The Power of Compassion for Missionary Life
The Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit received a new input for missionary life through the launching of the Year of Compassion. The Congregational Leadership Team chose the Feast of our founder, Saint Arnold Janssen, to send to the sisters a letter introducing the goals for 2024.
In the letter, Sr. Miriam Altenhofen, our Congregational Leader says: “Active compassion is the witness of our mutual, human, restorative, inclusive love. May Fr. Arnold intercede for us as we continue to be instruments of God’s compassion to those at the margins of society and to all of creation”.
Here we share with you the article of Sr. Kreti Sanhueza focusing on compassion from Anthropological, Spiritual, and Missionary perspectives for an in-depth understanding of our mission in the lengths of our Congregational Directions. This reflection is intended to be used for all formation levels, including ongoing formation with our lay collaborators in the mission.
SSpS 2024, The Year of Compassion
by Sister Kreti Soledad Sanhueza, SSpS
The text before you is intended to be a simple reflection on the central theme that will guide us through this year 2024. As we all know, we are seeking to actualize each of the Chapter Directions, focusing our missionary being and doing based on a keyword that helps us to translate our prayer and reflection into action.
On this occasion, we turn our attention to Direction #2: Awakened to the cry of the Trinity through the pain and suffering of Mother Earth and our sisters and brothers at the margins, ecological conversion and sustainable living become our ethical imperative.
According to the meaning of this Direction, the Trinitarian God makes himself heard and found through everything he has created. Is there anything that can be indifferent to God? As Paul indicates, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Rom 1:20) .
With that consideration, this text is a contribution to the understanding of compassion from an anthropological, spiritual and missionary perspective. We hope it can help you in your community meetings, as well as those with the laity with whom you work.
When We Say Compassion, What Are We Thinking About?
First of all, it is necessary to be aware that the word compassion has its origin in the human and social sphere, and not only in the religious and biblical environment. Hence, its practice can generate bridges of connection between societies and families, and evangelical and/or Christian values.
In the context of society and family life, we commonly speak of “acts of solidarity,” whenwhat is organized has the goal of helping others. It all depends on the situation that prompts the solidarity of people, neighbors, coworkers or students. Whatever the reason and the way it is expressed, it is always related to helping another who is in need.
In this sense, we can ask ourselves: What gestures, what actions or what types of collaboration occur in our social environment? We could give ourselves the task of observing, for a week, fifteen days or a month, how people, families, friends, co-workers, etc. express their solidarity. And in this way, we can see if there is more solidarity than indifference in our society.
Compassion in the Biblical-Spiritual Context
In the context of biblical theology, starting with the Old Testament (OT), the word hesed appears, which is translated as compassion and/or mercy. This word contains two characteristic aspects: something practical and something communal. Regarding the first characteristic, it is something concrete, something that the person or people experience in a real, effective way. As for community, it refers to something that is demonstrated between several people, something that is requested and hoped for expected from another person. In both characteristic aspects, it is an action in favor of those who are touched by misfortune or need, and it is an action that seeks the good and not the evil of people in need. This action is ongoing, it is transformed into an attitude of life.
What needs or misfortunes do the people around us experience?
From an overall view of the OT, we can see God as the God of the Covenant, who on Mount Zion presents himself as the merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in love and faithfulness, who maintains his love for a thousand generations and forgives inequity, rebellion and sin, but does not leave them unpunished (cf. Ex 34:6-7). This indicates that the infidelities of the chosen people are not a breach of the Covenant, but rather a ‘sting’ for the love of God, who must seek new paths to arouse a response of expected love and faith from the people.
In the New Testament (NT), particularly in the Gospels, we find a keyword used as a noun; it is the word éleos. This term is used in the NT in the context of the cry of those who approach Jesus imploring Him for some favor; “Sons of David, have mercy on me.” And we know that those who approach Jesus are the suffering, the helpless, the sick, those possessed by evil spirits, that is, those who cry out for mercy for themselves and their loved ones. They are the people who expect a compassionate response from Jesus.
As related to the above, we find in the NT some biblical texts that present strong ethical messages, such as the Beatitudes, the parable of the Good Samaritan and the servant who was forgiven. In each of these stories and others, the invitation is to recognize the mercy of God as a gift that carries with it the implicit response of concrete solidarity of the brothers and sisters and followers of Jesus. The call is to live as a follower in the compassionate love of Jesus and not the simple fulfillment of rites and external religious practices, as the Pharisees did (cf. Mt 23:13-28).
