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“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
Jesus’ powerful words in the Gospel of Matthew form the basis for the traditional list of the works of mercy. When it comes to meeting physical needs, the Compendium to the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists the following actions as the corporal works of mercy:
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Shelter the homeless
- Visit the sick
- Visit the imprisoned
- Bury the dead
How can families live this out? Especially with young children, hands-on charitable work can be daunting, but not impossible. The works of mercy will look different for each family – and can be practiced very literally when it comes to caring for children! But if you have a desire to introduce your children to acts of charity outside the home, I hope these ideas can be a gentle nudge to step out as the domestic Church and seek encounters with those in need.
Visit the sick
Parents know the pang of helplessness that comes with caring for sick children – tending to them, cleaning up after them, offering middle-of-the-night prayers. Whether practiced in our own homes or elsewhere, visiting the sick is a work of mercy that invites us to bring the compassion of Jesus to that place of helplessness and vulnerability. Times of illness can easily come with despair: How can our presence be a sign of hope?
Ideas for families
This Advent, enlist your children to create handmade Christmas cards for the homebound in your community; ask your parish office if they can help you get the cards to parishioners who would appreciate them. You can also reach out to retirement homes. Set aside an Advent night to put the screens away and bring out the art supplies instead.
When possible, in-person visits are irreplaceable. Look into opportunities at local homes for the elderly – this could be as simple as an afternoon playing board games with residents, or as organized as rounding up a couple of other families and leading a Christmas carol singalong.
Through your parish or network of friends and family, try to be aware of the needs of pregnant mothers in your community; women on bedrest or suffering from debilitating pregnancy symptoms may appreciate offers of meals, childcare, help with housework or simply time with a friend willing to come to them. Read the story of Mary’s Visitation to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth in the first chapter of Luke and discuss how your family can bring the joy and hope of Christ to someone who is expecting.
Support families with hospitalized relatives, and make sure they don’t lack meals (either for themselves while they’re at the hospital or other children at home) or need help with family members at home. Many hospitals have Ronald McDonald houses or similar lodging available for parents or relatives, and their requests often vary from donated restaurant gift cards to volunteers who can deliver home-cooked meals for guests.
Discern whether your family is called to a regular commitment of visiting with someone in need of companionship. Ask your local Catholic Charities agency if your family would be a good fit for home visits. Make a point of checking in regularly with an elderly neighbor or a homebound member of your parish, accompanied by your children. Maybe it looks like bringing a simple lunch to share, or learning what groceries they might need to stock up on midweek.
Mary’s Visitation to Elizabeth is the setting of the Magnificat, her beautiful prayer glorifying God for his mighty works. The wonders of the Lord and his saving presence go hand in hand with the most humble visits and works of mercy. This holy season, be open to the ways your family might live out this mystery in your daily lives.
Elizabeth Hansen and her husband, Luke, raise their four children in Lansing, where they attend Resurrection Parish.