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The Works of Mercy: Heart of Catholic Identity
By: James F. Keenan, S.J.

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Could mercy be the trademark for Catholicism? After all, we share much of our faith with other Christians, even with Jews and Muslims. We even share many things that make up our faith with all people of goodwill everywhere. But the works of mercy—those really are uniquely Catholic. Perhaps that’s why Pope John Paul II named the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. In this Update we’ll take a look at what mercy means, and then how our corporal and spiritual works of mercy flow from mercy itself: God’s grace in our lives.

Salvation: mercy’s key

First, if we look closely at the Good Samaritan parable (Lk 10:25-37), we see that the story of our salvation is completely in the key of mercy.

Why does Jesus tell this parable? Jesus has just given the love commandment (to love God, our neighbor and ourselves). Then one of the scribes asks him, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus then tells the parable.

A close reading of it gives a very surprising answer to the question. Are we not thinking that the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor?” will be the man lying wounded along the road? But it is not. The answer is the Samaritan. The neighbor is the one who shows mercy.

In the first thousand years of the Church, the parable was primarily preached on two levels: first, what Christ accomplishes for us; then, what we ought to do for others. For instance, Venerable Bede (English monk and Doctor of the Church, d. 735) wrote that the injured man who lies outside the gates is Adam, wounded by sin, lying in exile outside the gates of Eden. The priest and the Levite, representing the tradition and the law, are unable to do anything for Adam. Along comes the Samaritan (Christ) who tends to Adam’s wounds, takes him to the inn (the Church), gives a down payment (his life) for Adam’s healing (our salvation), and promises to return for him to pay in full the cost (our redemption) and take him to where he dwells (the Kingdom).

By this understanding, then, the parable is less a story about how we should treat others than it is the story of what Christ has done for us. We are called to follow the actions of the Good Samaritan because it is a retelling of the entire gospel. In it, we are called to go and do likewise. The parable is not simply one among many that Jesus told. Rather, in this sense, it serves as the foundational explanation of Jesus’ commandment to love.

Condition for salvation

Scripture tells us that mercy is the condition for salvation. This is made clear in the Last Judgment (in Matthew 25), where those saved are saved simply if they performed what we later called the corporal works of mercy—feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead.

The parable of Matthew 25 is striking in that everyone is surprised by the judgment. The sheep never realized that in feeding the hungry, they were feeding the king. Nor did the goats realize that by not visiting the sick, they were not visiting the Lord. But for the Gospel writers, our recognition of the importance of mercy is inconsequential. That is also the “moral” of the story of the rich man who never sees poor Lazarus at his gate (Lk 16:19-31). We will be judged by whether we are merciful, whether we know it or not.

Actually,  our entire theological tradition is expressed in terms of mercy, which can be a messy business. Indeed, like the Good Samaritan stopping for wounded Adam, attending to someone in need is no simple affair. It means entering into the entire “problem” or “chaos” of that person’s particular situation. In fact, that’s how I would define mercy: the willingness to enter into the chaos of others.

Understood in such terms, the creation is an act of mercy that brings order into the chaos of the universe. The Incarnation is God’s entry into the chaos of human existence. And the redemption is bringing us out of the chaos of our slavery to sin. Every action of God is aimed at rescuing us.

One of my favorite meditations is on the Trinity in The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. The three persons of the blessed Trinity are considering the chaos of the world wherein most people are going to hell. They decide that we must be saved. How? One of three persons will enter into our lives to keep us all from falling into the abyss of hell, itself pure chaos.

Mercy in Christianity’s growth

Early Christianity defined itself in terms of mercy.  In his wonderful work The Rise of Christianity, religious sociologist Rodney Stark argues that contrary to romanticized notions about the early flourishing of Christianity, the new religion was an urban movement.

Stark’s explanation, which follows, helps us to understand mercy’s link to Christianity. The early Church prospered in the cities because those urban areas were dreadful. Stark describes the conditions of these urban areas as “social chaos and chronic urban misery.” 

Sheer population density exacerbated the situation. At the end of the first century, Antioch’s population was 150,000 within the city walls— 117 persons per acre. New York City today has a density of 37 persons per acre overall. Manhattan, with its high-rise apartments, registers 100 persons per acre.

Contrary to early assumptions, these cities were not settled places, made up of inhabitants descending from previous generations. Given high infant mortality and short life expectancy, these cities required a constant, substantial stream of newcomers simply to maintain population levels.

As a result, the cities were composed of strangers. These strangers were well treated by Christians who, again contrary to some modern assumptions, were certainly not universally poor. Through a variety of ways, financially secure Christians welcomed the newly arrived immigrants.

On top of this, Christianity was new. While ethical demands were imposed by the gods of the pagan religions, these demands were substantially ritualistic. They were not directed at one’s neighbor. Yes, pagan Romans knew generosity, but that generosity did not stem from any divine command.

For example, a nurse who cared for a victim of an epidemic knew that her life might be lost. If she was a pagan, there was no expectation of divine reward for her generosity. If she was a Christian, however, this life was but a prelude to the next, where the generous were united with God.

Although the Romans practiced generosity, they did not promote mercy or pity. Since mercy implied “unearned help or relief,” it was considered contradictory to justice. Mercy was seen by Roman philosophers as a defect of character, belonging to the uneducated and the naïve. Stark concludes:

"This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful, indeed that mercy is one of the primary virtues. The Christian understanding is this: Because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another. That was an entirely new understanding."

"Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to 'all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ' (1 Corinthians 1:2). This was revolutionary stuff. Indeed, it was the cultural basis for the revitalization of a Roman world groaning under a host of miseries."

