The Works of Mercy

The Works of Mercy are an abiding norm for the Catholic Worker Movement. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin lived lives of “active love” built on these precepts.


The Works of Mercy” ©Jen Norton. Used with permission.

“The Catholic Worker believes in the daily practice of the Works of Mercy,” Peter Maurin said. And Dorothy Day said the Works of Mercy are the “program” of the Catholic Worker.

So what are the Works of Mercy? Drawn from the Scriptures, especially the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the Works of Mercy are two sets of seven charitable actions by which we aid our neighbor in their bodily and spiritual needs. These are:

The Corporal Works of Mercy

  1. Feed the hungry
  2. Give drink to the thirsty
  3. Give alms to the poor*
  4. Shelter the homeless**
  5. Caring for the sick
  6. Visit the imprisoned
  7. Bury the dead

The Spiritual Works of Mercy

  1. Counsel the doubtful
  2. Instruct the ignorant
  3. Admonish the sinner
  4. Comfort the sorrowful
  5. Forgive injuries
  6. Bear wrongs patiently
  7. Pray for the living and the dead

*Traditionally, “Clothe the naked”
** Or “Welcome the stranger”
Adapted from the USCCB: “Corporeal Works of Mercy” “Spiritual Works of Mercy

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin on the Works of Mercy

When asked what is the program of THE CATHOLIC WORKER by those who are interested in political action, legislation, lobbying, class war, we reply–It is the program set forth by Christ in the Gospels. The Catholic Manifesto is The Sermon on the Mount. And when we bring THE CATHOLIC WORKER into the streets and public squares, and when we picket the Mexican consulate, it is to practice the spiritual works of mercy–to instruct the ignorant and to comfort the afflicted.

–Dorothy Day, “Mid-Winter,” January 1935

Scripture tells us that the picture of judgment presented to us by Jesus is of Dives sitting and feasting with his friends while Lazarus sat hungry at the gate, the dogs, the scavengers of the East, licking his sores. We are the Dives. Woe to the rich! We are the rich. The works of mercy are the opposite of the works of war, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, nursing the sick, visiting the prisoner. But we are destroying crops, setting fire to entire villages and to the people in them. We are not performing the works of mercy but the works of war. We cannot repeat this enough.

–Dorothy Day, “In Peace Is My Bitterness Most Bitter,” January 1967

1. God wants us
to be our brother’s keeper.

2. To feed the hungry,
to clothe the naked,
to shelter the homeless,
to instruct the ignorant,
at a personal sacrifice,
is what God
wants us to do.

3. What we give to the poor
for Christ’s sake
is what we carry with us
when we die.

4. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau says:
“When man dies
he clutches
in his hands
only that which
he has given away.”

Peter Maurin, “Share Your Wealth”

Certainly without poverty, without an acceptance of poverty, and by that I mean decent poverty, with sufficient food, shelter and clothing, we cannot get out of the morass we are in. Certainly too, we can do nothing without the works of mercy,–an expression of our love for our neighbor to show our love for our God.

So we come back again to Peter Maurin’s fundamental ideas. “Reach the people through voluntary poverty (going without the luxuries in order to have the essentials) and through the works of mercy (mutual aid and a philosophy of labor).”

–Dorothy Day, House of Hospitality, Conclusion

Pope Francis’s Catechesis on the Works of Mercy

I am convinced that, through these simple, daily actions, we can achieve a true cultural revolution, like there was in the past. If every one of us, every day, does one of these, this will be a revolution in the world!

Pope Francis

In 2016, Pope Francis gave a series of talks at his Wednesday General Audience on the Corporeal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. Following are links to those talks:

The Corporeal and Spiritual Works of Mercy

Feed the Hungry, Give Drink to the Thirsty

Works of Welcoming the Stranger and Clothing the Naked

To Visit the Sick and Imprisoned

Bearing Wrongs Patiently

To Council and to Instruct

Pray to God for the Living and the Dead

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