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Corporal Works of Mercy: Let the saints be your guide

  • EMILY STIMPSON

Mercy isn't just an idea. It's an action. It's a virtue.


poorfeedingIt's something meant to be lived, every day, by all who call Jesus Christ "the Son of God."

Jesus himself made that clear in Matthew 25 when he promised eternal life to those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.

"Truly, I say to you," Jesus said, "as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40).

And for those who don't demonstrate mercy in action? Jesus warned that he would say, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels."

In his papal bull calling for a Jubilee of Mercy, Misericordiae Vultus ("The Face of Mercy"), Pope Francis likewise stressed the importance of using this year as an occasion for renewing our commitment to performing corporal works of mercy.

"We cannot escape the Lord's words to us, and they will serve as the criteria upon which we will be judged," Francis wrote (No. 15).

The call is clear.  But, how, in the midst of hectic lives, do we answer it?

The saints show us the way.

Through 20 long centuries, holy men and women have demonstrated the transforming power of mercy in action.  By looking at their lives, we can draw inspiration and wisdom for our own.

Welcoming the stranger

St. Benedict of Nursia

St. Benedict, along with his sister, St. Scholastica, grew up in a home permeated by the Catholic Faith.  Then, Benedict went to finish his education in Rome.

There, surrounded by students who practiced vice as assiduously as he practiced virtue, Benedict became disillusioned by both the world and his chosen field of studies: rhetoric.  So, around the year 500, the young man fled the city to live a quieter life.  Conversation with a holy hermit soon convinced him to take an even quieter path, and Benedict established his own hermitage about 40 miles outside of Rome.

Reputation of his holiness quickly spread, though, and within a few years, a group of monks came calling, asking Benedict to serve as their abbot.  He reluctantly agreed, only to find himself, soon afterward, the victim of an attempted poisoning by the very monks who asked him to come live with them.

Once more, Benedict returned to a lonely hermit's hut.  And once more, others came and found him, establishing their own hermitages in the vicinity of his.  This time, however, problems arose when a local priest became jealous of Benedict's influence.  Under the guise of hospitality, the priest offered Benedict a loaf of poisoned bread.  This time, Benedict was spared by a raven, who swooped down and took the bread from him.

Eventually, Benedict founded his own great monastery, where he wrote instructions on religious life, collectively known as the Rule of St. Benedict, which would shape Western monastic life for the next 1,500 years and earn Benedict the title "Father of Western monasticism."

Not coincidentally, an important part of that rule was hospitality.  "Let everyone that comes be received as Christ," he instructed.  In practice, that meant all guests — the poor, the sick, the traveler and the curiosity seekers — were welcomed, fed, sheltered and loved ...  but never poisoned.

Giving drink to the thirsty

St. Peter Claver

In 1510, King Ferdinand of Spain authorized the shipment of 250 Africans to his territories in the New World.  It was the first large-scale shipment of African slaves and marked the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade.  Exactly 100 years later, St. Peter Claver arrived in the city of Cartagena (in modern day Columbia), where the slave trade flourished.

The son of a wealthy Catalonian farmer, Claver entered the Jesuits at the age of 20 in 1601.  Nine years later, with six years of formation still to go, he asked to serve in the Spanish missions.  His superiors consented, permitting him to complete his studies in South America.  Upon his arrival, Claver witnessed the grim plight of the Africans and vowed to dedicate his ministry to their care.

Claver based his ministry primarily in Cartagena, where large ships, densely packed with slaves, arrived regularly in the harbor.  The conditions of the slave ships were so horrific that an estimated one-third of the men and women aboard died in transit.  Knowing this, Claver didn't wait for the slavers to unload their cargo.  Instead, he boarded as soon as the ships docked, heading straight to the hold to give the Africans something to drink.  After they had been moved to the slave market, he continued to move among them, distributing brandy and bread.

As he cared for the slaves' bodily needs, Claver also cared for their spiritual needs.  With the help of a translator, he assured them of their dignity and told them of a God who loved them, baptizing all who asked for it.  Then, in the months when few ships arrived in the port, he traveled to the plantations, meeting with those he'd baptized, giving further instruction in the Faith and advocating for their humane treatment.  When he visited those plantations, he always insisted on staying in the slave quarters.

By the time of St. Peter Claver's death, in 1654, it is estimated that he baptized more than 300,000 slaves and quenched the thirst of countless more.

