April 17th, 2014 | Paul Danon

Christianity is celebrating its most important annual feast, a feast beginning with a festive meal followed by fasting and weeping. The feast is movable, defying our Roman calendar and, instead, following the moon. While rich in theology, the period commemorates historical events which are (to some extent) re-enacted in real time. In salvation-history, the actions which the liturgy describes were once-and-for-all. Christ does not die and rise again every paschaltide, any more than he is re-crucified at every Mass or reborn each Christmas.

This liturgical period demonstrates how Christianity entails explicit belief in an actual mission by God in Christ. To crucify the messiah, you need an actual, embodied, living Christ. He must have walked this earth and had a human life that he could lose through execution. There can be no resurrection of someone who can’t actually die, guiltless though he may be. To celebrate paschaltide, we must therefore acknowledge the incarnation as an historical event. We can’t just go along with vague, golden-rule-type moral teaching or merely enjoy the liturgical pageant.

At the last supper, Christ begins a passover-commemoration which he will himself complete the following afternoon. No mere farewell-dinner, this is an utterly solemn act of history-based worship. God had wanted to set the Jews free from slavery and he required them to prepare a meal to fortify them for their sudden flight. From this meal was to come the blood of a lamb which would deflect God’s wrath. The last supper produced the eucharistic meal which was to sustain the church on her centuries-long dispersal throughout the world; it also began the process by which Christ’s blood would be shed to deflect God’s wrath at our sins.

Two crucial commands come from our Lord’s lips at the last supper. One is always to be charitable; to wash each other’s feet. The other is always to eat his body and blood. The dramatic part of the narrative is, of course, that Christ is celebrating, eating and drinking with his betrayer. Even as he and the apostles recline at table behind locked doors, there’s no real safety. The enemy is already within; Christ also predicts Peter’s denial. And some sources suggest that the passover is left unfinished, without the fourth cup of wine’s being drunk.

From the supper-room, our Lord leads his disciples to a garden, his last act of autonomy. It is in this garden that, arguably, his passion begins. He is not only sorrowful but also reluctant to go through with the rest of his suffering. Christ alone in the garden accompanies all the lonely and depressed, even though they may not know he is with them. Next, he is to lose his liberty, though it isn’t summary arrest but arrest on suspicion of having committed an offence.

To take stock (as Christ is hauled away from the mount of Olives): our Lord is both willing and unwilling to face his fate; he equips the early church with all it needs for its coming journey; the food he gives is spiritual, his message one of charity, divine mercy and forgiveness; that church either runs away or follows at a safe distance, only to deny any association with its leader. If the Mass was a new covenant between God and man, then man broke that covenant before the blood-red ink on it was even dry.

Justice was not delayed. Christ was on trial within hours of his arrest and the Roman judge acquitted him. The next step would logically have been to release him. However (and perversely), Pilate tries to please the crowd by suggesting that our Lord should benefit from the passover-amnesty, even though Christ was no convict. The illogical stunt backfires as they call for the release of an actual criminal.

Thwarted in his attempt to make routine justice appear like great magnanimity, Pilate has our Lord beaten. Savage though the Romans are, they practice sound jurisprudence and Pilate persists in declaring his not-guilty verdict. This is followed by more banter over loyalty and jurisdiction, yet the Romans are adamant in finding the prisoner not-guilty – a prisoner whom they are now holding unjustly. (Maybe he thought Christ’s custody was protective.)

Next, comes a complete, unexplained collapse in Pilate’s adherence to Roman legal procedure. John 19: 16 tells us that he simply handed Christ over “to be crucified”. Rome didn’t give our Lord the freedom he deserved, but, instead, knowingly delivered him into the hands of his mortal enemies. Having done this, the governor nevertheless has the cross inscribed with an identification of Christ as king. (In a private interview with Pilate, our Lord had reminded him that his gubernatorial authority had come from God.)

