St. Thomas Aquinas lists three effects which flow from the virtue of charity, namely, joy, peace and mercy (II II, 28). We are concerned here only with the third effect. Charity is a unitive force, uniting us with both God and neighbor. With regard to God, it inclines us to surrender our will to His; and with regard to our neighbor, it makes us rejoice over the good of our neighbor, and sorrow over the evil that befalls him, because true charity causes us to consider his good or bad fortune as our own.
Mercy, then, is charity’s response to the suffering of others. It is compassion for the misery or suffering of another which stirs us to do what we can to alleviate that misery. It is not pure sentimentality, or merely the distress one experiences at the sight of suffering, which might bring forth many tears but does not incline one to do something to relieve that sorrow or misery.
The merciful person is saddened by any kind of human wretchedness - physical or moral - for he sees the afflicted ones as brothers or sisters in Christ, and beseeches His mercy on their behalf, at least by prayer if other means are not possible or feasible. It might be the wretchedness or suffering of poverty, sickness, business misfortune, loss of a friend, the moral misery of habitual sin, etc.
The whole story of our redemption is a story of God’s merciful love, of His special goodness towards sinners. In His infinite love, God created man in His own likeness and image, making him capable of sharing in that love and truth which is a sharing in the very life of God. But when the first man and woman rebelled against the restrictions in God’s plan for them, causing them to lose the divine life of grace and the possibility of entering heaven, the eternal Father in His merciful love revealed that He would send His only-begotten Son to rescue man from the pitiful state into which he had fallen.
Thus, the Son of God became man in order to share in the misery of the human lot and to rescue man from it. “It was right,” says St. Paul, “that He should in all things be made like his brethren, that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest to expiate the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). Jesus, being the image of the Father, by His words and actions, and especially by His passion and death, makes visible the mercy of the Father.
While hardened sinners are never excluded from the grace of conversion, they can and at times do, resist God’s invitations and inspirations, clinging to their own will and ideas. Speaking of this resistance to God’s merciful love, Pope John Paul II commented:
One refuses the testimony of the cross who closes his mind and heart to the redeeming power and love of Christ’s passion and death. One must believe that Christ’s sacrifice is infinite in its redeeming and healing power, more than sufficient to enable the sinner to make the sacrifice of letting go of his sinful ways.
Our Blessed Lord, after explaining various ways in which merciful love responds to offenses and enemies, declares how we must be merciful to our fellow humans if we expect to receive divine mercy:
Our Savior laid down the same condition for mercy in the prayer He taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Mt. 6:12). Those few words which we repeat often can bring us a more lenient or a more severe judgment according as we are willing or not willing to forgive others. “Judgment is without mercy to him who has not shown mercy” (Jas. 2:13). So it is not God who puts limits on his mercy, but rather we ourselves.
Christ gave the ultimate expression of merciful love in His sacrifice on Calvary, and He asks that we return His love through sacrifices of merciful love towards our neighbor in need. Each passing day, with our minor faults and self-centered decisions, we add to our need of mercy. It is true, as St. Peter says, that “charity covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet. 4:8), but that is only because of the merciful sacrifice of Christ which gives our merciful deeds their redeeming quality.
The more we need God’s mercy, therefore, the more we should practice the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It is a most efficacious way of attracting the merciful Heart of our Savior to our needs, for “as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Mt. 25:40).
Although we all need God’s mercy, we do not sense that need as we do the needs of the body. We do not feel the soul’s needs as we feel the hunger of the body. And for that reason we can easily forget Christ’s warning as to the importance of showing mercy if we are to receive mercy, and can be unforgiving in regard to another’s offenses, and unmindful in regard to his needs. Selfishness in all its forms is an obstacle to mercy, for it is directly opposed to charity which is essentially self-giving, self-sacrificing. That is why St. Leo the Great speaks of the “sacrificial offerings” of works of mercy, and sees them as a fruitful remote preparation for our union with Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass. Any act of mercy of whatever kind pleases God, for He sees it as a reflection of his own merciful love.
