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The Corporal Works of Mercy

5 February 2016

One of the themes of this Jubilee Year of Mercy is to be “merciful like the Father”. But how can we be merciful to others, especially at times like our own when there is a well-developed welfare programme organised by the state, and a number of charities that also do sterling work amongst those in need of practical mercy?

Fortunately, the Church provides practical guidance for us all. The guidance is divided into physical things we can do – these are the “corporal works of mercy” and the spiritual things we can do. This week, we will consider the “corporal works of mercy”. These are listed as:

1. Feed the hungry
2. Give drink to the thirsty
3. Clothe the naked
4. Shelter the homeless
5. Visit those in prison
6. Comfort the sick
7. Bury the dead

You will recognise the first six acts from the Gospels. On judgement Day, Jesus himself will ask us if we gave Him food or drink, or clothes, or whether we visited Him in prison, or when he was sick or homeless, for if we do these things for those in need on earth, we do it for Him. The seventh act is also from Scripture, but from the Book of Tobit (Chapter 1:16-17):

Should we even try to do all these acts of mercy? Isn’t that what Social Services is all about? Well, the answer to the second question is “Yes, and us too!” because we shouldn’t abdicate our responsibility to the poor and destitute among us by hoping or expecting someone else to get involved. So, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy – particularly during this Lent, how do we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty and clothe the naked?

Many supermarkets have boxes or trolleys for shoppers to place their donations of food and beverages (fruit squashes, tea and coffee) to go to food banks. Everything donated goes to the foodbank, whether it is a full week’s shop or just a packet of biscuits. We can be confident that our donation, no matter how small, is truly helping people and families in need.

To clothe the naked, why not go through your closets at home. What clothes can you spare? Do you have clothes which are now too big because of a successful diet? Do you have clothes which are now too small because of an unsuccessful diet! Clothes in good condition can be donated in various ways to those in need. One way is to donate them to our own charity shop, which will make them available to those who need help at low cost. This also helps us spiritually, as it helps us to satisfy that Precept of the Church which is that we contribute to the support of the Church.

To shelter the homeless seems to be a daunting task, but it need only involve the making of a donation to organisations like the Salvation Army or the Julian Trust. Our parish primary school has a strong link with the Julian Trust, which shelters, feeds and clothes many homeless. Crisis Centre Ministries also have a magnificent track record in helping the homeless. These organisations can be looked up on-line.

To visit those in prison and to comfort the sick are the next corporal works. Now, prisons are cheerless and daunting institutions, and most people who go to these places will visit them only because they must! But no matter what the crimes prisoners may have committed, they are still human beings, made in the image and likeness of God. According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, 89 prisoners took their own lives in 2015, the same number as in 2014. The Howard League estimate that suicide rates in our prisons have increased by 46% over the past three years, and one of the reasons for this horrifying situation is the social isolation that prisoners must feel. Not everyone is able to visit a prison, but an act of mercy may still be performed by supporting organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform or Time for Change Ministries which sent prisoners in the UK 538 Christmas cards and 55 Easter cards last year.

We must also remember that a number of people are “imprisoned” by poor health and the social isolation that often follows old-age. That social isolation can be the direct cause of many serious health issues. Are there people you know who need to be visited? Could some of these people be friends or family that you haven’t seen for a while? Just an hour’s visit on a regular basis can make a huge difference to someone’s life. Why not bring them a copy of the parish newsletter to help them stay in touch with the parish community?

Finally, there is the command to “bury the dead”. Bereaved people often comment that in the period leading up to the funeral of their departed loved one, they are surrounded by people who offer them support. After the funeral, “real life” intervenes and people draw back. Yet it is often at this time after a funeral that the support which has been withdrawn is most often needed. It can be the time when the bereaved need their friends to help them to come to terms with their loss, and truly “bury their dead”.

Other ways of doing this are to offer up a Mass intention for the departed – a fine way of offering support for the bereaved. This helps the bereaved feel less isolates, knowing that others are with them in their journey of grief. Any prayer for the departed – especially those who have no-one on earth to pray for them – is also a powerful act of mercy.

You may be wondering if anyone in the real world of work and family can do everything suggested above. Well, let’s be honest – in our busy lives it is unlikely that we can perform all the corporal works of mercy. Not all seven. But perhaps you can manage to do two or three of the corporal works as well as you are able. If you are not able, for any reason – perhaps because you yourself are in financial need, or your health is poor, well you are still able to pray that the hungry are fed, the thirsty given drink, the naked are clothed, the homeless sheltered and prisoners and the sick are visited. Above all, you can pray for the departed, pray in the privacy of your home or with the rest of the community at Mass.

Pray for the departed, and in return they will pray for you!

Next week, we will consider the Spiritual Works of Mercy.