The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are concrete ways, Pope Francis said, to live out mercy.
If there's one part of the extraordinary Jubilee for Mercy that we wouldn't expect to be controversial, it would be the practice of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Pope Francis, who has been summoning the Church to live these, has just started a new series of Wednesday catecheses on each of them that will run past the formal end of the Jubilee and extend into the ordinary life of the Church.
The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are concrete ways, Pope Francis said, to live out mercy. "In a world that, unfortunately, has been damaged by the virus of indifference, the works of mercy are the best antidote." Adding that the words of mercy "are the features of the face of Jesus Christ," he encouraged us not only to "learn the corporal and spiritual works of mercy by heart," but to "ask the Lord to help us to put them into practice every day."
In doing so the Holy Father was trying not just to inspire a few more good deeds among fellow Catholics in the world but to catalyze a true moral insurgency.
"I am convinced," he said on October 12, "that, through these simple, daily actions, we can achieve a true cultural revolution. ... If everyone of us, every day, does one of these, this will be a revolution in the world!"
A revolution. That's not, I think, just rhetorical hyperbole. While on the surface works of mercy are as antipathetic as sincere compliments, sunny days, and Secret Santas giving $100 bills to homeless people, when we examine them more deeply, and seek genuinely to live them, we see that they contradict various modern habits that, while popular and rationalized, are actually cruel. In calling for a revolution of mercy, Pope Francis is trying to help turn the world right side up.
Let's see how.
The corporal works of mercy are taken basically from Jesus' words in St. Matthew's Gospel about the Last Judgment: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me" (Mt 25:34-36), with one more added -- burying the dead -- taken from the Book of Tobit.
Thanks be to God many fulfill these bodily works of compassion for those in need. But we also need to name and redemptively shame those who make excuses to do the opposite. There are sadly many who are hungry and thirsty who, when they ask for nourishment, are stiffed and told to get a job. When they are strangers, their status is checked and if they don't have the proper documentation, many are treated as criminal aliens -- as if they were villainous extraterrestrials -- and evicted from our hospitality. When they are naked, millions of observers lustfully click on their images on porn sites. When they are sick, they're left to fend for themselves because they don't have adequate or any health care. When they're in prison, others stand outside with bullhorns calling for them to be executed or never given a chance for parole.
At the end of time whether Jesus will say either, "Whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers and sisters you did for me," or, "Whatever you did not do for one of the least, you did not do for me." Which of the two he will say more frequently is an open question.
We can give particular attention to burying the dead. We now live in an age of cremation in which people are scattering the mortal remains of their loved ones from airplanes, beaches or boats, or converting the remains into jewelry, or putting them on fireplace mantles as if they were vases of flowers. Worse, there is the growing phenomenon of alkaline hydrolysis, now legal in 13 states, where human remains are dissolved by lye, water, heat and pressure and then emptied into the sewer system or poured out in the backyard. Far from being a work of mercy, both treat the remains of human beings the way we treat garbage and flat soda. It's far from a work of mercy for those who have gone before us.
The spiritual works of mercy are similarly revolutionary. Taken from Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, Maccabees and St. Paul, they involve instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing patiently those who wrong us, forgiving offenses, consoling the afflicted, praying for the living and the dead.
While many beautifully carry out these works, many others in our culture believe these actions are not acts of mercy, but rather acts of malice.
Some regard teaching the faith to those who are unaware as a hostile act against their freedom. Counseling people about their confused sexual identity, others think ought to be illegal. Admonishing sinners they think is rude, tantamount to judging, and failing to love people as they are. Bearing patiently those who wrong us and forgiving their sins some consider acts of weakness that enable one's further victimization. Consoling the afflicted is something that some believe fans the flames of others' emotions rather than helping them to grow stronger. And praying for the living and the dead presumes that not everyone necessarily goes to heaven and that prayer is consequential.
The corporal and spiritual works of mercy were once not controversial, but in many ways today they are, both because there are many counterfeit mercies not to mention the growing thought that mercy is a weakness rather than a virtue. That's why there's a need for a moral revolution. And Francis is asking us to become, with him, merciful rebels.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.