Many of these mercies sound like actions that
other people take, usually other "official" and often
"church" people. Peace Corps volunteers feed the hungry and
shelter the homeless. Chaplains (priests and other ministers)
visit those in prison. Missionaries teach the gospel to people
who haven't heard it. Priests admonish or advise sinners. Counselors
comfort the sorrowful.
If we leave the works of mercy completely to professionals,
though, the needs of many hurting people won't be met. Every
one of us is called to do what Jesus did, as Peter said of him
in the Book of Acts: He "went about doing good" (10:38). Our
faith challenges us to do the work of Jesus today, so doing
good (expressing mercy) is your call too.
And you probably are doing more works of mercy
than you've even recognized already. Sometimes we think of "really
Christian" living as something we'll get around to in the future
when we have more time, feel more inspired or somehow get holy.
But that doesn't mean we're doing nothing now.
Let's move from the outside inward, looking at
the corporal works of mercy (those that help bodies) first.
Feed the hungry. Give drink to
the thirsty. These are separate items on the traditional
list, but they belong together. Perhaps more than any others,
they suggest images of "professional volunteers" on mercy missions
to Ethiopia and similar areas of the globe. We certainly don't
mean to minimize such efforts, but let's explore some ways in
which you're already doing these.
Have you ever made lunch or dinner for the familyor
picked it up for them at the drive-through? Ever made a peanut-butter-and-jelly
sandwich for a younger sister or brother? Ever poured a glass
of milk for someone?
Those things don't sound noble and heroic. But
there's no clause that says the hungry and thirsty have to be
near death in order for these works of mercy to count. The crowds
of people whom Jesus fed by multiplying loaves of bread and
fish weren't on the brink of starvation. They were just hungry.
But we do need to give special attention to our
sisters and brothers who are desperately hungry and near
death from starvation and dehydration.
For most of us, this amounts to a "work" that
again doesn't look or feel heroic or spectacular. But it gets
the job done. It's called sharing your own resources with people
who do work in the places of special need where we can't go
at this point. To do this, you may have to go without something
you'd like to have, but don't actually need. To do this, you
also need a big heart. All the works of mercy exercise and enlarge
your (spiritual) heart.
Between the "ordinary hungry" family member and
the literally starving person across the globe are people who
don't eat very well and will benefit from your school's canned
food drive and similar projects. Show some enthusiasm for projects
Clothe the naked. Few people are
literally naked, but millions of people own no more clothing
than what they wear each day. If you search your closet and
your heart, you may discover that you have more than you need.
You can lend something to a friend for a special occasion. You
can also restrain yourself from an unnecessary purchase and
give the money to an agency that helps people in need of clothing.
Other ways include donating your own outgrown
but usable clothing to a local relief agency rather than selling
it at a yard sale. Another is helping poor people care for the
little clothing they do have by collecting and delivering donations
of soap and shampoo to places that offer facilities for the
homeless to shower and do laundry.
Shelter the homeless. You're not
likely to drive to the inner city, locate some homeless people
and invite them to stay with you and your family for a while.
This is partially because you are not a homeowner with a place
of your own to invite them. That doesn't mean you can't shelter
the homeless in other ways.
Here's one: If you do some checking, you'll probably
find a group in your area that rehabs old housing to make it
safe and habitable for families on low incomes. There may be
a group in your parish that does this on weekends. If you're
skilled in construction, that's a plus. If you can't tell a
jigsaw from a piece of drywall, they'll find a way for you to
help anyway. This is a terrific work of mercy to do with a group
Visit the sick. If a classmate is
injured or seriously ill, take the time to stop at his or her
home or send a note. Maybe best of all, organize a card from
the classperhaps a huge, poster-size card that incorporates
everyone's extra effort and cheerful craziness! A visit to a
grandma or grandpa who hasn't been feeling wellthere's
no way to measure the effect that can have. An hour or so of
your time will create a treasured memory. A letter or card is
nice as well, but a personal appearance has more impact.
Visit those in prison. The options
here are not many, but there are some. Visiting would have to
be done by mail, of course. There are organizations which link
prisoners who would enjoy correspondence with people on the
outside. (This would require a parent's permission obviously.)
