Before the Cross | Seven spiritual works of mercy — practical ways to help others

Before the Cross - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's Column

Lisa Johnston

For the next several weeks, I'll be writing about the spiritual works of mercy. Mercy is a virtue that compels us to alleviate the suffering of another. God's mercy is abundant and everlasting. His compassionate love creates us from nothing, heals our wounds (physical and spiritual) and overcomes death — restoring us to life in Christ.

Earlier this year I wrote about the seven corporal works of mercy. We call these corporal works of mercy because they concern humanity's most basic needs: to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked and shelter the homeless, to visit the sick and imprisoned and to bury the dead. We call them works of mercy because they reveal God's love and compassion for all His children, especially those who are most in need of His assistance.

The Church teaches that there are also seven spiritual works of mercy. These are no less concrete ways in which we can practice charity to others and thus bring about tremendous good in the world. We call them spiritual works because they address fundamental needs of the human spirit: understanding and belief, forgiveness and conversion, comfort for our physical and emotional pain, and reverent care for those who have died.

The first spiritual work of mercy is to instruct the ignorant. We are all ignorant to some extent. There is so much we don't know about the wonders of God's creation, about the history of our salvation and the richness of our Catholic faith. It really is a work of mercy when someone takes the time to help us grow in knowledge, wisdom and understanding. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we have received a mandate to "go out into the whole world and proclaim the good news" (Matthew 16:15). When we help others expand, and deepen, their understanding of the meaning of the world and our place in it, we extend God's mercy to others, and we receive back much more than we give!

The second spiritual work of mercy is to counsel the doubtful. Many Catholics suffer doubts about their faith. When we encounter those who are unsure of their faith, we must affirm them in it and help them grow. Everyone's faith is tested at one time or another. In fact, our faith must be tested so that it can grow strong. During times of doubt or anxiety, it's important to have the strong support of family members and friends who stand firm in the faith and who can share their conviction with those who may be unsettled. In the end, Jesus Himself is the source of strength. Because He is always faithful, we can keep the faith. Because He never wavers in His love for us, we can stand firm in our love for Him.

When we "instruct the ignorant" and "counsel the doubtful" we share Christ's mercy with others. But we also receive it back a hundredfold so that the Lord's mercy can fill our souls with His divine life.

A spiritual work of mercy can be very concrete and practical. If we help someone understand why all human life is sacred, we help prevent violence and inhumanity. When we counsel someone who is uncertain about the freedom that comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we affirm the beauty and truth of Christian discipleship. We help make it possible for someone who is "on the fence" to become fully engaged in the life of the Church.

Spiritual works of mercy are necessary activities for ordinary Christians who aspire to be holy. When we perform these acts of charity, we build up the Body of Christ first of all by growing in holiness ourselves and, secondly, by assisting our sisters and brothers in their efforts to live authentic spiritual lives.

So let's not hesitate to instruct the ignorant or counsel those who are in doubt. What we have to share — our understanding of the truth and our confidence in God's presence in our world — can be life-changing for those who need it most.

Here in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, we have a nearly 200-year tradition of Catholic education. Our focus on Catholic identity in our schools and PSR programs is an indication of how strongly we value education and faith formation as means of carrying out these first two spiritual works of mercy.

Sustaining this tradition requires many sacrifices — on the part of parents, parish and school leaders, and the Catholic community as a whole. Let not our hearts be troubled as we seek to carry out the Lord's command to proclaim His good news through all the earth!

Archbishop's Calendar


Here is the weekly schedule for Archbishop Robert J. Carlson:

Thursday-Wednesday, July 14-20

Visit Messengers of Peace apostolate in Colombia

Friday, July 15

Attend ordination of Juan Ignacio for Messengers of Peace, Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Chiquinquirá, Colombia.

Thursday, July 21

2 p.m. Meeting with Ministry Team Leaders, Cardinal Rigali Center

Friday, July 22

8:45 a.m. Ignatian Spirituality Conference, St. Louis University, Midtown

10 a.m.-3 p.m. Weekly meeting with priests of the archdiocese, Archbishop’s Residence, Central West End





Archbishop Robert J. Carlson has made the following appointments:

Rev. Msgr. James M. Mitulski, pastor of St. Norbert Parish in Florissant, is appointed dean of Northeast County Deanery, effective July 1, 2011.

Rev. Msgr. Michael E. Turek, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in South St. Louis, is reappointed Dean of the South City Deanery, effective June 17, 2011.

Rev. Msgr. Timothy P. Cronin, rector of Cardinal Glennon College Seminary in Shrewsbury, is appointed pastor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Crestwood, effective July 1, 2011.

Rev. Joachim Culotta, OP, J.C.D., judge of the Court of Second Instance for the Province of St. Louis, is appointed judicial vicar of the Court of Second Instance for the Province of St. Louis, effective Aug. 1, 2011.

Rev. Michael Haney, OFM, is appointed temporary parochial administrator of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in St. Louis, effective July 25, 2011.

Rev. Msgr. Richard E. Hanneke, in addition to being director of the Office of Priests’ Personnel, is appointed temporary parochial administrator of St. Cecilia Parish in St. Louis, effective June 30, 2011.

Rev. Milton F. Ryan, CM, associate pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Perryville, is appointed pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Perryville, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Silver Lake and administrator of St. Joseph in Highland and St. James in Crosstown, effective July 1, 2011.

Rev. William F. Vatterott, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in St. Louis, on administrative leave, effective June 29, 2011.

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