Works of mercy

article - Works of mercy

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

Meritorious works or acts in morals

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

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][4]

  1. “Corporal works of mercy” which concern the material and physical 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.”[5] Another notable devotion associated with the works of mercy is the Divine Mercy, which derives from apparitions of Jesus Christ to Saint Faustina Kowalska.

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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.[6]

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. [7]

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.[8][9][10][11][12][13] 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’.[10][12]

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