Healing the sick

St. Marianne Cope

The king of Hawaii, Kalakaua, was desperate.  For years, he'd been searching for a religious congregation that would help him establish a hospital for the men and women in his kingdom suffering from leprosy.  He'd written 50 different congregations, and every last one had said no.

Finally, in 1883, he wrote to Mother Marianne Cope, superior general of the Sisters of St. Francis in Syracuse, New York.

Born in Germany, Cope immigrated to the United States with her family when she was only 1.  Thirteen years later, due to her father's poor health, Cope left school and took on the responsibility of supporting her family.  For 10 years, she worked in a factory until the other children grew old enough to support themselves.  Then, in 1862, at age 24, she entered the Franciscans.

By the time King Kalakaua's letter arrived, Cope had served as both a teacher and principal in a school for German immigrants and opened the first two Catholic hospitals in Central New York.  She knew the risks that the sisters of her congregation would face if she accepted his invitation.  Yet, not only did Cope accept, she decided to go herself.

"I am hungry for the work, and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor islanders," she wrote to him.  "I am not afraid of any disease, hence it would be my greatest delight even to minister to the abandoned 'lepers.'"

In the years that followed, Cope founded two hospitals for lepers — one on Oahu and one on Maui.  Then, in 1888, she moved to the leper colony at Molokai.  In addition to caring for the women and girls in the settlement, Cope cared for St. Damian de Veuster during his last year of life.  After his death, she took charge of the male patients as well, spending six years running the settlement until a replacement for Father Damien could be found.

Cope, who never did contract leprosy, died on Molokai in 1918.  She was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

Feeding the hungry

St. Frances of Rome

St. Frances of Rome could have lived an easy life, full of food, parties and pleasure.  But she didn't want an easy life.  She wanted to serve Christ by serving the poor.

Born in 1384 to a wealthy Roman family, Frances married at age 12 into an equally wealthy Roman family: the Ponzianis.  Her husband, Lorenzo, was a good man — generous, kind and enamored by his bride.  Frances, however, was initially disappointed with him, as she would have been with any match.  She wanted to become a religious and found the social obligations of marriage almost unbearable.

Help soon came, though, through her sister-in-law, Vannozza, who also longed to live a life of service and prayer, and together the two devised a plan that allowed them to pursue spiritual disciplines while still carrying out family obligations.

Not long afterward, in the early 15th century, famine struck Rome.  With the help of her sister-in-law and the support of her husband, Frances ordered that no one who came to the Ponziani palace begging for food was to be turned away.

Corn and wine were distributed liberally until her father-in-law learned of her generosity.  He ordered Frances to stop.  She refused.  So, he sold off the family's extra corn and wine, keeping only what the family needed.  Frances continued feeding the poor just the same, emptying their corn loft rather than allow others to go hungry.

The loft never completely went empty, though, for on the very day Frances gave away the last kernels, the entire supply was miraculously replenished.  The same happened with the wine.  When the family cask ran dry, new wine mysteriously appeared in it, finer than the previous wine.

Frances would go on to form a small community of like-minded lay women committed to caring for the poor: the Oblates of Mary.  After her husband's death in 1436, Frances lived with the Oblates for four years, serving as their superior, until her own death in 1440.  She was canonized in 1608.

Burying the Dead

St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena did what no other woman of her generation — or most any generation — could do.  She negotiated peace between warring nation states, counseled Holy Fathers on matters great and small, and brought the more than 70-year residence of the popes in Avignon, France, to an end.

Born in 1347, the Dominican tertiary received mystical visions and countless human visitors.  The former helped her understand the depths of God's love and the misery of the damned.  The latter helped her practice patience, as she offered advice, prayers and spiritual counsel to an endless stream of visitors.  From her home in Siena, Italy, she spoke with so many troubled people that the Dominicans eventually designated three priests to do nothing but hear the confessions of the people who came to see Catherine.

Catherine's influence in 14th-century Italy was almost unparalleled.  And yet, for all her great and important work, she never shrunk from the most menial of tasks: caring for the sick, feeding the elderly and burying the dead.

The last task, she did when no one else would.  Following a terrible outbreak of the plague in Siena, Catherine moved among the sick unafraid.  Those she couldn't heal, she prepared for death and buried with her own hands, honoring their humanity to the very end.

It was her kindness to the dead and dying that finally stilled doubts about her sanctity and way of life.  Touched by her sacrificial kindness, even more visitors came calling at Catherine's door.

