THE WORKS OF MERCY
Taken from THE CATECHISM EXPLAINED
Written by Fr. Francis Spirago; Edited by Fr. Richard Clarke, SJ
with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, New York, 1927
2. THE PRECEPT TO PERFORM WORKS OF MERCY
1. Christ has strictly enjoined upon us to assist our neighbor who is in need with our earthly goods; for He will only grant everlasting happiness to those who have helped their fellow-men who were in need.
At the Last Judgment Our Lord will, as He tells us, set some men on His right hand and others on His left. To those on His right He will say: "Come, ye blessed of My Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in, naked and you covered Me; sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me." Then shall the just answer Him, saying: "Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger, and ministered to Thee?" And Our Lord shall answer them: "Amen I say to you, as long as you did to one of these, My least brethren, you did it to Me." And to those on His left hand He shall say: "Depart from Me, you cursed, into everlasting fire! For I was hungry and you gave Me not to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me not to drink." Then they also shall answer Him in like manner as the just. And He shall answer them: "As long as you did it not to one of these least, neither did you do it to Me" (Matt. xxv. 31-46). The poor must win Heaven by patience, the rich by works of mercy. One gladly parts with the lesser for the sake of keeping the greater; one submits to have a foot or an arm amputated in order to save one's life. So must you give up the lesser, in order not to lose the greater, which is eternal felicity.
1. The rich are chiefly bound to assist the needy.
To whom much is given, of him much shall be required (Luke xii. 48). The rich ought of their abundance to supply the wants of the poor (2 Cor. viii. 14). They ought to sustain the poor, as the elm supports the vine. The elm is a stately tree, but it produces no fruit; the vine is a creeping plant, and unless it clings to something, its branches trail on the ground and its fruit is apt to be spoiled. But if it casts its tendrils round the elm and clings to its trunk, it will grow up and flourish. The rich man is like the elm; his wealth alone gives him no claim to an eternal reward, but by the help he renders to the poor he will purchase for himself everlasting treasures. But if the rich do not give willingly, they imperil their eternal salvation. Our Lord says: "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of Heaven" (Matt. xix. 24). The rich run risk of shipwreck, like a vessel that is too heavily freighted. They are reluctant to part with their money because they think the enjoyment of the present is real happiness; they mistake the shadow for the reality, and value the false more than the true. In the hour of death they will discover their sad mistake, as a bird resting upon a limed bough only finds that he is a captive when he attempts to flyaway. The rich man, when the moment comes for him to pass from time into eternity, will feel how bitter has been his deception, like one who awakens from a delightful dream to find his happiness a delusion (Ps. lxxv. 6). Therefore God has made the way to the attainment of riches a difficult and thorny path, as a farmer plants a quickset hedge round the field that he does not want trodden down.
2. Even the poor man can help his neighbor who is in need.
Tobias says: "If thou hast much, give abundantly; if thou hast little, take care to bestow willingly a little" (Tob. iv. 9). If any one gives a cup of cold water out of charity to his neighbor, provided that is all he can give, it will count for as much as when Zacheus the publican gave the half of his goods to the poor. The poor widow in the Temple gave more with her two mites, than all the rich who cast their gifts into the treasury (Luke xxi.). The widow of Sarephta gave Elias the last remainder of her oil (3 Kings xvii. 12).
3. He who has not helped his neighbor who is in need, will find no mercy with God.
St. James says: " Judgment without mercy to him that hath not done mercy" (Jas. ii. 13). The rich man was buried in Hell, because he gave no alms. "He that stoppeth his ear against the cry of the poor shall also cry and not be heard" (Prov. xxi. 13). He who refuses to relieve the necessitous defrauds them of their own. St. John Chrysostom says the rich man who is hard-hearted is no better than a thief, for he stores in his chests treasures that belong to others. He who keeps exclusively to himself the gifts Providence has bestowed on him, creates himself the murderer of those who perish from want. It is not enough to say we have never wronged the poor. By not giving alms we incur the penalty due to those who take from their neighbor that which is his.
2. The assistance we give to the needy, of whatever nature it may be, is an alms, or work of mercy.
These works are called works of mercy, because in performing them we are actuated by feelings of compassion or mercy.
3. The works of mercy are either spiritual or corporal, according as the necessities we relieve are spiritual or corporal.
The corporal wants of our neighbor are: Food, drink, clothing, shelter, liberty, health, or life. What can we do to supply him with these? His spiritual wants, the needs of the soul, are: The knowledge of the truth (for which instruction or counsel is required); a good will, through lack of which he offends God or his fellow-man (which calls for correction, patient endurance or forgiveness); a joyful spirit (in lack of which he needs consolation). If we can do little or nothing to succor and solace our neighbor, we must pray for him, that God may come to his aid.