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Corporal works of mercy

There are seven corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead. While the first six of these works are found in the Last Judgment parable in Matthew 25:34-45, it took several centuries before we came to see seven as a cornerstone of the Christian life. Eventually they came to parallel other groups of seven, such as the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues.

Our first understanding of mercy comes from the early life of the Christian community. Christians heard the divine injunction to practice mercy early and often. John never tires of recommending it (1 John 4:20-21, for example). Luke tells us how deacons are appointed to serve the most marginalized (Acts 6:1-6). Paul writes to Timothy about the selection of widows who, like the deacons, are to serve those in need (1 Timothy 5:9-10). Collectively and institutionally the Church of the apostles (the apostolic Church) promotes the service of mercy.

Almsgiving is an early expression of mercy. Toward the end of the first century St. Clement writes, “Almsgiving is good as a penance for sin; fasting is better than prayer, but almsgiving is better than both, and charity covers a multitude of sins” (2 Clement 16). In the apostolic age, the practice of mercy is expressed in taking up a collection on the first day of every week (presumably during the Eucharist) as Paul instructs the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).

These many calls to mercy are heeded. For instance, Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, leads his congregation to respond to victims of the plague in 252. Bishop Dionysius tells how he lost the best of the brethren in responding to the plague in Alexandria in 259.

In the Middle Ages, the monasteries become centers for extraordinary mercy. One account from the famed monastery at Cluny, for instance, informs us that 17,000 persons are cared for in one year. Among the Cistercians, every abbey has a guest house for pilgrims, travelers and the poor, where the abbot waits on them, after first welcoming them by prostrating himself at their feet.

Besides the monks, pious laypersons participate in the works of mercy by forming “lay associations.” These associations are especially noteworthy in the founding of hospitals. With the spirit of Francis, Clare and Dominic in the 13th century, many professional laypersons become inspired and answer the call to mercy with great imagination.

For instance, in 1244, the head porter of a wool guild in Florence (Pier Luca Borsi) forms the Company of Mercy with money collected by taxing colleagues for swearing. Others reach out to those suffering from leprosy. The Knights of St. Lazarus alone establish 3,000 hospitals for those suffering from the dreaded disease. Later hospitals for the blind and homes for orphans are also founded.

By the 16th century, there are important reforms of the Council of Trent and the establishment of “professional” guilds, as well as new religious orders. Jesuits and others provide new impetus for laypersons to belong to confraternities, the successor of lay associations.

We cannot overstate the relevance of these confraternities: Hundreds of them take care of prisoners and captives; others are established for the care of the mentally ill as well as for those who are unable to hear and/or speak. These confraternities are paralleled only by the extraordinary number of religious orders which themselves adopt a work of mercy to identify with their own charism.

Spiritual works of mercy

 Like the corporal works of mercy, the spiritual works are seven: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the afflicted, admonish the sinner, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently and pray for the living and the dead.

Although there are seven of each, the corporal and spiritual works are different.  On the one hand, like the corporal works, the first three spiritual works deal with spiritual burdens that the neighbor suffers: ignorance, doubt and affliction.

On the other hand, the remaining four are appeals to the Christian to take significant steps toward developing harmony in the community rife with many problems. In this case, the “spiritual” building-up is by the reconciler, the one who admonishes, forgives and bears wrongs.

Each of the corporal works of mercy has a strong legacy. Often an early diocese, a medieval religious order or lay association, or a Renaissance confraternity decided on a corporal task: ransoming the prisoner, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry. With the exception of the instruction of the ignorant, most of the spiritual works were personal, not corporate, acts.  There were no confraternities known for bearing wrongs patiently or forgiving offenses, however, nor were religious orders devoted to counseling the doubtful or admonishing sinners.

The calls to comfort the afflicted and pray for the living and the dead were so general that, unlike the corporal works, neither religious orders nor confraternities could assume them as specific charisms (gifts of the Holy Spirit, for the benefit of the Church and the world). Thus the spiritual works are proposed in a very general way to each and every Christian.

The spiritual works developed in both Eastern and Western Christianity during the first centuries of Christianity, the patristic times. Origen (second and third centuries) recognized that Matthew 25 was not only a call to dress the body with clothes or to feed it with food, but also a summons to tend to the spiritual needs of the other. In many ways the roots of the call came through the appreciation of the Christian as being one—body and soul.

Such concerns were often accompanied by another set of issues. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul urges his readers to become ambassadors of reconciliation, imitating the very action of God in reconciling the world (vv. 16-21). If the Christian is the follower of Christ, the Incarnate One, then the Christian is called to do what Christ did: reconcile.

This call to reconciliation, along with the call to be vigilant about the spiritual needs of the other, eventually coalesced into the spiritual works of mercy. In 421, St. Augustine writes the Enchiridion (“handbook,” in this case, a catechism) and there stipulates the seven corporal works of mercy, and adds seven new ones about the neighbor’s spiritual needs: console the afflicted, show the way to the lost, assist those who hesitate, rebuke the sinner, forgive sins, bear wrongs, and pray for the living and the dead.

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.

Father James F. Keenan, S.J., is Founders Professor in Theology at Boston College. His recent books include The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism, second edition, 2007; Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts From the Catholic Tradition, second edition, 2009; A History of Catholic Moral Theology in the Twentieth Century: From Confessing Sins to Liberating Consciences, 2009; and Ethics of the Word: Voices in the Catholic Church Today.

NEXT: Mary, Mother of God (by Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P.)

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