Works of Mercy
Charity towards our neighbor is exercised in relieving either his corporal or his spiritual need. Somebody may be very rich and live in abundance, and yet be in spiritual want. And another may be destitute and not possess a farthing, and yet help the soul of his neighbor. Whether we relieve the corporal or the spiritual need of a fellow-creature, we give an alms. Such a work is called a work of mercy. Therefore we distinguish corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Corporal Works of Mercy.
The corporal works of mercy are:
1. To feed the hungry.
2. To give drink to the thirsty.
3. To clothe the naked.
4. To harbor the harborless.
5. To visit the sick.
6. To redeem the prisoners.
7. To bury the dead.
1. The unequal distribution of worldly goods shows that it is the will of God that those who are rich in possessions should assist those who have none, not by sharing their property with them, but by preserving them from want. God has, moreover, expressly enjoined this duty on us, and has promised a reward in heaven to those who fulfill it. To those on His right hand who have done works of mercy, He will say on the Day of Judgment : " Come, ye blessed of My Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave Me to drink : I was a stranger, and you took Me in: naked, and you covered Me ; sick, and you visited Me: I was in prison, and you came to Me" (St. Matt, xxv. 34-36).
But to those on His left who did not feed the hungry nor give drink to the thirsty, the Lord will say on the last day : " Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels. And these shall go into everlasting punishment" (St. Matt. xxv. 41, 46).
2. By doing works of mercy we obtain not only spiritual graces and a reward in heaven, but even temporal blessings, as is shown in the story of Tobias, who by his almsdeeds earned the grace of having his eyesight restored to him and of receiving great riches besides. And the Angel Raphael declared to Tobias: "When thou didst pray with tears, and didst bury the dead, and didst leave thy dinner, and hide the dead by day in thy house, and bury them by night, I offered thy prayer to the Lord" (Tob. xii. 12).
3. In giving alms, the following principles ought to be followed : We may only give alms of our own legitimate property. Of strange property we may only give alms if the owner allows it, or if his permission can be taken for granted. Thus servants and children may only give alms out of the common family property as far as the master of the house expressly or tacitly permits. The mother of the family, however, has a right to give alms with moderation, even without asking leave. Servants may give away remains of food if they are sure that otherwise they would go to waste.
In ordinary cases of want we are obliged to give alms at least of our abundance. When our neighbor is in great distress, we must give even that which is required to keep up our position in life, and must retrench upon our comforts. But when our neighbor is in extreme need we are bound to give all that is not absolutely necessary for our own maintenance.
4. The best alms are those for which we deprive ourselves—of our own food or some other necessary. He who gives of his superfluity does a good work, but he who gives what he needs himself does a better one. It was therefore a beautiful custom with our forefathers always to give alms on fast-days, for we are not to fast in order to save for ourselves, but in order to give to the poor what we have saved. The poor widow who cast two mites into the treasury cast in more than all the others, according to Our Lord's own words: " For she of her want cast in all the living that she had" (St. Luke xxi. 4). "Prayer is good with fasting and alms, more than to lay up treasures of gold: for alms delivered from death, and the same is that which purgeth away sins, and maketh to find mercy and life everlasting" (Tob. xii. 8, 9).
There are two more rules which we must follow in giving alms. First, we must not be slow when our help is needed. Many a one might have helped, but he delayed too long, and, when he wanted to give at last, it was too late, and help was of no use. " He gives double who gives quickly."
Secondly, when we give, it must be done cheerfully. "God loveth a cheerful giver" (2 Cor. ix. 7). We should follow the exhortation which Tobias
gave to his son : " According to thy ability be merciful. If thou have much, give abundantly : if thou have little, take care even so to bestow willingly a little" (Tob. iv. 8, 9).
Lastly, the best way of giving alms is by adding a spiritual work of mercy to a corporal one. When we open our hand the poor man's heart goes out to us, and a loving exhortation finds a willing ear.
1. How consoling is the thought that when we give we are not only none the poorer for it, but our possession will be increased by that hundredfold reward which Our Saviour will bestow on us some day in the dwellings of His heavenly Father. What we give to the poor will be kept for us in the great treasury from which we shall draw in the Day of Judgment. " He that hath mercy on the poor lendeth to the Lord: and He will repay him"
(Prov. xix. 17).
2. By giving alms we gain the intercession of the poor, for it is written : " Shut up alms in the heart of the poor, and it shall obtain help for thee against all evil" (Ecclus. xxix. 15).
When, therefore, we are in any trouble we must not only turn to God in our prayers, but give alms, and God will be merciful to us as we have been merciful to His poor. " Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy" (St. Matt. v. 7).
3. "Almsgiving does not make poor," says the Proverb. He who provides for the poor provides for himself. " He that giveth to the poor shall not want: he that despiseth his entreaty shall suffer indigence" (Prov. xxviii. 27).
