Sign Up for our Free Daily Email Updates / Catholic Spiritual Direction

It’s the Year of Mercy, Not Compassion!

December 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Church, Church Teaching, Liz Estler, Mercy, Spiritual Direction

It’s the Year of Mercy, Not Compassion!


Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy will begin tomorrow, December 8, 2015, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. He has led the way for this with some powerful initiatives, such as giving selected priests, Missionaries of Mercy appointed exclusively by the Holy Father, the power to forgive sins which would normally be reserved to the Holy See.

He is on the right track. But, we may not be…and it’s very important to be clear on what this year means. You see, in our day and age, we have lost track of what constitutes mercy and what constitutes compassion, and the difference between them. The world tends to confuse the two, changing, diluting and conflating them into some amorphous mix of tolerance, political correctness, moral morass, ambivalence, emotionalism, coddling, looking the other way, abrogating responsibilities and justice, and who knows what else. But, the world is wrong, even though mercy and compassion can exist side by side.

Compassion, literally “with passion”, is when we suffer with someone. It’s when we feel their pain…sometimes because we’ve been there ourselves, sometimes because we figuratively put ourselves in their place, imagining what it would be like to suffer a particular loss or difficulty.

  • We are compassionate with someone who is ill or has had an operation. We help them get through it with comforting words and actions, with chicken soup, with our presence. We suffer with them.
  • We are compassionate with someone who has lost a job. We provide financial support, FuneralOfFirstborn1893(Crop)steering work or interviews their way, or starting or contributing to a crowd-sourcing page like “Spledger”, “gofundme” and things of that ilk. We suffer with them.
  • We are compassionate with someone who has experienced a death in their family. We are present to them listening to and comforting them and lending aid. We suffer with them.

Mercy is another animal altogether. Mercy is the forgiveness of just debt…and, it is something that is in everyone’s power.

Whoa! Wait a minute. No one owes me anything! Au contraire, my friend! In the Our Father prayer Christ taught, there is a very special passage that calls us to account: “Forgive us our trespasses/debts, as we forgive those who trespass against us/our debtors.” In other words, we all have people who owe us something in one way, shape or form. Every single one of us controls something in this life, even if we are living in poverty, or have renounced earthly possessions for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

ChristCarryingTheCrossElGreco1580At the very least, we owe the people around us the consideration and respect for their person, and they, likewise, owe us the same. And, that’s just for minimal social intercourse and the functioning of human society! Christianity teaches us much more than this: to see Christ in the other, to love all as we have first been loved by God, to lay down our lives for them. On a much greater scale, an infinite one, this is what God has done for us because He so loved the world. By Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, God has given us a share in the fullness of His divine life. He has condescended to show us mercy and we are to go and do the same, to learn the meaning of the words, “It is mercy I desire!” (cf Matthew 12:7).

Mercy in Action

How does the mercy we are to show others translate to real life? The first and clearest example is that of the mercy of a judge who exercises it in imposing sentences during the course of carrying out his/her juridical duties. Another good example is that of a police officer who stops a person guilty of a traffic violation and, after considering the circumstances, writes only a warning notice instead of a ticket or summons. These are some obvious situations.

ModifiedDetailTeniersDavidTheYoungerTheSevenCorporalWorksOfMercyGoogleArtProjectBased on Scripture, the Church also proposes to us the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.* These are works to be done in the pattern of what our Lord did for us i.e. extending ourselves in order to alleviate the suffering of others. It’s not by accident that there’s a connection to Jesus’ proclamation at Nazareth (cf Luke 4:18ff) where he reads from the scroll of Isaiah about His Messianic mission to the afflicted: to heal the brokenhearted and proclaim liberty to the captives (cf Isaiah 61). It’s also important to note that we will be judged on our mercy when the Son of Man, the just Judge, comes in His glory, at the end of the age, “…I was hungry and you gave me food…thirsty and you gave me drink…whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me…” (cf Matthew 25:31-46). So, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are not optional.

As well, mercy is not just for those out on the periphery, those we help with our largesse of time, talent or treasure, and don’t see again until the next business day. It is to be lived, perhaps in a much more demanding fashion, among those God has given us to love: our family, friends, our co-workers. The face of God never becomes more evident, never more attractive to someone we know, who knows all our foibles and idiosyncrasies, our own failings and peccadillos, than when we extend mercy to them for a debt they owe us, when we let a slight or insult go, when we forgive a forgotten appointment, an indiscretion, or the many other ways our egos suffer perceived slights.