Compassion, an Appeal only among Humans?
If we start from the basis of our confession of faith, in the Creed we pray: “I believe in God… Creator of heaven and earth, of things visible and invisible”, we have to admit that both compassion and Christian conversion include the relationship that human beings also have with the world.
The biblical accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis, as Pope Francis points out in his Encyclical Laudato Si’, suggest to us that human existence is based on three fundamental relationships, which are intimately connected to one another: the relationship with God, the relationship with our neighbor and the relationship with the earth. It is therefore a question of God’s original plan, in which harmony between the Creator, humanity and all creation prevails (cf. LS, n. 66).
In the first account of creation (Gen 1:1-31), the expression “and God said” appears ten times. The description of how God’s creative action happens varies according to the nature of the Subject who performs the creative act and the object resulting from said action. We can see this with the element of earth. The earth itself possesses the capacity to germinate and therefore can carry out God’s plan of provision. And although the earth produces of its own accord, the ability to produce has nevertheless been given to it by the Creator’s foresight. Likewise, when it is foreseen that the earth will produce animals, it is God who is responsible for carrying out this vision of the future.
In that sense, the story’s central idea is that God is the Creator of everything, of the primordial elements, of those belonging to the three areas of the physical universe (water, earth, sky), and of humans. Furthermore, said creation is presented as an ordered and ordering activity. There is an organizing axis in God’s activity that is structured in the six days, by the designation of the hours of light, by the action verbs indicated and by the assignment to man of caring for and tilling the land.
There is also an important clause in this story: “And God saw that everything was good.” God looks at creation each day and finds it good. God was pleased with his own creation. This clause is the first value statement in the Bible. This is an ethical clause. According to the exegete Gerhard von Rad, this clause refers to the fullness of purpose and harmony, and not to an aesthetic view of what is created.
When the Christian faith speaks of creation and in doing so directs its gaze to God, then it says only that God created the world as something good.
The author of the story wants to assure his readers that God did not fail. Nothing in creation is flawed. The light is good. The land and waters are good, the trees and all plants are good. The sky and all things in it are good. Animals and all living creatures are good. And finally, human beings are good. The author of the priestly account of creation knew, from his own experience, that there is much to respect and fear in the world, and that the creature is not just something to be used and enjoyed.
Therefore, we are not God. As Pope Francis affirms, the earth precedes us and has been given to us. Responsibility towards an earth that belongs to God requires that human beings, endowed with intelligence, respect the laws of nature and the delicate balances between the beings of this world. Biblical legislation, furthermore, stops to propose to human beings several norms, not only in relation to other human beings, but also in relation to other living beings: “If you see your brother’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, you shall not neglect it… If you come across a bird’s nest along the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young.” (Dt 22:4, 6) (cf. LS, n.68 ).
How do young people relate to nature?
What is our view on created things?
Do we value them as God’s creation or
look at them as insignificant things?
Compassion, a Shared Action
We seek to reflect under this subtitle that which the Holy Scriptures reveal to us about God’s compassion, based on two very significant biblical stories for the missionary spiritual context that we want to promote. We refer to the story of “the burning bush” and that of “the blind man of Jericho”.
Based on a simple analysis of these two stories we want to highlight two things; First, that the experience of God’s compassion in the Bible is a transversal theme and, therefore, is not limited to classic stories, such as the Beatitudes and the Good Samaritan. Second, that the experience of God’s compassionate love entails explicit work on people’s lives.
We begin with the text of “the burning bush” of Exodus 3:1-17. Although we recognize this text as that of the ‘vocation of Moses’, we know this story is the prelude to a great task that God entrusts to Moses. And in this text are the central elements of this task. Three elements to consider: perception of reality, leadership and action strategy.
Leadership. God knows Moses. He knows the indignation Moses felt while he lived in Egypt and saw the oppression of his people. There is something in this man that is in tune with God’s desire to deliver the people.
Apparently, Moses himself does not know that he can do something for the people of Israel. On the other hand, God sees that Moses can do it. God also summons him to take care of the people. Throughout the Pentateuch, we see him as the intermediary between God and the people. What made him stand out in the eyes of God? Moses shows that, despite his weaknesses, he is a man who puts his leadership “at the service” not only of God, but also of the people entrusted to him. The apostle Paul portrays Moses as someone who decided to serve his people when he chose to identify himself with the affliction of God’s people, instead of remaining in the luxury and elite position of the house of Pharaoh (cf. Heb 11:24 -26).
