How to practice the corporal works of mercy this Lent

12 mins read

“For 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me'” (Mt 25:35-40).

works of mercyFor the past two years, we have been stretched and pulled, worn thinner than ever before. The entire world has experienced a pandemic that none of us (except maybe the epidemiologists) expected. During Lents like the one we are living, it can be tempting to take the easy route, to check the boxes of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in a way that pinches the least. But I would argue that it is in times like these that we are called to dig deeper.

Men and women the world over are feeling isolated and alone; the poor and the marginalized are struggling even more than the rest of us. As Catholics we are obligated to help, but sometimes what to do and how to do it can be overwhelming.

The Church, in her wisdom, has answers: the corporal works of mercy — seven activities that help fulfill our neighbor’s bodily needs. We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the prisoner, visit the sick, give alms to the poor, shelter the homeless and bury the dead. Our world needs them more than ever. The first six come directly from Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew; the seventh is found in the Book of Tobit in the Old Testament and was added to the list by the Church in the Middle Ages.

It is no accident that each of the corporal works of mercy contains an action verb: visit, give, bury, shelter. All require us to do something very specific.

But they also ask something more of us, something that might be even more difficult: The corporal works of mercy challenge us to shift our perspective and release our previously held assumptions about the groups of people we are meant to be ministering to. None of the corporal works of mercy contain caveats. None of them say “except for ____” or “but not ____”. They are simple statements with no qualifications. We are asked by the Lord to treat these groups of people exactly as we would Christ himself, because in fact, that’s how he will view our actions. No ifs, ands or buts.

When I was a young missionary, I had the opportunity to spend a week in Mexico with a long term mission team. The mission house was well known in the area as the place to go when you needed help of any kind — material, spiritual, financial. Every time a person came to the door, we rushed to greet them, asked what their need was and attempted to meet it.

When I came home, I realized that I didn’t have that same generous disposition toward the poor I met here in the states. In Mexico, I had accepted all requests for help as genuine and made no judgments about those asking for help. At home, I found that I wondered what they had done to end up homeless, what mistakes they had made that caused their condition. I was, without thinking, assuming the worst about the man standing by the side of the highway, the woman with the sign at the gas station: “They have programs for people like that. Why doesn’t she go to a shelter?” “Why doesn’t he have a job? Maybe he’s just asking for money for drugs.”

While it’s important to exercise prudence and good judgment in all our interactions, I had fallen into the trap of the world’s narrative about the poor — to blame them for their condition. Christ, however, was calling me to more. He reminded me that I live in a fallen world, that men and women are not all dealt the same cards, and that it is not my place to judge others.

He alone knows hearts. He alone knows the fullness of someone’s circumstance. I cannot possibly see all of the ways that he may be moving in someone else’s life or all of the wheels he has set into motion for their salvation. None of that is my responsibility. But I am obligated to respond to the suffering of others in front of me, both with my prayers and my actions. The Baltimore Catechism puts it succinctly: “we are obliged to help the poor in all their forms of want” (Answer 820).

There are many ways to look at the corporal works of mercy. We can consider them in our local community and also in the context of the larger world. Today’s society is more interconnected than ever before, and yet, it is also easier than ever to be disengaged. With news and social media all carefully curated to our tastes, we can avoid coming face to face with issues and, more importantly, people, that might make us uncomfortable.

With the click of a button we can donate any amount to the cause of our choice, never having to lift more than a finger. While I am in no way dismissing the very real help that money can bring, as Catholics we are called to do more. We are called to engage.

It is not possible for most of us to complete all seven of the corporal works of mercy in every season of our lives. Perhaps you are in a season when you only commit to one or two. As you read through the explanations of each work of mercy, I would encourage you to ask yourself if God is calling you deeper or asking you to open your heart in a new way. Are you feeling the Spirit’s nudge in your heart toward a particular work of mercy? How will you respond to this obligation?

Introduction questions
  • Do any of these works of mercy make you uncomfortable? Why?
  • Do you have any unconscious judgments about the groups of people involved? Why?
  • What is God asking of you in this season of your life in regard to the corporal works of mercy?

Give alms to the poor

Giving alms has always been an important ministry to Christians. In the early Church, where the preferential love for the poor was universally acknowledged, communities made sure that all members had what they needed. Helping your neighbor was simply what was done.

