What exactly is mercy?

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Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Dear Father, We have heard much about mercy of late with the Jubilee Year of Mercy about to begin, but, although I think I understand it somewhat, can you tell me exactly what mercy is?

The word ‘mercy’ comes from the Latin misericordia, which in turn comes from the two words miseria, meaning wretchedness, misery or affliction, and cor, meaning heart. Thus etymologically mercy means a heart for the wretchedness or affliction of another. Or, as we understand it in English, it means compassion or pity.

St Thomas Aquinas comments in his Summa Theologiae: “To say that a person is merciful is like saying that he is sorrowful at heart (miserum cor), that is, he is afflicted with sorrow by the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavours to dispel the misery of the other person as if it were his own; and this is the effect of mercy. God cannot feel sorrow over the misery of others, but it does most properly belong to him to dispel that misery, whatever form that shortcoming or deprivation takes” (STh I, q. 21, a. 3).

Mercy is a beautiful virtue and, according to St Thomas Aquinas, “In itself, mercy takes precedence over other virtues, for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succour others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein his omnipotence is revealed to the highest degree” (STh II-II, q. 30, a. 4).

The reason St Thomas sees omnipotence, or almighty power, in God’s mercy is undoubtedly that in the creation of the universe God began with nothing, whereas in his mercy he goes even further and begins with our sinfulness, which was offensive to him, reconciling us to himself by forgiving our sins.

Pope Francis comments in his Bull proclaiming the Jubilee Year: “Saint Thomas Aquinas’ words show that God’s mercy, rather than a sign of weakness, is the mark of his omnipotence. For this reason the liturgy, in one of its most ancient collects, has us pray: ‘O God, who reveal your power above all in your mercy and forgiveness…’

Throughout the history of humanity, God will always be the One who is present, close, provident, holy, and merciful” (Misericordiae Vultus, 2015, n. 6).

We see God’s mercy especially in his becoming man in Jesus Christ and dying on the Cross in order to reconcile us with him after the original sin of our first parents. He didn’t need to do that, but he “so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).

And he shows his mercy time and again when he forgives us our sins through the sacrament of mercy, the sacrament of penance.

Not for nothing are the Scriptures full of passages which speak of God’s mercy. Already at the beginning of the Old Testament God reveals his mercy when he responds to the original sin of Adam and Eve by promising a redeemer. He says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). Then when the Israelites had offended him by worshipping a golden calf, God renewed his covenant with his people and said to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness, keeping merciful love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Ex 34:6-7).

The Psalms too have many passages referring to God’s mercy. For example: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with mercy and compassion…” (Ps 103:2-4). Likewise: “Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob … who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous” (Ps 146:5-8).

Pope Francis comments: “In short, the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality through which he reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child” (Misericordiae Vultus, n. 6).

Full coverage: Year of Mercy