In preparation for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has repeatedly stressed the importance of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. In the Bull of Indiction he wrote, “It is my burning desire that, during this Jubilee, the Christian people may reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

He brought the subject up again in a letter to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. He gave his appeal even more weight by confirming the promise of a Jubilee Indulgence for performing such merciful acts:

I have asked the Church in this Jubilee Year to rediscover the richness encompassed by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The experience of mercy, indeed, becomes visible in the witness of concrete signs as Jesus himself taught us. Each time that one of the faithful personally performs one or more of these actions, he or she shall surely obtain the Jubilee Indulgence.

That same council will even be publishing a resource next month that aims at giving a pastoral guide to the various works of mercy.

With all of this in mind, it would be fitting for us to examine the corporal and spiritual works of mercy before the Jubilee Year begins on December 8th. That way we can have a better idea how we can accomplish these works during the next year. I will do what I can by offering weekly reflections on each of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy for the next fourteen weeks.

What are they?

Before we begin, we should briefly go over what the Church categorizes as the various works of mercy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us the following list:

2447 The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.

The list in the Catechism is a very brief overview of what is traditionally grouped into seven spiritual works and seven corporal works of mercy. Here is the traditional list that has been passed down through the centuries:

Corporal Works of Mercy

  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbour the harbourless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.

Spiritual Works of Mercy

  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offences willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

It is an ancient list that has roots in various biblical passages that we will explore. For now, let us start with the spiritual works of mercy.

To Instruct the Ignorant

The first spiritual work of mercy is to “instruct the ignorant.” Biblically speaking, this action comes directly from Jesus when He instructs His apostles,

“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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

This applies to us today as much as it did in the first century. While much of the world has heard about Jesus Christ, most are ignorant of what Jesus actually taught. This is due to many factors, including the numerous false interpretations of the Gospels. What doesn’t help is the fact that we are sheep. We follow blindly whatever the culture tells us, or even what our parish priest preaches about on Sunday. This means that many in our world do not have the fullness of the Faith.

However, this does not give everyone a mandate to instruct those they know in the intricacies of Church teaching. We must be careful, as we could be instructing our fellow neighbor in falsehood, when we think we are giving them truth. Above all things we must remember that Jesus gave His “apostles” the direct mandate to “teach.” Bishops are the primary catechists in their geographical region and priests are cooperators with him.

After priests come deacons and after deacons come lay catechists. Most dioceses have a certification program that “certifies” a specific catechist for teaching the faith. This is important as the local bishop is ultimately responsible for the souls in his care. What follows is that each catechist assists the bishop in his mission and can only operate with his permission.

In cases where local leaders fail to teach the truth, we can confidently turn to the Pope for guidance. He and the magisterium of the Church protect the truth and their official teachings are infallible.

At the same time, we have a duty to evangelize our coworkers or family members, but we must do so realizing that we can only take them so far. We must act like arrows, pointing to the truth, bringing these precious souls to those who can instruct them properly. Also, as parents, we have the duty to instruct our children in the Faith to the best of our ability. When our knowledge fails, we turn to the Church for assistance.

Instructing the ignorant must not be done lightly as the fate of a person’s soul hangs in the balance.

Next week, we will examine what it means to “counsel the doubtful.”