Works of mercy

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Caritas, The Seven Acts of Mercy, pen and ink drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559. Anticlockwise from lower right: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, ransom the captive, bury the dead, shelter the stranger, comfort the sick, and clothe the naked

Works of mercy (sometimes known as acts of mercy) are practices considered meritorious in Christian ethics.

The practice is popular in the Catholic Church as an act of both penance and charity. In addition, the Methodist church teaches that the works of mercy are a means of grace which lead to holiness[1] and aid in sanctification.[2]

The works of mercy have been traditionally divided into two categories, each with seven elements:[3]

  1. "Corporal works of mercy" which concern the material needs of others.
  2. "Spiritual works of mercy" which concern the spiritual needs of others.

Pope John Paul II issued a papal encyclical "Dives in misericordia" on 30 November 1980 declaring that "Jesus Christ taught that man not only receives and experiences the mercy of God, but that he is also called 'to practice mercy' towards others."[4] Another notable devotion associated with the works of mercy is the Divine Mercy, which derives from apparitions of Jesus Christ to Saint Faustina Kowalska.

In the Catholic Church[edit]

Based on Jesus' doctrine of the sheep and the goats, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are a means of grace as good deeds; it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.[5]

The precept is an affirmative one, that is, it is of the sort which is always binding but not always operative, for lack of matter or occasion or fitting circumstances. In general it may be said that the determination of its actual obligatory force in a given case depends largely on one's capacity. There are easily recognizable limitations which the precept undergoes in practice so far as the performance of the corporal works of mercy are concerned. Likewise the law imposing spiritual works of mercy is subject in individual instances to important reservations. For example, some may require particular tact, prudence, or knowledge. Similarly to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, and console the sorrowing is not always within the competency of every one. However, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, and to pray for the living and the dead, do not require some special array of gifts or talent for their observance. [6]

In an address on the 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation, Pope Francis suggested "care for creation" as a new work of mercy, describing it as a "complement" to the existing works. Francis characterized this new work as having both corporal and spiritual components. Corporally, it involves "daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness". Spiritually, it involves contemplating each part of creation to find what God is teaching us through them.[7][8][9][10][11][12] This pronouncement extensively quoted the encyclical Laudato si', and Cardinal Peter Turkson, who helped write the encyclical, clarified that the addition of this work of mercy was part of Francis' intention for Laudato si'.[9][11]

Corporal Works of Mercy[edit]

The six Corporal Works of Mercy, Freiburg Minster, ca. 1230
Works of Mercy by Pierre Montallier, 1680
Frans II Francken, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1605 (German Historical Museum Berlin)

Corporal works of mercy are those that tend to the bodily needs of other creatures. The standard list is given by Jesus in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, in the famous sermon on the Last Judgment. They are also mentioned in the Book of Isaiah [13]. The seventh work of mercy comes from the Book of Tobit[14] and from the mitzvah of burial,[15] although it was not added to the list until the Middle Ages.[16]

The works include:

  1. To feed the hungry.[17]
  2. To give water to the thirsty.
  3. To clothe the naked.
  4. To shelter the homeless.
  5. To visit the sick.
  6. To visit the imprisoned, or ransom the captive.[6]
  7. To bury the dead.[18]

Spiritual Works of Mercy[edit]

Just as the corporal works of mercy are directed towards relieving corporeal suffering, the aim of the spiritual works of mercy is to relieve spiritual suffering. The third comes from Ezekiel 33,[19] the fifth comes from the mitzvah of forgiving others before receiving forgiveness from God,[20] and the seventh comes from Maccabees 2.[21]

The works include:

  1. To instruct the ignorant.
  2. To counsel the doubtful.
  3. To admonish the sinners.
  4. To bear patiently those who wrong us.
  5. To forgive offenses.
  6. To comfort the afflicted.
  7. To pray for the living and the dead.[18]


Representation in art[edit]

The Corporal works of mercy are an important subject of Christian iconography. In some representations of the Middle Ages, the seven works were allegorically juxtaposed with the seven deadly sins (avarice, anger, envy, laziness, unchastity, intemperance, pride). The pictorial representation of the works of mercy began in the 12th century.

