Betting There’ll Be a Big Safety Net

Almost fifty years ago, movie cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan asked “Well, punk, do you feel lucky today?”  Sometimes Harry’s crooks chose wisely not to resist arrest, but others tried their luck and lost.  A lesson lurks there about avoiding mindless violence.  Harry possesses superior (fire)power—why fight back? Make a better decision because the only alternative is swift, violent retribution.  This line, shorn of the violent scenes, came to me reflecting on today’s readings.  The Second Sunday of Easter features readings from Acts, Psalm 118, I Peter, and the striking post-Resurrection scene with “doubting Thomas” in John 20.  Every Scripture offers a rich banquet, but this day particularly so. Even before we reach the Gospel we encounter “the stone the builders have rejected” which becomes the cornerstone and an account of the Church featuring the works of mercy.  It is this passage in Acts 2 from which Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI launches his discussion of communion ecclesiology in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (2005). The Church’s communitarianism—spiritual and material—constitutes, Benedict states, the true freedom found only in the Trinity (p. 58).

Thus “Do you feel lucky today?”—because God’s mercy comes only through the Church, why gamble on it being any wider?  Every reading today instructs us to make wise choices. I Peter makes this particularly clear: through mercy, God in Christ bequeaths us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time”. Thus the communion of the Church is far more than mere material assistance, but a foretaste of the Trinity’s communion.  Don’t bet on finding this anywhere else (and, for any Schleiermacherian readers out there, this applies especially to our idiosyncratic experiences).  There’s no need to gamble on God’s mercy—we know where to find it. Better than Dirty Harry’s offer, too, because why issue a threat when God’s offer far surpasses anything we know?

Perhaps that rosy vision might seem too Pelagian.  “Come on, all you need to do is stay within the Church and presto! Mercy!”  No, the Gospel promises that God helps those who cannot help themselves.  This, of course, includes all of us. It becomes all the more important to remember that today is also Divine Mercy Sunday, a fitting celebration of God’s mercy following the Triduum.  While the novelty has not yet worn off, Divine Mercy Sunday likewise has gained a popular following in parishes and online.  Beyond the devotional practices—venerating the image, praying the Chaplet—the Divine Mercy tradition contributes an astonishing reminder.  St. Faustina records Jesus stating His mercy extends to all, especially those souls apparently furthest from Him.  “Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My Mercy” (Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1146). And “the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy” (#1182).  At one level this is not new—the Gospel like today’s reading teaches us the very same point about salvation in Christ through faith.  It is, though, a refreshing jolt to have this universal message conveyed through such a particular channel like St. Faustina. Her experiences are not merely spiritualized escapism. Like the early Church in today’s readings, actual corporal works of mercy must accompany prayer (#742).  Obviously we are a far distance away from “Do you feel lucky today?”, but also obviously the breadth of Christ’s mercy extends more widely than we know or admit.

An indication of my inner Augustianism is my stubborn refusal to recognize that I, the trained theologian, might have construed God’s mercy much more narrowly than St. Faustina, “merely” a nun in interwar Poland.  On the surface, the Divine Mercy seems like yet another expression of Catholic devotionalism.  One more image, one more set of prayers, etc.  Our elitism, though, should not blind us to Divine Mercy’s lesson:  that through the very particular, God conveys the very gift of His all-encompassing mercy.  Again, the Gospel already proclaims this.  Jesus does not merely offer salvation in some general fashion; He accomplishes it by being a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who dies in a particular (and particularly awful) way and then rises on the third day. Thus “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Next month the Church will recognize the centenary anniversary of another devotional expression of this same lesson.  The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children shepherding near Fatima, Portugal, in May, 1917.  Pope Francis will canonize them next month as part of the one hundredth anniversary celebration.  The Fatima apparition, appearing during the First World War and requesting spiritual resistance to Bolshevik aggression, resembles the Divine Mercy in its devotional popularity and scholarly skepticism.  On the other hand, St. John Paul II, clearly a scholar, expressed firm devotion to both!  The “Fatima Prayer”, requested by the blessed Mother to be added to the end of each Rosary decade, expresses the same sort of radical inclusivism we find in Divine Mercy.  “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”  This is one of those instances where the literal interpretation is also the scariest:  that could mean anybody.  It is our fallen nature that pulls back, that hesitates.  We all know people—public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances—who fit the bill “those in most need of Thy mercy”.  When we are honest with ourselves, we realize this include us, too.  This also dismisses utterly any lingering “Do you feel lucky today?” resentments.  We remain called through today’s readings into the Church and thus God’s great, unmerited Gift. Fatima and Divine Mercy remind us of another Scriptural reminder:  that God’s mercy through Christ extends far beyond our comprehension to those who appear much farther astray.  Yet we should not presume, betting on God’s mercy (Romans 6:1).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

I Saw the Light

Divine MercyToday 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.