This is a talk to be given at a divine mercy celebration at St Francis de Sales, Hampton Hill, England, on the Sunday after Easter.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In this talk I want to begin by examining the general concept of mercy and its role in everyday language and literature. Next, I’ll talk about mercy in the old testament, where two Hebrew words were used to convey the idea. I describe Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas’ view of mercy, and then I come to what the church teaches about it.
To do this, I look at the words of the Mass, and at the catechisms of the Council of Trent and Vatican II. We’ll look at Saint John Paul’s dives in misericordia, an encyclical on mercy and at the appearance of mercy in our Lady’s magnificat. Next, I briefly describe the appearance of mercy in holy scripture, before saying a bit about the life of divine mercy’s 20th-century messengers.
I’ll talk about the image and the feast of divine mercy. Next come the chaplet, the hour and the novena. I’ll mention St John Paul’s role in divine mercy and I’ll give a personal view of the role of divine mercy in the second Vatican council. I also describe the attitude to divine mercy of Popes Benedict and Francis.
“Mercy” is a noun which came into English from Latin via French. You’ll know that “merci” in modern French means “thank you”. Mercy’s Latin roots include words for goods, wages and reward. It’s even related to “merchandise” and “market”. It seems, therefore, that the words from which “mercy” is descended were all to do with value. Furthermore, these archaic words also involved a concept of duty, payment and just deserts.
Of course, words can change their meanings over the centuries and, like so many other modern words, “mercy” has several meanings. The first thing that “mercy” makes me think of is the act of someone’s reducing the level of punishment that’s due to a wrongdoer. Showing mercy can mean letting people off, or at least shortening their sentence. You can imagine a judge showing mercy when the culprit shows that he or she is sorry for what’s been done. You might even be merciful to someone who isn’t sorry.
A more poetic and religious meaning of “mercy” is a good act. Catholics are encouraged to perform corporal and spiritual works of mercy. A corporal mercy is feeding the poor; a spiritual work is forgiving others when they hurt us. Anecdotally, we’re told to be grateful for small mercies. As with so many abstract words, the meaning of “mercy” overlaps with many other words. Mercy has overtones of kindness, forgiveness, compassion, gentleness, charity, clemency, indulgence, leniency and love.
In act 4 of The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare writes: “The quality of mercy is not strained”. “Strained” here means “forced” or “compelled”, so that phrase could be taken to mean that mercy isn’t something you can require someone to show; it has to be spontaneous. Shakespeare adds that mercy “blesseth him that gives, and him that takes”. In other words, it’s not just good to receive mercy. It’s good to show mercy to others too. Shakespeare also writes about how “mercy seasons justice”. He sees it as a necessary moderation of simply doing the right thing for the sake of it.
Winston Churchill said that one should be magnanimous in victory. St Anselm of Canterbury begs God: “Spare me through your mercy, do not punish me through your justice.”
I promise that I will come to talk about the divine mercy devotion, but let me next mention the role of mercy in the old testament. This is amply described in a footnote to Saint John Paul II’s dives in misericordia. That 1980 encyclical’s title means “rich in mercy” and it has the parable of the prodigal son as its main theme. We’ll return to Saint John Paul later, but here’s what that document says about mercy in the pre-Christian scriptures.
There were two words for “mercy” in biblical Hebrew. The first was “hesed” (חסד) and it not only meant goodness but it also had connotations of loyalty, duty and covenant. Hesed is used when describing God’s freely-made commitments to the people of Israel. These commitments aren’t just legal contracts; they’re outpourings of God’s love for his people. When Israel sinned, they had no legal claim over God because they will have broken their side of the deal. However, God remained faithful to his people because the covenant was more than a law. God thus showed “hesed”, or mercy in remaining loyal to Israel despite what they did. He was faithful to the covenant for his own sake. We thus see an early manifestation of divine mercy.
