How the Corporal Works of Mercy ‘Work’

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A guide to caring the Knights of Columbus way

By Jason Godin

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One of the challenges of being Catholic is holding on to the meaning of a word even when it has changed in popular usage. Elsewhere we talk about the how words like love and charity have been diminished. Similarly, the word “mercy” has been softened in common parlance to mean letting someone off the hook or expecting so little from others that few could fail.

To talk of mercy in terms of works seems odd to the modern ear.

Yet that is exactly what we Catholics do. Works of mercy are “charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2447). The bodily kind are called the corporal works of mercy. They consist in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead.

If we’re truly to love our neighbor as ourselves, particularly as husbands and fathers in families of faith, corporal works of mercy should guide our daily actions. “Love, after all, can never be an abstraction,” Pope Francis wrote at the beginning of the Year of Mercy. “By its very nature,” mercy “indicates something concrete: intentions, attitudes, and behaviors that are shown in daily living.”

The corporal works are listed here with an example of how the Knights of Columbus can help you carry them out.

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. A popular Knights’ program is Food for Families, in which councils donate canned food and bottled water to local pantries, especially around Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, to provide the needy a decent meal.

Clothe the naked. In the Coats for Kids program, Knights purchase new winter coats and host a distribution event at a local school where kids pick out their size and wear the coat home.

Shelter the homeless. For many years, Knights have partnered with Habitat for Humanity to build new homes for needy families, who provide sweat equity in the project.

Visit the sick. Knights of Columbus Fourth Degree members, dedicated to patriotism, spend thousands of hours each year visiting veterans facilities as part of the Serving Those Who Served program, in cooperation with the Veterans Administration Volunteer Services.

Ransom the captive (Visit the imprisoned). Knights’ concern for the incarcerated began with the Order’s founder, Father Michael J. McGivney, who visited a prisoner on death row and brought him back to the faith. Today, Knights have donated millions of dollars to provide food and shelter for persecuted Christians in the Middle East who are victims of ISIS.

Bury the dead. Father McGivney founded the Knights as a fraternal society providing a death benefit to widows of members. Today, Knights of Columbus offers financial protection to families through a modern, highly rated insurance program.

By practicing the corporal works of mercy, we see Christ in others and serve them as we would him. In the process, both the one who practices mercy and the one who receives it are blessed.

About the Author
Jason Godin is a member of Chaska (Minnesota) Council 9141.

Action Points

  1. Have the corporal works of mercy had an impact on your life, either by performing them or being the beneficiary of someone else’s merciful acts?
  2. Think of ways you can perform each work in the course of a week or month. Use the Knights of Columbus program listed, or think of other ways that fit into your routine.
  3. The word “mercy” can be misused, such as in the phrase “mercy killing,” which is taking someone’s life in order to end pain or suffering. What are some other ways “mercy” is misapplied?