The beautiful examples of practical charity which we have quoted from Holy Scriptures (p. 55) are as many examples of the exercise of mercy. The lives of the saints abound in instances of the noblest generosity. St. Louis, king of France, always fed a hundred and twenty poor at his table, wherever he might be. St. Bernard deprived himself every day of a part of the food which was put before him, and often suffered hunger for several days, in order to be able to provide for the poor. St. Elizabeth, Landgravine of Thuringia, spun, knitted, sewed for the poor and made garments for them with her own hands. St. Basil knew no other use to make of the lands which the emperor had given him but to sell them and build a hospital with the money. Deo Gratias, the holy bishop of Carthage, not only gave away all he possessed, but also sold the gold and silver vessels of his church in order to redeem the captives which Genseric, king of the Vandals, had carried off to Africa. The holy Pope Gregory could not be dissuaded from visiting the sick at the time of the plague, and taking the sacraments to them in person.
Spiritual Works of Mercy.
In the same way as we speak of seven corporal works of mercy, we count seven spiritual works of mercy:
1. To instruct the ignorant.
2. To admonish sinners.
3. To counsel the doubtful.
4. To comfort the afflicted.
5. To bear wrongs patiently.
6. To forgive injuries.
7. To pray for the living and the dead.
1. It is our duty to instruct the ignorant if by our instruction we can confirm them in their faith, or convert them from heresy by helping them to the knowledge of the truth, or if we can prevent sin or evil.
2. We are bound to admonish the sinner when the sin is a grievous one, and especially when the erring person is under our charge, as, for instance, children, servants, journeymen, apprentices, laborers, etc. On the other hand, we are not obliged to reprove them if this duty is very difficult and we cannot expect any result from it, provided that our office and position do not make it incumbent on us. But all admonitions must be administered with charity, in the spirit of humility, and in the consciousness of our own sinfulness, without any asperity. Such admonition is called fraternal correction.
3. Counselling the doubtful is a duty for us when we know for certain or have reason to assume that the advice we can give is really good. But even good advice must not be forced on any one, but ought to be given with kindness and benevolence.
4. When an injury is done unto us and we sustain some loss thereby, or our honor and good name are attainted, we may seek for reparation and redress even by going to law, but we must not withhold our interior forgiveness.
5. Prayer for others is the perfection and completion of all works of mercy, because we implore the divine assistance for those whom we cannot help ourselves.
St. John the Baptist rebuked Herod severely for having his brother's wife, although he could foresee that his boldness would cost him his liberty (St. Mark vi. 18). Our Saviour Himself deigned to show us how we are to instruct the ignorant by His discourse with the Samaritan woman, whom He treated with so much kindness, although she was by no means a virtuous person (St. John iv.). The ancient counselors of Roboam, who had stood by his father when he was still alive, gave this salutary advice to the king: "If thou please this people, and soothe them with kind words, they will be thy servants forever." If Roboam had followed this warning, the ten tribes would not have fallen away from him (2 Par. x.). How beautiful is the exhortation of St. Paul to the Thessalonians : " We beseech you, brethren, rebuke the unquiet, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient towards all men" (1 Thess. v. 14). When David was obliged to flee from Absalom, his unnatural son, a relation of Saul, called Semei, met him and cursed him, called him a man of blood and a man of Belial, and threw stones at him. Abisai, David's armor-bearer, wanted to go and cut off Semei's head, but David said: "Let him alone, that he may curse as the Lord has bidden him. Perhaps the Lord may look upon my affliction, and the Lord may render me good for the cursing of this day" (2 Kings xvi. n, 12). Pope Gregory VII. had the courage to make the Emperor Henry IV. do public penance in the courtyard of the Castle of Canossa for having transgressed both human and divine law. The holy priest John Baptist de la Salle founded a society for the purpose of instructing Christian youth, the Congregation of Christian Brothers. St. Anthony was consulted from far and near, and even the emperor and his sons wrote to him, and St. Anthony gave them salutary advice. St. Ambrose was a very powerful comforter. He raised up St. Monica, who was crushed by sorrow for the sinful life of her son. "It is not possible," he told her, "that the child of such tears should be lost." The early Christians, who were so cruelly persecuted by the heathens, prayed all the same in their religious assemblies for the Roman emperors. A holy priest in Alsace, in the neighborhood of New-Breisach, had the misfortune of incurring the anger of a wicked man. The latter fired a pistol at him one morning when he was returning from church, and wounded him mortally. The good priest not only forgave his murderer, but in the last moments before his death he appointed this man's children his heirs in order to save them from the misery which their father had brought upon them. St. Matilda, wife of the German Emperor Henry I., caused the holy sacrifice of the Mass to be offered every day for the repose of the soul of her deceased husband.
An exact reprint of this wonderful book can be purchased here.