Dives in misericordia also tells us that the old testament uses “rahamim” (רחמים) to describe mercy. This word is related to the Hebrew word for womb, and it thus connotes maternal love. The encyclical suggests that rahamim is a feminine counterpart to hesed, showing another facet of God’s merciful love for us. Rahamim is about love which the child doesn’t merit but which the mother simply gives selflessly, almost instinctively. Rahamim, we are told, is about “goodness and tenderness, patience and understanding [and] readiness to forgive.” In the 49th chapter of Isaiah, God is quoted as saying: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you”. That maternal compassion is rahamim.
By using these two words to mean “mercy”, the old testament authors help us to know that divine mercy is greater than any human mercy. God’s compassion is based not just on solemn covenant and on boundless love. It’s also based on God’s very goodness, something we can never attain. God is merciful for his own sake, not just ours. Just as creation is itself a consequence of God’s creative goodness, God’s goodness means he can’t help but be merciful to us, his creatures.
Although what I just said was based on Saint John Paul’s encyclical, I was led to that document by Fr Michael Gaitley’s Divine Mercy Explained, which was published last year. This booklet provides material which enables me to fast-forward from old testament times to the fifth century AD. St Augustine of Hippo was a bishop in what is now Algeria and is one of the church’s most important theologians. In his sermons, St Augustine described the Sunday after Easter as “the compendium of the days of mercy”. This suggests that, even in the first millennium, the church celebrated divine mercy, and particularly at Easter and during the week following it. That period is known as the Easter-octave. In the 13th century, St Thomas Aquinas, the church’s greatest theologian, called the octave-day “the second perfection of Easter”. No wonder that day is now divine mercy Sunday.
Before we look further at this devotion, let’s see what the church herself teaches on mercy. The Mass is the centre of Catholic worship and teaching, and there we find a request for divine mercy in the kyrie eleison. In response to our request for such mercy, the priest prays: “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life.” On Sundays and solemnities, we say or sing the gloria which includes another request for God’s mercy. Then, at the breaking of the bread shortly before communion, we twice ask our Lord, the lamb of God, to have mercy on us. Mercy seems indispensable when approaching the throne of grace which is God’s altar.
The second reading at Mass today has St Peter writing: “Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy has given us a new birth as his sons, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead”.
The Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches that God will not fail to bestow his mercy on us. It also talks about the kind of mercy which we must ourselves show when it says: “The best alms and the most excellent act of mercy is forgetfulness of injuries, and good will towards those who have injured us or [our people], in person, in property, or in character. Whoever, therefore, desires to experience in a special manner the mercy of God, should make an offering to God Himself of all his enmities, remit every offence, and pray for his enemies with the greatest good will, seizing every opportunity of doing [his enemies] good.” If we seek God’s mercy, we must ourselves be good even to those who hurt us.
The 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church uses “mercy” in its definition of the Gospel itself. The Gospel is “the revelation in Jesus Christ of God’s mercy to sinners.” This definition is rather different from the mistaken secular view that scripture is a mere compendium of nice thoughts about goodness and kindness. Sure, the Gospel-message is very positive, but it’s much more than a suggestion that we treat each other well. The Gospel tells sinners that they can receive God’s mercy despite their wrongdoings. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card where the person effecting the benign escape is our blessed Lord. The fact that God is merciful doesn’t mean that wrongdoing somehow isn’t wrong. The catechism adds “To receive [God's] mercy, we must admit our faults.” The catechism also mentions those corporal and spiritual works of mercy. It singles out almsgiving for especial praise.
As we get more and more up to date, you can tell that I’m getting increasingly closer to speaking about the modern divine mercy devotion itself. However, let me tantalise you further by going back to speak some more about Saint John Paul’s dives in misericordia, his second encyclical which he issued in 1980, two years into his pontificate. The word “mercy” occurs more than 200 times in the English version of this document. God is rich in mercy and Christ is the incarnation of mercy. The former pope often couples love with mercy, sometimes writing “love-mercy”. I’m sure it’s already struck you how close in meaning are concepts such as love, charity, compassion, forgiveness and mercy. The words are facets of the same divine attribute – what makes the Christian God a god of love.
