Where spiritual works of mercy include forgiveness, corporal works include feeding the hungry. CNS photo/Romeo Ranoco, Reuters

Works of mercy rooted in human dignity

  • February 23, 2013

The Work of Mercy: Being the Hands and Heart of Christ by Mark P. Shea (Servant Books, an imprint of St. Anthony Messenger Press, 144 pages, $14.99).

American Catholic author Mark P. Shea delves into the topic of spiritual and corporal works of mercy without presenting new theology. Instead, his book offers a modern, and refreshing, update.

A popular Catholic author and blogger, Shea is not afraid to tackle and invite further discussion on hot-button issues like the case against “enhanced interrogation” and torture (admonishing the sinner), abortion and euthanasia (comforting the afflicted), and illegal immigration (harbouring the harbourless). The book’s strength is its easy-to-understand, non-preachy prose that introduces each work of mercy and weaves them succinctly yet gracefully together as part of a larger narrative, namely God’s divine plan of salvation.

We are left with a humbling and beautiful image: The work of mercy is God’s love come full circle.

Shea updates us on spiritual and corporal works of mercy. The corporal works are defined in Catholic teaching as charitable actions by which we aid our neighbours in their spiritual and bodily necessities — feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harbouring the harbourless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captive and burying the dead. Spiritual works on the other hand refer to instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful, admonishing the sinner, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offences willingly, comforting the afflicted and praying for the living and the dead.

In his latest book, Shea — who converted to Catholicism in 1987 — introduces and explains each work of mercy through the lens of Scripture, Catholic teaching and tradition, and present-day examples “in order to see how to incarnate our faith in works of love for God and neighbour.”

He has two main arguments: First, all works of mercy are rooted in love and the concept of human dignity. Second, the practise of these good works is part of God’s divine plan of salvation.

But the book is neither triumphalist nor academic. Rather, it reads as an engaging and spirited defence of Christian faith in the public sphere against the “new atheism” movement and its aim to stamp out Christianity’s public voice and role. Shea sees the danger. He says this could lead to dehumanizing our world, the opposite of the humanizing impact of works of mercy.

Throughout the book, Shea makes a convincing case about the relevance of works of mercy by applying them to the modern context. He says the debate in cyberspace between liberals and conservatives can descend into vilification of people, especially when confronting a person about a wrongful act is done without love and respect for human dignity, both essential to the works of mercy. The objective, he explains, is not to humiliate, but to remind others of God’s love, forgiveness and mercy.

There are nuggets of information and wisdom here. However, one weakness is in his suggested list of organizations that are categorized according to each of the works of mercy. The list is not very extensive and provides insufficient detail about each group’s core values and work.

It’s left to the reader to do that extensive research to ensure an organization’s projects are worthy of support.

Because that’s really the point of the book — to not just introduce the theory behind the works of mercy but to show us that the practise of each is up to us.

Given the challenge of fulfilling the works of mercy, Shea reminds us that we are not alone. We have God and the sacraments, especially the Mass, from which to draw strength and inspiration.

“When we receive the Eucharist and are sent as living tabernacles into the world,” Shea writes, “we bear nothing less than the hope of heaven to every sufferer.”

(Nonato is a freelance writer in Toronto.)


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