of doing mercy isn't
left open to wishy-washy interpretation
in our tradition.
bound or confined to assisted living.
Participating in bereavement meals
of hospitality after parish funerals,
or sending a handwritten note or
Mass card to those shouldering loss
are other ways to accept the communal responsibility to bury the dead.
Creative ways of interpreting the
works of mercy are always welcome.
Take the sixth corporal work, for
Our friends may be sick with
example. In the 12th century, two
religious orders were founded to
provide a fresh response to visiting
the imprisoned. Both the Trinitar-
ians and the Order of Our Lady of
poral works of mercy could literally
change the world. Redistributing re-
sources and technological know-how
from the First World to developing
cultures is one obvious way to deliver
a lot of mercy at once. We should
definitely do this—each according to
our means. We can also think more
broadly, and locally. People we know
are hungry for more than food, thirsty
for more than water. We meet folks
clothed in shame, to whom we might
offer the mantle of human dignity in
how we treat them. We can be more
vocal in our support of strangers who
are migrant workers, or for social
policies affecting refugee admissions
to this country.
grief, diminished by depression,
or discouraged in unemployment.
Elder relatives may feel imprisoned
as they become increasingly house-
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE SISTERS OF S T. FRANCIS OF THE HOLY CROSS
humanity, give us the works—the
works of mercy, that is.
Mercy has deep roots
The business of doing mercy isn’t left
open to wishy-washy interpretation
in our tradition. As with many things
Catholic, it’s been honed to an official
list with firm roots in biblical teaching. On that list are seven corporal
(bodily) and seven spiritual (but no
less tangible) works. Who put this list
of 14 deeds together in its final form?
No one knows, although by the 13th
century, Thomas Aquinas was quite
familiar with such a list, which he
termed “alms deeds.” The word alms
is a corruption of the Greek word for
mercy. When we give alms, we give
mercy in practical forms.
The corporal works won’t surprise anyone who’s read Matthew’s
final judgment scenario, in which
moral winners and losers are separated based on their response to Jesus
in the guise of the poor. Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe
the naked. Protect strangers. Visit the
sick. Visit the imprisoned. Bury the
dead. (OK, Matthew doesn’t say anything about burying the dead. That
seventh work comes from Jewish
tradition, emphasized in the Book
of Tobit.) Jesus himself samples his
favorite prophet, Isaiah, in delineating the six actions that make moral
victors in the judgment story.
Sister Marilyn Herr,
O.S. F. visits the sick, a
corporal work of mercy.