Saint John Paul reminds us of how our Lord mentions mercy in St Matthew’s version of the beatitudes. Christ promises that the merciful will receive [presumably divine] mercy. The entry-point to divine mercy therefore is the practice of human mercy. As well as pointing out how God’s mercy is a constant theme of the old testament, John Paul likens mercy to that form of love known as agape. This is the unconditional, self-sacrificing love which again evokes the covenant between God and man.
God’s mercy, dives in misericordia tells us, isn’t just an abstract idea. It was revealed tangibly through Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. Human mercy was totally absent at Calvary, when Christ was the victim of man’s sin. Victim though our Lord was of all our wrongdoings, he was still able to show his mercy to the good thief who repented on the cross, promising that thief a heavenly existence that very day.
When our Lady praises God in the magnificat, she says that God’s mercy lasts for generations. Saint John Paul describes our Lady as being “the one who has the deepest knowledge of the mystery of God’s mercy.” The litany of our Lady addresses her as our “mother most merciful”. The pope adds that: “The Church must profess and proclaim God’s mercy in all its truth”, so there are our instructions.
Scripture is full of mentions of mercy. The instructions for building the ark of the covenant refers to a mercy-seat. In the book of Exodus, God tells Moses of his intention to show mercy. King David says that God’s mercy is great and the psalmist writes: “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.” Isaiah says: “let [the wicked] return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them”. From the heart of King Nebuchadnezzar’s fire, the three men sing: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his mercy endures forever.” Our Lord says we should be merciful just as God the Father is merciful. He praises the good Samaritan for his mercy towards the man who was mugged on the road to Jericho. Two blind men follow our Lord crying: “Have mercy on us, son of David.” and St Paul tells the Ephesians that God is rich in mercy. St Peter writes to the early church: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Thus, receiving divine mercy turns a nondescript group into the church of Christ.
At this stage, let me mention the Jesus-prayer. This meditative prayer is popular among eastern Catholics and the Orthodox. It is said repeatedly, the idea being that one learns to pray it as instinctively as one breathes. An English version of this prayer is: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, [a] sinner.” Use of the prayer probably began among the desert fathers of the fifth century AD.
Divine mercy is, therefore, nothing new to the church. However, it would seem that, in the last century, God decided that its message needed to be re-presented for the modern age – and age which has seen some of the most merciless human behaviour in history. The 20th century was an era of bloody revolution, totalitarian horror and wars which killed millions. The church was persecuted by pagan and atheistic regimes, and such problems have regrettably endured into this century. Perhaps this is why we have such need for divine mercy.
The 20th century messenger of divine mercy was Helena Kowalska who was born in 1905 near Łodz in Poland, the third of 10 children in a poor and devout peasant-family. In 1926, Helena became Sister Maria Faustina of the Blessed Sacrament in the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy convent in Warsaw. She was transferred to a convent at Płock in 1930 and, in February of the following year, our Lord appeared to her in her cell. He told her to have a painting made of how he appeared to her, and to ensure that the resulting image was venerated. Christ also said that the image should be blessed on the Sunday after Easter, and that that day should become divine mercy Sunday. This encounter was on the evening of Sunday 22 February 1931 and it marks the beginning of contemporary devotion to divine mercy. That night, two key elements of the devotion were instituted: the image and the feast.
Sister Faustina couldn’t paint and it was reportedly three years before she could arrange for the picture to be made. Eugene Kazimirowski produced more than 12 versions before Sister Faustina was content with the image, and it’s the picture which we see here today. Our Lord is standing, bearded and barefoot, in a high-belted white robe. He has a halo and his face has a gentle expression. His eyes look ahead and slightly down; his right hand is raised in blessing and, perhaps, salutation. The left hand, with fingers slightly spread, is held delicately above his heart, from where red and white rays emanate. His left foot is ahead of his right, suggesting that he is stepping towards us. On some versions of the image, we see the wounds of his crucifixion on his hands and feet, suggesting that this is the risen Lord.
An art-critic would probably find the image fairly unremarkable. Apart from the extended left foot, it lacks depth or perspective, and the background is indistinct; the colouring is also plain. One version shows Christ on some nondescript paved flooring, which gives at least some impression of depth. What this image plainly isn’t is a representation of a place or an event. It’s actually more like an icon, and one which includes the text “Jesus, I trust in you”, placed there at our Lord’s command to Sister Faustina.
