What Ever Happened to the Spiritual Works of Mercy?

041615During daily Mass we are currently reading through chapter six of John’s Gospel. There is of course a glorious focus on the Lord’s true presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

However, there is also another important teaching given at a critical moment in chapter six that is important for us to lay hold of today. It is a call to recover a greater awareness of the importance of the spiritual works of mercy. I will list what they are in a moment, but for now consider that despite living in rather secular times, the corporal works of mercy are still widely appreciated and accepted as both necessary and virtuous. There is little dispute today that we should feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, or bury the dead (the seven corporal works of mercy).

There are at times disputes about how this should best be accomplished, whether by large government, private charities, and/or personal works.  There is also disagreement about how exactly each work should be understood. For example, some think that taking care of the dying can include euthanasia. And we have recently discussed on the blog some odd practices related to burying the (cremated) dead.

However the overall point remains: I cannot think of a single individual I know of, religious or not, who thinks that the corporal works of mercy can or should be neglected if within our power to accomplish. This is a great tribute to Christian culture and one of the few of its pillars that remain in the post-Christian West.

But it is a different matter today with the spiritual works of mercy. Even in the Church they are seldom mentioned. Very few even reasonably catechized Catholics could list all seven of them and many might not even be able to come up with more than one or two.   For the record, the spiritual works of mercy are these:

  • Admonish the sinner
  • Instruct the ignorant
  • Counsel the doubtful
  • Comfort the sorrowful
  • Bear wrongs patiently
  • Forgive all injuries
  • Pray for the living and the dead

Here is a great gap in the thinking of many. We tend to reduce charity to caring for people’s bodies, forgetting the needs of their souls. Indeed this oversight often proves self-defeating, since many of the corporal works of mercy become necessary because of defects of the soul. Some (not all) are imprisoned, poor, hungry, thirsty, naked, and so forth as a result of deep spiritual issues in their lives or in the wider culture. Yet so easily we overlook these spiritual issues.

One might excuse the secular, materialistic world for this oversight, but for us who are believers there’s really no excuse. Sadly, we often consider that our care for the poor has been accomplished by having provided clothing, shelter, or food. It is astonishing that we almost never even ask them to come to church or to listen to a sermon. In the old days at the old gospel mission downtown, or the Salvation Army soup kitchen, or the Catholic cafeteria and shelter, the poor who filed in were often expected to listen to a sermon, receive some Christian instruction, and surely to pray before the distribution of the meal or before bed at the shelter. This is rarely true today and most Catholic outreaches to the poor are almost indistinguishable from those of the government or nonbelievers. I pray you know of exceptions and will inform me of them, but the general pattern is very secular and corporal in its focus.

Do the poor not have souls, which also need care? Do they never need encouragement and instruction or rebuke and correction? Why is this so seldom included in our outreach to the poor? It is difficult to say, but we seem to have taken to imitating the practices of government agencies rather than our own tradition.

We think we are done when we have handed out the Christmas baskets. But where will most of the poor, whom we have blessed with this food and these toys, be going to church for the Christmas feast?  Most of them, I can tell you from experience, are not going anywhere; they don’t belong to any church. And this is often part of the problem. Quite simply, many of them are disconnected from the wider community including the Church. Resources in times of crisis and longer-term solutions like jobs and personal reform usually arise from relationships that are healthy and encouraging of virtue, thrift, industry, and other good habits. Being part of the Church community can connect the poor to material resources as well as to people who will help them grow in personal accountability. The fact that so many of the poor are in broken families and live in dysfunctional neighborhoods makes their membership in a (hopefully) healthy church community even more critical.

And yet we who should be part of their lives and should invite them to become part of ours seem content merely to hand them the Christmas basket, say “Merry Christmas,” and go on our way. This is not really so different from what I do for our alley cats as I place food on the back porch. But these are human beings with souls! Where is the invitation? Where is the care for their souls? Where are the spiritual works of mercy that should anchor our corporal works of mercy?

Now of course it is not merely the poor who are in need of the spiritual works of mercy. All of us are blind beggars before God. It is even more important, then, that the spiritual works of mercy be more widely known and actively practiced, since the need for them is universal. Further, though one’s body may suffer for lack of provisions, one’s soul may be lost for all eternity for want of the spiritual works. Hence the need is not only wider but deeper, and eternal in its consequences.

So, what ever happened to the spiritual works of mercy?

This leads us to a critical moment in John 6. Jesus has just fed the multitudes by multiplying the loaves and fishes, a miraculous corporal work of mercy! But of course prior to this he had taught them at great length. Let’s just say that Jesus had them listen to a sermon before the food was distributed, just as in the old days at the Catholic shelter or the gospel mission.

That evening Jesus withdrew and sent the disciples in a boat across the Sea of Galilee. Some in the crowd seemed to like the idea of a free meal wanted still more. Here is where we pick up the story:

So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” (Jn 6:24-27).

