“The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities.” (CCC, No. 2447) Traditionally, there are listed seven spiritual and seven corporal works of mercy.
The seven spiritual works of mercy are: (1) to admonish the sinner, (2) to instruct the ignorant, (3) to counsel the doubtful, (4) to comfort the sorrowful, (5) to bear wrongs patiently, (6) to forgive injuries, and (6) to pray for the living and the dead.
The seven corporal works of mercy are: (1) to feed the hungry, (2) to give drink to the thirsty, (3) to shelter the homeless (to welcome the stranger), (4) to clothe the naked, (5) to visit the sick, (6) to visit the imprisoned, and (7) to bury the dead (cf. Mt 25:31-46).
These listings are not exhaustive, of course, but are addressed to what may be considered the most basic needs of the individual human person. Nor are the corporal and spiritual categories exclusive of each other.
Indeed, since our Lord enumerates only the corporal works of mercy (the first six of the above-listed) in His discourse on the Last Judgment, He probably intended them to embrace, as well, the spiritual good of people.
Thus, to feed the hungry could also refer to spiritual food: doctrine and sacraments. To give drink to the thirsty could also refer to man’s thirst for truth in general. To clothe the naked could mean protecting other people’s dignity or good reputation, “covering” their “nakedness”, as did the good sons of Noah (Gen 9:23). To shelter the homeless or welcome the stranger could mean bringing people into the Faith, into the Church. To visit the sick could also involve spiritual comfort for spiritual suffering. To visit the imprisoned could refer to the relief or liberation of those under spiritual enslavement (i.e., to sin, vice, sinful relationships, sadness, worry, etc.). To bury the dead could also refer to forgiving and forgetting injuries inflicted on us by others. In addition to these, the traditional listing of the seven spiritual works of mercy serves to highlight the greater importance of spiritual works.
While both spiritual and corporal works of mercy are necessary (because man is spiritual soul and material body), St. Thomas Aquinas points out that the spiritual works of mercy are more important, since spiritual things are more noble. (2 Faith Seeking Understanding, ed. by Fr. Charles Belmonte, p. 133)
Because of our wounded human nature (and the resulting disordered inclinations), we do have a tendency to be “materialistic”, i.e., to confine reality only to what can be perceived by the senses or to give excessive importance to material things. We need to correct this tendency in us and, as far as we can, among those whom we encounter, in our surroundings. “True development concerns the whole man. It is concerned with increasing each person’s ability to respond to his vocation and hence to God’s call.” (CCC, No. 2461)
It is the human spiritual soul (not the human material body) which has, by nature, an eternal destiny (the “resurrection of the body” is a supernatural phenomenon). Unlike matter, spiritual substances are not composed of parts that could disintegrate; hence what is spiritual is by nature indestructible. It is also the human spiritual soul, or our principal spiritual faculties—our intellect and free will—that should lead us to our ultimate end, our highest good, which is union with God—sanctity, holiness, perfection—in His eternal happiness. To help others in this spiritual movement, which means, conversely, “to spread the
On the other hand, since man is the union of spiritual soul and material body, fraternal charity requires due regard for the material good of others. In many instances, a minimum of material well-being would be needed for persons to turn to God.
The works of mercy should fulfill the commandment to love God above all else for His own sake and to love others as oneself for the love of God (cf. Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28). Love of God and love of neighbor—prefigured by the “two tablets” of stone given to Moses (Ex 31:18)—form the unity of the new law of charity.
Pope Benedict XVI reminds us: “The saints—consider the example of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta—constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord, and conversely this encounter acquired its realism and depth in their service to others. Love of God and love of neighbour are thus inseparable, they form a single commandment. But both live from the love of God who has loved us first.” (Deus Caritas Est, No. 18)