So what is the image’s message? Our Lord’s posture and gestures suggest loving acceptance, which is perhaps a little mournful. If he feels any reluctance to be merciful to us, it will be because of what we did to him on that first good Friday and what we continue to do him every time we sin. This, however, is Christ the merciful; he may judge us but he also understands us, being fully human himself. The coloured rays are interpreted as representing the blood and water which came from his side when he was pierced on the cross. You don’t have to be an art-critic or a theologian to see similarities between this image and that of the sacred heart. They may look different but their messages are very alike.
The sacred heart was revealed in the 17th century. Here, for the 20th and 21st centuries, is divine mercy. It is, of course, the same Lord. He doesn’t age because he is eternal. We see him as he may have appeared to the apostles after his resurrection. No wonder, perhaps, he seems to float out of earthly context; this is a transformed Christ who has harrowed hell and conquered death. By the way, that raised right hand could just as easily strike as it could bless. God has good reason to inflict untold suffering on the earth after all the outrages against his holy name of recent decades. Think of some of the recently-produced art-works, plays, books, films and public demonstrations that have included immodesty, profanity and blasphemy. Here, we Catholics are joined by Orthodox and Protestant, Jew and Muslim, in lamenting this age’s godlessness, a tragedy only made worse by injustice, war, terrorism and abortion.
Yet the image shows a loving Christ, once more prepared to forgive. What does he ask of us? He could require a great deal, yet the caption to the divine mercy image asks that we simply trust him. All that bad stuff that I was just talking about might tempt us to give up. thinking that God has lost the battle with evil. Of course, we mustn’t do that. Divine mercy asks that we say “Jesus, I trust in you”. For this reason, perhaps, the divine mercy image is plain, without context or great artistic merit, recognisable as being our Lord, comprehensible to people of all ages and cultures and in the age of printing and information technology, easy to reproduce. You could have it as the wallpaper on your smartphone.
The divine mercy image isn’t just about sending a message of love and trust. Like the sacred heart image, this image can itself confer blessing, we are told. Sister Faustina’s diary records our Lord as describing the image as a vessel of graces. Father Michael Gaitley, in the booklet I mentioned, says that the image has helped deliver people from the view that God is simply out to spoil our fun, and from the wrong sort of fear of God. In his Saints of the Jubilee, Tim Drake cites an entry in Sister Faustina’s diary where our Lord is reported as promising that “the soul that will venerate this image will not perish.” That’s a statement that’s hard to ignore. Whatever we make of divine mercy, what could possibly be wrong with venerating an image of our blessed Lord, especially in the spirit of trust that he enjoins on us? If doing so could also help attain our salvation, that would be quite wonderful.
[mention of the image in St Faustina's diary]
That Sunday-night in early 1931, Christ gave Sister Faustina not just the image but also the feast of divine mercy. This, as we know, is celebrated on the Sunday after Easter. Now, after the rigours of Lent and, particularly, holy week, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the church sort of shuts down once it has celebrated Easter. I’ve been in parishes where this has more or less happened. The number of weekday Masses has been cut and the clergy have gone on holiday. Liturgically, though, this is mistaken.
Easter is actually celebrated for more than eight days, beginning with the vigil on holy Saturday night. The Masses and divine office of Easter-week have the same dignity and status as those of the first Sunday. The gloria and te Deum can be sung at Mass and at the office of readings respectively, and the gospel at Mass each day is an account of the resurrection. Although divine mercy devotees seem almost to suggest that their Sunday somehow ranks above Easter-day itself, suffice to say that Easter is celebrated over a week and the Sunday after the solemnity therefore ranks very highly.
More important than speculation over rankings, Saint Faustina’s diary records our Lord’s requesting that the Sunday after Easter should be dedicated to divine mercy. The diary quotes Christ as saying: “On that day, the very depths of my tender mercy are opened. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of my mercy … On that day, all the divine floodgates through which graces flow are opened.” We are thus told three times that divine mercy Sunday brings a tidal wave of grace for its devotees. Note all the water-imagery: oceans, founts, floodgates. A theologian investigating divine mercy Sunday for Blessed John Paul likened it to a second baptism.
