Mercy and compassion play an important role in today’s world. Everywhere we look, there seems to be too much misery. Somewhere, someone is hungry and thirsty. There is someone who is fighting for his life. There is someone who pleads for help.
When we see people suffering, do we feel their pain? Do we feel concerned? Are we compelled to help them? When we hear of the misfortunes of others and we are in the position to help, do we lend a hand?
Mercy and compassion are often invoked in the scriptures and prayers. One of God’s greatest teachings is to love our neighbors just as we love ourselves. It is impossible to be capable of love without feeling mercy and compassion.
Both mercy and compassion refer to the concern we feel for people in need. But although they seem synonymous in the surface, and their usage is sometimes interchanged, they have significant differences.
What is Compassion?
Compassion is defined as a feeling of wanting to help someone who is sick, hungry, or in trouble. It is a sympathetic consciousness of other people’s suffering, coupled with the longing to alleviate it. It came from two Latin words, com (with) and pati (to suffer). Literally, it translates to “to suffer with.”
It is compassion that compels us to feel the pain of someone else and by doing so, we join their journey.
We do not stand detached from sufferings and misfortunes. Seeing someone break down in tears may move us to tears too. Our compassion for him or her urges us to offer comfort. We enter their sorrow and pain. When Jesus was crucified, his mother Mary at the foot of the cross and suffering with her son was the face of compassion.
There is no one more compassionate than Jesus, the son of God. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind. He reached out even to those shunned by society. When the whole world sinned, he lay down his own life to save us. His sacrifice is the greatest act of compassion.
What is Mercy?
Mercy means being kind or giving a forgiving treatment to someone who could be treated harshly. When people are in a desperate situation, we feel pity and the need to help. The word originated from the Latin merces, meaning “price” or “wages”. Originally, it does not connote equality but disparity. The act is in response to another’s need, such as offering help, forgiveness, or cancelling debts. If one is in a position of power over another, there is the call for mercy.
Mercy means offering greater kindness than what justice demands.
God is known for his understanding and mercy. In God’s word, the rich and powerful are asked to show mercy to the widow and orphan.When Zacharias was caught stealing the people’s taxes, he was shown great mercy by Jesus who forgave him and gave him the chance to mend his old ways. There is Joseph, son of Jacob, who was sold to slavery by his brothers. God did not punish his brothers for their betrayal.
Do mercy and compassion always go hand in hand?
Though they are sometimes interchangeable, mercy and compassion do not always go together. It is possible to show mercy without feeling compassion. This is evident in the matters of law and justice. A judge may pardon or give a lenient sentence, not because he necessarily feels compassion for the defendant but because he feels public pressure to do so and it contributes to his image.
Mercy may also be shown by someone who has the upper hand, like the landlord to the tenant, because the former wants to latter to be humbled and feel beholden to him. At the same time, one can feel compassion without exhibiting mercy. This happens when we witness someone’s suffering and feel bad about it but do nothing to help.
When Jesus says, “be merciful as our Father is merciful,” he is not only telling us what to do but also how to do it. His example and ministry links the internal (what we feel) and the external (our actions). Jesus urges us to forgive our enemies (show mercy) but he also encourages us to love and pray for them (compassion).
The Catholic tradition introduces the virtue of solidarity. This bridges mercy and compassion. It is not merely the vague feeling of compassion but a compassion that leads one to action. It compels one not just to show mercy and feel compassion but most importantly, to do something that will alleviate the sufferings of others.
God, who has limitless mercy and compassion, gives us this mission. Just as he forgives and takes delight in the conversion of sinners, we as His people should take his example and march in solidarity. We are not only capable of feeling but also of doing.
What are your thoughts on mercy and compassion? How do you practice them in your everyday life?