Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, the second Sunday of Easter. Opening Day of Major League Baseball might signify for some, even some of the internet’s most articulate Catholics, the return of spring. Divine Mercy Sunday likewise signals a change in the Church’s calendar as well as its outlook and practice. My colleague, Father Frank Donio, S.A.C., has ably articulated what Divine Mercy Sunday constitutes and what led to St. John Paul II declaring it in 2000. Recently at Word on Fire Father Robert Barron posted his Divine Mercy Sunday homily which offers another clear explanation.
A confession: at first I found Divine Mercy Sunday baffling. I have since recovered—through the help of Catholic commentators like Fathers Donio and Barron, but also through the writings of St. Faustina Kowalska (1905-38) herself. If you, too, have wondered about this relatively new devotion, perhaps you will find reassuring the following exploration.
The devotion’s stumbling block seems to be its novelty. Pope John Paul II declared it—with an element of surprise—during St. Faustina’s canonization mass. So what was heretofore a relatively obscure mystical devotion from the Pope’s homeland was now, with a few words, given place of prominence—the very first week after Easter. Deacon Scott Dodge writes that the genuine dilemma is:
Are we to view it [the Divine Mercy devotion] as somehow in competition with our observance of the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection, or as a complement to it, whether we choose to participate or not?
Furthermore, the accompanying image, St. John Paul specified, should be displayed as well. Critics immediately detected an act of papal authority, one with a particularly Polish accent. (The rays of light—red and white—emanating from Christ’s Sacred Heart resemble the Polish flag.)
Kevin Tierney makes an important point here—the Extraordinary Form propers for Divine Mercy Sunday illuminate the devotion’s Scriptural foundation, especially the Epistle I John 5:4-10:
Dearly beloved: Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory, which overcometh the world, our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He that came by water and blood, Jesus Christ: not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit which testifieth that Christ is the truth. And there are three who give testimony in heaven: the Father, the Word and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that give testimony on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three are one.
Water and blood—precisely the explanation of the Divine Mercy image’s white and red rays Christ gives to Sister Faustina (Diary, #299): “These two rays issued forth from the very depths of My tender mercy when My agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross.” (This references John 19:34.)
Powerful stuff, but how significant has this new tradition of mercy become? This weekend Pope Francis declared an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy with copies ceremonially delivered to representatives of the Church around the world. Pope Francis gives us so many challenges through his frequent tweets exhorting greater concern for the poor and more ardent prayer and the example of his audiences where he joyfully embraces children and the marginalized. Now the Pope issues perhaps the most difficult yet sanctifying call so far: that we grant mercy, so that we in turn receive it (Matthew 5:7). This is far easier to write or say than to do. Sunday’s gospel—John 20:19-31—includes the well-known story of doubting Thomas (perhaps the Scriptural challenge to all theologians…that and Matthew 12:33-35). Tierney suggests this passages underscores our very real human frailty concerning mercy: we want to set human limits or standards on divine initiative:
Isn’t that us, always wanting more? How often do we half-heartedly place absurd restrictions on Christ’s mercy? We say we will accept His mercy if there is a miracle, or we can add this or that stipulation. This doesn’t make us a bad person. Mercy and grace are scary things, because they require us to likewise be merciful and gracious, even when, and especially when, someone else doesn’t deserve it. Faced with that reality, we try to be good followers of Christ, but on our own terms. We tell God when we will believe.
Much of St. Faustina’s diary consists in Christ’s concern for and overcoming precisely this human resistance. The Divine Mercy novena—which Christ stipulates begins on Good Friday—requests the broadest range of souls be brought in prayer back to Christ: priests and religious, but also pagans (#1216), schismatics (#1218), and finally the lukewarm (#1228) who pain Christ most. Even these, St. Faustina responds in her diary, can find solace in “the abyss” of God’s mercy (#1230).
Scott Dodge argues—with good evidence just like Fathers Donio and Barron—that the Divine Mercy devotion should be viewed as complementary to the Triduum, not in competition with it. Dodge and Father Barron both note that the Church’s surest sign of mercy is offered through the sacrament of Penance. So perhaps some remain uncomfortable confronted by this new devotion, but through Confession—which once was so familiar in Catholic life, but has now fallen into disuse—we are all brought into Christ’s mercy. St. Faustina’s diary and devotion offers a particular vision and expression of divine mercy, but the Church’s sacrament is universal. It is this uniquely Catholic blend of the particular and the universal that has helped my appreciation of St. Faustina and St. John Paul II’s bold declaration. Of course, the great cloud of witnesses that is the Church (Hebrews 12:1)—itself particular yet universal—illuminated every step of the way, for in God’s light, we will see light (Psalm 36:9).
Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.