We thus have a pivotal moment in world-history: the justice-system functions extremely well until a certain break-point, when a powerful occupying force capitulates to the mob. Although Rome wants to be seen to wash its hands of the affair, its representative still wants to make plain who he thinks Christ really is – the same Christ whose grisly fate Pilate has just sealed. It’s as if the guilty governor wants to atone for his sin against justice, and maybe he did. That notice nailed to the cross may have been a baptism of desire.

On the cross, Christ requests drink and is given sour wine. This, some say, is his drinking the fourth and final passover-cup. The wine reaches him on a hyssop-stick, something also used to sprinkle lambs’ blood during that ceremony. It is then “accomplished”, Jesus says, and he dies.

Our Lord has stepped out of paschal liturgy and back into human history. From out of the commemorative context of a symbolic meal, he has brought a concrete action which affects all of mankind. He walks from the supper-table (where he has already offered himself at the first Mass) to another place (some say above Adam’s tomb) where we sacrifice him. In the mean time, the civil authority has both proved him innocent (spotless) and proclaimed him king. God has moved between liturgy and secular life; from divine manifestation to earthly kingship.

And there is more to come. Christ returns soon afterwards, though briefly and even more enigmatically than before good Friday. We know he’s going away again at the ascension, but he will subsequently send the third person of the Trinity to sustain the church. That body will do more than perpetuate his memory; it will raise up saints to follow him to heaven. The gates of the kingdom have been thrown open, and you and I might just enter them, thanks to all that we commemorate this Easter-triduum.

divine mercy

April 6th, 2014 | Paul Danon

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
  • unbelievers
  • 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.

early reading

April 1st, 2014 | Paul Danon

Night is the ideal time for the divine office’s service of readings, and benign insomnia can sometimes make this possible. This morning, we have two gems. Leviticus tells judges to be impartial. True justice thus predates English common law.

Leo the Great praises charity and advises us thus: “What is the appropriate time for performing works of charity? My beloved children, any time is the right time”. To make ourselves “more and more able to receive so great a guest [as God's presence in us, we] should do more and more works of durable mercy and kindness”. Leo likens our merciful works to gifts being prepared for sacrifice. As other parts of this office suggest, if we’re sluggish in our charitable impulse, it’s useful to reflect on the punishment which our sins deserve and on God’s generosity in absolving us of those sins.

At morning-prayer, we hear the three men’s song in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace. This includes a request to God to accept the men’s contrition as though it were a monumental temple-sacrifice involving thousands of lambs. Of course, the ultimate sacrifice has already been made, but we are called, in our own small ways, to imitate it.

In our Lenten trials, sorrows and contrition, we can thus be priestly as we pile-up a mound of humility and good works that will be ready for paschal-tide. Each mortification and each kindness may appear trivial, but they each count. Thus, doing God’s will tends not to be finding something tremendous to achieve, but is more likely to be doing what we’re already doing but with the right, sacrificial attitude.


March 31st, 2014 | Paul Danon

In tomorrow’s Gospel, our Lord cures a man with an undisclosed but probably crippling long-term illness. The man had been hoping for a miraculous cure and he got one, though not from a pool of healing water. Christ tells him to get up and walk, carrying his sleeping-mat. It’s that last detail which then becomes the focus of the passage. The man gets into trouble for carrying a mat and that, in turn, leads to our Lord’s getting into trouble. Such is life.

The miracle is, of course, further testimony to Christ’s divinity and also to his mission to make mankind well again, in spirit as well as in body. It could stand alone as a theological statement about the reality of the incarnation and the compassionate nature of our Lord’s mission on earth. Not only did God become man, but he became a man of total love and caring for the human condition. He could have come as judge and accuser, yet he came as servant, helper and healer. But the evangelist’s plot thickens.

In doing good (healing), Christ is perceived as doing wrong – encouraging someone to break the sabbath-law. His actions and those of the religious authorities show how a misplaced sense of pious observance can get in the way of God’s love for his people. Thus, our Lord’s mission isn’t just one of niceness; he’s not only here to lighten burdens and to spread some joy and hope. Christ comes to challenge the old, pharisaical order, and he does so by putting his own life on the line.