Action strategy. What is the mission of Moses? God calls Moses to help the people leave the oppressive situation in which they find themselves and to form a new people, where there is no injustice, no oppression, no marginalization. God, on his part, undertakes to be at Moses’ side and the people’s side. Moses needs only to trust in God. God’s summons to Moses contains, therefore, three actions: go to Egypt to ask for the liberation of the Israelites; take the people out of Egypt, and lead the people to the promised land. Likewise, Moses’ task then becomes that of presenting the project of liberation to the Israelites and getting them to accept it. From that experience of the encounter between God and Moses, Moses learns to love to intercede for his people, and even when the people are unfaithful to God, Moses’ heart is with his people, regardless of their sin (cf. Ex 32 :13), in the same way that God loves Israel.
What afflictions do our Sisters and people around us experience? Do we hear the voice of God, inviting us to do something?
What are the visible signs that we are hearing God’s voice inviting us to concrete actions?
What are the concrete actions that promote teamwork and involve those affected?
In the NT, particularly in the Gospel of Mark 10:46-52, we find the narrative about the healing of “the blind man of Jericho.” As we know, the social reality of Israel in the time of Jesus considered poor to be, among others, those who lived off the aid they received. For many, the blind man of Jericho is nothing more than a poor man, a victim of his illness, someone who does not matter in the great plans of the government in power.
The few verses that talk about Bartimaeus show us that this blind man was a person of tenacity, one of those who do not give up easily. Surely, everyone in the city of Jericho knows him, because he is different, he has the personality for coming into contact with people. Most likely, his life consists of being led to the side of the road, every day. There he begs and his livelihood depends on the goodwill of passers-by. Probably, his hearing is very refined and sensitive, due to his lack of sight, and it informs him when someone is approaching.
This blind man’s life would not have been easy. Some have become so accustomed to seeing it there that they probably consider it part of the landscape. Others may stop to throw him a few coins and hear his thanks.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus recognizes that the person approaching is not just another preacher of those who are so abundant among the people. Something interesting to observe in this story is that the blind man does not ask Jesus for healing, but rather tells him: “have mercy on me.” He knows that if Jesus has compassion on him, something important will happen to him. And the crowd, for its part, rebukes him so that he does not shout but rather remains silent.
In the middle of that situation, Jesus stops and sends for him. In other words, Jesus stops to give all his attention to that blind man who begs on the road. Faced with the shouted call that the blind man made to him, Jesus responds with the question: “What do you want me to do to you?”; That is, how can I help you, how can I cooperate with your situation? And the blind man manifests what he needs: “Teacher, that I may regain my sight.”
Who is shouting along the way, in our social context?
When Bartimaeus realized that Jesus is calling him, he throws off his cloak, gets up and goes to Jesus. Faced with the call of Jesus, the blind man does not for a moment hesitate to act; he leaves his previous position, abandons the passivity of it and moves towards a new state of life. His response is immediate and enthusiastic.
Therefore, Jesus was moved by the blind man. Jesus acts from his heart, he is empathetic. He acts on the blind man, not to impress or achieve personal prestige, but to generate something new in the person of the blind man. Jesus says to Bartimaeus: “Go, your faith has saved you.” That is, Jesus welcomes and confirms the active participation of the blind man in his own healing: “your faith has saved you.”
Jesus teaches us that compassion involves knowing and acting on people’s needs, with them and not without them. He acts publicly because he wants to reveal that God’s compassion operates in the midst of everyone and in full view of everyone. He teaches us that his actions are a path of inner and outer transformation of a human being and that they have social repercussions.
What is our way of responding to the cry of those in need?
Do our social missionary actions favor the dignity, change, and autonomy of people in need?
Surely, all of us SSpS, feel and think that our missionary presence today, wherever we are, must always and ever anew be as witnessing to the compassionate love of God and Jesus, which humanizes, restores and includes all people and protects creation.
In this sense, during this year of compassion, we have the opportunity to deepen and grow in the awareness that we have been called to share our life and mission with each other, with our sisters and brothers at the margins, and with all of creation.
It is our wish that we would feel invited to look at created reality with compassionate eyes. Likewise, may our missionary action strategies contemplate the ways of God and Jesus. May our compassionate love elicit inclusion and participation. May our listening to the pain and suffering of people, as well as of Mother Earth, generate restorative relationships. Finally, may every missionary service of ours give rise to a humanizing movement; that people, like nature, may live a sustainable life in our common home, in accordance with God’s original plan.