In this year of mercy, it’s important to remember that mercy is the greatest attribute of love. Let us go and learn the meaning of mercy…and carry it out!


* The Works of Mercy:

  • The corporal works of mercy:
    • Feed the hungry,
    • Give drink to the thirsty,
    • Clothe the naked,
    • Give shelter to the homeless,
    • Visit the sick,
    • Visit the imprisoned,
    • Bury the dead.
  • The spiritual works of mercy:
    • Admonish the sinner,
    • Instruct the ignorant,
    • Counsel the doubtful,
    • Comfort the sorrowful,
    • Bear wrongs patiently,
    • Forgive injuries,
    • Pray for the living and the dead


Art: Detail of Funeral of Firstborn, Nikolay Alexandrovich Yaroshenko, 1893, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less; Christ Carrying the Cross, El Greco, 1580, PD-US; Modified detail of The Seven Corporal Works of Mercy, David Teniers the Younger, 17th century, PD-US published in U.S. before January 1, 1923; all Wikimedia Commons.

Print Friendly
Profile photo of Liz Estler

About Liz Estler

Editor, Liz holds a Master of Arts in Ministry Degree (St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts), Liturgy Certificate (Boston Archdiocese), and a BS degree in Biology and Spanish (Nebraska Wesleyan University - Lincoln). She has served as hospital chaplain associate, sacristan, translator and in other parish ministries. She was a regular columnist for a military newspaper in Europe and has been published in a professional journal. She once waded in the Trevi Fountain!

please consider supporting our mission with a donation!

  • Cmlerner

    I often find myself being taken advantage of and realize I have difficulty minding my own healthy boundaries; i.e. Keeping a safe distance from those with ill intent. Can you help me reconcile compassion, mercy and healthy boundaries?
    Thank you for your wonderful article. CML

    • LizEst

      Thank you, Cmlerner. To God be the glory!

      Yes, keeping healthy boundaries can sometimes be difficult, especially when we know that Christ gave His life for us. There are a few things to keep in mind/ask ourselves:
      1. All of us have a dignity that has been given to us by our Creator. We must respect that in others and ourselves.
      2. Would we do to others what we are allowing others to do to us?
      3. Would we allow others to do something to our children, friends, disabled relatives/friends, elderly parents, which we are allowing others to do to us?
      4. Does what we allow others to do to us fall into the category of sin?
      5. Does what we allow others to do to us enable them to sin, to abuse others, or continue a pattern of this behavior.

      These are all things to take into consideration. And, when any one of these becomes an issue, then it is a good sign that we need to stop and consider whether or not healthy boundaries have been crossed, although there is often no one size fits all answer for the these things because situations vary e.g. infants and one’s friends are different in this regard.

      Sometimes, a good strategy can be to help in a “disinterested” manner, to help with all your heart and strength, but not be personally “interested” in the outcome. That way, the emotions are kept in check. It’s kind of like what Jesus taught about giving alms and not letting your right hand know what your left is doing (cf Matthew 6:1-3). There is a hidden instruction about healthy boundaries there.

      Anyway, those are some thoughts. You may also want to seek the assistance of a counselor and/or spiritual director in this regard. In fact, having a good spiritual director is a good idea regardless. Hope this helps a little bit. God bless you Cmlerner.

  • Drazenka K

    Happy Year of Mercy.

    • LizEst

      …and to you as well, Drazenka K. God bless you!

  • Dianne

    “It’s a year of mercy, not compassion” was a beautiful article indeed. But I dare to point out that in order to be merciful, we must have some level of compassion or mercy would be a hard task to play out. We must possess compassion for the well being of souls in order to act upon mercy. So in reality, they go hand in hand. I do not speak of the superficial way that the world cries out for compassion in tolerating all things…I speak namely of the compassion of God that moves His heart, and should move ours to act mercifully toward others. As St. Teresa of Avila has pointed out, all virtues build upon humility. So we really cannot separate any of the virtues, as they connect to one another somehow, just as God himself cannot be seperated. I believe what you may be trying to point out is the way the world views virtue vs. the way virtue truly should be practiced according to Gods laws.

    • LizEst

      Hi Dianne. Yes, the virtues go together. And, indeed, my point is to point out the difference not to separate. Sometimes we have to do this in order to better understand how they go together…because many think that exercising mercy is compassion. A person can be merciful without being compassionate and vice versa– a person can be compassionate without being merciful. But, it works much better when we are both merciful and compassionate. The post is purposely titled this way to get your attention. I see that it worked! ; ) Thank you, Dianne…and God bless you!