[mention of indulgences]
It was Pope Saint John Paul II who dedicated the Sunday after Easter to divine mercy. He did this in April 2000 when he also canonised Sister Faustina. Saint John Paul was to die five years later on the vigil of divine mercy Sunday, and Pope Emeritus Benedict beatified John Paul II on divine mercy Sunday three years ago. Pope Francis canonised John Paul II this divine mercy Sunday. Today has marked the first papal canonisations for 60 years, and consequently the first of this millennium. They will have been the most high-profile papal canonisations thanks to broadcasting and the internet.
Three years ago, Floribeth Mora Díaz of Costa Rica was diagnosed with an officially incurable brain aneurysm. She prayed to the recently-beatified John Paul II and her cure led to his canonisation this morning.
While Saint Faustina received the message of the image and the feast in 1931, it was only in 1935 that the picture was displayed and divine mercy celebrated on the Sunday after Easter. Fr Michael Sopocko performed the ceremony in the Gate of Dawn church in Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania, where St Faustina now lived as the convent-gardener. Later that same year (1935), the saint had a message about another aspect of the divine mercy devotion, namely the chaplet.
Most of those attending this event will be familiar with the chaplet, but I hope they’ll understand if I describe it. It’s a devotion resembling the rosary which is said using the same beads as the rosary. The person begins with the our Father, hail Mary and apostles’ creed. There then follow five decades of prayers, each for an intention. These intentions are:
- all of mankind, especially sinners (which of course is all of mankind)
- priests and religious
- devotees of divine mercy (which I guess is us)
- and the souls in purgatory.
I’ll come in a moment to what is said on each bead, but let me point out how the divine mercy chaplet differs from the rosary. Firstly, it’s shorter, with shorter prayers to say and just five decades rather than 20. More importantly, the mind isn’t invited to concentrate on a mystery but on the people who are being prayed for in each decade or chaplet. Although one can say the chaplet in a meditative way, its focus is intercessional. You can say a rosary for an intention; the divine mercy chaplet is one intention after another. This is a prayer of urgent entreaty; of begging and asking; and it takes in all mankind, including the church suffering and those who totally reject God.
As with the rosary, there are different prayers for the beads around the decades, and a prayer for each bead of each decade. We begin with a quite remarkable prayer that offers the eucharistic Jesus to God the Father in atonement for all sin. While the rosary is addressed to our Lady, the chaplet is addressed to God the Father. The rosary praises the mother of God and begs her intercession; the chaplet invokes both the Mass and the crucifixion as it seeks forgiveness directly from God himself. In the initial prayer of the chaplet, we are each priest-like in offering the second person of the blessed Trinity to the first person as a sacrifice for sins. It’s as if we were making a spiritual communion and attaching a vital intention to that.
On each ordinary bead we beg God for worldwide mercy, for the sake of his son’s suffering and death. This is powerful intercession. Not only do we ask for something almost impossible – forgiveness of all sin – but we do so by invoking the greatest divine act since the creation. Just as we present God with his eucharistically-sacrificed son in the initial prayer (the one said on the rosary’s our Father bead), so we present God with his crucified son when we pray for mercy on us and on the whole world. This is not mincing one’s words. We are bold in what we ask for, and in how we ask for it.
We end each chaplet by invoking God’s holiness, might and immortality, again asking for his universal mercy. We’ve thus reminded God not just of his son’s bloody and unbloody sacrifices, but of his own sacred omnipotence. How can he fail to hear us, or to answer our prayer? In St Faustina’s diary, our Lord is recorded as urging us to say the chaplet often. Particular graces are attached to saying it:
- with a dying person
- at 3 pm, the hour of the crucifixion
- and during a novena beginning on good Friday and ending on divine mercy Sunday.
That last list has brought us two other aspects of the divine mercy devotion. We already have the image, the feast and the chaplet. We now also have the daily hour and the annual novena.