Disturbingly, then, a good-news story about a healing-miracle soon reverberates with the rumbling background-music which, in films, predicts a bad outcome. As the holidaymakers enjoy their seaside swim, the sharks are circling. God sees fit to allow a good action to bring about harsh retribution from those whom it disturbs. Yet is this just a story with a happy start and a sad ending? Like Lent (which can bring its own burden of suffering), we know the final outcome. Yes, Christ’s healing of the man at Bethzatha further attracts the authorities’ attention, but it is thus part of the path to Calvary where we know that apparent defeat is turned into victory.

We can be the man at the pool, yearning for wholeness. We can also be him after his cure, rejoicing that our faith in Christ has made us well again. With even greater joy we can know that these actions of our Lord’s in the months before the crucifixion have now been completed, just as his unique sacrifice was completed on good Friday. Nothing more is needed for mankind’s redemption, and God is entirely reliable when he offers himself totally to us despite all our sins.

At evening-prayer tonight, we hear St Paul telling the Ephesians that God “predestined us to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ, simply because it pleased him to do so.” We don’t merit such divine adoption. It’s God’s pure, unadulterated wish that we should become his sons and daughters, no less. Imagine that: to be children of the one who made the universe. That’s better than being born heir to the monarch of the world’s greatest kingdom. Yet God wants that for us.

This Lent, may we see beyond the necessary penance and look to the kingdom whose nationality we are predestined to take. Indeed, let’s live as members of that kingdom even while we’re here on earth, always rejoicing, praying and giving thanks.

Christian joy

March 27th, 2014 | Paul Danon

The pope says that true evangelisation can only come from joyful Christians. In a single verse of scripture, St Paul tells the Thessalonians to be constantly joyful. What can this mean? After all, life can be full of hardships and trials and, elsewhere in the bible, we’re told that, to follow Christ, we must carry a cross. How does one resolve this apparent paradox? Maybe 1 Peter 1: 8 and 9 hold the clue.

In that passage, the author tells his readers in Asia-minor that they love and believe in Christ whom they haven’t seen. As if that wasn’t miraculous enough, these Christians have a joy which is so great that it can’t be expressed. In verse nine, St Peter gives the reason for all this love, belief and joy: “for you are receiving the end-result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” This gives us a new understanding of the various dimensions of our faith. Faith is not only “the conviction of things not seen.” It’s not just a hopeful suspension of disbelief; an act of the will to accept revealed truths. Faith is also something which works; it has an effect.

When our belief-system is tested, it can seem as though we are simply saying our creeds for the sake of doing so – almost like an incantation or mantra. What we must acknowledge, though, is that our faith has a practical purpose and a benign effect on our present and future existence. The result of our faith is actually our salvation.

Our sins make us deserve hell, yet God wants us saved from our sins and, thus, from damnation. The catechism tells us: “It is the opinion of St. Augustine that ‘the justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth,’ because ‘heaven and earth will pass away but the salvation and justification of the elect . . . will not pass away.’”

This is what can make us joyful (if we can just believe it). Not only can we be forgiven our sins, but we can enjoy eternity with God. Indeed, we’re already enjoying eternity with Him because the church is God’s earthly kingdom. When we enter a church-building for liturgy or when we join our fellow-Catholics in prayer (especially through the divine office), we so-to-speak step out of this worldly existence and into God’s holy court.

Furthermore, this salvation which our faith engenders is more stupendous than the creation of the most extensive galaxy in the heavens. Your and my eternal destiny (as shaped by our response to divine grace) isn’t just good for us; it’s cosmic in its significance.

a missionary church

March 20th, 2014 | Paul Danon

Fr Philip Knights of Marychurch, Hatfield, Hertfordshire, an expert on mission, explains that the church exists to evangelise. God does not despise creation but loves it. He consequently wants the world restored to perfection. The Trinity is itself missionary. Unhelpfully, “mission” is taken to mean almost all of the church’s activity (including healthcare and environmentalism). Evangelisation now includes lapsed Catholics as well as non-believers. Charismatics and other new Catholic movements show greater zeal than the average parish.

