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The Corporal Works of Mercy (in Steven Spielberg movies)

Nicola Nemaric and Thea Kurniawan  |  01 June 2016

The Catholic Church has traditionally encouraged us to understand, meditate upon and follow the practice of merciful love by dividing works of mercy into two kinds: corporal (bodily) and spiritual. The corporal works of mercy are acts through which we help our neighbours with their material and physical needs.

We asked two of our young writers to sit down and watch some Steven Spielberg movies, to see if they could find some examples. 

To clothe the naked

Clothing is considered a basic necessity. A clear example of this work of mercy can be found in the beloved movie, E.T (rated G).

After Elliot’s first encounter with E.T. in his backyard, he takes the alien home and introduces him to his brother, Michael, and sister, Gertie. While Elliot is at school, Gertie watches E.T. roam around their house and introduces to him human words such as ‘phone’, ‘Elliot’ and ‘be good’. After teaching him ‘to talk’ she decides to make him more human by dressing him up in a wig, hat, dress and jewellery – an instinctive gesture that helps them bond together.

Another scene that depicts this work of mercy is the famous bicycle chase scene. After discovering that E.T. is alive, Elliot wraps him in a towel and places him in the basket of his bicycle to get him away from the police and government officials. The clothing provides protection for E.T. as Elliot and his friends escape on their bicycles.

Thea Kurniawan

To visit the sick

Sometimes we feel squeamish at the prospect of being around hospitals or nursing homes, but never underestimate the power of visiting the sick. The touch of a hand, a hug and real eye contact can greatly heal the spirit.

The movie Lincoln (rated M, violence, language, themes) has an example of this corporal work of mercy when President Lincoln and his son, Robert, visit a temporary army hospital in Washington where soldiers who have had limbs amputated are being treated. Lincoln goes into the hospital and meets with the injured troops, talking to them and commending them for their courage and willingness to serve their country. The President’s visit is not only an act of mercy but also an act of respect to the soldiers who bravely fought in the war.

Thea Kurniawan

To bury the dead

Grieving can be a long and arduous process. Those who are grieving usually need the support of others to say goodbye to their lost loved ones and entrust them to God's hands.

The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (Rated MA – strong content) beautifully illustrates this. An elderly World War 2 veteran visits the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial with his family. The veteran walks ahead and observes the large white crosses marking the gravestones of the deceased soldiers. After pacing around alone for some time he stops at one specific gravestone, collapses to his knees and becomes overwhelmed with emotion. This scene truly encapsulates the essence of how difficult it can be for someone to emotionally cope with a lost relative or friend.

Thea Kurniawan

To feed the hungry

The comedy-drama The Terminal (Rated PG) follows an Eastern immigrant, Viktor Navorski, who arrives at JFK airport only to discover that his country of origin has been engulfed in war. His papers are rendered invalid, and suddenly he finds himself unable to enter the United States and unable to return to Krakozhia. Viktor is stranded at the airport, with nowhere to go except the international lounge. To assist Viktor during this difficult adjustment, the airport security gives him food coupons, thus feeding the hungry.

Nicola Nemaric

To give drink to the thirsty

In The Hundred-Foot Journey (produced by Spielberg rather than directed, rated PG) the Kadam family are forced to flee Mumbai after their restaurant is firebombed, seeking asylum in Europe. After an unfortunate mechanical failure, the family winds up stranded, similar to Viktor Navorski, only on the side of a French provincial road. They are eventually rescued by a kind passerby, Marguerite. She shelters them from the rain by inviting them into her home and offers them tea and food. Her hospitality perfectly exemplifies two of the corporal acts of mercy.

Nicola Nemaric

To ransom the captive

Everyday life does not present many opportunities to ‘ransom the captive’, to obtain the release of prisoners of war, hostages or other victims. Accordingly, the phrase has taken on another meaning, which is to ‘minister to the imprisoned’ – to visit people who are incarcerated. In Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (rated M, violence, language, themes), which is set during the Cold War, we see an example of someone who visits an arrested spy, and eventually manages to secure the release of another captive.

However, to ‘ransom the captive’ can also mean supporting anti-slavery agencies or not purchasing from companies which outsource sweatshop labour to. In a more general sense, one can ‘ransom the captive’ by reaching out to individuals who are being held hostage by poverty or injustice.

Nicola Nemaric

To harbour the harbourless

This work of mercy is about offering refuge to the homeless. In Schindler’s List (rated M, violence, language, themes), German businessman, Oskar Schindler, initially does this for opportunistic reasons: He hires Jewish workers for his factory as they are cheaper labour than Polish workers. After witnessing a massacre, though, Schindler begins taking steps to protect the Jews. He offers them sanctuary by assembling a list of workers he requires for his factory – a list intended to keep them from being transported to Auschwitz.

Today, we can harbour the homeless by volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters, donating to groups which specialise in assisting the homeless and, of course, voting for governments whose policies prioritise helping the disadvantaged and destitute.

Nicola Nemaric



Topic tags: thecatholictradition, faithinthemedia, buildingpeace

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