Works of Mercy and Justice


Each week in our Formation Sessions (i.e. Religious Ed Classes), I collect question and comment slips from the students. Then, I choose a few of those questions to send to parents as a reflection and conversation starter at home. 

From the parent email archives:

thirstIn our class last week, we talked about Works of Mercy and Justice. Many thanks to Dn. Anthony, who reviewed the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy for us, as well as 7 Principles of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). We then did an activity where small groups read through a current news article and discussed which principles of CST were at stake and what a response of mercy would look like. At the end, I got a series of interesting and important questions like:

Why do we do works of mercy as part of our religion?
How do we actually USE the works of mercy in real-life situations?
Why doesn’t everyone always do works of mercy?

Amen to that last question! Can you imagine a world where everyone did acts of mercy for others ALL THE TIME? Yet we avoid doing them from selfishness, from blindness to the needs of others, out of a mistaken sense of what really needs to happen in this situation, or sometimes even from fear. This why it is so important for us to *practice* doing works of mercy on a routine basis– being selfless isn’t something that comes to us overnight. It must be practiced. It must be learned. We must be trained not only to be First Responders to those in need, but also to learn to SEE need, because it is very easy to be oblivious to other people.

But there is nothing particularly “religious” about the idea that people should help other people. So why do we cover these things in our Faith Formation class? Why are they a key part of our Catholic Faith? St. James has a pretty clear answer. He writes:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked, or lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
(James 2:14-17)

Faith as a private sentiment is not really “alive.” If we truly believe that God created us in His image and likeness and wants us to love Him and serve one another as the Body of Christ, then this belief will never be content with standing by and expressing our wishes and thoughts that things go well for others. NO! Our faith– the content of our belief and the resulting relationship we have with God– compels us to ACT. Jesus went out to those in need, to heal their bodies and their spirits, and likewise he sends US out to those in need, both physically and spiritually. The list of Corporal and Spiritual Works is based on the teachings and actions of Jesus Christ, Himself. When we are baptized, we are given the grace to follow this example of Christ in our own unique way, in the particular situations life brings us.

But maybe there’s an underlying question here about why we need our Catholic Faith at all, if Jesus just wants us to do nice things for other people? Isn’t the basic message of the Gospel that we are all God’s children and we should be nice to each other and get along?

As attractive as this position is in our modern world, where tolerance and pluralism are seen as universal values, we have to state boldly that this type of thinking is not only mistaken– it is completely contrary to the Gospel message.

Yes, it is absolutely true that Jesus wants us to serve one another, but we cannot relegate His role in Salvation to that of a mere moral teacher. He is God. He gave Himself up for us so that we could be freed from the bondage of sin which plagues all peoples and prevents us from serving and loving as we should. Without the graces of Baptism and the other Sacraments combined with the guidance of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the Church, we are simply not equipped to know the proper way to serve because our goals and our visions are merely human. The Works of Mercy challenge us to SEE as God SEES, which was a big theme of our Gospel reading last weekend. What many people miss in their eagerness to simply Do Good Stuff is that God’s love and care for His children is aimed at getting us to heaven, not towards making a heaven on earth.

Jesus told his disciples, “You will always have the poor with you,” (Jn 12:8a) so unless we are ready to call Jesus a total liar, we have to admit that we will never be able to solve all the world’s problems in this life. Yet this does not alleviate our responsibility to serve and to see Christ in others at all times and in all places (Mt 25:31-46). Thanks to the historical Christianization of our Western culture, there are many humanitarian goals we can share with our brothers & sisters who do not follow Christ, but we must be prepared to perform works of mercy even when they seem to go against the grain of our ever-growing “Good-Without-God” culture. A lot of prayer, humility and courage are needed to serve in the way Jesus asks us to. We will risk being misunderstood. We will risk being despised by other people who think they know better than we. Jesus warned us to be prepared for this: “Remember the word that I said to you: servants are not greater than their master. If [the world] persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (Jn 15:20)

In light of these reflections, try to talk about the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy as a family. See if you can think of ways these Works are consistent and coherent with our culture– and try to think of ways or instances where they might come in conflict with that culture. Here are some ideas to get you started:

Corporal Works

  1. Feed the Hungry- serve a meal at a soup kitchen. Take a homeless person out to a fancy dinner.
  2. Give drink to the Thirsty- pass out bottles of water on Boston Common. Fight for Justice for Flint.
  3. Clothe the Naked- donate to a local shelter. Give your coat to someone on the street.
  4. Shelter the Homeless- serve or donate to your local shelter. Keep an extra Guest Room ready and invite a homeless person to stay the night.
  5. Visit the Sick- volunteer at a hospital or nursing home. Volunteer to live in a leper colony.
  6. Visit those in Prison- spend time at a local prison or juvenile detention center. Write letters to inmates.
  7. Bury the Dead- attend funerals for people in your community. Fight for burial rights for aborted children.

Spiritual Works

  1. Instruct the Ignorant- volunteer as a tutor or coach. Be willing to tell people at school and work about Jesus.
  2. Counsel the Doubtful- be ready to provide personal testimony of God’s role in your life
  3. Admonish Sinners- tell a friend or coworker that cheating/stealing is wrong. Stand up to those who gossip or speak ill of others.
  4. Bear Wrongs Patiently- do not lash out when someone spreads a rumor about you. Take undue criticism without losing your temper. Do not hit or yell at your brother/sister for taking your things.
  5. Forgive Offenses Willingly- give people a chance to make up for their errors. Do not hold a grudge against the friend who stabbed you in the back or told a huge lie.
  6. Comfort the Afflicted- go out of your way to spend time with outcasts, people who are bullied or may be contemplating suicide
  7. Pray for the Living and the Dead- make a Holy Hour for your friend who needs healing or help. Do not assume that Grandma is in heaven– pray for her to be released from purgatory (if she is already in heaven, she’ll still be happy for the prayers!)

 Have a blessed Holy Week!


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