Pinoy Kasi

Translating mercy

/ 12:15 AM January 14, 2015

Given the way mercy and compassion have become hallmarks of Pope Francis’ ministry, the Inquirer organized two “Conversations” around the papal visit. The first, on “A Church of Mercy,” was held on Jan. 10 with Cardinal Luis Tagle being interviewed by Inquirer publisher Raul Pangalangan and Inquirer.net editor in chief John Nery, and the second, on “People of Compassion,” held on Jan. 12 with Archbishop Socrates Villegas dialoguing with Inquirer columnist Ceres Doyo and myself.

Preparing for our session with Father Soc, as the archbishop prefers to be called, and the way the symposium itself unfolded, got me reflecting deeply on the two English terms “mercy” and “compassion,” and how they might become meaningful in the Philippine context.


Father Soc returned several times to the term “awa ng Diyos,” which he said was essential for an understanding of why we are in this world, the events that take place in our lives, even our future. I thought of the Arabic Inshallah, Allah willing, which Muslims (and, increasingly, non-Muslims) use.

In one of her questions to Father Soc, Ceres focused on the Filipino terms for compassion. She noted how this is often translated into “pagmamalasakit,” but said she was also aware of the term “habag,” which Father Soc has also used.



I do have some reservations with the term “awa” because it comes closer to “pity,” and in the Philippine social context, a feudal one marked by strong class divisions, awa can become condescending.

I brought this up at the Inquirer Conversation, pointing out the usefulness of the saying “nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa”—God pities (or has compassion), but it is up to humans to do something.

I worked with the Catholic Church’s social action programs in the 1970s, mainly in health, and went around from one diocese to another, to try to convince bishops and parish priests to move away from one-shot medical missions and launch instead community-based health programs, with health education and self-help activities.

Doles are actually dehumanizing, keeping people in dependency relationships, while “bootstrap” programs, where people are given skills to lift themselves up, enhance human dignity.

Father Soc responded by talking about different levels for helping people. One is to pray for them. The next level is one of charity. The third level is developmental, which includes self-help. The fourth level is liberational, tackling the structures that bring about poverty.

Father Soc’s reference to the liberational echoes what Pope Francis has been saying as well in many speeches, in part a legacy of liberation theology popular in the 1970s with references to “social sin.” What we do, or don’t do, for others can also be transgressions.


When it goes beyond transient pity, awa actually comes close to the English “compassion,” where the emphasis is more on sympathy, on understanding where people are coming from.

It is this element of solidarity that is being developed now in Catholic theology, particularly that of Cardinal Walter Kasper, sometimes referred to as the “pope’s theologian.” Kasper’s book, “Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life” (the original German published in 2012 and translated into English and published last year) brings together his work on mercy, which he says has been neglected in theology. Mercy transforms God from an abstract metaphysical “I am” to “I am with you,” a theme that runs through the Old Testament and, of course, into the New Testament in Jesus, who becomes man to redeem humanity.

Understanding this power of mercy can help us understand the Nazarene devotions. On the surface, the frenzy seems irrational, even fanatical, but, like it or not, it is the Filipino interpretation of imitating Christ, of doing something to avail oneself of his mercy—pagtutubos, to redeem something, as you do in the pawnshop.

‘Awa’ as action

I would certainly like to see the energies expended in the Nazarene devotions transformed into social action, and this is where we need more discussions about awa, pagmamalasakit, habag. Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, writing in the 19th century, speculated that our awa is derived from the Sanskrit avah, which means “to defend, to protect, to conserve.”

Juan Francisco, an expert in India’s influence on the Philippines, reviewed Tavera’s work and added that avah also means “favor, help, comfort, satisfy.”

Perhaps we should go back to the original Sanskrit avah with its stronger orientation toward action. There is strong speculation that Pope Francis will issue an encyclical on the protection of the environment when he is in the Philippines. Now that is where avah/awa, with a connotation of protection and defense, will be central.

Pagmamalasakit is sharing one’s pain to acquire what Germans call verstehen, an empathetic understanding. We use verstehen in sociology and anthropology to emphasize how research, done through immersion in communities, allows us to move beyond “naiintindihan,” a superficial understanding, toward “nauunawaan,” a deeper grasp, a “knowing.”

Habag is an interesting term. Positively, it means compassion, but, paradoxically, it can also sometimes refer to self-pity, to being disconsolate. “Habagin” is to make someone sad by ignoring him or her.

What seems to be a negative aspect of habag could actually offer new insights in the way we cause suffering through a lack of compassion and the suffering that results.

Long after Pope Francis leaves, I hope we can find ways to make mercy and compassion more relevant by looking into all our languages for terms that better capture “misericordia,” the Latin (as well as Spanish and Italian) word for mercy. Misericordia is what we feel in our heart (cordia), or, more importantly in the Philippine context, what we feel within (loob) for the suffering, for those in misery. It must be a feeling that goes beyond pity, one that imitates Christ.

All said, the term awa should not be seen as condescending pity but as a way for the Church to become gentler, more caring. In one of his first homilies, delivered on the feast of St. Joseph, Pope Francis called on Catholics to become more caring, adding that “caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness.” Awa then has the potential for capturing the power of mercy and compassion, a power derived from sympathy and solidarity, and a commitment to defend good, to defend what’s right.

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TAGS: Archbishop Socrates Villegas, awa, Cardinal Luis Tagle, Ceres Doyo, compassion, habag, Inquirer Conversations, john Nery, malasakit, Mercy, Michael tan, Papal visit, Pope Francis, Raul Pangalangan
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