September marked the beginning of the season of Creation! On September 1, 2016, Pope Francis introduced a new work of mercy: care for our common home. Why does this generation require a new work of mercy? The reason is the ecological crisis: “Never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years” (LS 53).
Thomas Aquinas enumerated the traditional sets of seven spiritual and seven corporal works of mercy in the thirteenth century. The corporal works include feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, harboring the homeless, visiting the sick, ransoming the captives, and burying the dead. The spiritual works include instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, reproving the sinner, forgiving injuries, bearing with those who trouble and annoy us, and praying for all (ST II-II, Q 32, A 2).
What is merciful about caring for our common home? Shouldn’t our neighbors, and not the earth, be the objects of our mercy? In the Gospel of Luke, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” When Jesus responded with the parable of the Good Samaritan, he expanded the concept of neighbor to include anyone we might encounter, even those considered enemies.
Until the last few hundred years, most people had a local sphere of influence. It was sufficient to love your immediate neighbor as yourself. But in our globalized economy, we participate in systems that affect our brothers and sisters in the farthest reaches of the planet, most of whom we will never meet. In proposing care for our common home as a work of mercy, he is inviting us to expand our concept of neighbor yet again.
Furthermore, Pope Francis introduced this new work of mercy as a ‘complement’ to the traditional sets. This word comes from the Latin complere, which means to fill up or to complete. In a sense, care for our common home is the seed-bearing fruit of the other works of mercy. The rest are incomplete without it. We cannot give drink to the thirsty if we pollute our water. We cannot welcome strangers if our house is in disarray. We cannot counsel the doubtful among the next generation if, by our wasteful lifestyles, we leave them damaged earth less able to reflect the glory of the Creator (Romans 1:20).
Finally, Pope Francis explained that care for our common home is both corporal and spiritual in nature. Given that we started with fourteen, does this mean that we now have a total of fifteen, sixteen, or somehow still fourteen works of mercy? Regardless of how you choose to enumerate them, there are many ways to practice this new work of mercy in daily life. By transforming our homes, parishes, and cities into places of peace, we lay the groundwork for the other works of mercy to grow in the hearts of those who dwell there.