“Whatever else our God does,
the first outburst is always compassion”
Those striking words were penned by a theologian in the 14th century. Compassion: perhaps no other word goes more directly to the heart of the Gospel message, because it goes to the heart of God’s own identity. “You may call God love, you may call God goodness, but the best name for God is compassion.”
The “golden rule”—do unto others– captures the essence of compassion and every world religion teaches a version of it. Compassion, then, has a universal value. But if we reflect on compassion, we might sense a paradox. On the one hand, most of us would say we are basically compassionate people. Yet at the same time compassion often seems in short supply as we look around us. Reflecting a bit more deeply, we might realize that in spite of its place in every religion, compassion is not a popular virtue nor is it easily practiced.
How broadly—or how narrowly—we practice compassion is the question. The “to whom” is the issue. The age-old saying tells us “charity begins at home” and for some it ends there, among one’s own, in one’s comfort zone of family and friends. Obviously the Gospel challenges us to a broader practice, indeed to be consistent, not selective, in living the virtue of compassion. For every single biblical reference to sexual ethics, for example, one easily finds a dozen mandates to care for the widow, the orphan, strangers and the oppressed. Or simply, one’s neighbor. Compassion is the necessary response to the God who first loved us.
Vincentian ministry depends on compassion and can hardly be realized without it. Our great apostles of charity, Vincent, Louise, Frederic, and Rosalie, to name just the principals, lived and breathed compassion. They challenge us to live 21st century compassion, taking advantage of today’s socio-economic insights and processes to effect change for those burdened with poverty. Traditional charity work is much needed but in the end charity tries to remedy today what justice might have prevented yesterday.
And so we look to make changes—real and lasting and effective ones—in the structures and systems that keep people poor, by helping those we serve to become agents of change. The Vincentian Family has embarked on just this effort, and poor people in different parts of the world are responding. This is compassion for our times: charity will always be important, but we are now more aware of the need to sow seeds of justice and change. This is faithful following of the apostles of our tradition, for in them we find seeds and intuitions of this very work, as together we try to answer the Gospel call “Be compassionate as your Heavenly Father is compassionate.”
Jim Claffey just retired from the St. Vincent de Paul Society on Long Island, where he served as Director of Formation and Programs. Jim currently serves as the executive secretary of the Vincentian Family’s International Commission to Promote Systemic Change.