The works of mercy are fourteen practices to extend mercy to our neighbor. Seven of these are for corporal needs, and seven are for spiritual needs. These are particularly relevant in this Jubilee Year of Mercy as called by Pope Francis. He wants to emphasize God's great mercy and how that mercy is given to each one of us. He also wants to emphasize that each person has a responsibility to be merciful to their brother and sister. Through these fourteen works of corporal and spiritual mercy, a person can extend the mercy of God to others. Through their lives, they can be conduits of God's mercy. God's mercy is important to keep in mind so that we don't get too discouraged whenever we sin. We should not presume on God's mercy, and feel free to sin whenever we want to. We should try to avoid sin and live a virtuous life. However, we should also not be discouraged if we do sin. God is a just God, but He is also merciful, and He will forgive our sins if we are truly sorry for them and sincerely want to improve our lives. He also uses people to bring news and hope of His endless to other people, to encourage them to seek His mercy and forgiveness.
Corporal Works of Mercy
These are seven actions which can be undertaken to bring mercy to our neighbor. They are concerned with the body and the basic necessities of life and human existence and community. Some of them are basic, and some require a little more sacrifice. However, they are all necessary and bring a portion of God's love and mercy to its recipient. It is also striking that six of these seven are found in Matthew chapter 25, in which Jesus names these acts and then proclaims that those who perform them will be saved. This does not seem to be an option; these works of mercy are necessary. Each person, no matter their stage in life, can participate in these works of mercy in some capacity.
Feed the Hungry
This seems very basic, but it is often ignored. There are so many people in the world who don't have enough to eat. However, this doesn't also mean that everyone should drop everything and go to serve the poorest food. For those with time, this might mean volunteering at a soup kitchen or similar group that helps the poor. Maybe it also means donating money to support these causes. It could also be as simple as keeping some food in the car to pass out to those begging on the streets. Parents with young children, who might not have time to do these things, can also fulfill this work of mercy by providing good food for their children. These young persons depend entirely on their parents for sustenance, and even though it seems mundane and obvious to feed them, it is truly a work of mercy to make sure that they have enough and the proper food so that they are properly nourished.
Give Drink to the Thirsty
This is very similar to the first corporal work of mercy, as eating and drinking are almost synonymous. This one concentrates more on drink, as opposed to food, but the same principles and practices apply as with feeding the hungry.
Clothe the Naked
There are so many people that don't have any or enough clothing. One way to simply practice this is to donate used, or maybe even new, clothes. In this way others can benefit who perhaps don't have the money to buy themselves shoes or a coat to keep warm during the winter. Additionally, if there is a natural disaster, it is part of this work of charity to help these people with donations of any sort. These people find themselves without almost anything, sometimes even literally without clothes. They need help to regain a position in society.
Shelter the Homeless
This one can be a little more difficult to figure out how to fulfill, because most of us can't build a home and don't have the capacity to bring homeless people into our home and let them live there for free. One way to fulfill this is to take loving care of one's own home, particularly with a family. Housing young children, although an obvious obligation, is nevertheless a great work of mercy for these little ones who can't fend for themselves. Up-keeping the home and making sure that it is respectable on the inside is not necessarily easy and makes sure that the children have a good place to live and also is respectful of one's neighbors. Also, maybe a person could volunteer at a homeless shelter or otherwise help the homeless.
Visit the Sick
This is very simple but difficult, and almost everyone has the opportunity to frequently practice it. There is someone in everyone's family who is sick. Even if they are not in the hospital, they have some ailment that prevents them from living a full life. Caring lovingly for this person without complaining certainly fulfills this work of mercy. Maybe this entails cooking for them, or driving them to church if they can't go on their own, or just spending time with them if they are lonely. If there isn't this opportunity to care for a relative, then maybe you can visit a nursing home, or find a method through your parish to find and minister to the sick in the area.
Visit the Imprisoned
This is another work of mercy that might seem to be hard to practice, because it is not necessarily possible or prudent to visit people in prison, particularly if they could be violent. Direct work in prisons is best left to someone with at least a little bit of training. Of course God could be calling you to directly work with prisoners, but even if he is not, it is still possible to practice this work of mercy. Perhaps you could pray for prisoners and their families. It is no doubt difficult for all parties to have a good relationship with God, so prayer is often the best way to reach them and allow God to work with them. Also perhaps one could donate Bibles or other devotional materials for those in prisons or organize small gifts to be given to inmates at Christmas. Through these small acts of kindness, even the most violent persons might realize that there is someone who loves them and they might be more willing to listen about God.
