The Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy



The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy are rooted in the command of Jesus Christ:


46. LOVE ONE ANOTHER AS I HAVE LOVED YOU: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) 


The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbour in his spiritual and bodily necessities.” (See Catechism 2447)              


Several times, Christ commands us to love as He loved:


                  3. LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE BEFORE OTHERS BUT GIVE GLORY TO GOD: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.“ (Mt 5:16)


                  20. DO UNTO OTHERS: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Mt 7:12)


                  43. YOU SHOULD ALSO WASH ONE ANOTHER’S FEET: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (Jn 13:14) 




The Corporal Works Of Mercy entails caring for the bodies of other people. They are rooted in the command of Jesus Christ. In his prediction of the Final Judgment, the manner in which we will be judged will depend on our care for those in distress. Jesus commanded:


                  32. CARE FOR THOSE IN DISTRESS: “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.” (Mt 25:34-36)


The Corporal Works Of Mercy are the following: 


                  1. To feed the hungry: "For I was hungry and you gave me to eat." Mt. 25:35       

                  2. To give drink to the thirsty: "...I was thirsty and you gave me to drink..." Mt. 25:35

                  3. To clothe the naked: "I was...naked and you clothed me..." Mt. 25:36

                  4. To visit the imprisoned: "I was in prison and you came to me." Mt. 25:36

                  5. To shelter the homeless: "...I was a stranger and you took me in..." Mt. 25:35

                  6. To visit the sick: "...I was sick and you cared for me..." Mt. 25:36

                  7. To bury the dead: "Insofar as you did it for one of these least of my brothers, you did it for me." Mt. 25:40




The Spiritual Works Of Mercy entails caring for the souls of other people. The spiritual works of mercy are the following:




                  Jesus commanded, 28. SETTLE DISPUTES BETWEEN BELIEVERS IN THIS MATTER: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” (Mt 18:15-17).  There is a line in the Confiteor at Mass that goes “I have sinned through my own fault, in what I have done and what I have failed to do.” This could tend to stoke the fires of Catholic guilt like nothing else.  That hungry homeless woman asking for money, the lonely child who wants you to play a game, the talkative co-worker who requests time to talk about a failing marriage.  But the first of the seven spiritual works of mercy to admonish the sinner is meant to stoke the fires of virtue more than blame.  When a little girl is about to touch her hand to the stove, we yell at her not to hurt her feelings, but so that she not hurt her fingers.  When a young man is drinking too much, we go to him not only so that the police or an ambulance won’t, but because he is risking his health and possibly the life of someone else when he gets behind a wheel.  Christ was very clear in the Gospel of Luke, “If your brother sins, rebuke him.” (Luke 17:3). We go to our sister out of true charity for the sake of her spiritual well-being which is why these are called spiritual works of mercy as compared to the corporal works of mercy which deal more with the physical, tangible ministry. 


                  Jesus commanded: 5. GET RID OF WHATEVER CAUSES YOU TO SIN: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Mt 5:29-30) Jesus did not hug those seeking to stone Mary Magdalene, nor joked around with the money peddlers in the temple.  Likewise, he did not merrily wink at the woman caught in adultery and tell her to just be herself.  Too often, we are told that we are not fit to judge others, and this is true, however, it doesn’t mean that we cannot warn them, teach them and guide them.  My mother used to tell us, “Kids, if everyone likes you, chances are you are a hypocrite.”  To admonish the sinner means in the Name of Jesus, which is also in the name of love, we have good news.  But sometimes we have tough news, and we risk our popularity and likableness to give tough love. As the saying goes, "The truth will often cause you to flinch before it sets you free." 


