Lenten Series: The Works of Mercy Part IX--Closing Thoughts

One of the pillars of Lent is almsgiving (and by extension, almsdeeds). On the surface, almsgiving and almsdeeds mean only to give away money or goods to those in need. However, almsdeeds go beyond this: they are the works of mercy. I will be posting about the works of mercy each week during Lent, pairing one spiritual work of mercy with one corporal work of mercy and then offering my thoughts on the pair. I will bookcase these reflection with a short introductory essay about the nature of mercy, and a final essay considering some practical thoughts. Here is part IX, which discusses some final thoughts on the works of mercy.

There is a certaininterconnectedness between the works of mercy. For example, if we intend to admonish sinners, we must be also prepared to instruct the ignorant (many sinners "know not what they do"), and equally prepared to bear wrongs patiently (many people lack the good graces to accept just admonishments with docility). Likewise, if we harbor the harborless in the sense of sheltering a refugee, we should be prepared to provide him with food and drink at the least.

Many of these works of mercy are also acts which are necessary to the proper care of children. Parents enact daily the tasks of feeding hungry children and quenching their first; of sheltering them and clothing them, and of caring for them when they are sick. Similarly, parents are the primary educators of their children (instructing the ignorant), and the primary disciplinarians (admonishing the sinner), and the primary guardians in the faith (counseling the doubtful). And what parent hasn't had to gently correct their child's ill behavior towards themselves and others (bear wrongs patiently; forgive offenses willingly) in the process?

On the other hand, there is the other end of life. Those who have taken care of an elderly parent or grandparent well know that all of these works of mercy are in play again, along with the last two (burying the dead, and praying for them both before and after death).

Another thought: many of the corporal works of mercy can be summarized by saying "provide for each others' material needs." Food, drink, clothing, and shelter all certainly fall under "material needs." It is tempting therefore to simply give money to those in needs, since money can then be used to buy these things. However, that is not always the best option. For one thing, the donation of money is less personal, and for another it will not always be used wisely. There are many people who put on the guise of beggars today who do not want food, clothing, or shelter.

One way around the second difficulty, at least, is to donate money to an organization like the Saint Vincent de Paul Society or the local food pantry. These organizations often tend to put at least some effort into ensuring tha thte money is used to provide for needs and not frivolities—or vices. Better still would be to volunteer time to either, since it adds again a sense of personal involvement, through which sympathy and then charity can develop. It is best to spend time investigating and discerning whether the organization is really good or not, since a lot of "charitable" organizations will support uncharitable (and flat out evil) things like abortion or contraception.

These are especially bad difficulties when the organization works internationally in "poor" and "undeveloped" countries; and on the other hand are easier to monitor on a local level. Organizations like UNICEF and the Campaign for Human Developement are problematic in this way. Here are a few that I would recommend instead:

  • The local chapter of Saint Vincent de Paul Society is generally good.
  • The local food pantry or soup kitchen, especially if it is parish-run; this would include the collection for "parish social ministries."
  • Little Sisters of the Poor
  • Peter's Clinic, which is working with soem Dominican Sisters to establish medical clinics to serve the poor in Vietnam.
  • Most Crisis Pregancy Centers, and almost any Crisis Maternity Home; beware that quite a few of these (especially the former) are Protestant-run and sometimes will be used to prosyletize for Protestantism--including targeting Catholics.
  • The Missionaries of Charity or virtually any other Catholic Order or Congregation dedicated to caring for the poor.
  • Any Catholic University or university center/Newman's Center/etc. which is well-known for its orthodoxy. You have to be careful here, since quite a few aren't.
  • Ditto for Catholic schools at primary and secondary level. Donate to the parish school.
    Donate directly to any seminarian or novice nun/sister/brother/monk to alleviate his student loan debts to allow him or her to enter the religious life. It should be noted that not all seminarians will go on to become priests, nor all women novices to become nuns.

It's best to research the specific purpose and "services rendered" by each of these charities, orders, congregations, or other organizations before donating. When donating to an organization, you can often earmark how the money is to be used.

By providing food, for example, we are given the ability to ensure that our provision is for a material need and not for frivolity. There is nothing wrong with (for example) a good pint of beer when in the company of friends or in good spirits; and I've noticed that one of the surest ways to brighten a beggar's day is to offer something unusual by way of food or drink. A homemade meal goes a long way here, but so do homemade goodies—and for that matter a special drink. I gave a panhandler a Dublin Dr Pepper (with real cane sugar), and his eyes lit up with joy. I was probably technically giving drink to the thirsty, but the act was also meant to give comfort to a man who might have been down in spirits [1].

A step further would be to combine these works of mercy: one might offer to share an entire meal with a beggar (or group of beggars). A meal consists in more than merely eating and drinking, but also in prayer, in conversation, in spending time together. It involves feedding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty—but can also involve instructing the ignorant or comfoting the afflicted or visiting the sick. Thus, to return to my first point in these observations, about the family, a family meal is in a sense a set of works of mercy. We are all to some extent sorrowing and lonely people in need of comfort, sick souls in need of visitation.

[1] This sort of straddles the line betweeen comforting the afflicted (or consoling the sorrowful) and perhaps counselling the doubtful: "A Dublin Dr Pepper! There is a God!"

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