Serve Christ in the Spiritual Works of Mercy This Lent

The season offers the faithful a chance to find simple ways to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the sorrowful, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently and pray for the living and the dead.

Walter Langley, 1894
Walter Langley, 1894 (photo: Public domain)

Lenten fish fries are a staple for Catholics. But they also reflect the corporal work of mercy of feeding the hungry.

In a suburb north of Houston, Chris and Michelle Nelli lead their four children in practicing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy during Lent and throughout the year, including at their parish.

Michelle said that Chris, a Knight of Columbus, and older son David, a Columbian Squire, “dedicate every Friday to the Lenten fish fry at our parish,” St. Anthony of Padua in The Woodlands, Texas. 

Michelle also told the Register that she cooks “dinner for our priests once or twice during Lent as a way to say thank you for their tireless efforts during this season, especially for the extra hours of confession they selflessly offer us.”

“Being part of a family gives us a multitude of opportunities to practice corporal and spiritual works of mercy every day,” Michelle said. 

Among various corporal works of mercy, they have gone “with our children’s choir to the nearby retirement homes to visit the sick and sing to them.” To give drink to the thirsty, they have “decorated water-bottle labels with Scripture verses to give to the homeless.” 

As for alms to the poor: “Our church provides a baby bottle which we fill with spare change and saved bills to donate to the pregnancy assistance center. We leave it out on the counter as a reminder to help pregnant women and their sweet babies in their time of need.” 

The Lenten season also offers the faithful a chance to find simple ways to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the sorrowful, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently and pray for the living and the dead — the seven spiritual works of mercy.


Pray for Living and the Dead

Turning to the last and most familiar first, Michelle told the Register their homeschool co-op attends daily Mass on Wednesdays, followed by adoration and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, which is “an excellent way to pray for the living and the dead.” The Nellis also pray for the holy souls in purgatory and the family Rosary on Sundays. “We offer it for those who currently need prayer, such as our friends fighting cancer,” she said. During Lent, the family concentrates on the Sorrowful Mysteries.

Father Jeffrey Kirby, pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Indian Land, South Carolina, also recommends, as a way to pray for the living and the dead, spending time in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet and praying the Stations of the Cross for those who have left the faith.

“Every First Friday at my parish, we have nocturnal adoration,” he told the Register. “Over half of our regular weekend worshippers attend the nocturnal adoration and make a Holy Hour for the living and the dead. It is a powerful sight to see young married couples, families, single people, and widows and widowers coming together for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.”

This work of mercy can include learning how to gain a plenary indulgence and applying it to one of your deceased relatives, friends and even someone you do not know. Ask the Blessed Mother to pick the person.


Comfort and Counsel

Comforting the afflicted and sorrowful is another spiritual work to practice. Father Kirby, who is a moral theologian and author of A Journey to Mount Carmel: A Nine-Day Preparation for Investiture in the Brown Scapular of Our Lady, points out such examples as spending time with someone who is sick and afraid for their health. Your presence can bring them comfort in knowing someone cares. He also recommends reaching out to “unwed expecting mothers and see how you can help and encourage them.” He also advises the faithful to visit the elderly.

“There are families at Our Lady of Grace who regularly visit local nursing homes,” he said by way of example. “They sit with the residents, tell them stories, read the Book of Psalms, bring them homemade cards and share fellowship with them. The residents are deeply grateful for the visits and are invigorated by the love and attention of these families.” And children can visit, or call a grandparent, aunt or uncle to just say “hello” and bring a smile to their face.

The Nelli children also make handmade cards for prisoners at Huntsville State Prison, “letting them know they are not forgotten and that God loves them,” Michelle Nelli said. Her youngest two children, 15-year-old Lia and 8-year-old Isaac, have participated in this work of mercy.

The children made the cards for Easter, decorated them with crosses, the empty tomb and the Holy Spirit, “and included Scripture verses so that those imprisoned would know that they were loved by God and not forgotten,” Michelle said. Lia took great care in making hers, and she said she “wanted to give the recipients a sense of hope.”

