On the Divine Mercy
April 13, 2020
Fr. John Colacino C.PP.S.

[The following articles appeared in The Precious Blood Family in 2003.  With this coming Second Sunday of Easter's secondary celebration of the Divine Mercy I thought it opportune to represent them again with only slight editing. Bear in mind these artricles were written before the election of Pope Francis who has made "mercy" the keyword of his pontificate. ] 

For Mercy’s Sake I

     Someone once remarked that each age seems to have a devotion for the times and often enough a prophet to spread it. For instance, in the period following the Protestant Reformation down to the French Revolution, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus became widespread.  In many ways, the devotion was an antidote to the errors of Jansenism – a pessimistic movement that thought God predestined only a few people to salvation. When St. Margaret Mary Alacoque had her visions of the Sacred Heart, who spoke instead of God’s infinite compassion for sinners, the Christian people had a response to the Jansenists which stirred a renewed confidence in God who is love. Following the Revolution and the gradual decline of the Jansenist infection, devotion to the Most Precious Blood began to have a certain sway over the Christian imagination. St. Gaspar del Bufalo, the apostle of the devotion, was convinced of it timeliness, and preached to the demoralized members of a culture in the throes of massive social change, the sign of God’s redemptive power imaged in the blood of Christ.

     In our own time, a new devotion has achieved remarkable notoriety and reception among Christ’s faithful--devotion to the Divine Mercy propagated by an otherwise obscure Polish nun, St. Faustina Kowalska whom Pope John Paul II canonized as the first saint of the third Christian Millennium. Its timeliness is evident, arising as it did in the last century--known for savagery and cruelty on an unheard of scale--while continuing to speak its message in a new century, marred at its very beginning by widespread carnage and yet more forms of evil. If ever this message of mercy, human and divine, was called for, it is now.

     Before saying more about this devotion, let me say a word about my personal reservations in its regard. I confess that for a long time I found the devotion frankly repugnant. For years I had a copy of St. Faustina’s Diary on my bookshelf, which contains a record of her inner life, and which was focused entirely on divine mercy in her soul--writings replete with interior messages and visions, advocating forms of piety that seemed antiquated, to say the least. I was interested in the Diary because I knew it made frequent reference to the blood of Christ, in particular the blood flowing with water from the pierced side of Christ, as recorded in the Fourth Gospel. The painted image of Jesus associated with the divine mercy devotion makes obvious allusion to this source, so to speak, of devotion to the precious blood and I was interested to see how the Diary might enrich it. But every time I attempted to read from Faustina’s work, I could not get beyond a few lines. Part of the reason was my instinctive suspicion of private revelations, and another part the language of the Diary which I found (and can still find) rather off-putting. In addition to my difficulties with the Diary itself, some of the practitioners of the devotion made me leery as well.            

     I say this especially with regard to the practices surrounding the “Feast of Mercy” in conjunction with the Sunday after Easter which was requested by Jesus as part of the private revelations given to St. Faustina in her Diary. These practices are connected to a promise that those who fulfill them will receive complete remission of their sins and the punishment accruing thereto (cf. Diary, 699). (One cannot help thinking here of the similar promise reputed to have been given by Jesus to St. Margaret Mary, including the one virtually assuring salvation to those who “make” the nine first Fridays). Even though Pope John Paul has seen fit to give the Second Sunday of Easter the secondary designation “Divine Mercy Sunday” in the latest edition of the Roman Missal, I fear that those who make the preparatory novena prior to the feast, and fulfill the other sacramental conditions, could easily fall into a works-righteousness approach to salvation which renders grace something earned, or worse a kind of fanaticism, even superstition, with respect to otherwise praiseworthy practices. I have also seen people who make much more of Divine Mercy Sunday than they seem to do of the Easter Triduum. I wonder how many of its enthusiasts were also present for the Easter Vigil, which on the liturgical scale of things is far more important. I wonder too if there is sufficient recognition that the “great absolution” and “plenary indulgence” of Easter is the fruit of the Triduum whose celebration the octave may surely reecho but never supplant.  Such were (and in some ways still are) my reservations about this new devotion.  I will speak next time of my “conversion” to it.