Jesus commanded: 1. REPENT: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17) The challenge of this work of mercy is to see it larger than just correcting individual’s wrong doings. It’s bigger than just one on one.  Real social change happens when people find the courage to challenge the status quo and speak against the sin that may be ignored.  Silence can be dangerously and incorrectly interpreted as consent.  And simplicity put this silence is what allow Nazism and encourages Al Qaeda and will give birth to whatever new form of local oppression finds a foot hold in the prefaces of not caring or not speaking out.  It is said that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  As an American, I marched on Washington DC, our Nation’s capital, to protest the Supreme Court decision decades ago which legalized abortion in my country.  It was a bitterly cold day, and I am not trying to hold myself up as an example more than a lesson. To see good people gathered and publicly admonish the legislator is a rich paradigm for this first work of mercy. None of us is perfect and no one wants to judge from a place of imperfection. May this pronouncement from the lips of the Lord embolden us to help others to see the light, which guides us along our way to the path of peace.




Jesus commanded, 44. OBEY WHAT I COMMAND: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. (Jn 14:15) There are three areas where people can be said to be ignorant or less harshly put unaware: The 1) intellectual, 2) moral and 3) spiritual realms.  Someone who is unaware of intellectual things means they don’t know history or mathematics or capitals of the provinces.  Morally, some people are unaware of values or attitudes.  In an encyclical entitle “Saved in Hope”, Pope Benedict XVI writes “If technical progress is not matched by corresponding progress in man’s ethical formation, in man’s inner growth, then it is not progress at all, but a threat for man and for the world.”  The antidote to moral ignorance is quite simply to learn more about the faith, to know why we believe what we believe.  Jesus said “Can a blind man lead a blind man?  Will they not both fall into a pit?” (Luke 6:39) 


Jesus commanded, 33. GO AND MAKE DISCIPLES OF ALL NATIONS, BAPTIZING THEM AND TEACHING THEM TO OBEY JESUS’ COMMANDMENTS: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:19-20) The third area in which people are unaware is the spiritual realm knowing not just math or morality, but the message of Christianity that is the core tenet and the deepest expression of our faith.  St Paul writes “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ”. (Romans 10:17)  On the first day of our baptism, our parents received a taper lit from the Pascal Candle blessed during Easter Vigil. This candle represents the light of faith that must be passed on and experienced in a domestic church we call the family.  As adult Catholics, we have a responsibility to grow and acknowledge of our faith teachings but also to share this knowledge. Spiritual indifference is the result of a faith that was not nourished or mentored.  Some ways, we can guide people who don’t know or be a role model of faith.  Habitually look for someone to invite to church on Sundays and Holy Days.  If you have children, instill in them a love for liturgy and an appreciation of the Word of God.  Consistency is key in the learning process.  Learn more about your faith’s teaching buy or borrow a book, download a study program, or discover an app that helps your soul come alive to what has been handed down to us by the Apostles.  And then tell someone about what you have read; sharing is learning.  Enroll your kids in a Catholic school if possible.  If not, enroll them in the religious education classes of your parish.  You might also consider to being a catechist or a helper. 


Jesus commanded, 22. BEWARE FALSE PROPHETS: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Mt 7:15) This spiritual work of mercy is tethered to the first one which tells us to admonish the sinner.  One of the greatest lies perpetuated by our society could be the notion that tolerance is always a virtue.   In the footsteps of Christ and St John the Baptist, we each have a duty to speak out against what is wrong.  In certain circumstances, it might be that someone had no idea what they believed or were doing was wrong.  In this case, we will be fulfilling this work of mercy to instruct them so they are aware and alive.




Jesus commanded, 14. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT YOUR NEEDS: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Mt 6:25-26) Pontius Pilate onced asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) Pontius Pilate’s question to Jesus had nothing to do with the desire for truth.  It is everything to do with side-stepping the truth and avoiding the responsibility of protecting innocent life. In this case: Jesus.  Could something similar be happening today under the label skepticism?  Why is the doubter often more admired than the believer?  Why is innocence scorned and labeled as ignorance?  Why do many despair of even knowing what is true?  Of all the spiritual works of mercy, perhaps none is more needed today than the third one – Counsel the Doubtful. 


