The Eucharist cannot exist in isolation from life. It is the liturgical commemoration of a Work of Mercy that is designed to issue forth in works of mercy. Thus mercy is essential to the life of every member of the Church until evil and suffering are no more.
Saint James reminds us that a Christianity that responds to suffering with no more than kind words and tender sentiments is neither true love nor even authentic faith: “If a brother or sister is ill clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” (Jas 2:14–17).
Here are seven tips about the works of mercy:
1) Mercy is for everyone. One of the greatest misconceptions of my early years was that Catholicism is a two-track system. Laypeople just need to worry about keeping the precepts of the Church and the 10 Commandments. The Sermon on the Mount and true holiness are the territory of those called to priesthood and religious life. Knowing that this misconception was pervasive, the Second Vatican Council affirmed in its “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” that the call to holiness is absolutely universal (see “Lumen Gentium,” chapter 5). And holiness means love, and love means mercy. Therefore, works of mercy can’t be relegated only to those who belong to the social justice committee or the Missionaries of Charity. Everyone, without exception, is called to the works of mercy.
2) Mercy relieves suffering, and there are different kinds of suffering. I once heard someone offer a striking petition during the prayer of the faithful: “Let us pray for all those suffering from the pain of not knowing the love of God.” The lack of bodily necessities certainly causes great distress. But so does the lack of the things of the spirit. It is important to keep in mind that the Church enumerates not only corporal works of mercy but spiritual works of mercy, as well, and that the latter actually have a certain preeminence. Perhaps not everyone is ready to instruct the ignorant or admonish sinners. But at least one of the spiritual works of mercy is something that virtually all of us can do, regardless of our location or state of health: interceding for the living and the dead. Indeed, this is the work of mercy performed by the glorified saints in heaven.
3) Charity begins at home. That angel of mercy, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, was often approached by people who wanted to share in her apostolate to the poorest of the poor. Her advice to them was often to go home and love their own family members. If we open our eyes, there are people all around us who are lonely, sick, overworked, and troubled. They very much need our compassion and attention. This is where we must start. “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tm 5:8).
4) Charity can’t end at home. The story of the Good Samaritan is striking for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the hero of the story had no natural bond with the victim. Jews and Samaritans actually had great antipathy for each other. So we can’t restrict our works of mercy to family, friends, and those who belong to our Church or political party. As Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, our works of mercy must extend even to our enemies.
5) Mercy is not always convenient. There are times that works of mercy can be planned and fit in an orderly way into our schedule. But suffering and crisis are often unpredictable. And responding to them can often be inconvenient. The Good Samaritan took a lot of time and went through no small expense to make sure the victim in the story was provided for. The Samaritan was probably late for an appointment as a result.
6) Charity is not the same as social work. While people often refer to anything that benefits the disadvantaged as “charity,” the word actually means divine, supernatural love. It is action that springs from the love of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (see Rom 5:5) and must involve not just giving things but giving ourselves. We must see God’s image and likeness in the person who benefits from our charity, and love that person for God’s sake. There is nothing wrong with making a year-end charitable gift, but if this is to be a true work of mercy, the motivation must be deeper than the wish for a tax write-off. For St. Francis and Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor was serving Jesus himself (see Mt 25:34–46). A work of mercy can and should be a deeply spiritual encounter.
7) Mercy is never condescending. The goal of the ancient enemy of mankind is to use suffering to rob those made in God’s image of their human dignity. Our goal in the work of mercy is always to restore that dignity and honor it. “Charity” that belittles the recipient is never true mercy. It may relieve some bodily suffering, but it only causes a deeper suffering of alienation and humiliation. The Divine Word emptied himself of glory and stood shoulder to shoulder with us. The one giving mercy cannot look down on the recipient of mercy. In fact, the merciful humbly understand that they always receive as much as or more than they give when they work to alleviate the suffering of the needy.
Saint John Paul II wrote an encyclical on God the Father near the beginning of his pontificate. With all the possible descriptions and titles for God used in Scripture and tradition, what was he to title such an encyclical? The answer for him was simple: “Rich in Mercy” (see Eph 2:4).
God is preeminently the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation (see 2 Cor 1:3). The way we can be recognized as his authentic offspring is by living a lifestyle of mercy. It is interesting that in the Bible’s only description of the last judgment, salvation or damnation hangs not on how much religious art people have in their houses or how many Masses they’ve attended, but how they’ve treated the least of Jesus’ needy brothers and sisters (see Mt 25:34–46).
Marcellino D’Ambrosio is a world-renowned commentator on religious issues. Known as “Dr. Italy,” he appears weekly on a variety of Catholic TV and radio networks. This article was adapted from his book 40 Days 40 Ways: A New Look at Lent.