Judgment, “You did it to me” (Mt 25:40), powerfully reinforces this Gospel truth.
Third, the Holy Father says that through pondering the works of mercy “we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples.” In his epistle, Saint James says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warm and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. . . Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith” (Jas 2:14-18). Disciples of Jesus imitate him in word and deed.
Fourth, Francis urges a renewed focus on the works of mercy because “they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged.” At the end of our lives, each of us will come before Christ for judgment, effectively to be shown what we have chosen to become through our choices – to love or not. St. John of the Cross’ well-known adage applies here: “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love.”
As Lent, the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and life in general unfold for each of us, there is no better way to live than by striving to make the corporal and spiritual works of mercy a rule and template for our lives. We will be serving Jesus in the other person in need, we will be truly living as his disciples, and we will be preparing for eternal life in heaven.
Corporal Works of Mercy Spiritual Works of Mercy
Feed the Hungry Counsel the Doubtful
Give Drink to the Thirsty Instruct the Ignorant
Clothe the Naked Admonish the Sinner
Welcome the Stranger Comfort the Afflicted
Visit the Sick Forgive Offenses Willingly
Visit the Imprisoned Bear Wrongs Patiently
Bury the Dead Pray for the Living and the Dead