Mercy & Truth are shown together in a 13th-century representation of Psalms 85 (10)

Mercy (Middle English, from Anglo-French merci, from Medieval Latin merced-, merces, from Latin, "price paid, wages", from merc-, merxi "merchandise") is a broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious, social and legal contexts.

The concept of a "Merciful God" appears in various religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Performing acts of mercy as a component of religious beliefs is also emphasized through actions such as the giving of alms, and care for the sick and Works of Mercy.

In the social and legal context, mercy may refer both to compassionate behavior on the part of those in power (e.g. mercy shown by a judge toward a convict), or on the part of a humanitarian third party, e.g., a mission of mercy aiming to treat war victims.[1][2]


"Mercy" can be defined as "compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power;" and also "a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion."[3] "To be at someone's mercy" indicates a person being "without defense against someone."[4]

Law and ethics

The Spirit of Compassion, commemorating World War I, South Australia, 1931

In a judicial context mercy is often termed "clemency". It is a sovereign prerogative that resides in the executive and is entirely discretionary. John Locke defined it as "the power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the Law, and sometimes even against it."[5] The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit explained that "The very nature of clemency is that it is grounded solely in the will of the dispenser of clemency. He need give no reasons for granting it or for denying it."[6]


Mercy is one of the basic virtues of chivalry, Hinduism, Christian ethics, Islam, and Judaism.


In the Jewish Bible mercy is one of the outstanding attributes of God. Exodus 34:6 says: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness."[7] This is also emphasized in the context of the Babylonian exile in Isaiah: "For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones. But Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.' Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you." (Isaiah 49:13-15) Also: "It is good to pray and fast, to be merciful and just." (Tobit 12:8) Psalm 117:2 calls upon all nations to praise the Lord for God's "merciful kindness." Psalm 103:8 also praises God for his mercy.


See also: Works of Mercy

An emphasis on mercy appears in the New Testament, e.g., as in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy".[8] In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) Jesus describes fatherly mercy as "a gratuitous, generous gift". In Ephesians 2:4 Apostle Paul refers to the mercy of God in terms of salvation: "God, being rich in mercy,... even when we were dead through our sins, made us alive together with Christ".

Psalm 117 calls upon all nations to praise the Lord, and that on account of his "merciful kindness". This is quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 15:11 to show that God has now fulfilled this prophecy and promise through Jesus Christ, who has been merciful in giving his life as a sacrifice for his people, both Jew and Gentile. Thus St Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9,10, "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy."

This devotional element of mercy as part of the Christian tradition was echoed by Saint Augustine who called mercy "ever ancient, ever new".[8][9] The Works of Mercy (seven corporal and seven spiritual works) are part of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.[10]

Roman Catholicism

See also: Divine Mercy and Divine Mercy Sunday

The Divine Mercy image representing the devotion followed by over 100 million Catholics[11]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes the importance of the Works of Mercy (item 2447) and in Roman Catholic teachings, the mercy of God flows through the work of the Holy Spirit.[10][12] Roman Catholic liturgy includes frequent references to mercy, e.g., as in Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison: Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.[13]

In the 20th century, there was new focus on mercy in the Roman Catholic Church, partly due to the Divine Mercy devotion.[11][14][15] The primary focus of the Divine Mercy devotion is the merciful love of God and the desire to let that love and mercy flow through one's own heart towards those in need of it.[14]

Pope John Paul II was a follower of the Divine Mercy devotion, due to Saint Mary Faustina Kowalska (1905–1938), who is known as the Apostle of Mercy.[15][16] Pope John Paul II established Divine Mercy Sunday. In his long encyclical Dives in misericordia (Latin for Rich in Mercy) he examined the role of mercy — both God's mercy, and also the need for human mercy.[17]

A number of Roman Catholic shrines are specifically dedicated to Divine Mercy, e.g. the Basilica of Divine Mercy in Krakow Poland, and the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy (Stockbridge, Massachusetts).[18] During the dedication of the Basilica of Divine Mercy John Paul II quoted the Diary of Faustina and called mercy the "greatest attribute of God Almighty".[19]

The first World Apostolic Congress on Mercy was held in Rome in April 2008 and was inaugurated by Pope Benedict XVI.[8][20][21]

On 11 April, 2015, at St. Peter's Basillica, in a Papal Bull of Indiction entitled Misericordiae Vultus ("The Face of Mercy"), Pope Francis proclaimed a Special and Extraordinary Holy Year Jubilee Year of Mercy, from December 8, 2015: Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, until November 21, 2016: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ the King.[22] The theme of the Extraordinary Jubilee is taken from Luke 6:36, "Merciful, Like the Father".[23]


