One of the puzzles some Catholics struggle with is the fact that we encounter the grace of God beyond the sacraments. In Matthew 25, for instance, Jesus talks about the salvation of the nations in terms of what Catholic Tradition would later call the corporal works of mercy:

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of 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 drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me; I was naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me’” (Matthew 25:34-36).

What is striking here is that the saved sheep do not indicate the slightest familiarity with baptism or the sacraments. They are members of “the nations” (that is, Gentiles, goyim, outsiders). They had no idea it was Jesus they were serving in the poor, dispossessed, naked and wretched. And, to them, the King speaks neither a word of rebuke or reproach for their “works of salvation,” nor a peep about their lack of the sacraments.

Likewise, the goats hear about a good profession of faith in the Trinity or the saving work of Christ on the cross. In the parable, what was make-or-break for the goats as well as the sheep was how they treated the “least of these.”

Now, as Catholics, we mustn’t pretend the parable is fatal to the sacramental vision. He who gives us the parable also tells us, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5); and “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

But we must also remember that this is the same Jesus who tells the unbaptized and Eucharist-deprived Good Thief, “Truly, I say to you: Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Clearly, we are dealing with a Savior who doesn’t fit into our little systems of order. How do we put it all together?

The key is the simple recollection of St. John of the Cross: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.”

The point of the “Parable of the Sheep and the Goats” is not “You don’t need sacraments or faith in Jesus in order to be saved.” Nor is it “Everybody cut off from the sacraments is most assuredly doomed.” The point is that, in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words:

Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

We are bound by the sacraments, but God is not bound. Sacraments are given as sure encounters with grace, not as reducing valves designed to make sure the unbaptized are excluded from God.

Christ also comes to us through innumerable creatures, since all of creation is sacramental. And the greatest sacramental bringing us Christ is our neighbor — especially the least of our neighbors.

For the stunning truth is that Christ is present in all those we meet. How you treat them is how you treat him. And how you treat them is not merely “spiritual” (that is, with attention to their souls, but none to their stomachs, wardrobes or housing situations).

A plumber who uses his skills to fix a single mom’s sink at no charge is doing a work of Christ (and for Christ) in a different way than the priest who hears her confession or gives her the Eucharist. But it is a work of Christ. That is the point.

If you cooperate with grace, you are Christ’s feet and hands in the world — as St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours …” — and a gift of grace to your neighbor.

Likewise, your neighbor — especially your poor neighbor — is God’s gift to you, a sacramental through whom Christ works in your soul.

That’s why this parable does not remotely contradict the Catholic sacramental vision. Saying that God comes to us in the person of a beggar is not saying God does not come to us in the Sacrament of the Altar.

It is, however, an emphatic denial that God saves by faith alone. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, when he was Denver’s archbishop, summed up the Church’s attitude toward this notion quite bluntly when he stated, “If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell.”

Faith alone won’t cut it if you send a starving waif back out in the snow saying, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (James 2:16).

That’s why the Church has always insisted on the corporal works of mercy, which take seriously the fact that we are bodily creatures — like Jesus, the Word made Flesh. They are:

Feed the hungry.

Give drink to the thirsty.

Clothe the naked.

Harbor the harborless.

Visit the sick.

Ransom the captive.

Bury the dead.

The corporal works of mercy have received fresh attention of late, due to the election of our extraordinarily “hands-on” Pope Francis, who has, by his personal participation in them, brought forcefully to our attention the beauty of the Church’s Tradition. His witness makes clear that we are all called to assist in the corporal works of mercy with generosity and creativity.

But, of course, lots of us are not quite sure what to do — or how — and feel a sort of puzzled confusion about where we might start, not to mention a certain anxiety about “doing it wrong.”

Therefore, over the next seven columns, we will take a look at the corporal works of mercy in order to connect the dots between the corporal works of mercy and how we are to incarnate them in works of love for God and neighbor. Let us see how we may, as 2 Peter 1:10 says, make our calling and election sure and, in union with our Lord Jesus, help renew the face of the earth.

Mark Shea is a Register columnist and blogger.