Friday, March 16, 2012

40 Things #21: The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy

See Jen for more Quick Takes!

***This post is part of my 40 Things I Love About Catholicism series.  Click here to read more!*** 

I'm once again combining quick takes with my Lenten series featuring Catholic beliefs, traditions, and moral teachings.  This week, I'll be looking at the seven corporal works of mercy.  They can be found in Matthew 25:35-36 (works #1-6) and Tobit 1:16-20 (work #7).

1. Feed the hungry: Sarah wrote a great post at Ignitum Today last year on feeding the hungry, complete with several great suggestions for performing this work of mercy.  It's fantastic and comprehensive and, frankly, better than anything I could say on the matter.

2. Give drink to the thirsty: Sarah has a great post on this work of mercy, too!  An excerpt:
We are so blessed. If you are reading this, you are blessed beyond belief. Because if you are reading this, you probably have access to clean drinking water, and indoor plumbing. Something that 1 billion of our brothers and sisters in Christ worldwide are literally dying for.
Let it sink in. Get up, go from room to room and turn on your sinks. Get a glass of cold, refreshing water from your tap, or your fridge. Splash some water on your hands or face and offer a prayer of thanksgiving. Offer a prayer for all those mothers and fathers and babies who go without. When you finish your water, your prayer, come back. It’s time to move on.
Move on, read the rest, and come away with some fantastic ideas for giving drink to the thirsty.  It's horrifying to realize how many people don't have access to clean water, but there are ways we can help!

3. Shelter the homeless: I recently found out that a few of the local churches here offer overnight shelter to homeless people during the cold winter months.  I think that is a great initiative, and definitely one that is consistent with Christ's commandment that we show mercy.

4. Clothe the naked: Last fall, we undertook a massive cleaning project in our basement, and we went through boxes and boxes of clothes we didn't even remember we owned.  We donated several large bags of clothing our our local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store.  Not only will they be sold at very reasonable prices, but all of the money generated through those sales funds the many charitable works of the St. Vincent de Paul Society (all of the employees at the thrift store are volunteers).

Of course, it's even better if you end up finding a way to clothe the naked (or perform any other work of mercy) in person.  I have never encountered such a situation myself, but Hallie shared a beautiful story about a time her husband gave the jacket off his back to a homeless man.

5. Visit those in prison: I've already written about this work of mercy in my post about Catholic prison ministries.  Last weekend, I received my biweekly Catholic Register (our diocese's newspaper), and in it were several articles about this year's RCIA candidates (people who are in the process of converting to Catholicism; they will be received into the Church on the Easter Vigil).  I was surprised to learn that the 171 people converting in our diocese this year includes 17 from correctional institutions (and ours is a pretty rural diocese, so I imagine that number is much higher in other areas).

6. Visit the sick: I wasn't exactly sick, but I can certainly testify to how much this work of mercy mattered to me right after I gave birth to Elise.  My mom and a couple of my friends brought meals to us, which was absolutely fantastic.  And having company really helped, too, when I was lonely and overwhelmed.  Having visitors must be all the more comforting to those who are faced with the struggles of illness (instead of the joy of a newborn baby)!

7. Bury the dead.  I find this corporal work of mercy to be the most fascinating.  The Bible references the burial of the dead as a merciful (charitable) act in the Book of Tobit (which, like the Book of Sirach, has always been considered canonical by the Catholic Church, but is not accepted in the Protestant Bible):
During Shalmaneser's reign I performed many charitable works for my kinsman and my people.  I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown outside the walls of Ninevah, I would bury him (Tobit 1:16-17).
Tobit risks his life in performing these burials (Tobit 1:19-20). 

But you don't need to read the Book of Tobit to have evidence of the importance of burial in the Bible.  To be deprived of burial was regarded with horror by the Jews (cf. 1 Kings 13:22, Jeremiah 16:6, Jeremiah 22:19).  When Jesus describes the eternal punishment of hell for the wicked, He at one point (Mk 9:48) references Isaiah:
They shall go out and see the corpses
of the men who rebelled against me;
Their worm shall not die,
nor their fire be extinguished;
and they shall be abhorrent to all mankind. (Isaiah 66:24)
This imagery was used because, according to the customs of Israel, the most horrific treatments for a corpse would be for it to either rot above the ground ("worm shall not die") or burn ("fire"); a combination of both would be the ultimate punishment.

Like the Jews, early Christians rejected cremation and other methods of disposing of dead bodies other than burial.  These methods were often used by pagans, who did not believe in the afterlife or the resurrection of the body. 

In recent times, cremation has become increasingly popular, even among Christians.  In 1963, the Vatican lifted the ban on Catholic cremations, although the Church still strongly favors burial.  From the Catechism:
The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit....The Church permits cremation, provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body. (CCC 2300-2301
The point isn't that the Church doesn't believe God can resurrect our bodies if they have been burned; after all, even some of the martyrs were burned to death!  Rather, we are called to treat human bodies with dignity and respect.  We are made in God's image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27); our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).

So can we still perform the last corporal work of mercy if our loved one's remains are cremated?  Of course; disposing of one's remains honorably is the spirit of this work of mercy. 

NB: the Church does not consider the practices of scattering cremated remains or keeping them in a private home to be reverent dispositions.  Cremated remains are to be treated the same as the corporeal remains of a human body.


  1. I LOVE THIS! I actually just taught a session for a confirmation program (not our parish, a friend's) about the Corporal Works of Mercy. They are one of my favorite parts of our faith, too.

    1. Yes, I love me some corporal works of mercy! I wish I could have been at your session!

  2. I have so enjoyed these posts! Wish this would have been around when I was teaching PSR! :)

    1. Thank you, Katie! I have not heard of PSR -- what is that?

  3. I LOVE this breakdown. Sometimes, when you hear these things so often throughout your life, they kind of just blend together in your mind. You've really made me think about each one individually. I didn't know all that about cremation but it kind of makes sense. We are temples of the Holy Spirit and, even in death, should be treated with due dignity.

    1. Alicia, I agree, they do tend to blur together in your mind! I knew the Church wasn't thrilled with cremation in a general sense but I didn't know the particulars, so I was happy to have the opportunity to do some research on the history.