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A difference between today’s almsgiving and that of previous generations is that we are so far removed from those we are giving to. Rarely do we even meet those our money is helping, much less have a relationship with them. We have lost a level of connection that in fact blesses the giver as much as the receiver. Knowing the poor as individuals — human beings made in the image and likeness of God, with names, personalities, gifts and talents — reminds us that they too have an inherent right to respect and dignity.

It’s not always possible or safe to engage with individuals we meet who are in need, but there are local organizations throughout the United States that are trying to bring back that sense of shared community. Short and long term missions are wonderful ways to build relationships with individuals who have very real physical and financial needs, as is getting involved with a local organization or religious order already serving the poor directly. Those in relationship with the poor will know where to give the alms you have to offer where they will do the most good.

What can we do?
  • If you aren’t already giving alms to the poor via a local, national or worldwide charity, do some research and consider where to give.
  • Is there an aid organization or religious order serving the poor in your area? Is there a way for you and your family to get involved?
  • Is God calling you on mission, either short or long term, locally or to a foreign country?

Feed the hungry

I think all of us know that we don’t make our best decisions when we are hungry. My family often uses the word “hangry,” which means a combination of hungry and angry. It’s a common emotional state in our home around 4:30 p.m., and it’s not pretty.

feed the poor

There are people for whom hungry is their baseline state of being. When I look at my children in their hangry moments, I am acutely aware of how hunger is not just a bodily experience. It has ramifications on all aspects of life. It’s no wonder that children living in poverty do worse in school than their wealthier counterparts; it’s hard to concentrate when your stomach is empty.

Inflation is growing, and that means that groceries are more expensive than ever. Just a year ago, I could buy a gallon of whole milk for my kids for $1.29 at the local grocery store. Currently the price is $3.49. Produce, whole grain products, healthy snacks and meat have all seen huge increases.

Those dollars add up when you have a tight budget. My family is one of the many that relied on the child tax credit to help us counteract that increase and stay in the black while keeping our kids’ bellies full and the bills paid. There is a lot of misinformation out there about how the food stamp program works and how families are using their child tax credit. Learning about them and finding ourselves in positions where we have needed them has opened our eyes tremendously to the importance of providing support for those without sufficient food.

What can we do?
  • Are you supporting legislation that helps feed families? Have you done research into what policy currently is? Can you call your congressmen and women?
  • Can you donate food to your local food bank (and not just the canned goods that have been sitting on your pantry shelves uneaten for months, but food your own family would enjoy eating)?
  • Can you volunteer at a soup kitchen and get to know those who are hungry as you serve them?
  • Can you make bags of shelf-stable, healthy snacks to give out to those you meet on the street?

Give drink to the thirsty

Without water we die. It’s that simple.

thirstyYet, billions of people throughout the world live without safe access to drinkable water. The World Health Organization defines “safe water” as not just safe to drink but safe to access. The bar is relatively low for this — a 30-minute round trip walk to reach water still qualifies as safe access.

Maybe you aren’t called to travel to a rural village in South America to dig a well or lay pipes for indoor plumbing, but even here in the United States, where indoor plumbing is the norm, there is much to be done. The American Community Survey, completed from 2014-2018, found that just under 500,000 families do not have continuous access to potable water, meaning they do not have functioning hot and cold faucets, a sink and a toilet in their home. Five hundred thousand families. And we are one of the most developed nations in the world.

What’s more, not all water access is equal. The Flint water crisis here in Michigan made the national news, but what didn’t make headlines was how many other cities throughout the country have unsafe water running through families’ pipes. If those families do not have the funds for filters or bottled water in addition to paying the water bills for water they cannot use, then they are left with a terrible choice to make: unsafe water or no water at all.

What can we do?
  • Can you read up on current legislation in your state or the federal government about water safety? Would you be willing to call or email your congressman to ask them to support upcoming legislation?
  • Can you donate water bottles to a local shelter?
  • Is there an organization in your area that is helping families pay water bills?
  • Is it possible to keep a few bottles of water in your car for the homeless you drive past?

Visit the prisoner

prisonerArguably the most challenging of the corporal works of mercy, visiting the prisoner is one that Pope Francis models for us in his own ministry. His focus on the humanity and dignity of prisoners witnesses to us their inherent worth, despite any and all crimes they have committed, and reminds us that God does not give up anyone.