In Islam the title "Most Merciful" (al-Rahman) is one of the names of Allah and Compassionate (al-Rahim), is the most common name occurring in the Quran. Rahman and Rahim both derive from the root Rahmat, which refers to tenderness and benevolence.[24] As a form of mercy, the giving of alms (zakat) is the fourth of the Five Pillars of Islam and one of the requirements for the faithful.[25]

Other religions and beliefs

Kwan Yin the bodhisattva of mercy and compassion, is one of the best known and most venerated Bodhisattva in Asia.[26]

Karuṇā (often translated as "compassion") is part of the beliefs of both Buddhism and Jainism. Karuṇā is present in all schools of Buddhism and in Jainism it is viewed as one of the reflections of universal friendship.

The spiritual teacher Meher Baba described God as being "all-merciful and eternally benevolent" in his O Parvardigar prayer, and he held that we can approach God through the "invocation of His mercy."[27]



The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Sarat, Austin and Hussain, Nasser. Forgiveness, mercy, and clemency, 2006 ISBN 0-8047-5333-4 pp. 1-5
  2. ^ Menke, Christopher. Reflections of equality by Christoph Menke 2006 ISBN 0-8047-4474-2 p. 193
  3. ^ "Mercy",
  4. ^ "At the mercy of", McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
  5. ^ Locke, John. Second Treatise on Civil Government, (C.B MacPherson, ed.), Indianapolis, Indiana. Hackett, 1980, §§ 159-160
  6. ^ In re Sapp, 118 F. 3d 460, 465 (6th Cir. 1997)
  7. ^ After the exile by John Barton, David James Reimer 1997 ISBN 978-0-86554-524-3 page 90
  8. ^ a b c Mercies Remembered by Matthew R Mauriello 2011 ISBN 1-61215-005-5 page 149-160
  9. ^ Augustine, Confessions, Book X, 27
  10. ^ a b We Believe in the Holy Spirit by Andrew Apostoli 2002 ISBN 1-931709-31-9 pages 105-107
  11. ^ a b Am With You Always by Benedict Groeschel 2010 ISBN 978-1-58617-257-2 page 548
  12. ^ Vatican website Catechism item 2447
  13. ^ Catholic encyclopedia: Kyrie Eleison
  14. ^ a b Ann Ball, 2003 Encyclopedia of Catholic Devotions and Practices ISBN 0-87973-910-X page 175
  15. ^ a b Butler's lives of the saints: the third millennium by Paul Burns, Alban Butler 2001 ISBN 978-0-86012-383-5 page 252
  16. ^ Saints of the Jubilee by Tim Drake 2002 ISBN 978-1-4033-1009-5 pages 85-95
  17. ^ Vatican website: Dives in misericordia
  18. ^ Vatican website: Shrine of Divine Mercy
  19. ^ Vatican website: Dedication of the Shrine of Divine Mercy
  20. ^ Zenit April 2, 2008
  21. ^ Catholic News Service, APril 3, 2008
  22. ^ Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, April 11, 2015, Libreria Editrice Vaticana
  23. ^ Harris, Elise. "Pope Francis declares Holy Year for Mercy", Catholic News Agency, March 13, 2015
  24. ^ World religions and Islam: a critical study, Part 1 by Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi, 2003 Sarup and Sons Publishers ISBN 81-7625-414-2 page 211
  25. ^ Hooker, Richard (July 14, 1999). "arkan ad-din the five pillars of religion". Washington State University. [1]
  26. ^ Guan Yin: goddess of compassion by Kok Kiang Koh 2004 ISBN 981-229-379-5 pages 6-8
  27. ^ Kalchuri, Bhau (1986). Meher Prabhu: Lord Meher. 18. Myrtle Beach: Manifestation, Inc. p. 5986.
  28. ^ a b c d "Quotes About Mercy", Goodreads
  29. ^ Shakespeare, William (2010). Bate, Jonathan and Eric Rasmussen (ed.). "The Merchant of Venice". Modern Library. pp. 150–151. ISBN 978-1-58836-874-4.
  30. ^ C. Alphonso Smith, ed. (1922). "A Retrieved Reformation". Selected stories from O. Henry. New York: Odyssey Press. pp. 41–49. ((cite book)): External link in |chapterurl= (help); Unknown parameter |chapterurl= ignored (|chapter-url= suggested) (help)