It’s nothing new to think of our Lord at the hour of his death – the ninth hour of the Hebrew day, three o’clock in the afternoon by our reckoning. The divine office’s hour of none often makes reference to it. If we can’t say the whole chaplet then, we can say: “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” There’s also a longer three-o’clock prayer which is rich in blood-and-water imagery. At that hour, we could look at our copy of the divine mercy image or at a crucifix; anything to unite us with Christ at the moment of his supreme sacrifice.
The divine mercy novena concentrates each day on sinners, clergy and religious, Christians, pagans, heretics, children, divine mercy devotees, those in purgatory, and the lukewarm. As with all aspects of divine mercy, devotional materials are available on the internet as well as in print.
Divine mercy has been described as the church’s greatest grassroots movement. Other than St Faustina, its greatest proponent has been Saint John Paul II. As Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Cracow, John Paul took up the cause of Sister Faustina who had died aged just 33 in 1938. Divine mercy devotion had actually been suppressed by the holy see, but that ban was lifted in April 1978. That year was to see two papal conclaves, at the second of which Cardinal Wojtyła was elected to the Petrine office.
I was a seminarian in Rome at the time and remember his appearing in the loggia of St Peter’s basilica. This was before mobile phones so we down in the square had no idea who had been elected. The we heard some Poles singing Sto lat, the Polish equivalent of “For he’s a jolly good fellow.” It transpired that it wasn’t the Polish primate, Cardinal Wyszynski, who’d been elected but his junior colleague. I was to meet St John Paul once when, as a reporter for The Universe, I covered the 1982 papal visit to Britain, and my eldest child bears the double-barreled name he took as pope.
As well as personal reminiscence, may I also offer a personal view on divine mercy and recent church-history? Widely misunderstood and misinterpreted, the second Vatican council was nevertheless a true work of the holy Spirit. With perfect timing, it sought to re-present the gospel to a world that was about to be changed by massive political and cultural upheaval. The old establishment was crumbling, authority was being widely questioned and pop-culture emboldened youth and the not-so-young to challenge everything that had been previously deemed sacred. The 1960s was an age of major social change, including in this country easier divorce, an end to censorship on the grounds of decency and legalised abortion. Television and, later, information technology was creating a new world order.
Vatican II allowed the church to shed (or lay aside) some of the non-essentials of the faith so that a streamlined, modern world could better comprehend the gospel which is for all time. Paul VI’s pontificate was a painful period of adjustment and implementation of that council’s policies. Then, in the late 1970s, and after a tragically brief reign by John Paul I, along comes St John Paul who for 27 years barnstorms the world with Vatican II’s message. Here is the pope of the jet-age who, while coming from conservative Poland, is totally attuned to late 20th century, and early 21st century, life. He is both a theologian and a theatrical, even in his dotage appealing to youth.
What drove this extraordinary man? In 1981, he told an audience at a mercy shrine in Italy: “Right from the beginning of my ministry in St Peter’s see in Rome, I considered [the] message [of divine mercy] my special task. Providence has assigned it to me …”. At St Faustina’s beatification, he described the spread of the divine mercy devotion as a sign of the times. St John Paul later described divine mercy as the image of his pontificate, and said that the day that he inaugurated divine mercy Sunday was the happiest of his life. He’s also quoted as saying that man needs nothing more than divine mercy. I’d humbly suggest that this divine mercy was central to the second Vatican council’s message and to the way that that message has to be conveyed.
Canonised also today is Saint John XXIII, who began the council. His intercession brought about a miraculous cure in Sister Caterina Capitani, an Italian daughter of charity. She had terrible digestive problems, during which John XXIII appeared to her, resulting in an otherwise inexplicable cure.
But what, I wonder, does Pope Emeritus Benedict make of divine mercy, so keenly promoted by his gregarious predecessor? Did the shy, conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger find it all a bit much? In his first address as pope, Benedict said: “… deep gratitude for a gift of divine mercy is uppermost in my heart in spite of all.” On divine mercy Sunday in 2008, Pope Benedict described mercy as the nucleus of the gospel. That was the year that he inaugurated a world congress on mercy.
