What Might a Modern List of Spiritual Works Comprise?

What Might a Modern List of Spiritual Works Comprise? June 19, 2015

Caravaggio, Seven Works of Mercy/Public Domain
Caravaggio, Seven Works of Mercy/Public Domain

The whole issue of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy and evangelization is a thought provoking one.

There are traditionally 7 works under the two categories of corporal and spiritual. The list seems to have changed over time. For instance, earlier lists (like the one in the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia) talk about “ransom the captive” which a couple of medieval orders took very literally, having been founded to ransom Christians taken captive by Muslim pirates.

Our contemporary lists usually say “visit the imprisoned” but while that is certainly a work of charity, it isn’t quite the same as “ransom the captive”. So obviously, the list changes as the needs of the time in which Christians lived changed.

Traditional Corporal Works of Mercy

  • To feed the hungry.
  • To give drink to the thirsty.
  • To clothe the naked.
  • To Shelter the Homeless
  • To visit the sick.
  • To visit the imprisoned (ransom the imprisoned)
  • To bury the dead.

Just as the Corporal Works of Mercy are directed towards relieving corporeal suffering, the even more important aim of the Spiritual Works of Mercy is to relieve spiritual suffering. The latter works are traditionally:

  • To instruct the ignorant.
  • To counsel the doubtful.
  • To admonish sinners.
  • To bear wrongs patiently.
  • To forgive offenses willingly.
  • To comfort the afflicted.
  • To pray for the living and the dead

Traditionally, “Though generally enjoined upon all the faithful, often, in particular cases, a given individual will not be obligated or even competent to perform four of the seven spiritual works of mercy, namely: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, and comforting the afflicted. These works may require a definitely superior level of authority or knowledge or an extraordinary amount of tact. The other three works – bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses willingly, praying for the living and the dead – are considered to be an obligation of all faithful to practice unconditionally.”

Maybe that is one root of the culture of silence. The mass of Catholics were not educated and had never been educated and it required “competence” and a “definitely superior level of authority” to helpfully instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, admonish sinners, and comfort the afflicted. Only priests, religious, and the occasional noble man or woman was qualified.

Perhaps that is the root of the reaction I’ve seen several times that lay people who actively evangelize, who dare to ask people about their relationship with God, etc. are “pretending they are priests.”

No one envisioned universal education, the rise of a whole theology of lay mission and formation, the 24/7 social media, and 4 evangelizing Popes in a row!

Now we are all engaged and the theology of the laity developed in the 20th and 21st centuries to reflect the tremendous changes in our culture.

In light of the Church’s primary call to evangelization, what might the list of spiritual and corporal works of mercy look like now? What do you think should be on the list?

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