If a parish wants to become more missional [sic], it should:

Fr Barron’s approach seems to me rather glitzy. One associates Alpha with evangelicalism and dinner. Café-church seems to commandeer a branch of Costa and hold a presentation with quizzes, testimony and discussion.

In preparing to help run such an event, I’d need training in how one deals with objections. In these liberal times, people may be less likely to be downright anti-Catholic and, instead, might say something like: “I admire your faith and I’m pleased it’s a comfort to you. However, I disagree with at least some of what the church teaches (e.g. on miracles, human life, population and creation) so I can’t join your church.”

bringing back lapsed Catholics

March 18th, 2014 | Paul Danon

If mission ever was just the duty of professional missionaries, Vatican II changed that. Part 37 of ad gentes says: “since the People of God lives in communities, especially in dioceses and parishes, and becomes somehow visible in them, it is also up to these [communities] to witness Christ before the nations.” In 2010, Pope Benedict established a council for evangelisation and its founding document says: “what all the Churches living in traditionally Christian territories need is a renewed missionary impulse”. When the present pope writes on ecclesial renewal, he says he dreams of  a “missionary option”  and describes the ideal parish as being a “centre of constant missionary outreach”.

Some Protestant denominations have a reputation for being keen on evangelisation. From that tradition comes the wikiHow evangelisation guide. It suggests that you first make friends with the person whom you want to bring to Christ. Then you should ask them a probing question about a subject such as death and the afterlife. Next, you witness to how Christ has helped you and describe how the person can also give their lives to Him. If they’re receptive, you give them a bible and bring them to church.

The last home-mission Sunday for England and Wales had as its theme the work of reaching lapsed Catholics. The church has produced a leaflet aimed at such people. Here are the reasons (slightly reformatted) which that leaflet offers for returning to the church:

  • “the church is not just a building, but a living community and family
  • through baptism we become cherished sons and daughters of God
  • none of us [is] perfect, but we do try to love one another and put into practice the way that Jesus taught us to live
  • [more than] a billion people worldwide find that being part of this community enriches their lives on so many levels: spiritually, socially, intellectually, psychologically
  • many testify that their faith and parish involvement fills an inner emptiness and brings a new sense of wholeness; it offers something and someone that money can’t buy.”
The emphasis, therefore, is less on the content of the faith than on:
  • the personal enrichment which belief brings
  • the sheer number of Catholics that there are.
The leaflet also tells lapsed Catholics how to return to communion with the church.

parish matters

March 11th, 2014 | Paul Danon

The pope has again emphasised the importance of parish-life. Vatican Radio reports his telling a recent Rome conference of layfolk that: “Lay movements … [should] maintain a vital link to the diocese and to parishes, so as not to develop a partial reading of the Gospel or to uproot themselves from the Church.” In the section of evangelii gaudium on ecclesial renewal, Francis describes the parish as:

  • “a community of communities,
  • a sanctuary where the thirsty come to drink in the midst of their journey and
  • a centre of constant missionary outreach.”

Now, that’s a challenge, isn’t it, particularly the third characteristic. The English and Welsh bishops have a home mission desk and the diocese of Westminster is presently holding Lenten lectures on inter alia the church’s missionary activity. Recordings of the talks will be put online and I plan to write about them.


March 10th, 2014 | Paul Danon

The pope last year wrote about preaching in the liturgy, emphasising that it was through words that Christ had won people’s hearts. Blessed John Paul’s dies Domini describes homilies at Mass as a dialogue between God and His people. Preaching should be brief and “part of the offering made to the Father”, says Pope Francis, who adds that a homily should take into account the situation of its audience and be preached in their language.

The secret to our Lord’s preaching, the pontiff tell us, was how he saw beyond his listeners’ weaknesses and failings and how he truly enjoyed speaking to his people. Good preaching does not proclaim ideas or detached values, but is a synthesis. The preacher must join the people’s loving hearts to God’s loving heart, making the people feel embraced by God.

