, 13 AUGUST 2016
Catholic Junior College
Witness to Mercy, Bearer of Compassion


This is the Jubilee Year of Mercy. It is therefore understandable that the questions most people will ask, especially those of us who are involved in humanitarian works of mercy, are the “what” and the “how”. In other words, the focus is on how we can be better witnesses of mercy to others; be bearers of compassion; what more we can do to extend this mercy and compassion especially to those in need. Such considerations are valid and indeed should be considered.

However, reflecting on the theme that you have chosen for this conference, “Witness to mercy, Bearer of compassion”, the question that came to my mind is not so much the object but the subject. In other words, it is not enough to focus on the recipients of mercy and compassion. The primary focus should be on the witness of mercy and the bearer of compassion. What I want to underscore therefore is the importance of being before doing. Most of us tend to pay so much attention to the function, the doing, the object of our service, but we forget the care-givers, those workers in social and humanitarian works. Hence, whilst focusing on the methods, the approaches and the objectives, we must never forget the agents of God’s mercy and compassion. Accordingly, we need to form our messengers of mercy and compassion so that the services they provide and the work they do will not only be more beneficial for their recipients but that they themselves will be helped. Precisely, conferences such as this seek to do just that.

The truth is that when those involved in humanitarian works are not properly formed, motivated and guided, they can do more harm than good, not just to their recipients but to themselves. At any rate, they would not be able to give their best because they are serving from the wrong or impure motives or from their own limited capacity. Indeed, if a social worker is feeling inadequate, insecure and wounded, he or she would end up using the services he or she renders to feed his or her ego and emptiness, or even to pass on the hurts. The service that he or she gives will not be the consequence of an abundant love flowing out from him or her; rather, the giver would be seeking compensation and love from the recipients. This explains why some care-givers and social workers expect appreciation, recognition and can be ambitious in imposing their plans and ideology on the organization. Unconsciously, by helping these people, they need to feel that they are superior to them and that they are capable of giving rather than receiving. This gives them a false sense of feeling good about themselves.

The other weakness in Catholic Charity is that many Catholics fail to distinguish between pure humanitarian work and Christian charity. Humanitarian works spring from the compassion that is already written in the hearts of man. This is why it is called humanitarian works. But Christian charity is not just another form of social assistance. Christian charity is more than just a response to the needs of the poor, but one that is inspired by one’s personal encounter with God in Christ who inspires him or her to reach out to others. In other words, the motive of Christian charity goes beyond a mere human obligation to help the poor but it springs from an active faith in Christ, which is then manifested through love. Christian social workers are those who have been touched by Christ’s love. Conquered by His love, they are moved to share His love with others. It is for this reason that Christian charity is not rooted or influenced by any ideologies or philosophies that seek to change the political and social structures of the world. It is primarily rooted in Christ’s love for us all. As St Paul says, “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” (2 Cor 5:14f)

Thus, we need to form our social workers so that they have the right motives and a love that is generous and pure when serving the poor.   The best witness to God is one who is driven by the love of God. If our workers are truly driven by the love of Christ in the way they serve and reach out to the poor, their genuine love and concern for them would be the most effective form of witness to Christ’s life, even without having to proclaim His name explicitly. In the gospel, Jesus clearly says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

How should this formation take place? Firstly, to be a witness to mercy and a bearer of compassion, we need to begin with ourselves. The basic philosophical principle is that we cannot give what we have not got. So how can we be witnesses to mercy and bearers of compassion if we lack mercy and compassion towards ourselves? That is why it is so important that mercy and compassion begin with ourselves.

So the primacy in serving the poor presupposes that we ourselves have encountered the love, mercy and compassion of God in our own lives, whether directly through prayer, religious encounters, miraculous interventions, or indirectly through the mercy and compassion of our fellow human beings. St Paul himself was a recipient before he was a witness to God’s mercy when he shared how the Lord called him to be his apostle in spite of the fact that he “was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” (1 Tim 1:13)

So the theme, ‘Witness to Mercy’ presupposes we have seen mercy, especially divine mercy, in our lives.   Only then can we become bearers of compassion like our Lord. This is what the Lord instructed us when He taught, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And the second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mk 12:30f) From the love of God for us, we can return that love to Him and to love our neighbours as He has loved us.

Consequently whilst charity cannot be used as a means of proselytization, this does not exclude the sharing of the Gospel because charity involves our concern for the whole person, which is more than just satisfying the physical and material needs but also the affective and spiritual hunger of those whom we are reaching out to. Indeed, in the final analysis, the deepest need of man is God. We cannot satisfy man’s greed but only his needs. But even when his needs are satisfied, he will look for something more than what can satisfy his body and soul. Food, knowledge and love can satisfy his body and soul, but only God can quench the thirst of his spirit.

So, it is necessary that Church social workers, and that includes all those in ministry as well, priests and religious no less, must contemplate on the face of Christ, His compassion and love for us on the Cross and His passion and resurrection. Only when we remember His love and mercy for us, can we then serve with humility and devotion; not because we are superior to those whom we serve but because God has blessed us with His love and mercy.   Even in service, we count it as a privilege because without His grace, we cannot even serve. And because we serve out of love, we will never fall into despair or take things into our own hands, recognizing that it is the Lord’s work at the end of the day.

