Understanding the Spiritual Works of Mercy

costello-works-of-mercy-featured-w480x300It used to be required that all young Catholics memorize the Works of Mercy as an ever-present mandate for how we are to live. But nowadays, memorization is forgotten and most people only know a couple of the Corporal Works. Do you remember—feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, bury the dead? Yet, our world is in desperate need of the Spiritual Works of Mercy, so perhaps we should bring back that memorization practice to our Sunday School programs. Do you agree?

The Corporal Works address poverty and the physical needs of our neighbors. But the Spiritual Works of Mercy are equally important and these works call us to love souls. They are:

  • Admonish the sinner (Colossians 3:16)
  • Instruct the ignorant (Jude 1:23)
  • Counsel the doubtful
  • Comfort the sorrowful (Isaiah 66:13)
  • Bear wrongs patiently (Colossians 3:12)
  • Forgive all injuries
  • Pray for the living and the dead

Certainly Jesus instructed, counseled and comforted. He also admonished sinners, calling some “vipers” and telling the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.”  When Jesus was mocked and tortured, He was forgiving.  And He often withdrew to quiet places for prayer. Our Church teaches that these acts of mercy are partnered with the Corporal Works because these acts steer others toward heaven.

There has been a lot of conversation in Catholic blogging circles about whether it is ever appropriate, in the modern world, to “judge” others. The most often quoted Scripture is, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  But judgment, properly understood and exercised, is a necessary part of love and prudence.

Every parent knows it is unloving to let a child have their way at all times. It is unloving to allow a teenager to get drunk. It is unloving to smile when one child hits another child.

The same understanding of love is true in the world. It is unloving to know someone who wants to get an abortion and never to say a thing about “other options.” It is unloving to hear dirty jokes and laugh as if that was just fine. It is unloving to let our entire society slid into immorality without ever raising a cry.

The first three of the Spiritual Works require study and preparation. But first-time parents know the importance of preparation…they read parenting books and watch how other mothers and fathers provide instruction and correction. So why do we as Catholics not do a better job preparing young people for how to live in the world, but not be sucked down by it?

For many years, I was among those who didn’t want to hear the evening news (messages of violence and the further deterioration of our culture.)  I walked away from any difficult conversation. I was focused on raising children and it was painful to hear the details about the culture they would inherit.

But now my children are teenagers, attending a public school. They are confronted every day by atheism or immorality … and they have to decide whether to speak up or back down and go along. Since my son has decided to educate himself and stand up for truth…so I’ve been compelled…(a bit of kicking and screaming along the way)…to learn, pay attention, and begin instructing, counseling and admonishing. I can’t say I’m good at it….

Recently I engaged in dialogue with a Protestant pastor who wrote that moral and cultural issues are not of concern to Christians because we are only called to share God’s love and forgiveness. I wrote that morality and faith go hand in hand. Morality is the lifestyle that flows out of faith, or guides us toward faith. To deny the sinfulness that is being legislated into “the normal and the good”—to not instruct others about this—is downright unloving of our neighbors.

The pastor deleted that entire dialogue!

So, I can’t say I’m a success. And there is so much more to learn. But, I have come to realize that Catholic moms, who want to raise Catholic kids, need to learn all they can about the Spiritual Works of Mercy and how to live them!

The works of mercy are not optional; they are essential to the Christian life.

Editor’s Note: How do you exercise the Spiritual Works of Mercy? Let us hear from you in the combox below.

Visit Judith’s website: http://www.drawingonfaith.weebly.com/. Her artwork is featured at www.flickr.com/photos/faithart/ and on Facebook.

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About the Author

Judith Costello, MA, OCDS was a Catholic Worker and a catechist as a young adult. Then the feminist movement called to her during the 1970s-1990s and she fell away from the faith. She was sure, during those years that being a "good person" was all that God expects of us. Over the years, pride and politics took her farther and farther from the truth that God asks us to live in virtue, offer sacrifices, and come closer to Him in the sacraments.

After a divorce, Judith met a man who encouraged her to to Come Home. Judith and Jurgen now live on a small farm with two teenagers and lots of animals. Along with the children, Judith is active in the Church as a catechist, lector and sacristan. They take care of Jurgen who is now in poor health. Judith is a secular Carmelite and author of two books on Prayer and Mariology. She writes curriculum lessons for www.catechismclass.com. Her artwork in featured at www.flickr.com/photos/faithart/ and on Facebook. Judith blogs at CatholicMom.com.

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  1. Even though I went to Catholic schools for 12 years and go to church I am embarrassed to say I do not know what they are, but I am going to find out. I have worked hard to instill morals and values in my children who are pretty much grown up. They are girls in college 19 and 20 years old. They both live at home and have very high morals and values. I was a stay at home Mom so that I could raise them. I talked to them a LOT. We prayed a lot. I bet they know what the Works of Mercy are though. My oldest daughter attends a Catholic University and is majoring in nursing and minoring in religion. So I am sure she knows. But I am going to learn and have some family discussions about this. I am 52 years old and attended school in the 70’s. I don’t know if it was just my school or it was the time. But I was not taught the Baltimore Catechism like my much older brothers and sisters, nor a lot of other things.

    1. Julie, Thank you for your comments and for being such a conscientious parent!! I am concerned about the youth of today. The schools allow the promotion of “gay pride” but not of “the March for Life.” They allow LGTB clubs but don’t allow any mention of God. In Scotland they are considering forcing Catholic schools to teach about same sex marriage “rights”. In order to counter this we will need stronger families and an emphasis on apologetics education. I just finished a book called Four Witnesses…great book about the early Church and why Catholicism is the one true church. And Absolute Relativism talks about the moral issues that confront us and how to reason with people on these issues.

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