The Master of Alkmaar painted the polyptych of the Seven works of mercy (ca. 1504) for the Church of Saint Lawrence in Alkmaar, Netherlands. His series of wooden panel paintings show the works of mercy, with Jesus in the background viewing each, in this order: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveler, comfort the sick, and ransom the captive.

The painting of the Seven Works of Mercy by Frans II Francken (1605) represents the acts not as a picture cycle, but in one single composition.

A major work of the iconography of mercy is the altarpiece of Caravaggio (1606/07) in Naples, which was commissioned by the Confraternità del Pio Monte della Misericordia for their church. This charity brotherhood was founded in 1601 in Naples. The artist painted the Seven Works of Mercy in one single composition. Regarding the sharp contrasts of the painting’s chiaroscuro, the art historian Ralf van Bühren explains the bright light as a metaphor for mercy, which "helps the audience to explore mercy in their own lives".[22]

In Methodism[edit]

In Methodist teaching, doing merciful acts is a prudential means of grace.[23] Along with works of piety, they are necessary for the believer to move on to Christian perfection.[24] In this sense, the Methodist concern for people at the margins is closely related to its worship.[25] As such, these beliefs have helped create the emphasis of the social gospel in the Methodist Church.[26]

Works of Mercy
  1. Doing Good[23]
  2. Visiting the Sick and Prisoners[23]
  3. Feeding and Clothing People[23]
  4. Earning, Saving, Giving All One Can[23]
  5. Opposition to Slavery[23]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ John Stephen Bowden (2005). Encyclopedia of Christianity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195223934. Retrieved 5 July 2011. Works of mercy are, therefore, not merely good deeds but also channels through which Christians receive God's grace.
  2. ^ John Wesley (1840). The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, A.M., Volume VI. J. Emory & B. Waugh; J. Collord, New York. p. 46. Retrieved 5 July 2011. Why, that both repentance, rightly understood, and the practice of all good works, — works of piety, as well as works of mercy, (now properly so called, since they spring from faith,) are, in some sense, necessary to sanctification.
  3. ^ R Mauriello, Matthew (2011). Mercies Remembered. pp. 149–160. ISBN 9781612150055.
  4. ^ Pope John Paul II, Dives in misericordia, §14, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, November 30, 1980
  5. ^ "CCC, 2447". Vatican.va.
  6. ^ a b Delany, Joseph. "Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy" The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 11 July 2019 This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  7. ^ Pope Francis: Message on 2016 World Day of Prayer for Creation As a spiritual work of mercy, care for our common home calls for a “grateful contemplation of God’s world” (Laudato si', 214) which “allows us to discover in each thing a teaching which God wishes to hand on to us” (ibid., 85). As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires “simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness” and “makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world”
  8. ^ Dewane, Frank J.; Cantú, Oscar (31 August 2017). "Statement on Upcoming World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  9. ^ a b Harris, Elise (1 September 2016). "Pope Francis declares care for creation a new work of mercy". Catholic News Agency.
  10. ^ McKenna, Josephine (1 August 2016). "Pope Francis says destroying the environment is a sin". the Guardian. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  11. ^ a b Winfield, Nicole (1 September 2016). "Pope Francis calls for a new work of mercy: care for the environment". America Magazine. Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  12. ^ Rowlands, Anna F.; Czerny, Robert E. (19 February 2018). "The eight works of mercy". Thinking Faith: The online journal of the Jesuits in Britain. Retrieved 18 June 2018. This appears to be a translation and substantial revision of Rowlands, Anna F.; Czerny, Robert E. (February 2018). "La cura della casa comune: una nuova opera di misericordia". Aggiornamenti Sociali (in Italian). Retrieved 18 June 2018.
  13. ^ Isaiah 58
  14. ^ Tobit 1:16-22 16In the days of Shalmaneser I had performed many charitable deeds for my kindred, members of my people. 17h I would give my bread to the hungry and clothing to the naked. If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him.