Only at the end of the world will love conquer all of the innermost sources of evil in all the elect, and bring forth the reign of justice and charity. For the basis of this final victory, says Pope John Paul II, “is the cross and death of Christ. . . . In our state and in the course of human history, love must be shown explicitly in the form of mercy and exercised in that form” (ibid. n.8).
While one motivated by true charity does not perform good deeds in order to enrich himself, the fact is that he cannot perform charitable deeds without enriching himself. And so it is with works of mercy. The one who gives often benefits more than the one who receives. Give to the poor and you receive from Christ. The benefit you bestow is of the natural and temporal order, whereas the benefit you receive is supernatural and eternal. And God always outgives us a hundred-fold. St. Leo the Great speaks beautifully of merciful love, referring especially to almsgiving.
St. Basil the Great speaks in a similar vein:
When we have nothing to share with others in a material way, there is always the spiritual gift of prayer and sacrifice, which can be offered to God for the needs of others. When one learns to give of himself in this way, he is never without the means of giving.
How much some are willing to spend on temporal satisfactions and enjoyments that bring no eternal reward. They are industrious about investing their wealth in ways that bring a material reward, but have little concern about investing some of it with the needy, where it increases the one kind of wealth they can take with them to the life beyond.
Since God is infinitely merciful, and since mercy seeks to eliminate the misery of another, why does God allow such misery to exist in the world? That is a question many ask. It even makes some doubt God’s concern for us, His providence over all that He has created. How do we reconcile the providence of God, and so much misery in the world? Why does He leave so many in their misery, their sickness, their dire poverty?
God is concerned primarily about our eternal welfare. Not that He is not concerned about our welfare in this world, but as St. Paul declares, “I reckon that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory to come that will be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18). In His infinite wisdom God can bring good out of evil. He can use the sufferings of this world to cancel the debt of sin, the punishment of which would be far greater in the life to come. Too, He can use the misery of some to bring out the mercy of others. If there were no suffering in the world, there would be no mercy, for the object of mercy is the misery of others.
But the bottom line is that suffering in this world is the result of sin. Sin entered into the world with the rebellion of our first parents, and its effects are continually compounded by the daily sins of avarice, hatred, lust, pride, jealousy, etc., the roots of which we all have. And God cannot remove sin from the world without taking away man’s free will, which He will not do. If man abuses his freedom, he must take the consequences. The unfortunate thing is that many suffer because of the abuses of others.
Only in the light of faith can we understand that the spiritual misery of sin is a far greater evil than the physical evils of poverty, sickness, etc. Because of this the eternal Father’s merciful love led Him to send His only-begotten Son into the world to remove the greatest evil for the whole of mankind, the loss of friendship with God and the exclusion from heaven. Thus our divine Redeemer by His life, passion and death won the graces to restore man to His friendship, reopened to mankind the gates of heaven, and established the Church as the channel through which the graces won by his passion would be dispensed to mankind. He did not remove suffering from human life. On the contrary, He declared that only by carrying one’s cross (which implies suffering) can one be his disciple. Pope John Paul II speaks of this paradox of divine mercy in his encyclical already referred to:
(For a more detailed consideration of the Providence of God and the problem of evil, see
The true practice of mercy requires a deep faith that makes the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ a vivid reality, enabling one to seek Christ in those in need, ever aware that “as long as you did it for one of these, the least of my brethren, you did it for me” (Mt. 25:40).
Since goodness begets goodness, the more one ponders prayerfully that mystery and God’s merciful love towards sinful mankind, the more he begins to see the various forms of human wretchedness as wounds in the Mystical Body of Christ: the poor, the sick, the sinner, the abandoned, etc., and the more he is inspired to reach out, whether by prayer or action, a helping hand. It seems that no one in our present day world had a truer understanding of the virtue of mercy, and no one practiced it more heroically that Mother Teresa of Calcutta, as her words testify:
Mother Teresa bore with joy the hardships involved in caring for the unfortunate and unwanted, and could say with St. Paul: “I rejoice now in the sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ I fill up in my flesh for His Body, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24).
“Blessed are the merciful, they shall obtain mercy” (Mt. 5:7).
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