In prayer, we draw new strength from the Lord to love and serve.   We should never become discouraged when things do not turn out the way we desire. If our source of mercy comes from God in the first place, we must, from beginning to end, be weary of activism and secularism where those engaged in works of charity and Church ministry depend only on themselves rather than on the grace and power of God. Otherwise we might become disillusioned when the poor are not helped or they continue to suffer injustice.

Indeed, many good Christians and even priests and religious lose courage and hope when they find that their good initiatives are unable to take off because of opposition or constraints. They end up angry and bitter with God and those whom they feel are responsible for their inability to carry out their projects. When we become disillusioned and when we become angry with God, then it shows that the mercy we give to others does not spring from God’s mercy for us but from a pure humanitarian compassion. This can lead to anger and resentment when expectations are not met. Only faith and hope in the indestructible power of God’s love can see us through, whether we are successful or not.   Whatever it is, His will must be done and His incomprehensible designs be allowed to take place. Only then will we find peace in whatever we do.

Secondly, something must be said about the human formation of our social workers. The attitude we have towards others is very much determined by the way we perceive ourselves. How we see ourselves will colour the way we see others, their situations and the reality. Each of us acts out of our self-image.   The expectations we have of others spring from the expectations we have of ourselves. Unconsciously, we tend to impose our own expectations on others even when we cannot fulfil them ourselves. This was the way of the Scribes and Pharisees in the gospel. St Paul himself admitted that the Laws cannot save them. In saying this, there are repercussions because the attitude we have towards of ourselves will determine not only how we will act but how others will “react” towards us. If we do not treat ourselves with respect, we cannot imagine that others will treat us with respect. Most people treat us the way we treat ourselves. When we act out of fear and insecurity, people will perceive us as such and will react accordingly.

Consequently, our self-image and attitude towards self will determine our capacity to love others. If we suffer from low self-image or a lack of self-confidence, then instead of focusing on the needs and pains of those whom we are serving, we will be more concerned about what is going on inside us. When we are nursing our own pains and hurts, how can we have the strength and right attitudes to help others to solve their own pains? This is particularly true if we are tending to our own insecurities and the sense of inadequacy. By so doing, we are left with a lesser capacity to reach out and a diminished ability to feel with others. That is why instead of being too concerned with what we are doing, we must be more concerned with how others are doing. Instead of being focused on what we are doing, we should be concerned with how we are loving ourselves.

In the final analysis, we must never think that giving is a one way process but it is always two ways. Otherwise, we will end up being condescending towards the poor and underprivileged.   In truth, we are as much in need of mercy as them. We are all poor in our own ways. Some are materially and financially poor; others are affectively poor. Others are bereft of joy, meaning, purpose and contentment in life. So in serving the poor with our time, money and resources, we in turn become recipients of God’s love and mercy ourselves.

Indeed, many of us who have gone for mercy trips return materially poorer but our hearts are richer. Many are philanthropists simply because they feel the sufferings of the poor and the marginalized. In giving, they receive tremendous joy and satisfaction that no pleasure on earth can buy. When we reach out to the poor, we are enriched and feel more human as well. We grow in the capacity to love and in compassion. The poor and the suffering help us to be in touch with our own pains and struggles. The poor open our eyes to the realities of life and the joy of loving and caring. They give us back our humanity and teach us to be human, one that can feel and is compassionate.

They teach us to be grateful for what we have and how we too can share our abundance with others who are less fortunate. When we are oblivious to how others are suffering, we begin to take for granted what we have and the comforts we are blessed with. Instead of being grateful for God’s blessings and using them well, we are always lamenting about what we do not have. Because we only seek to satisfy our craving for things and pleasure, we are never satisfied. It is only when we know and see how little others have and yet are so joyful and happy in life that we begin to wonder what is missing in our lives. Indeed, when you visit the poorer countries, especially those in Laos and Cambodia, we see that the people are poor but they are always so happy and grateful for the little things of life.

When we are one with our fellowmen, life becomes more meaningful. To share the joys and pains of our fellowmen is what gives us meaning in life. No longer do we live like animals without meaning and purpose, simply caring for ourselves. We can never become fully alive if we just live on this level. Meaning is found only when we live for others, when we learn how to care for others. This is the only way to live. Those who live passionately are always those who are living for the world, regardless who we are, priests, politicians, musicians, medical personnel, social workers or parents. By living for others, we live even more.

So, if we wish to live a fuller life, then we must be personally in touch with the poor. We must go out of our comfort zone to be with them so that we can appreciate what we have, be thankful for God’s blessings and in turn become so generous with what we have that we are willing to share with those who are less privileged than us. Indeed, my visit to Cambodia was an eye opener to the sufferings of the people during the Pol Pot Regime, those who were tortured and died in the Killings Fields, the poor who are suffering. More recently, my pilgrimage with the young people to the World Youth Day was another memorable experience, especially when we had to walk for hours under the hot sun or stand in the field for hours without shade. I can imagine how much more the refugees have to endure for days and months, even years, under the heat and cold. Unless we reach out to them and are there with them personally, we cannot truly feel with them in their struggles and pains. As we hear their stories, their aspirations, woes and afflictions, our hearts will be softened and we will come to be grateful to God for our blessings and be generous in our sharing as well.

Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
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