The difference between a sinner and a saint can perhaps be summed up in one word: selfishness.
Those who act in self-indulgent ways, thinking only of themselves, are easily led to sin. Those who look outward, putting the needs of others before their own, are less likely to fall into temptation and sinful behaviors.
That is why the proof of one's Christianity is not how often we go to church, but how we treat others. That is how Jesus will judge us: "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me." (Matt. 25:31-43)
This Gospel forms the basis for what the Church calls the "corporal works of mercy." Corporal means of the body, or physical. We don't hear much about them anymore, but these are a list of seven physical needs that Christians are called to alleviate in others:
- To feed the hungry
- To give drink to the thirsty
- To clothe the naked
- To visit the imprisoned
- To give shelter to the homeless
- To visit the sick
- To bury the dead.
How well are we doing these things? Do we even see the hungry and thirsty, the naked and homeless? Chances are we don't, unless we specifically go looking for them downtown or uncomfortably encounter them at traffic lights in certain neighborhoods. Despite our economic prosperity, the hungry and thirsty, the naked and homeless, still live among us. How can we minister to them?
Many of our churches have volunteers who go out to downtown streets once a week bearing sandwiches, drinks and even home-cooked meals for the homeless. Other parishes are involved in Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for people who otherwise could not afford one.
You might want to think about joining such a ministry, and bringing your children along so that they can learn about the needs of those who are less fortunate.
Or you might want to support an organization that feeds, clothes and shelters the homeless, such as Camillus House. Other groups take care of the physical needs of the poor in other nations, including our own Catholic Charities, which works closely with its international counterparts, Caritas and Catholic Relief Services.
Amor en Acción is another local group which ministers directly to the poor in the Dominican Republic and in our sister diocese of Port-de-Paix, Haiti. So is Food for the Poor, a Deerfield-based group which helps the poor throughout the Caribbean.
Groups such as these can do the work, but they need your financial support. Perhaps you can also contribute to our Vision 2000 campaign, which will enable Catholic Charities to do more for the poor and homeless around us.
Sending money, of course, is not the answer when someone has died or when a person is ill or in prison. A personal visit is necessary to comfort those who are sorrowing in this way. We do that for friends and relatives, but how about for strangers?
Most parishes have ministries to the sick and bereaved, and the archdiocese sponsors a ministry to those in prison. Catholic Hospice constantly seeks volunteers to minister to the terminally ill and their families.
These ministries call for unique pastoral skills and require some training. But perhaps you have just the right personality and affinity for these types of ministry. I urge you to consider volunteering your time.
These seven corporal works of mercy are not the only situations where Christians can show their love for their fellow human beings. Everyday we find ourselves in circumstances where we are called to help others. We should be alert for those moments, and be aware that it is Christ himself we are ministering to.
Indeed, the corporal works of mercy should not be viewed as obligations for Christians, but as the inevitable consequence of the faith we profess. For as Jesus told us, "whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me."