Here in the United States, we have a complicated system of federal and state prisons as well as state and local jails, juvenile detention facilities and immigration detention centers. All told, there are over 2.3 million people incarcerated currently in our country. Each population is different and has different needs, both spiritual and physical. Many of them are left unmet. Prison ministry is one that not everyone is called to, but that more of us should support.

What can we do?
  • Pray about getting involved in prison ministry in your location. Ask the Lord how you can personally help the incarcerated in your area remember that they are not forgotten. The Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition offers a wide range of opportunities to get involved.
  • Can you help those who are already ministering to the prisoners? Are there material goods that would make their ministry more successful or allow them to reach more people?

Visit the sick

As a teenager I developed a chronic illness that has been with me ever since. Over the course of the years battling this illness, the most overwhelming emotion I have experienced has not been anger or frustration, but loneliness. It’s amazing how quickly illness can isolate you, make you feel forgotten and alone, a burden instead of a blessing to your community.

When we visit the sick we tell them that they are worthy of our time, our attention and our love, that they are valued for who they are instead of what they can do. What a powerful witness to the sanctity of life that is!

What can we do?
  • Can you schedule time to visit the sick within your own family or community? What about offering to bring a meal or pick up groceries?
  • Consider becoming a Eucharistic minister who brings Christ to the sick.
  • If you cannot visit in person, can you give them a video or phone call?
  • Never estimate the power of a letter or card in the mail to a loved one who is ill.

Bury the dead

We all deserve dignity, even in death. Human beings, created in the image and likeness of God should be mourned, given a proper burial and prayed for, whether at the graveside or by Masses said for the repose of the soul of the dead.

graveyardAttending funerals of loved ones and friends of loved ones has always been a way that many of us fulfill this corporal work of mercy. It gives comfort to those mourning loss and shows respect for the deceased.

But what about those with no one to mourn them? What about the homeless who die on the streets? The forgotten John and Jane Does that are in every city? So many people in our very interconnected world die nameless.

Many cities have an ordinance in place whereby they will hold a body for 30 days in the hopes that it is claimed by the next of kin. But at the end of those 30 days, the body will be cremated and buried in a public plot, often without any memorial or headstone. They too deserve to be remembered.

What can we do?
  • Make time to attend the calling hours or funerals of loved ones and loved ones of friends and family. Remember the deceased and their families in your prayers and with your presence.
  • Find out where the homeless and those without a next of kin are buried in your area. Are the times for those funerals publicly available? Can you attend?
  • If not, can you visit the gravesites of those with no one to mourn them and offer your prayers for the repose of their souls?

Shelter the homeless


Shelter is a basic human need. As a species we lack many of the adaptations of the animals around us to allow us to survive the extremes of our environments. Yet thousands live without a roof over their heads for a myriad of reasons. Poverty, geo-political crises, war, famine, unforeseen emergencies, natural disasters, abuse — all of these can lead to someone becoming homeless. Working to provide men, women and families with safe places to live is a noble endeavor.

Another translation for this work of mercy is to “harbor the harborless.” I love that phrasing because this corporal work of mercy isn’t just about providing physical shelter. Sometimes we get so used to the word “homeless” as describing those with nowhere to live that we forget that it also means they lack a home, a place where they belong, feel secure, a place where they are accepted and loved. When we minister to those who are homeless, we need to also remember that component as well.

What can we do?
  • Have you researched what’s being done in your area to combat homelessness?
  • Can you volunteer at a local homeless shelter?
  • Does your area have a refugee population? Can you volunteer to help get them settled in their new home?
  • Do you have a skill set that might be helpful for those starting over? Can you volunteer time or talent to a local organization or religious order that is working with the homeless?

Faith without works

The corporal works of mercy are essential to our own salvation. They emphasize the real presence of Christ in the needy and marginalized. According to St. James, faith without works is dead. In fact, his words leave us with very little wiggle room and are a fitting conclusion to any discussion of the corporal works of mercy:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” (Jas 2:14-16).

Colleen Pressprich is the author of “Marian Consecration for Families with Young Children” (OSV, $18.95). She writes from Michigan.

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Colleen Pressprich

Colleen Pressprich is the author of "The Jesse Tree for Families" (OSV, $24.95) and “Marian Consecration for Families with Young Children” (OSV, $18.95). She writes from Michigan.