The crux of the present pope’s teaching on homilies is in his: “in the homily [the people in the congregation] want someone to … express [the people's] feelings in such a way that afterwards, each one may chose how he or she will continue the conversation.” The preacher should not so much speak to the people as speak for them.

In the Gospel for tomorrow’s Mass, our Lord teaches his disciples the Lord’s prayer. When I say that prayer, I begin by acknowledging that God isn’t just an abstract concept of divinity but my heavenly father. This is a radical statement and, to members of fiercer religions, could appear overly-familiar, yet Christ tell us to address God in this way.

Next, I praise God’s name the way I might lovingly exult in the name of my child or my spouse, and I make a highly political statement – that God himself might rule my country and all other nations. Now come some very practical petitions for:

  • life-support (symbolised by bread but surely not limited to it)
  • forgiveness for our sins
  • the ability to forgive others
  • protection from temptation and harm.

If I’m not careful, my repeating the pater noster can become so automatic that I don’t realise what I’m saying. The prayer is actually quite cosmic. I treat the creator of the universe like a parent and, after acknowledging his greatness, I make some pretty stupendous requests. Not only do I want physical sustenance, but I want the slate wiped clean as regards my transgressions, and I pledge to be kind to my similarly sinful neighbours.

In the light of papal teaching on homilies, how might a preacher and his listeners respond to this Gospel-reading? Firstly, we can be amazed and thankful at the intimacy which God proposes to us.  No wonder we want his will to be done throughout the world. We can also be grateful that he wants us frequently to commend our basic needs to his care (though what else would one expect of a loving father?).

We may also be struck by how, even if we’re praying alone, we address our Father. That “our” is a one-word statement of faith in the holy, Catholic and apostolic church. We’re not alone in all this and we have one another to pray for. Indeed, we also ask for everyone else’s daily bread, not just our own.

Incidentally, “daily” may be an inadequate translation of the word that comes before “bread”. The original could have meant “excellent” and thus hints at the eucharist. Even if “daily” is a good translation, the reference to bread (rather than to any other food) will surely make us think of the Mass. We can thus make our prayer a request for spiritual (as well as physical) sustenance.

As we reflect on how Christ taught his disciples to pray, we can ourselves ask that our whole lives should be a continuous “our Father”, in which we constantly acknowledge his care for us and rely on him for all our needs.

Friday after ash-Wednesday

March 7th, 2014 | Paul Danon

At Mass, our Lord answers a question on fasting to draw attention to his unique role, this time described as being like that of a bridegroom. This recalls St John the Baptist’s describing Christ as the bridegroom whose very voice delights his friend and thus completes his joy.

The pope has encouraged those who spread the Gospel to do so joyfully. He says: “an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!” In giving further guidance on evangelisation, the pope writes: “Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults.” Rather, “the Gospel invites us:

  • to respond to the God of love who saves us
  • to see God in others
  • and to go forth from ourselves to seek the good of others.”

Evangelisation is thus more than the mere imparting of doctrinal facts to the human targets of our outreach. It is, rather, an eruption of grateful joy at the realisation of God’s salvific love for the evangeliser, as well as a very practical act of charity towards those whom he or she seeks to bring to the faith. When we evangelise we may think we are bringing God to others, but we need also to see Him as already present in them. It’s not enough to want to chalk-up converts on our evangelistic scoreboard; we need to advance those people’s welfare.

This advice on the church’s mission come from Pope Francis’s first chapter of Evangelii gaudium. In it, he describes how believers in God have always been urged not just to rejoice in their faith but to spread it. The pope also wants “the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures [to] be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” This is a change of corporate culture, from one of institutional maintenance to one of net growth.

In the last section of this chapter, after the pope has called for church-buildings to be left open, he establishes the church’s evangelistic priority: the sick and the poor. This he derives from Pope Benedict’s 2007 address to the Brazilian bishops. The current pope wants a church “out on the streets”.