While the corporal works of mercy often involve meeting the physical needs of others, the spiritual works of mercy are often a question of sharing the difficulties that life drops on others. When I was a campus chaplain at LSU we, students and some adult parishioners of Christ the King Church on the campus, used to prepare meals for one of the two St. Vincent de Paul shelters for men in Baton Rouge. We always ate with the homeless men the meal we had prepared. It was a wonderful way for the students and adults not only to follow Jesus’ example and feed the hungry, a corporal work of mercy, but also to hear the men’s stories and to support their struggle to get back on their own feet. A famous Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, wrote that “The first duty of love is to listen.” Listening is often a spiritual work of mercy.

Listening to the stories of those afflicted with homelessness was a comfort to them. “I wasn’t always like this …,” and then their story came out. It was a comfort to the homeless men to have someone listen. Their feeling of being lost, invisible, nobodies was lightened. At the same time, some of the fear and misconceptions of the volunteers were overcome.

A story appeared in “Christopher News Notes” that exemplified this. “Today Catherine Kirwan-Avila works as a service coordinator at Pathways to Housing, an organization serving chronically homeless people with mental illness in Philadelphia. There she interacts with individuals who, not too long ago, she might have passed by on the street without a second glance. ‘I had been seeing them as not quite fully human,’ she said. ‘I realized that was not a good thing, and the only way that was going to be broken down was to get to know people better.’ She chose her current job in part as a way to dispel some of the fears and misconceptions she held about the homeless. ‘I knew I had some work to do to see these individuals as brothers and sisters.’ Recently, Catherine went to a store with a client. The man behind the counter asked if the client was her father. She replied: ‘No, a friend.’ But at that moment she realized: He could be. Her client’s struggles could just as easily have been her father’s or a friend’s. Now, Catherine strives to look at the men and women she serves in the way she imagines God looks at them. ‘That’s why we pray,’ she says. ‘We have to cultivate that.'”

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To pray for and with others who are afflicted is a tremendous comfort to them, and sometimes it seems to work miracles. About a year and a half ago I received a call from the husband of a professor at LSU who had been a tremendous help to the parish community there. She cooked for the students during exam week, she helped with daily Masses, and each year she would sew the costumes for the students’ passion play during Lent. And while doing all this, she always had time to stop and explain complicated physics problems to students struggling with a course they found difficult.

On the other end of the phone her husband said, “Cathy is in the Baton Rouge General Hospital. She has been diagnosed with terminal, inoperable cancer.” I anointed her and, with her three or four sisters and a brother, we prayed. I think she received chemo, but she lost a lot of weight and ended finally in hospice at Ollie Steele Burden. The day came when the doctor told her she would die within 24 hours. Again we prayed with her – she was sitting up in bed perfectly lucid, and peaceful, just waiting. We continued to pray, even though it seemed futile. But God never gives up, even when we sometimes do. This went on for a few days. The doctors just shook their heads. Finally, they sent her home. The cancer had gone into remission.

In the following year she continued to recover and took walks with her husband around their neighborhood. Then the cancer returned, and she died quickly and peacefully. During that time in hospice, Cathy wrote her own funeral homily. She gave me written instructions to read it S-L-O-W-L-Y. One doesn’t argue with persons who were supposed to be dead. God has a plan for each of us, some of which we cannot fathom until life is over. And even then, those left behind may still wonder. But I am certain that if anyone deserved an extra year, it was her.

Participating in twelve-step programs with addicts is another way that we can comfort the afflicted. Of course, for family members who have been hurt by the addict’s addiction, Al-Anon programs can also heal them and teach them how to cope while properly supporting the addict in his or her recovery. But their support is vital and necessary for the addict’s recovery. It is a spiritual work of mercy.

Bringing a person who is emotionally and spiritually hurting to a retreat at a place like Manresa can be a tremendous way to comfort the afflicted. The prayers and company of so many others taking time to seek healing for their souls often is a great help. Difficult times endured with the support of others are made more bearable through their love and concern.

Suffering makes anyone feel alone and hopeless. It is a spiritual act of mercy to lend to the suffering our hope while theirs is under siege.

“Hope is more than a word – it’s a state of being. It’s a firm belief that even if you don’t know how, even if you don’t know when, God will come through and better days are ahead. Life brings rain. Hope dances in the puddles until the sun comes out again.”

Holley Gerth

Father Carville  is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.

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Spiritual Works of Mercy
• To instruct the ignorant
• To counsel the doubtful
• To admonish sinners
• To bear wrongs patiently
• To forgive offenses willingly
• To comfort the afflicted
• To pray for the living and the dead