In other words, Jesus admonishes them (and us) not to be concerned only about food for the belly but also food for the soul (i.e., Himself in the Eucharist), which He really wants to give us so that we make it to eternal life. But as you may recall, the people persist in asking for the merely natural, belly-filling bread. “Give us this bread always … like Moses once did,” they cry out. Almost in exasperation Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life!” (John 6:35)

You can see that there is in them a dismissal of the needs of the soul and an emphasis on the needs of the body. The corporal works of mercy are all they seem to care about, less so the spiritual works. They prefer the food that perishes to the food that nourishes unto eternal life.

Thus the Lord admonishes them and us: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (John 6:27).

And so the question remains, “What ever happened to the spiritual works of mercy?” Why do we esteem the corporal more than the spiritual works of mercy? How does Jesus’ admonishment apply to you and me, to the Church, and to the world?

Should we practice the corporal works of mercy? Certainly! But we ought not neglect the spiritual works of mercy, as we so often do. If we neglect them, the rebuke of the Lord is on us just as it was on the people at the lakeside.

Over the next few weeks I would like to focus a bit more on the spiritual works of mercy through occasional blog posts until I have covered all seven. As believers, we ought to be more spiritual than we are without neglecting the corporal.

20 Replies to “What Ever Happened to the Spiritual Works of Mercy?”

  1. A challenge with spiritual works comes with the spiritually-wounded who, in their free will, resist works of mercy. They will take food, shelter, etc., but may not accept the balm available for the soul since the wounds in there may be too painful. I have seen this. There are mentally ill people who just seem to be trapped such that they will sometimes not accept certain types of corporal helps as well.

    But, truly, we need to ask, “Why do we not even offer to draw close and help a needy person see and resolve their problems?” We treat the symptom, but avoid the time and dedication required to actually heal the wound.

    Example: A person approaches for help with an email or phone call asking for help. The reply is : well, there is no reply whatsoever. There could be good reasons for not replying, yet no help was offered in the light of the knowledge that the person specifically asked for help. This happens probably due to a lack of available resources needed to help.

    So, resource constraints cause works of mercy not to be offered.

    1. On a battle field, even doctors must choose who to help and who not to help because they can not possibly help every casualty in the case of a “mass casualty” situation. They use “triage” to prioritize and segregate the wounded.

  2. After reading this article, Monsignor, I found that I don’t actually do all that needs to be done in regards to the seven works of mercy. There a lot of times when I get a “somebody-else-will-do-it” attitude, when I see something that needs to get done, but don’t do it. I can truthfully say that I do the first four you listed with no problem, but the last three are a problem, because my lack of temper-control failing me at times. That’s a problem I will work on until the day I die, but, nevertheless, it is a good problem to have. At the very least I will know that I’m truly trying to improve in my search for an all-consuming spiritual attitude, instead of simply letting things slide.

    Thank you, Father, for your timely article. You are truly a God-send. I hope by now that you’ve changed your 100W light-bulb, or at least put a shade on it. One thing this world doesn’t need is a cussing priest so early on any given morning…. 🙂 God Bless, and have a good day!

  3. Msgr. asked: “What ever happened to the spiritual works of mercy?”

    The *progressive* religious of Vatican II happened. They detached these spiritual works from the Gospel of *social justice* and in light of multiculturalism, decided it wasn’t “tolerant” or respectful to force one’s religious beliefs on someone else you were helping. Hence, they lost the *salt* you so eloquently spoke about in a post the other day. And now we just have liberal political behavior instead of calls to conversion, as Jesus modeled.

    Even in our own families fallen away members bristle when the talk gets too *religious.* I’ve had kitchen table discussions against euthanasia that have ended with family members storming out in anger and spoiling a holiday gathering. (They were all for such *mercy* and parroted the *quality of life* arguments. I, very charitably and with kindness I think, argued the Church’s teaching against.) Who wants that? We Catholics are treading on thin ice within this culture, and only our own courage allows us to continue to speak the truth even if it fractures family relationships. It is one of the very dire sufferings faithful Catholics endure in modern life.

  4. I volunteer at the Salvation Army soup kitchen and there is no prayer or any spiritual sustenance given these poor souls. I had the same thought when I first started to work there, that these souls are being fed but their lives are not changed in any way. It’s that separation of Church and State caveat that probably prevents the Army from helping these souls spiritually. Sad.

  5. You make we want to stand up and cheer – bravo Msgr. This is exactly what we need to hear and encourage.

  6. Thank you, Msgr. Pope for yet another thoughtful and instructive article.

    Fulton Sheen is no doubt smiling on your efforts!

  7. Some years ago I wrote a ‘Litany of Mercy’ which I still pray regularly asking Jesus to have mercy on me for all of my regular failings… one of them which speaks directly to this issue is “For preferring those who are materially poor to those who are spiritually impoverished, O good Jesus have mercy on me.”

