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The Corporal Works of Mercy

1. 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 stranger; (5), To visit the sick; (6), To ransom the captive; (7), To bury the dead.

(1), To feed the hungry. Abraham entertained the three men; Christ fed five thousand people; St. Elizabeth of Hungary gave all the contents of her granaries to the poor in a time of famine; St. Louis of France provided a dinner daily for a hundred and twenty poor men, and sometimes waited on them himself. (2), To give drink to the thirsty. The Samaritan woman gave Our Lord water to drink at Jacob’s well; Rebecca drew water for Eleazar. Wine and medicine come under this category. (3), To clothe the naked. Tabitha at Joppe made garments for destitute widows; St. Martin gave half his cloak to a beggar; Christmas gifts to poor schools are works of mercy. (4), To harbor the stranger. Hospitality is a duty enjoined upon us by St. Paul when he says: “Hospitality do not forget; for by this some, not being aware of it, have entertained angels” (Heb. xiii. 2). Both Abraham and Lot were privileged to receive angels in human form beneath their roof. The Good Samaritan took the man who had been wounded by robbers to an inn. Martha and Mary received Our Lord into their house as their guest. The monks of St. Bernard perform a work of mercy when they rescue travellers who have met with accidents, and carry them to their hospice, where they nurse them until they recover. When travelling was more dangerous than at present, they were the means of saving many lives. (5), To ransom innocent captives. Abraham delivered Lot out of the hands of the robbers; the Christians in Damascus rescued St. Paul out of prison; in the Middle Ages the Order of Ransom was founded for the release of Christians taken prisoner and held in slavery by the Turks. More than a million Christian slaves regained their liberty on the payment of a sum of money, or by others taking their place. Cardinal Lavigerie also established a guild for the liberation of slaves in Africa.

(6), To visit the sick is only to be reckoned as a work of mercy, when the object of the visit is to afford spiritual or temporal relief to the sufferer.

The visit Job’s friends paid him was no work of mercy. That of the Samaritan to the wounded Jew was on the other hand, most meritorious. Several religious Orders have been founded for the express object of nursing the sick in hospitals or elsewhere; witness that of the Christian Brothers, founded by St. John of God (1617), and that of the Sisters of Charity, founded about the same time by St. Vincent of Paul. The self-sacrifice of Catholic priests in taking the last sacraments to the dying, especially at the time of an epidemic, is most emphatically a work of mercy. We read of the Emperor Joseph II. that he was asked one day by a poor boy in the street for a florin, that he might get a doctor for his mother. The emperor gave him the money, and asked where he lived. He then went to see the sick woman, who took him for a doctor, and he wrote a prescription for her. Shortly after his departure the doctor whom the boy had called in made his appearance. On opening the paper to look at the supposed prescription, he read these words: “Woman, your visitor was the emperor. Take this paper to the palace, and fifty ducats will be paid you.”

(7), To bury the dead. It is a particularly meritorious work of mercy to provide the dead with decent burial, to follow the body to the grave, or to erect a stone to his memory.

Tobias used to bury the dead at the time of the persecution of the Jews under Sennacherib. The inhabitants of the city of Nairn accompanied the bier on which the young man was carried to the grave. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus laid the body of Our Lord in the sepulchre. In burying the dead we do him a service which he can never requite. “We ought,” says St. Augustine, “to show respect to the bodies of Christian people, because they have been the instrument employed by the soul.” In some localities the pernicious custom prevails of making funerals an occasion for feast ing and revelry. This is most unseemly, and a waste of money which might be spent for the benefit of the soul of the deceased. Besides it is the means of stifling the grace of God, which exercises a salutary influence on the soul through the solemn ceremonies of an interment.

In addition to the seven corporal works of mercy already enumerated, there are others, e.g., the distribution of money, the rescue of one in danger of death, giving assistance in case of accidents, etc.

King Pharao’s daughter performed a work of mercy when she saved the life of the infant Moses; so did Veronica when she gave her veil to wipe Our Lord’s countenance. In fact every kind word or act, if spoken or done to our neighbor because we see Our Lord in him, is a meritorious work. Our Lord Himself says that a cup of cold water given in His name shall not go unrewarded (Mark ix. 40).


This article, The Corporal Works of Mercy is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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