The best resource for any kind of visiting of
prisoners is probably the local prison chaplain. You can find
out how to contact him or her through your diocese. You could
make and/or send cards or letters to inmates at holiday times,
making your arrangements through the chaplain. Don't put any
enclosures in the card, or use glue, tape, etc. (It won't get
delivered.) And, of course, be sensitive to how your message
might affect someone who has lost many of the freedoms you take
You shouldn't overlook the mode of visiting anonymously
by prayer. You might ask God to send some special strength or
comfort to the prisoners who feel most despairing right at that
moment, to a prisoner whose health or life is in danger, to
a prisoner who has been unjustly sentenced or abandoned by his
or her family.
Bury the dead. In our society, the
actual burial is handled by funeral directors. But even in older
times when the actual burial was handled by relatives and friends,
this act of service was for the family of the one who had died.
Those families are still in need of many things, even though
a funeral director handles what we call "the arrangements."
Taking the time to visit the funeral home and
say simple, ordinary words of comfort may not seem important,
but these actions are important. Look for ways to ease the path
for relatives of someone who has died. For example, if a classmate
misses two or three days of school at the death of a grandparent,
you could go out of your way to make copies of missed notes
and have them ready when he or she returns.
Kindness, like beauty, is more than skin-deep.
These works of mercy reach in to touch people's minds, hearts
Instruct the ignorant (Help people
understand and learn). The traditional words "instruct the ignorant"
Every one of us knows dozens of extremely "ignorant"
people whom we would just love to instructmeaning "see
and do things my way." That's not the idea here.
This is a work you've done whenever you've helped
a younger sister or brother practice math facts or spelling
words, for example, and every time you've helped a classmate
with a subject or assignment you understand better than he or
she does. It covers all occasions when you've been a teacher
of something good, including how to hold a baseball bat or serve
If you want to do this on a more regular basis,
tutoring opportunities are all around. Check with a counselor
or the moderator of the Honor Society at school.
Counsel the doubtful (Give good advice
to those who are uncertain about what to do). This is a tough
job to do well, especially when the good advice is something
the "doubtful" person doesn't want to hear. As you well know,
that's frequently the case.
You may not be aware of how much power you have
here. Where do young people usually go first for advice? Friends!
That may or may not be a good move, depending on how qualified
their friends are to give good advice. But it's a fact that
good advice coming from a friend often has more impact than
the same message coming from an adult.
When you're asked your advice, breathe deeply,
remember that all your wisdom comes from God, and speak out
of concern for the other person.
Admonish the sinner (Help people
who sin understand and live God's love). This is an even tougher
version of the previous work. We all admit in our heads that
we're sinners, but nobody likes to be told that he or she really
was one on a particular occasion!
Perhaps the most practical way of doing this work
is by your own exampleby refusing to take part in things
you know are wrong. When others see your quiet refusals and
also notice that your life is happier and less cluttered with
guilt, the message will get across.
Comfort the sorrowful. You could
compile a small encyclopedia of opportunities. We sometimes
overlook the small ones, though. It's not difficult to see when
a death, a parent's divorce or a relationship breakup produces
sorrow and to respond to it.
Look for other sorrows, too: the classmate who
didn't get a hoped-for scholarship or didn't get asked to the
dance, the younger sibling who lost a favorite toy, the parent
who received some nasty comments at work.
Remember that comforting a sorrowful person does
not usually mean fixing what caused the sorrow. It's
seldom in our power to do that. But just as "shared joy is doubled,"
"shared sorrow is halved."
Forgive injuries (Forgive people
who cause pain) Bear wrongs patiently (Deal kindly
with people who do thoughtless things).
These two similar works go totally against what
we see (and sometimes cheer for) in movies. The bad guys do
something nasty onscreen in the first half hour, then they are
hunted down and made to pay.
Forgiving injuries and bearing wrongs does not
mean we stand by and allow truly evil things to keep on happening.
It means we don't enter the cycle of revenge and keep hatred
breeding by adding our own.