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Compassion, ‘habag,’ ‘awa ng Diyos’

/ 04:31 AM January 15, 2015

In Filipino, “mercy” is awa; in the Visayan languages, kaluoy. But how translate “compassion”?

“Mercy and compassion” is the theme of Pope Francis’ visit to the Philippines. (Misericordia y compasion, in his native Spanish.) It is easy to differentiate one word from the other when one is thinking in English. But one is suddenly at a loss when trying to find the right Filipino word for “compassion.” I googled online dictionaries and I could not find a precise word for “compassion” in the Philippine languages. Almost always, awa or kaluoy would come up. Theologian and Redemptorist Bro. Karl Gaspar suggested pakig-unong.

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And then the Filipino word habag appeared on screen. Habag, as in Diyos na mahabagin. Is this it?

In news broadcasts on the papal visit, one often hears the word malasakit being used. I don’t know how that word was chosen. But you don’t say, Diyos na may malasakit to mean the compassionate God. To me, malasakit is simply concern, a human duty embodied in the Golden Rule.

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Lingayen Archbishop Socrates Villegas, head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, provided a profound meaning of the word “compassion”—and a Filipino nuance as well—at the second Inquirer Conversation on the papal visit held at the University of Santo Tomas last Monday, where my fellow columnist Michael Tan (of “Pinoy Kasi”), the students and I took turns asking questions, with editors John Nery and Chito de la Vega facilitating. (The first Inquirer Conversation on the papal visit was held last Saturday with Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle tackling the theme of mercy.)

At the holding room before the program began, I mentioned to the archbishop (“Call me ‘Father Soc,’” he said) that I would be asking him a question on the meaning of compassion in the Philippine context. Over coffee I also asked what story in the Bible was, for him, a good example of compassion. The Good Samaritan? The good shepherd looking for the lost sheep?

His quick answer stumped me: the father of the prodigal son.

Aww, I exclaimed in jest, but wasn’t he quite unfair and didn’t he play favorites? Oh, that “prodigal father,” I thought.

I reflected on his answer while we were walking to the auditorium and I began to see why—God showing love in an extravagant, lavish, unconditional way.

At the symposium, Archbishop Soc translated “compassion” as “awa ng Diyos” (the mercy of God) that Filipinos often use. As in “sa awa ng Diyos,” (by the mercy of God) or “may awa ang Diyos” (God has mercy). So while the word “mercy” means awa, “compassion” means awa ng Diyos. Allowing God’s mercy to shine through our actions.

In concrete, it goes beyond prayer, almsgiving and charity work, Archbishop Soc said; it also entails developmental work that would improve the lives—materially, spiritually—of the objects of our compassion. And lastly, it is liberational, which means working to bring about a just society, freeing persons from oppressive systems and structures.

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In my view, the word “mercy” suggests something that is asked or begged for by someone in need of it, and, on the other end, it is something being dispensed by the one who is able to give it. It is easy to say, “No mercy” (as I am wont to say concerning incorrigible plunderers); it takes courage to be merciful.

For me, compassion is one step further. It is mercy plus plus. Mercy plus love, sympathy, empathy, concern, care, action, presence. It has a deep human emotional component that impels and compels. Whatever it is borne out of—the spiritual, emotional, familial—it embraces and heals.

Despite the mercy-compassion theme for this papal visit, we have not been reminded enough to show these not only to fellow humans but also to our environment as well. The reminders are mostly about crowd orderliness and security, but there is little about not leaving, uh, trash.

Archbishop Soc said that when he was in South Korea during Pope Francis’ visit there, he saw people carrying small bags for their garbage and not leaving litter behind. I say, in contrast, Filipino Catholics are known to leave trash—even inside churches—for others to pick up. I hope Pope Francis’ visit will change all that.

Today the Holy Father arrives from Sri Lanka. According to news reports, he will soon come out with an encyclical tackling climate change and environmental issues. That would read like something straight out of the devastated Eastern Visayas landscape that he will be visiting two days from now. Mercy and compassion for Planet Earth, how about that?

Whether or not we have a native word for compassion, I would like to think that we Filipinos have a lot of it. So what’s in a word? Plenty. There is power in a word, there is power in naming. There is also power in silence.

Speaking of silence, I hope Filipino TV and radio journalists who will be reporting live will not fill the air nonstop with their shrill voices when Pope Francis steps out of the plane and during his many public appearances. We already heard Filipinos reporting live while the Pope was going down the plane in Sri Lanka.

We appreciate the TV and radio reporters’ hard work, but their giving their vocal chords some rest would be appreciated just as well. TV viewers might want to savor papal moments with few auditory irritants and prefer the live sounds around the Pope, not the voices of reporters who cannot tone down their excitement. No offense meant.

Unlike in the two previous papal visits when, as a journalist, I had a hand-clasping moment with Pope (now Saint) John Paul II and ringside views of him, this time I will be with the multitude.

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