She died not many years later, at age 33, in 1380.  Eighty-one years later she was canonized.  Just over 600 years later, in 1970, Pope Paul VI declared St. Catherine of Siena a Doctor of the Church.

Visiting the imprisoned

St. Peter Nolasco

Very little is known about St. Peter Nolasco's early life.  Much, however, is known about the time and place in which he lived.

Most likely born in Languedoc, France, near the end of the 12th century, Nolasco grew up in a world besieged by border skirmishes between Christians and Muslims.  Kidnapping raids were regular occurrences in the coastal and border towns of France, Spain and Italy, with thousands of Christians each year captured and sold into slavery or held in captivity by their Muslim neighbors to the south.

As a boy, Nolasco would have been surrounded by people who experienced these raids.  And as a man, serving as tutor to James I of Arragon, he encountered numerous former (and present) captives.

In 1218, those encounters led Nolasco and St. Raymond of Penafort to found the Royal and Military Order of Our Lady of Mercy of the Redemption of the Captives (today's Mercedarians).  The order was committed to praying for Christian captives and ransoming them from their Muslim captors.  Its members — both priests and laymen — made four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and to sacrifice their life in order to save another person from losing their faith.

The order grew quickly, attracting numerous young noblemen who, like Nolasco, wanted to use their fortune to rescue the captives.  When their fortune wouldn't suffice, the men offered themselves in exchange for prisoners.

Although Nolasco remained a lay member of the order, he nevertheless served as its first superior general.  In that capacity, he traveled numerous times to Africa to negotiate for the release of captives.  Twice he offered himself in exchange for others, and once he was imprisoned.  He made good use of his time in jail, however, eventually converting hundreds of Muslims to Christianity and securing the release of hundreds of other Christian prisoners.

Before Nolasco's retirement in 1249 (and death seven years later), it's believed that he personally secured the release of nearly 3,000 captured Christians.  The order he founded rescued another 70,000.  Nolasco was canonized in 1628.

Clothing the naked

St. Martin of Tours

Christianity had just emerged from the catacombs when St. Martin of Tours was born in 316 in (or near) modern day Hungary.  Although many Roman citizens were converting to the Christian faith, that number did not include St. Martin's parents, who both held to the old pagan practices.  Yet, somehow, Martin came to believe, and at the age of 10, went knocking on the door of the local priest, asking to become a Christian.

The sacraments weren't quickly dispensed in the early days of the Church, so five years later, when Martin was conscripted into the army, he was still only a catechumen.  Martin didn't want to fight; he wanted to become a monk, but that didn't matter to the authorities.

They assigned him to a cavalry unit that protected the emperor, and he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming an officer stationed in Gaul (modern day France).

One winter's day, while on duty in Amiens, Martin noticed a beggar, standing near the city gates.  Visibly hungry and exhausted, the beggar's clothes were so threadbare that he was practically naked.  At that moment, Martin didn't hesitate.  He took off his warm cloak and, with his sword, cut it in two.  He then threw the better half around the beggar's shoulders, wrapping himself in what remained.

Later that night, Jesus, wearing the cloak Martin gave to the beggar, appeared to him in a dream.

"See!" Jesus said to the saints surrounding him.  "This is the mantle that Martin, yet a catechumen, gave me."

In the years that followed, Martin became a monk, than a bishop.  He combated Arians, healed the sick and even, it's said, raised the dead.  But history remembers him, first and foremost, for clothing Christ in the form of the naked beggar.

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Acknowledgement

foley Emily Stimpson. "Corporal Works of Mercy: Let the saints be your guide." OSV Newsweekly (The Catholic Answer) (January 31, 2016).

Reprinted with permission from Emily Stimpson. 

Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly: Bringing Your Catholic Faith to Life. Go here to subscribe.

The Author

stimpsonBurchsm1Emily Stimpson is a freelance Catholic writer based in Steubenville, Ohio. She is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, a blogger for CatholicVote.com, and a columnist for Lay Witness. Her books include  The American Catholic Almanac: A Daily Reader of Patriots, Saints, Rogues, and Ordinary People Who Changed the United States, co-authored with Brian Burch president of CatholicVote.org, a nonprofit political advocacy group based in Chicago, These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body, and The Catholic Girl's Survival Guide for the Single Years.

Copyright © 2016 Emily Stimpson
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