                  Jesus commanded, 16. DO NOT WORRY ABOUT TOMORROW: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Mt 6:34) Many of our contemporaries are plagued with doubts, doubts about their ability to know what is true, doubt about their ability to do good and avoid evil, doubt even about the existence of God.  Who of us has not experienced confusion and doubt at some point in our own human journey.  But challenges of faith and dealing with doubts are far cry from the hard core skepticism that purveys modern culture.  Such skepticism paralyzes our natural tendency to reach out to our God and it defiles our souls’ natural desire to surrender in faith to Him.  It leads to cynicism and despair, the exact opposite for which God made us.  The ability to lead others to faith in God and ability to counsel the doubtful depends on the authenticity of the lives of the witnesses, nothing can be achieved by the half-hearted believer, no one is convinced by a cafeteria Catholic. On the other hand, the witness of a faithful person impacts the lives of many others.  God in his infinite wisdom has called us to be his witnesses in an age of doubt, an era of skepticism, a culture of suspicion.  Carl Anderson eloquently explains this in his book “A Civilization of Love”.  For the writings of Karl Marks, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche, Anderson writes ``It would not be an exaggeration to say that the `Masters of suspicion’ [Marx, Freud, Nietzsche] have largely succeeded in creating a new ‘culture of suspicion’ in which Christianity and its values are increasingly marginalized by contemporary Western society.”  The atmosphere of suspicion around us makes even more evident the need for practice of third spiritual work of mercy, Counsel the Doubtful. 


                  Jesus commanded, 35. HAVE COMPLETE FAITH IN GOD: “Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mk 11:22-24)  What a difference faith in God makes?  Love of others start with concern of their souls, by helping others have faith, we increase our own.  We all know someone discerning a difficult choice, Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit has filled us with the gifts necessary to assist those in need of good advice.  There are those who tell us what we like to hear and there are those who tell us what we need to hear.  Giving good advice is an active charity and honesty, knowingly giving bad advice is an offence against love and justice. Yet, what could be more precious than to know to believe and to love Jesus Christ.  What could be more loving than for us to assist others to overcome doubt and arrive a lively faith in Him?  In all humility, I am trying to do that to you right now.




Jesus commanded, 37. BE MERCIFUL: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Lk 6:36) Following the Creed at Sunday Mass, the deacon or lector leads us to the Prayer of the Faithful.  It is certainly inspired by Jesus’ words that we ask, and knock and seek (Mathew 7:7).  But these intercessory prayers are also prayers that God has.  What do I mean?  When we pray for end of war, God nods his head.  When we ask for peace in the Middle East, God whispers “Yes”.  When we want out legislators to respect human lives, God says “I couldn’t agree more.”  And then God says “Get going!  You want it now, do it!”  As St. Theresa of Avila once said “God has now no arms but ours; no lips but ours; no hands and feet but ours.” We are the answer to the problem in the world, and so when Jesus and his Beattitudes calls the sorrowing “blessed” because they shall be consoled, that is our cue.  And notice, we do the comforting, not the healing.  God working through doctors ultimately will do that and eternal life is perfectly the final healing. 


Jesus commanded, 39. DO AS THE GOOD SAMARITAN DID: “ He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37) Just as the Good Samaritan goes out of his way to help the man left for dead, so is this work of mercy an invitation, not a clear directive to revive comfort. I think of my mother’s hand on my arm when I had my first cavity filled she didn’t take away the pain but her presence was a maternal narcotic, the needle still pinched but there are other fingers comforting me.  I was once told by an older redemptorist when you ask “How are you?”, really mean it and wait for the answer.  How true this is just as nothing is lonelier than being with someone who doesn’t care about you?  No one is more tender than the person whose presence says, “I am here for you.”  Isn’t that what Jesus ultimately expresses, and what I call the positivity of his personhood. 