The manifesto of the current papacy is, of course, Pope Francis’s evangelii gaudium, an apostolic exhortation which he issued in November. At St Theodore’s, Hampton, we were studying this document during Lent. Mercy is mentioned in that exhortation more than 30 times, “merciful” six times. The pope tells us how St Thomas Aquinas says that mercy is the greatest of all virtues. The summa describes mercy as the most pleasing sacrifice. The pope wants mercy to “resound in the life of the church” and here he’s talking about works of mercy, particularly corporal ones, and most specifically almsgiving.
Preaching in Lent on how our Lord raised Lazarus from the dead, Pope Francis said: “there is no limit to the divine mercy, which is offered to everyone… The Lord is always ready to roll away the tombstone of our sins, which separate us from Him, the light of the living.” We thus see that both of St John Paul’s successors are also devoted to divine mercy.
Let me try to sum up. Mercy is personal goodness; something which isn’t just inside someone but which is made manifest through good works. Mercy is particularly to do with being forgiving, lenient and gentle about wrongdoing. God, who can himself do no wrong, is actually more merciful than any person could be. Although the old testament can seem bloodthirsty, it is also full of references to mercy. God’s covenant with his people was itself an act of mercy, and the Hebrew word used to describe such mercy includes a reference to such loving covenants.
God’s mercy has long been acknowledged, especially since he died on the cross to take away our sins. Just as Easter is a particular time to commemorate such mercy, so its octave has sustained that commemoration such that today has been named divine mercy Sunday. The Mass and church teaching are replete with references to divine mercy, as is holy scripture.
Saint Faustina Kowalska was the vessel for what could be called a re-presentation of the message of the sacred heart – the message of God’s unfathomable love for us. The divine mercy devotion is based on an image, a feast-day, a chaplet, a daily prayer and an annual novena which we complete here today. One of the chaplet-prayers includes a remarkable verbal offering of the eucharistic Christ to God the Father in atonement for all sin.
Our newly-proclaimed Saint John Paul (whom many of us here will have seen in the flesh) picked up the divine mercy devotion from his fellow-Pole and promulgated it to the world. In this talk I’ve advanced the personal view that the second Vatican council was itself a work of divine mercy, softening some of the hard edges on the way that Catholicism had presented itself since the reformation. No doctrine has changed, but God’s loving forgiveness has been made more prominent.
Saint John Paul’s devotion to divine mercy has been shared by his two successors. Characteristically, the current pope wants to emphasise the need for us to practise mercy through charitable works. We know, though, that works of mercy are the ideal means for obtaining mercy from God.
Pope Francis is calling for an evangelisation that is joyful. Evangelisers, he says, shouldn’t look like people who’ve just been to a funeral. The pope wants each parish to be “a centre of constant missionary outreach”. In other words, each parish must be a mission-station, a recruiting depot, a drop-in centre for people looking for a meaning in life. If we’re going to be ready to support such parish-based evangelisation, we need the joy which comes from knowing that God is rich in mercy. How better to know that than through practising this devotion?
Let me add another personal note. This is to do with what preparing this talk has taught me. I admit that I have been a novice in terms of divine mercy. As well as learning facts while writing this, I’ve also come to a better understanding of mercifulness. As I said early on, “mercy” has tended to make me think of all-powerful judges’ deciding to be lenient with a criminal who seems sorry for his transgressions. Divine mercy, however, is a manifestation of God’s love, which is infinite, and most of us aren’t professional judges. If we are even to try to be as merciful as the good Lord is to us, we have to let go of all resentment over the wrongs we have had done to us. This can be a tall order for those of us whom life has treated harshly. How are we to do this?
I suggest we look at this image of Christ the merciful, pray the prayers which beg for his mercy, truly empty ourselves of all pride and resentment, and say the words below the image: “Jesus, I trust in you.” We may feel angry, nervous or insecure about thus releasing any bitterness we feel. Resentment may have become a way of life for us; almost a defining feature of ourselves. However, Christ calls us to abandon ourselves and trust him. This divine mercy Sunday, which has seen the making of two new saints, let us do as we are bidden and trust in our Lord Jesus Christ.