“In a world which, unfortunately, has been damaged by the virus of indifference, the works of mercy are the best antidote.”
– Pope Francis
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, works of mercy are “charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbour in his spiritual and bodily necessities”  and are inspired by examples given in Scripture, particularly in the Gospel of the Beatitudes:
… I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25: 31 – 46)
Recently, Pope Francis has written and spoken about the works of mercy. The Justice and Peace Office has provided a synthesis of this teaching below, along with further insight and guidance on undertaking these activities in today’s world.
The Spiritual Works of Mercy are:
- Instructing the ignorant ;
- Advising or counselling the doubtful;
- Admonishing the sinner;
- Consoling & comforting the sorrowful;
- Forgiving injuries;
- Bearing wrongs patiently; and
- Praying for the living and the dead.
The corporal works of mercy are:
- Feeding the hungry;
- Giving drink to the thirsty;
- Sheltering the homeless;
- Clothing the naked;
- Visiting the sick and imprisoned;
- Burying the dead; and
- Giving alms to the poor.
As Catholics, we see Christ in the marginalised, the vulnerable, the materially deprived and oppressed and their suffering and misery as an expression of the frailty of the human condition. We hold them close to the heart as an “object of a preferential love on the part of the Church which, since her origin and in spite of the failings of many of her members, has not ceased to work for their relief, defence, and liberation through numerous works of charity which remain indispensable always and everywhere” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2448].
Works of mercy that address the ‘social and political dimensions of the problem of poverty’ are not just works of charity, but also of justice, which are pleasing to God (Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, 184). The Compendium states: “In her teaching the Church constantly returns to this relationship between charity and justice: “When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice”. The Council Fathers strongly recommended that this duty be fulfilled correctly, remembering that “what is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”. Love for the poor is certainly “incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use”” (ibid.)
Pope Francis calls us “to reawaken our conscience [and] …enter more deeply into the heart of the Gospel” (Misericordiae Vultus). In a recent catechesis on the works of mercy, he reminds us of the teaching of Jesus Christ: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36), saying this is “a responsibility that challenges the conscience and actions of every Christian“. He adds, “it is not enough to experience God’s mercy in one’s life; whoever receives it must also become a sign and instrument for others. Mercy, therefore, is not only reserved for particular moments, but it embraces our entire daily existence.” (General Audience, 12 October 2016). Pope Francis notes that Jesus “introduces us to these works of mercy in his preaching so that we can know whether or not we are living as his disciples” (Misericordiae Vultus) and writes that “the corporal and spiritual works of mercy continue in our own day to be proof of mercy’s immense positive influence as a social value. Mercy impels us to roll up our sleeves and set about restoring dignity to millions of people; they are our brothers and sisters who, with us, are called to build a “city which is reliable” (Misericordia et misera). Further, Pope Francis provides guidance on giving expression to the traditional works of mercy, encouraging us to engage with and be responsive to the needs of the vulnerable and poor around us:
Let us make every effort, then, to devise specific and responsible ways of practising charity and the works of mercy. Mercy is inclusive and tends to expand in a way that knows no limits. Hence we are called to give new expression to the traditional works of mercy. For mercy overflows, keeps moving forward, bears rich fruit. It is like the leaven that makes the dough rise (cf. Mt 13:33), or the mustard seed that grows into a tree (cf. Lk 13:19)…
The social character of mercy demands that we not simply stand by and do nothing. It requires us to banish indifference and hypocrisy, lest our plans and projects remain a dead letter. May the Holy Spirit help us to contribute actively and selflessly to making justice and a dignified life not simply clichés but a concrete commitment of those who seek to bear witness to the presence of the Kingdom of God.
20. We are called to promote a culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of encounter with others, a culture in which no one looks at another with indifference or turns away from the suffering of our brothers and sisters. The works of mercy are “handcrafted”, in the sense that none of them is alike. Our hands can craft them in a thousand different ways, and even though the one God inspires them, and they are all fashioned from the same “material”, mercy itself, each one takes on a different form.
