Fausto Gomez, OP
On a Friday afternoon Linus tells his friend Charlie Brown of the Peanuts Family: Have a happy week-end. The round-headed boy, the kind master of Snoopy answers him: Thank you. And in pensive mood asks Linus, the kid with the security blanket: Incidentally, what is happiness? Through the Jubilee Year of Mercy, some are asking, Incidentally, what is mercy?
Philosopher Spinoza says that virtue fascinates and attracts. Virtue is a good habit, a firm internal inclination that directs persons to live as flourishing human beings,a trait of character which shapes our vision of life.
Virtues, sources of true happiness, put order in our lives and harmonize dynamically our potencies, traits and skills. Virtues are harmoniously interconnected like the parts of an organism. There are the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, which are God gifts, and the moral/cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, which are God gifts and are also acquired by us through repetition of similar acts. Rooted in divine grace, the infused virtues are perfected by the Gifts of the Holy Spirit present in the graceful soul, which is inhabited by the Blessed Trinity.
The virtue of mercy is deeply connected with the virtue of charity which is love of God and love of all neighbor, which is the virtue above all others (CCC, 25), the form of all virtues, their mother and coordinator. A free gift from God, charity is joyful, peaceful and merciful. Mercy is a fruit of charity (Gal 5:22-23), an internal effect of charity as love of neighbor. It is a great virtue proceeding from charity or from human love and presupposing justice. Mercy is above justice, but there cannot be true mercy without justice and no full justice without merciful love. The virtue of mercy, a gift of God love, may also be acquired through repetition of compassionate acts of love, of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
Through the practice of mercy, we participate in the lives of other human beings and in the life of the Blessed Trinity. God One and Triune is merciful and in his mercy shines in a great manner his omnipotence. The greatest virtue human persons may possess is charity, which unites them to God and makes them similar – in a real but limited way -, to him. Among all the virtues related to the neighbor, mercy is the highest virtue (St. Thomas Aquinas).
Mercy or compassion can be a mere emotion or passion of the sense appetite or a virtue of the intellectual appetite, the will, in which case it is also related to the passions. If compassion is only a passion of the senses when facing the misery of another then it is not a virtue but a passion or feeling or emotion that does nothing to alleviate the suffering of the neighbor. If it is a free movement of the will regulated by reason, aroused by the suffering of another person and leading to do something positive about that suffering, then it is the virtue of compassion or mercy: affective and effective mercy.
Compassion or sympathy is opposed to apathy and antipathy. Apathy is indifference to the sufferings of others. A person who does not transcend himself or herself, who is self-centered is not compassionate. Antipathy is the opposite of compassion. It is an attitude of dislike if not condemnation of some others, like the poor, the uneducated, the refugees, the migrants, women, the elderly, and children. Empathy, moreover, is wider than compassion, for it places the empathetic in the shoes of the others – not only of those who are needy (compassion), but also of those who are happy (see Rom 12:15).
There may be also true and false compassion. True compassion entails to be moved by the neighbor suffering and do something good about it, while false compassion, or pseudo-mercy, is ending our neighbor life – be an unborn child through abortion, or a terminally ill patient or a dependent elderly through euthanasia and assisted suicide. St. John Paul II writes: True compassion leads to sharing another pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear.
Mercy then is heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress that impels us to succor him if we can (St. Augustine). Mercy is having compassion of heart for the unfortunate and unhappy. Mercy or compassion entails to suffer the other pain as our own. To be in the place of the other is to be close to the victims of poverty, injustice, and violence.
Mercy then is not merely to feel sentimentally the pain of the other, but also to do something to relieve that pain as if it were ours. Are we obliged to do something for all the needy we meet on our daily journey of life? No one can help all persons in need and therefore we are not obliged. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, we are obliged to help one who is in urgent need.
St. Caesarius of Arles writes: There are two kinds of mercy, mercy on earth and mercy in heaven, human mercy and divine mercy. What is human mercy then? It makes you concerned for the hardships of the poor. What is divine mercy like? It forgives sinners.
Mercy is the essence of the Gospel and the key to Christian life (Cardinal Walter Kasper). May the Jubilee Year of Mercy help us all make of mercy our lifestyle!
(Published also in O Clarim, The Macau Catholic Weekly, December 2015))