Jesus said, 25. COME TO ME ALL WHO LABOUR AND ARE OVERBURDENED: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt 11:29) For Him, just showing up was healing for the sick, hope for the despairing and joy for the sorrowing.  Why?  Of course, he was God but he was also so very human. And to be human is to be related.  When we spend our Saturday attending a benefit banquet, pin on a number and walk or race for the cure, when we donate money for research and development we are acting on this work of mercy.  Taking the time to listen or maybe writing a few words of encouragement or just simply being present to a neighbor in pain can make a big different.  Mother Teresa almost spent almost forty years ministering to the sick, lonely, hungry and dying poor in the slums of Calcutta, India.  She insisted that small things done with great love produce big results. Sadness and tragedy are all part of life but being an intentional Catholic means that we reject the idea that she who cries, cries alone, because following Christ implies being Christ to others.  Lord, hear our prayer by giving us the awareness to become the answer to our own needs.




Jesus commanded, 7. PRACTICE NONVIOLENT RESISTANCE: “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Mt 5:38- 39) If there is one work of mercy that I need to work on, it is this one: to bear wrongs patiently.  It goes right back to Jesus’ commandment to turn the other check.  We have all been tempted time and time again to react negatively to the wrongs and injustices inflicted upon us by others.  Who hasn’t been cut off in traffic?  Or, discriminated against one way or another?  Who hasn’t dealt with a rude person or annoying personality?  Christ is our example of patience; he carried his cross, a symbol of injustice death, hatred and apathy with patience.   To imitate him is to be patient in a world that is often unfair, indifferent, violent and rude. 


Jesus commanded, 8. GIVE MORE THAN IS DEMANDED: “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Mt 5:40-42) It is said that hurt people hurt people.  If we can understand and pity the poison inside of angry cutting people, perhaps we can transform their wrongs instead of transmitting them.  You know, it is called kicking the dog.  The packing order goes like this: your boss loses the client and he takes it out on you, you come home and get angry with your spouse or your child. But if we can stop the poison from infecting us, we channel energy a different way; and instead of being a conduit of pain we become a bridge of understanding forgiveness and love.  Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  


Jesus commanded, 2. REJOICE: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Mt 5:12) Within my own Congregation of Redemptorists, one of our saints stands out as an example of peace making and patience bearing.  St Gerard Majella was falsely accused of fathering a child.  When confronted with this accusation by the superior St Alphonsus Liguori, Brother Gerard remainded silent, he neither admitted nor denied it.  “It is in God’s hand.  If He wills that my innocence be proven, who can accomplish it more easily than He?”  Not long afterwards, the falsehood was reviewed, the young saint was exonerated.  Perhaps few of us will ever have to experience wrong as public as grievous as this, but impatience, hurtful anger, negativity, revenge are all feelings deeply engrained in human nature.  As feelings, they do not need to be acted upon but can give us vital information about ourselves.   But it would be wrong for us to interpret this work of mercy as an exercise of self-growth, it is primarily to help others along the way to holiness.  After all who said it better and meant it than Jesus on the cross “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”



Jesus commanded, 36. FORGIVE: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mk 11:25-26) Following from the previous work of mercy, not only must we bear wrongs and injuries, we must forgive those who inflict them on us.  True forgiveness requires work on our own soul and a solid love of God. How else do we summon the strength to do something supernatural? Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye will make this world blind.”  We have all made mistakes in the past, we have all been hurt by someone in the past.  Our faith challenges us to forgive and to seek forgiveness.  Forgiveness is one of the most powerfully liberating human experiences.


Jesus commanded, 9. LOVE YOUR ENEMIES: “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Mt 5:43-45) Ironically, forgiveness is at the same time is one of the most difficult acts to offer.  Jesus gives us some tall math when he says we are to forgive seventy time seven, meaning always.  Remember back in 1981 when our blessed Pope John Paul II was shot four times by a Turkish national in St. Peter's Square.  The Pope was badly injury by the bullets, undergoing a five hour life threatening surgery in Rome.   Despite this attempt of his life, despite of physical injuries resulted as a consequence of the attack, who of us can forget the image of the Pope going to jail, reaching out his hand in that small cell to forgive the man who had wanted to take his life.  Easily, one of the most difficult tasks of being a strong catholic is washing the slave clean of all the resentment and hurts.  Like Christ we must be willing to allow the tide of love to wash away the foot print of injuries inflicted.  For salvation is found in looking toward God and not back to past injuries. 