  • Pingback: MONDAY EXTRA – Big Pulpit()

  • LizEst

    Yes, thank you, 7cathy17! To God be the glory!

    The types of sins only the Holy See has the authority to forgive are things that are pretty serious. For example, they could include/involve: a person who discards the Body or Blood of Christ “or, for a sacrilegious purpose, takes them away or keeps them”, someone “who uses physical force against the” Pope, “both the bishop who, without a pontifical mandate, consecrates a person a bishop, and the one who receives the consecration from him”; “a confessor who directly violates the sacramental seal”; a confessor who absolves “an accomplice in a sin against the sixth commandment” [such as a priest who solicits someone in confession to an impure act].

    Hope this has helped…and, God bless you Cathy!

    • Cathy

      Very informative thank -you ,Do you think that some of these types which I would think are many will show up in bullitens or diocesan Websites so that one may see and understand that Mercy and Forgiveness is readily available,and who those special priests are for their reconcilliation

      • LizEst

        I have no way of knowing how that is going to be handled. But, I suppose that that would be one way of going about it.

  • mad2002mad

    Excellent food for thought material Liz. If we hue only to the “law” then we forget that judges have the ability to consider “extenuating and mitigating” circumstances when administering justice. Believe this is what Pope Francis was referring to when he cited those clerics that cling to “conservative and rigid values” that really don’t address current problems. Perhaps, in this year of mercy, we will see the Church reach out to those members and disaffected members who are hurting and begin the healing process by bringing them back to the Church. Especially those hurt and harmed by divorce and remarriage so they may be welcomed into a caring and loving Church instead of the current crop of “scolds” posing as American bishops.

    • LizEst

      Thank you mad2002mad!

      Respectfully, I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood the Holy Father, or have listened to the errors fed to the public by the mainstream media, and/or not so orthodox or faithful “Catholic” sources. Yes, Pope Francis did mention extenuating and mitigating circumstances, or words to that effect. But, he did not advocate setting aside Church law. Rather, after consulting with canonical lawyers and advisors, he indicated that some procedures could be streamlined, that some decisions could be made at lower hierarchical levels. It is on these things that he is presently acting on.

      Christ invested all authority on earth with His vicar, Peter, our first Pope, and his successors. The Pope and the College of Bishops are charged with carrying out Christ’s mandate. They are not scolds as you put it. Rather, they do not have the authority to set aside what Christ taught.

      And, Christ did NOT say anything goes. He taught the sanctity of marriage, talking about how God intended it, from the beginning (please go and read Matthew 19:1-12) and how Moses had permitted divorce because of the hardness of their hearts. As St. Augustine once said, “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.” I suppose there were many Pharisees that thought Jesus was a scold, too! …and I don’t doubt this contributed to His death.

      Sadly, divorce and remarriage are very difficult situations. Not only do they affect the husband and wife involved, but they also impact the children, their extended families, our Church and our greater society. Holy Mother Church greatly loves and cares for all Her children. And, when one member hurts, we all hurt.

      God bless you mad2002mad. Wishing you a fruitful Advent!

      • mad2002mad

        Hi Liz:
        Thank you for your kind words on this holy season!
        You certainly provided a nice historical background on how the law was developed. As an Amnerican Catholic, raised on the old Baltimore Catechism, which the nuns beat into our heads for 12 years; I can appreciate the simplistic approach of “black and white.” However, believe many more issues are shades of gray (not the film–yuck!).
        Don’t believe I misunderstood what Pope Francis was saying because I’m reading his words to the Italian bishops that the Church is a living, breathing organic organization (National Catholic Reporter, Vol 52 No 4, Dec 4-17, 2015). He referred to Christian doctrine as not being a “closed system” but rather an open system, which is the very core of my graduate program in systems theory. Open means the ability to adapt to a changing environment, take in new material and adjust accordingly. Of course it doesn’t mean we change the base doctrine but the teaching and discipline of that doctrine. Guess I’m not a Pharisee who only sees the law and not the administration of justice and mercy. However, I do believe the Church is big enough to resolve these issues, and we will if we have more bishops like Cupich.
        All the best to you this blessed Christmas season and blessings in the coming year. I like reading columns such as yours because it’s always good to learn more and be better informed.
        Mike D.

        • LizEst

          …and thanks for your kind words, Mike D.

          Fair warning, the National Catholic Reporter is not known as a very faithful Catholic source. So, one has to be very, very careful with what one ingests from them.

          Instead, I would heartily recommend to you the National Catholic Register, which is always faithful to the Magisterium. In fact, they are running a special right now for six free issues, available by clicking here: Their home page can be found here:

          All the best to you and yours, as well, during this blessed Advent and Christmas season and for 2016.