Bury the Dead
There are many opportunities to practice this work of mercy because people die every day. This starts in one's family, to make sure that those who have died are given a proper and respectful burial. Whether in one's family or through the parish, if there is a person who would find it difficult to pay for a funeral, perhaps one could donate to help that person. Obtaining a mass offering for the deceased is also a wonderful way to both pray for the dead person and offer comfort to the living that their loved ones are not forgotten. For some people, this work of mercy might entail helping out with funerals in one's parish, even if you don't know the person who has died. This might mean just attending and praying for the person, or maybe helping the family with the arrangements or participating somehow in the funeral to support the family. There are certainly many ways to care for the bodies of those who have died and help their families.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
Just as there are seven works of mercy related to the body, there are seven works of mercy related to the soul. It is very important to keep good care of the body, because it has been created by God, but it is more important to take good care of the soul. There are so many ways to help others in their spiritual lives, whether it be by prayer or a more active role. These seven works detail ways in which we can extend God's mercy to help others in their spiritual need.
Admonish the Sinner
In many people's conception of mercy, this is not a work of mercy at all. Some people think mercy entails letting people know that they are loved by God and that He will accept them as they are. They think that mercy does not include telling someone that some facet of their life is wrong. However, true mercy does entail correction. It must be done properly. Since God wishes everyone to live a holy life and ultimately be united with Him in Heaven, it is not true mercy to turn a blind eye when others are destroying their life and chances for a happy eternal life. To be truly merciful is to charitably let them know that they should turn their life around. For parents, this can simply be correcting one's children when they do something wrong. For others, this is a little more difficult, but still doable. If we see something being done which is clearly sinful or wrong, there are ways to let others know they shouldn't do that anymore while still being charitable and without creating enmity.
Instruct the Ignorant
Many times, admonishing the sinner is similar to instructing the ignorant, because there are people who don't necessarily know that they are doing something they shouldn't, but if they knew they would stop. Even if we know something, there are still many well-meaning people who haven't had the opportunity to learn what we have learned and thus may make decisions which aren't the best. It is truly an act of mercy to charitably instruct them, particularly if they are open to further knowledge. This is relatively easy to do, whether it means becoming involved in religious education at one's parish, or being ready to answer a question about your faith to a passersby who is curious about the faith.
Counsel the Doubtful
This is again similar to Instruct the Ignorant, because it involves explaining some truth to someone who might not understand it fully. This is indeed helpful to their spiritual life. This again can be fulfilled by teaching in religious education, or simply by being ready to answer questions about the faith from a curious inquirer. This is very easy to do in a parish setting as well. No one can know everything about everything, so if each person in a group studies about a certain topic and then shares their knowledge with others, that is a fruitful way to counsel the doubtful or instruct the ignorant even within a group of believers.
Comfort the Sorrowful
This is so important to fulfill, and yet it is so easy to ignore. When we see someone who is having a down day, we might tend to shy away from them because we don't want to have our day spoiled and begin to feel down ourselves. However, we have the obligation to help these people in their sorrow and to try to lift them up. This one is so easy to fulfill. If we see someone who is having a bad day, we can go to them and ask if we can help them, or pray for them. Often just being present and showing that we care is enough to help these people who are sorrowing.
Bear Wrongs Patiently
Everyone has the opportunity to practice this work of charity all day, every day. There are so many times throughout the day that we feel we have been wronged, whether the offense against us is real or not. If we let these perceived offenses go and don't continue to hold grudges, life will be more pleasant for both us and our neighbor. It is a work of mercy and charity that clearly benefits all parties involved.
Forgive all Injuries
This one also can and should be practiced constantly by everyone. Forgiveness is so important because if we don't forgive, we are going to continue holding grudges and poison all relationships. We also pray in the Our Father “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”. We pray that if we want God to forgive us, we must be willing to forgive our fellow human beings. This is not easy, but it is necessary to be a follower of Christ.
Pray for the Living and the Dead
This is pretty self explanatory, but is important to remember. We can of course pray at any time, but the best opportunity to pray is at Mass, to offer Mass for others. We should first of all pray for those we love and our relatives, but remember also those who have asked us to pray for them and even our enemies, as Jesus told us. There are so many people and intentions to pray for, that this one should be easy to do constantly.