Jesus commanded, 12. THIS, THEN, IS HOW YOU SHOULD PRAY: “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mt 6:9-15) Forgiveness does not mean imprudent intolerance or mindless acceptance of evil and sin, but rather a willingness to recognize the wound and yet allow that hurt to heal.  Society will consider you weak to forgive but to God is a sign of strength.  Victor Hugo wrote in Les Miserables of a man who was sent to jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his pregnant sister.  Incarcerated too long, Jean as the man is called finally leaves prison but a harden man.  No one offers him hospitality, save a holy, old bishop who invites him in, has him eat at his table, and offers him a place to sleep. The night-fearing penniless steals precious silver and china from the house and escapes. The next morning the police find him and bring him back, and they ask the bishop ``What should be done with the scoundrel?” The kindly old prelate goes to the mantle, removes generations old candelabra and adds them to the bag of stolen items, while giving them the bag back to Jean, he winks and says ``My friend, you forgot.  I gave these to you too. ”  And, in the show on Broadway, Jean never forgets this act of redemption and sings “To love another person is to see the face of God”.  To forgive another person is to be the mercy of God.




Jesus commanded, 30. LOVE THE LORD AND LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOUR: “He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt 22:37-39)  The final works of mercy is probably the easiest and requires timefulness, mindfulness and prayerfulness.  Jews have a beautiful tradition of placing rocks on the gravestones of their beloved.  Bringing flowers and prayers to deceased has even more meaning on All Souls Day.  When I see roadside crosses and when I pass cemeteries, I try to remember to say a prayer.  In one of the catacomb of the fifth century, there is an inscription by an early Christian perhaps pleading for his wife’s soul, “I implore you, brothers, to pray whenever you come here and invoke the Father and the Son in all your prayers so that they might save my wife, Agape, forever.”  Catholics believe that we belong one body that of Christ, we also belief that we can pray for others in this life and the life to come.  The unity of the body of Christ is not fractured or separated by death.  The longest prayer we have of Jesus is in the Gospel of John, when he for many chapters is talking to God and is praying for his disciples. 


Jesus commanded, 13. DO NOT STORE UP TREASURES ON EARTH: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:19-21) The Holy Father explains that prayer is not an escape for reality but an immersion in it for there is nothing more real than God, the creator of all. Listen to Pope Benedict’s word “To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness.  When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus our fellow human beings as well.”  In the very act of praying our heart expands so we see beyond our own concerns to the needs of others, both the living and the dead. 


Jesus commanded, 19. ASK, SEEK, AND KNOCK: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” (Mt 7:7)  God hears our every prayer, if he delays in responding, this is only done for our good and for the good of others.  When we persevere in petition to God, our faith is tested and grows stronger.  In fact, God gives us more than we can ask or image.  This is captured quite poignantly by the prayer found in the breast pocket of an unknown dead soldier during America Civil War “I asked God for strength, that I might achieve… I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.  I asked for health, that I might do great things… I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.  I asked for riches, that I might be happy… I was given poverty, that I might be wise.  I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men… I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.  I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life…. I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.  I receive nothing that I asked for, but everything that I hoped for.  Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.  I am among all men, most richly blessed.”  In prayer we discover the strength we need to face life’s struggle.  What may seem overwhelming before we pray no longer seems that way afterward.  In prayer, we discover the wisdom of the Angel Gabriel’s message to the Virgin Mary: “Nothing will be impossible for God.” (Luke 1:37)


*Reflections written by Fr. Daniel Francis, CSsR and integrated with the Commandments of Jesus Christ.

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