      • Sanctus 3

        Well done, Liz, both in your article and in this response.
        We must await the Apostolic Exhortation in order to see how the pope follows the immutable teachings, not just of the Church, but of Christ.

  • Sanctus 3

    Let’s hope that the papal and episcopal teachings and promised “gestures” of mercy are clear and unambiguous during this Year of Mercy. IMO, Pope Francis and all bishops will be most effective when they ground all their words faithfully and unambiguously on the eternal teachings of the Lord, as infallibly interpreted by His Church’s Magisterium.
    As St. Paul admonishes: “God is not the author of confusion.” (1 Cor. 14:33.)

  • MaryofSharon

    Thanks for this enlightening post, Liz. I’ve been increasingly confused about the real meaning of the word “mercy.” I understand the conventional meaning of the word as the “forgiveness of a just debt,” my favorite illustration being the Bishop of Myriel’s forgiveness of Jean Valjean’s debt in Les Miserables. But I fail to see what most of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy have to do with pardoning a debt. How is feeding the hungry or instructing the ignorant have anything like choosing not to exact payment from someone who owes you something?

    • LizEst

      The short answer is that the corporal and spiritual works of mercy extend the mercy of God to others. But, lets take the instance of visiting the imprisoned, who have a just debt to society for the crime they have committed (not those falsely imprisoned). Because we are part of society, they owe that debt to us as well. So, we extend the mercy of God in visiting them and extend mercy to them personally for the debt they owe us as part of society.

      Likewise, often those who are thirsty, naked, homeless, etc. are seen as a burden to society because they should be working instead of not, they should be clothed instead of not, etc. just as St. Paul taught that if anyone was unwilling to work, they should not eat (cf 2 Thessalonians 3:8ff), the corollary being that those who eat should also work. What Paul was getting at was that we are one body in Christ and that everyone in that body should work at doing their part, just as everything in the human body acts together so that the whole body functions well. And, when one part suffers, all parts suffer with it (cf 1 Corinthians 26).

      So, it is right and just that everyone work. Work, by the way, is not a four-letter word. Even God works, as can be seen in Scripture right from the beginning in the book of Genesis. Work became difficult and onerous when sin and death entered the world. And, likewise, because sin and death entered the world, we get sick and have difficulties. Although not every illness itself is a result of immediate sin, it can ultimately be traced back to some sin, especially original sin. So, people do have difficulties. They get sick, a house burns down, they cannot find employment, families have struggles, etc.

      In other words, their circumstances demand that we expend our resources-time, talent, and treasure-in order to alleviate their distressing situations. So, in a sense, they owe a debt to us, to the good order of society…and the Body of Christ. Mind you, we are a compassionate people and, if we have taken Christ’s words to heart, we might see them more with compassion than as an object of our mercy. But, in terms of justice, when we extend ourselves in the corporate works of mercy, we are being merciful. We are cancelling or alleviating a debt. This is also applicable to the spiritual works of mercy. Paragraph 1783 of the Catechism teaches that conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. And so, we are required to have a well-formed conscience. Sadly, many have not formed their consciences well, or have suffered from poor catecheses and all manner of spiritual misinformation. This also hurts the Body of Christ, as can clearly be seen in how we are reaping what has been sown by many years of poor spiritual formation. The spiritual works of mercy aim to alleviate the spiritual poverty which is not supposed to be part and parcel of personal and corporate spiritual life.

      While this is not a comprehensive explanation, I hope this helps. God bless you, MaryofSharon! Happy Gaudete Sunday!

      • MaryofSharon

        Thanks, Liz. That helps!

        • LizEst

          Good to know! ; – )

  • Pingback: Fr. Z Fisks Next Synod on Married Priests; St. Maria Gorretti: A Pro-Life Patron for Mercy and More! | The Guadalupe Radio Network()

  • WelderChick

    It is good to get compassion and mercy straight in our heads since as you rightly pointed out, the world certainly has them mixed up.

    My problem area, tho, is with politics. Illegal aliens, muslim refugees, abortion, etc, In things like this, it’s too easy to mix up real mercy with the world’s fake mercy. For instance, I have a problem with turning a blind eye to illegals in this country, let alone “rewarding” them for breaking our laws. Similarly I have a big time problem letting in people of a religion that is busy killing off every Christian it can find. They personally may not have killed Christians (tho we don’t know) but they also don’t do anything about those who are. This is the area I struggle with the most.

Skip to toolbar