The works of mercy affect a person’s entire life. For this reason, we can set in motion a real cultural revolution, beginning with simple gestures capable of reaching body and spirit, people’s very lives. This is a commitment that the Christian community should take up, in the knowledge that God’s word constantly calls us to leave behind the temptation to hide behind indifference and individualism in order to lead a comfortable life free of problems. Jesus tells His disciples: “The poor will always be with you” (Jn 12:8). There is no alibi to justify not engaging with the poor when Jesus has identified Himself with each of them.
– Pope Francis, Misericordia et misera.
As our society changes and we are faced with challenging circumstances affecting the dignity of people, we need to be “creative in developing new and practical forms of charitable outreach as concrete expressions of the way of mercy” (Message for the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation). Works of mercy can address the immediate needs of individuals or contribute to the overall improvement of society, so as to reduce the likelihood our neighbours will find themselves in distress or poverty. This is particularly the case where the organisation and structure of society give rise to poverty as a systemic or global social issue (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, #208). One expression Pope Francis included as both a spiritual and corporal work of mercy in 2016 is ‘caring for creation’. Referring to his recent encyclical, Laudato si’, he noted that caring for creation calls for a “grateful contemplation of God’s world” (Laudato Si’, 214) which “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us”. He said it also, requires “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world”. Click on the picture below to take you to a recent article by Cardinal Turkson elaborating on this work of mercy.
Other novel expressions of the way of mercy suggested by Bishop Richard Umbers show how we might engage in social media and other online activities and are well worth considering.
If you are seeking to undertake works of mercy, you might start by reading some of the resources listed below, along with other materials contained in this website. Then, consider what is happening in your community: read various media sources and observe what is happening as you go about your life. Follow the ‘see, judge, act’ process and start with a small step. The ‘See, Judge, Act’ process, was developed by Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn (1882–1967), who was the founder of the Young Christian Workers. The process was taken up by Pope John XXIII in Mater et Magistra (at 236) to help us understand and respond to the signs of the time. Basically, there are three steps to follow: look around you and review the ‘concrete situation’; form a judgment about the situation in light of the principles of Catholic social teaching; and decide what can and should be done to implement these principles. A great resource developed by the Australian Social Justice Council is written about this process, entitled ‘Reading the Signs of the Times’.
In his recent catechesis on the works of mercy, Pope Francis also offered the following advice on how to begin: “It is better to begin with the simplest, which the Lord tells us is the most urgent. In a world which, unfortunately, has been damaged by the virus of indifference, the works of mercy are the best antidote. In fact, they educate us to be attentive to the most basic needs of “the least of these my brethren” (Mt 25:40), in whom Jesus is present. Jesus is always present there. Where there is need, there is someone who has need, be it material or spiritual. Jesus is there. Recognizing his face in those who are in need is one way to really confront indifference. He allows us to be always vigilant, and avoid having Christ pass by without us recognizing him. It recalls to mind the words of St Augustine: “Timeo Iesum ranseuntem” (Serm., 88, 14, 13): “I fear the Lord passing by” …I wondered why St Augustine said he feared the passing by of Jesus. The answer, unfortunately, is in our behaviour: because we are often distracted, indifferent, and when the Lord closely passes us by, we lose the opportunity to encounter him. The works of mercy reawaken in us the need, and the ability, to make the faith alive and active with charity.” (General Audience, 12 October 2016).
In addition to the material referred to on this page, the Justice and Peace Office invites you to consider the resources contained in this website, along with links to further resources below.
Transcripts of Pope Francis speaking on the various works of mercy.
- Works of Mercy (Pope Francis, General Audience, 30 June 2016);
- Corporal and spiritual works of mercy (Pope Francis, General Audience, 12 October 2016);
- Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty (Pope Francis, General Audience, 19 October 2016);
- Mercy and dialogue (Pope Francis, General Audience, 22 October 2016);
- Welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked (Pope Francis, General Audience, 26 October 2016);
- Visiting the sick and the imprisoned (Pope Francis, General Audience, 9 November 2016);
- Bearing wrongs patiently (Pope Francis, General Audience, 16 November 2016);
- Counselling the doubtful and instructing the ignorant (Pope Francis, General Audience, 23 November 2016);
- Praying for the living and the dead/ Burying the dead (Pope Francis, General Audience, 30 November 2016).