  8. Where did concern for spiritual works of mercy go?

    It seems to be an unintended offshoot of the Middle Ages: as science progressed, and then lept forward, much emphasis seems to have been placed on the study of the individual, both living and non-living. This bent led in turn to further individualism and isolation, seen in the growing emphasis on individual rights, autonomy, and liberty. Skipping forward, we see a more fragmented and broken society, exhibiting a wounded cantankerousness, combined with a pride of knowledge. We find persons so sensitive to touch, and many having lost courage, that we no longer dare to offer the traditional spiritual balms.

    Is that just my experience, or does anybody else see it that way too?

  9. Well, said, Msgr. Pope. Both sets of mercies are important, but it is far more important for all of us (not just priests) to help save souls. If we give food to a hungry person, we help them for a day. If we counsel and instruct them on spiritual matters, we potentially help them for an eternity. Thus, you could argue that the spiritual works of mercy are much more important than the corporal works of mercy. However, it is important for us to engage in both. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 25 that the extent to which you love and care for one of His least (vis-a-vis the corporal works of mercy) is the same as the extent to which you love (or fail to love) Him. And when someone is really hungry, he is not going to want to listen to a sermon or spiritual talk. All he can think about is food. However, when that same person is satiated and hunger is no longer consuming him, he will be much more open to hearing about the importance of spiritual things. This is one way in which the two sets of mercies complement each other.

  10. I am divorced but was introduced to the Catholic faith through my ex wife. Your topic today as so many others, leads me back to then wife speaking of the pre Vatican II Church. Far from an expert on it, but another negative aspect of it for whatever reasons could be the downplaying of the spiritual works of mercy.

    1. No one can point to exactly what about Vatican II was so bad. Do you know why? Because it wasn’t. It’s all in the timing. Vatican II happened at the same time as the free-love 60’s and the Vietnam War. Did those other major historical events “wreck” the Church? No.

      The changes in the Body of Christ (the Church) occurred ALONGSIDE all these events, not because of them.

      People really need to stop looking for the easy answers. It makes it too easy for the devil to fool us.

  11. A radical thought here, the corporal works of mercy as done by most people are “arms reach” charity. Most people will do these and tell themselves they are good people for doing it.

    Unfortunately, we are in no position to judge ourselves. We can rightly judge our works (actions) as good, but without the Spiritual Works, we barely scratch the surface of good.

    Why do we give from afar, so to speak? Is it easier? Sometimes. Is it safer? Again, sometimes.

    Perhaps people fear the poor, thinking their own safety is at risk. That is often true especially for missionaries. But closer to home in our relatively safe country, why do we fear? I think it is because of the following:

    “Whatsoever you do to the least of My brothers, that you do unto Me”.

    So, in theory, when living and working alongside the poor and wretched, are we not coming face to face with the Lord Himself? And if we have not been actively doing the simplest Spiritual works (prayer for the living and the dead, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries) what must the state of our souls be? Why, there would likely be a great deal of darkness within that would actively shun the Light.

    So it seems to me, it’s not an either or choice. To do the Works of Mercy properly, you must go at them from both sides. Otherwise you’ve only done half the equation right.

  12. Right on the nose, Cephas. After spending almost twenty years in the armed forces *protecting* people who assume to live *Under God*, it almost seems like a waste to even try to find mercy, let alone put it into practice. Too bad most of us don’t have the guts to admit that we actually aren’t willing to get away from our own little worlds, and simply need to do what needs to be done, when the occasion arises.

  13. The Pope’s Bull announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy calls for special emphasis on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy during the year. It lists all of them and then makes a short comment about the importance of each. Except one. “Admonish the sinner” is completely brushed over. It is the only one of the 14 that receives no follow-up comment after the listing. I found that quite interesting.

  14. Msgr. Charles Pope says: What ever happened to the Spiritual Works of Mercy?

    FEAR happened…..

    Fear of the collection plate being empty, fear of the pews being empty FEAR FEAR FEAR…..
    Who loves fear? satan loves it and he loves division, and the dark too.
    Bring all of the evils into the “LIGHT”and the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church will flourish again.

    Lets start with the biggest of lies EVOLUTION.

  15. Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; introduce him to the Fisherman and he will be fed for eternity.

    Thanks Monsignor!
    The Spiritual Works mean that no one ever has to be turned away…a reply to the first commentor, there is always a reply.
    The Spiritual Works also mean that those prayed for (with) don’t necessarily have to be a willing party to it.

    I would add as a spiritual work of mercy, something from the message of Fatima–to take penance on behalf of others, much as we pray in the Divine Mercy Chaplet, ‘Have Mercy on us and on the whole world’ or the Fatima prayer in the Rosary, ‘…lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy Mercy.’ The ‘whole’ and ‘all’ include everyone.

    I am a member of the Legion of Mary and our works are to be exclusively in the area of spiritual works of mercy, and material aid is prohibited. There are others to do that work, but less and less are there to focus on the spiritual works.

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