  15. ^ Chabad: The taharah, funeral and burial Jewish law is unequivocal in its insistence that the body, in its entirety, be returned to the earth, in a way that allows for the natural process of its decomposition and re-integration with its primordial source--the soil of which it was formed. It also insists that in the interim between death and interment, the integrity and dignity of the body be respected and preserved.
  16. ^ News.Va: New work of mercy Since biblical times, Christians have been called to carry out 6 acts of mercy, listed in St Matthew’s Gospel – giving food and drink to the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners – with a 7th one, burying the dead, added in medieval times.
  17. ^ Deuteronomy 15:11 For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’
  18. ^ a b Catechism of the Catholic Church par. 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.
  19. ^ Ezekiel 33:7-9 7Now as for you, son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel; so you will hear a message from My mouth and give them warning from Me. 8“When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require from your hand. 9“But if you on your part warn a wicked man to turn from his way and he does not turn from his way, he will die in his iniquity, but you have delivered your life.
  20. ^ Jewish Virtual Library: Forgiveness The rabbis go even further in the ethical demands made upon the injured party, for not only must he be ready to forgive his injurer, he should also pray that God forgive the sinner before he has come to beg forgiveness (Yad, loc. cit.; Tosef., BK 9:29; Sefer Ḥasidim ed. by R. Margalioth 1957, 267 no. 360). This demand is based on the example of Abraham, who prayed to God to forgive Abimelech (Gen. 20:17). The reasons the injured party should be ready to forgive the injurer are mixed. On the one hand is the self-regarding consideration, already mentioned, that forgiveness to one's fellow wins forgiveness from Heaven. As Philo states: "If you ask pardon for your sins, do you also forgive those who have trespassed against you? For remission is granted for remission" (ed. by Mangey, 2 (1742), 670; see also Yoma 23a). On the other hand there is the purer motive of imitatio dei. Just as it is in the nature of God to be merciful to His creatures, so man in attempting to imitate the ways of God should be forgiving toward those who have injured him (Shab. 133b; see Lev. 19:2). R. Naḥman combines both motives when he says: "Imitate God by being compassionate and forgiving. He will in turn have compassion on you, and pardon your offenses" (op. cit. 81–91).
  21. ^ 2 Maccabees 12:42 Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen
  22. ^ Ralf van Bühren, Caravaggio’s ‘Seven Works of Mercy’ in Naples. The relevance of art history to cultural journalism, in Church, Communication and Culture 2 (2017), pp. 63-87, quotation from pp. 79-80.
  23. ^ a b c d e f "Mission: The Works of Mercy". The United Methodist Church. Archived from the original on 9 December 2000. Retrieved 5 July 2011. John Wesley believed that "means of grace," include both "works of piety" (instituted means of grace) and "works of mercy" (prudential means of grace). He preached that Christians must do both works of piety and works of mercy in order to move on toward Christian perfection. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  24. ^ "Mission: The Works of Mercy". The United Methodist Church. Retrieved 5 July 2011. Christian Perfection is "holiness of heart and life." It is "walking the talk." John Wesley expected Methodists to do not only "works of piety" but "works of mercy"--both of these fused together put a Christian on the path to perfection in love.
  25. ^ John Stephen Bowden (2005). Encyclopedia of Christianity. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195223934. Retrieved 5 July 2011. In this sense, Methodist concern for people at the margins is closely related to its worship.
  26. ^ Edward Craig (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Questions to sociobiology. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415187138. Retrieved 5 July 2011. He clearly thought that there is an experience of sanctification in which there is a total death to sin and a complete renewal of the image of God. His various qualifications concerning the nature of perfection did not, however, weaken the Methodist stress that one must press on towards perfection in this life. Much of the social activism of Methodism sprang from this stress.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.

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