Similarly, Mike and Ellen Pavlich, also members of St. Anthony of Padua Church, and their children, then ages 1-13, made it a family priority “to pray at an abortion mill every Saturday morning during Lent,” Ellen said. “We let our children know that any activities they had for those Saturdays had to come after our time spent praying outside an abortion mill. It made an impact, especially on the older ones.”


Instruct the Ignorant

Ellen saw the family doing more than one spiritual work of mercy at the same time with this prayerful witness: They were “praying for the living and the dead, admonishing sinners by our presence there, instructing the ignorant, bearing wrongs patiently from those who were against us, and counseling the doubtful.”

Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, writes of instructing the ignorant in “The Spiritual Works of Mercy” as it relates to parental education of children. Above all, parents should control what comes into the home.

“In other words, replace negative content with positive Catholic, and generally Christian, content,” he told the Register, before adding specific examples. Every young adult should see the classic films A Man for All Seasons about the life and death of St. Thomas More; The Mission about the heroic Jesuit efforts on behalf of the Native peoples of South America; The Scarlet and the Black about the Vatican monsignor who stood up to the Nazis; St. Philip Neri: I Prefer Heaven about the great saint of the city of Rome; The Song of Bernadette about St. Bernadette Soubirous and Our Lady of Lourdes; Ben Hur about faith and forgiveness; and Quo Vadis about the Roman imperial commander who converts to the Christian faith. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, so, these days, for young minds, a motion picture is liable to have far more formative influence than books they might read.”


Bear Wrongs and Forgive

Father of Mercy Joseph Aytona, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wisconsin, also offers advice on bearing wrongs patiently. “It is a most beneficial practice to bear wrongs patiently,” he told the Register. “As a spiritual work of mercy, to bear wrongs patiently can help build the virtue of fortitude within us. Instead of responding quickly with a curse word, or an uncharitable remark, ‘offering it up’ silently and saying a quick prayer may help people not give in to anger so easily. Although we should identify evil as evil, many things that happen within the Church and the world, we don’t have control over. Yes, it is true, if we want peace, we should work for justice. But if we are constantly complaining about ‘everything that is happening in the world,’ our frustration will make it more difficult for us to grow in grace.”

Father Aytona points out initial aids and remedies: “Ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to help you bear wrongs patiently and offer up the scenarios as a prayer. Also, have small aspirations handy when the time comes, such as ‘Jesus, I trust in you,’ or ‘Thy will be done.’ They can go a long way when we implement this work of mercy within our interior lives.”

Father Kirby also suggests doing “a random act of kindness to those who have been offensive or hurtful to you or your family.” Send a Mass card or lend a helping hand.

In order to bear wrongs patiently and forgive offenses, we need to ask forgiveness ourselves. Consequently, Father Kirby counsels the faithful to go to confession regularly, even monthly. “Show humility and ask for forgiveness when you have been hurtful or offensive to others,” he said, noting that in his parish, parents and children prepare themselves for the sacrament and “come as a domestic church to receive the grace and mercy of God. We can only give what we have. As shown by these families, our call to mercy begins with the sacrament of confession.”


Admonish Sinners

Father Aytona pointed out that one of the most difficult works of mercy is to admonish the sinner. “Even though we know the truth will set us free, in the culture we live in today, people do not like to be told they are committing sin,” he explained. Yet “true charity impels us to help others get to heaven by fraternal correction.”

Father Aytona continued, explaining that, when approaching someone “who is steeped in sin, maybe even in mortal sin, first pray for them. Offering Holy Communion and an hour of adoration and reparation will help soften their hearts.”

“Also, ask the Holy Spirit to help you say what he wants you to say, in the manner he wants you to say it, as well as the right time he wants you to do it,” he added. 

“In the end, if you help your neighbors by mentioning their moral error — whether they accept it or not — you have at least planted the seed to help them on their path to heaven. Keep praying for them, and offering sacrifice, so the fruit of conversion is born.”