- Isaiah 58: 6-12 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=isaiah+58&version=NRSV;
- Hebrews 13: 1-6 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=hebrews+13&version=NRSV;
- Tobit 4 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=tobit+4&version=NRSV;
- Sirach 17: 22 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=sirach+17&version=NRSV;
- Proverbs 22: 1-16 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=proverbs+22&version=NRSV;
- Matthew 6: 1-4 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+6&version=NRSV;
- Matthew 25: 31-46 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+25&version=NRSV;
- Luke 3: 8-14 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke+3&version=NRSV;
- Luke 11: 37-42 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke+11&version=NRSV;
- James 2 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=james+2&version=NRSV
Further ideas for undertaking works of mercy:
- Contribute to or start up a social justice group in your parish http://justiceandpeace.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Justice-Peace-Office-Ministry-Resource-2015.pdf
- Consider incorporating aspects of Laudato Si’ in your social justice practice: http://justiceandpeace.org.au/caring-for-creation-caring-for-our-common-home/ .
- Seek to engage knowledgeable speakers to give a talk in your parish, such as on grief, loss & bereavement through Catholic Cemeteries http://www.catholiccemeteries.com.au/bereavement-support/
- Acknowledge and mourn the loss of those who have passed away by attending services, such as http://www.catholiccemeteries.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/BN1-International-Pregnancy-Infant-Loss-Remembrance-Day.pdf.
- Participate or support your local community gardens, such as Mamre House: http://www.mamre.com.au/ & Cana Communities Farm in Orchard Hills http://www.cana.org.au/about-cana/community/community-farm
- Welcome and show hospitality to those on the fringes of your parish: http://justiceandpeace.org.au/welcoming-refugees-to-your-parish/
- Volunteer your time and offer your particular skills or gifts to community groups, e.g.:
- legal/form-filling skills to humanitarian migrants; http://www.jrs.org.au/get-involved/work-with-jrs (form-filling program as distinct from registered migration agent work);
- House of Welcome seek assistance for particular projects from time to time http://www.houseofwelcome.com.au/
- Work with the Sisters of Charity to provide assistance to people from the country who are in Sydney receiving medical treatment by providing volunteer transport: http://www.sistersofcharityoutreach.com.au/volunteer-now/
- Support kitchens for the homeless such as: St Vincent de Paul Vinnies Breakie Van
- Work through your parishes social justice groups to solve local community problems, e.g., affordable housing through the Sydney Alliance campaign http://www.sydneyalliance.org.au/
- Building relationship, participating in &/or supporting particular communities, such as:
- David’s Place in Surry Hills https://www.sydneycatholic.org/news/latest_news/2015/201569_859.shtml;
- the St Bakhita Centre in Flemington https://stbakhita.com/volunteers/;
- CatholicCare Community visitors scheme http://www.catholiccare.org/volunteer; or
- LÁrche community in Sydney http://www.larche.org.au/larche-communities/sydney/
- Seek to be an ethical consumer, for example, buy fair trade: http://acrath.org.au/5812/fair-trade-fortnight-8-22-may/
- Participate in various clothing drives, which may be undertaken from time to time: https://www.sydneycatholic.org/news/latest_news/2015/2015410_1519.shtml; http://orderofmalta.org.au/projects/coats-for-the-homeless-australia-wide-operation
- ACRATH are involved in various counter trafficking, anti-slavery and fair trade campaigns http://acrath.org.au/
- Support the efforts of women to re-establish their lives after prison: https://www.wipan.net.au/?page_id=831
- Support the work of various international Catholic charities, such as Aid to the Church in Need: http://www.aidtochurch.org/support.html or the Order of Malta http://orderofmalta.org.au/around-the-world/the-order-of-maltas-ongoing-response-to-the-refugee-crisis.
“May the Holy Spirit help us; may the Holy Spirit kindle within us the desire to live this way of life: at least once a day, at least! Let us again learn the corporal and spiritual works of mercy by heart, and ask the Lord to help us put them into practice every day, and in those moments where we see Jesus in a person who is in need.” – Pope Francis