II

     I am happy to report that my original reservations regarding the devotion to divine mercy placed me in good company. One example suffices--that of St. Faustina’s spiritual director, Fr. Sopocko. Among his initial reservations was the somewhat obvious one concerning Faustina herself. Here she was, a person of very simple background and yet, as he would remark one day, “I was amazed that she, a simple nun, with hardly any education, and without the time to read ascetic works, could speak so knowledgeably of theological matters, and such [difficult] ones as the mystery of the Holy Trinity, or the Divine Mercy and other attributes of God, with the expertise of a consummate theologian.”

            Indeed, it is true. When I was finally able to delve into the Diary for reasons I will come to, I remember my own astonishment at some things which read like a virtual treatise of spiritual theology with all the earmarks of theological learning and acquaintance with the masters of the tradition. (For those interested, sections 95-122 are especially instructive.) I was reminded though of someone else who, given his background as a tradesman, astonished his neighbors, causing them to remark, “‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him” (Mk. 6:2b-3).

            And so the Diary of St. Faustina finally compelled me for, once again in her director’s words,

There are truths of the faith which we are supposed to know and which we frequently refer to, but we do not understand them very well, nor do we live by them. It was so with me concerning the Divine Mercy. I had thought of this truth so many times in meditations, especially during retreats. I had spoken of it so often in sermons and repeated it in the liturgical prayers, but I had not gone to the core of its substance and its significance for the spiritual life; in particular, I had not understood, and for the moment I could not even agree, that the Divine Mercy is the highest attribute of God, the Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. It was only when I encountered a simple holy soul who was in close communion with God, who, as I believe, with divine inspiration told me of it, that she impelled me to read, research, and reflect on this subject….

III

     The crucial event that opened my heart to the message of divine mercy propagated by St. Faustina Kowalska was hardly noticed by anyone else. It took place, curiously, at the same time as the American bishops’ meeting in Dallas, namely, a shooting rampage at the Benedictine abbey in Conception, Missouri. Albert de Zutter, a correspondent for Catholic News Service filed the following report concerning this incident:

     As the monks of Conception Abbey prepared to bury two of their own, killed by a gunman whose motives remained a mystery, the focus was on the key Benedictine concept of forgiveness.


     “That is just a basic element that may not be easy,” Abbot Gregory Polan told The Catholic Key, newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. “But that’s a hallmark of our community. We welcome people in a spirit of hospitality. The notion of forgiveness is strongly on my mind.” A funeral Mass was scheduled for June 14 for Brother Damian Larson, 62, and Father Philip Schuster, 84. Father Schuster was the abbey’s porter, or official greeter. Brother Damian was the groundskeeper and was widely known as “the weather monk” for his accurate forecasts of weather patterns in the region. The gunman, 71-year-old Lloyd Robert Jeffress of Kearney, about 90 miles south of the abbey, also wounded Father Kenneth Reichert, 68, prior and spiritual director, and Father Norbert Schappler, 75, associate art director of the Printery House, the publishing branch of the monastery, before killing himself.  Forgiveness began the very day of the shootings. When the coroner was about to put the bodies into the ambulance, he asked the abbot if, out of respect, he should use one ambulance for the dead monks and another for their killer.  “I told him, ‘No. Put them all together. They’re all children of God,’“ Abbot Polan said.  

     Here, I thought to myself, is a truth of the Catholic faith being taught in action, a truth about God, first of all, and then about the Church. I also realized that it was somehow the central truth, the truth of indiscriminate forgiveness, solidarity, reconciliation and healing, indeed the truth about God as Divine Mercy itself and the Church as its herald and witness.

     I heard, if for a moment, the gospel anew under Catholic auspices. It was much like Elijah who heard God’s voice in what was almost sheer silence as opposed to the bluster of a mighty wind, or an earthquake or fire (cf. I Kgs. 19:11-12) – the noisy approach that seems to be the dominant note in much of ecclesial and political life. I also knew that this truth was the center of that devotion toward which I had been so ambivalent.  And so I picked up the Diary of St. Faustina again and began reading. This time I did not stop. Nor have I stopped reading it, or practicing the external forms of the devotion to the Divine Mercy.

     I also reread Pope John Paul’s encyclical letter on mercy, Dives in misericordia.  I found there too a message obviously inspired by his own deep devotion to the same. Let me close with some of the more relevant passages:

Society can become “ever more human” only when we introduce into all the mutual relationships which form its moral aspect the moment of forgiveness, which is so much of the essence of the Gospel. Forgiveness demonstrates the presence in the world of the love which is more powerful than sin…. A world from which forgiveness was eliminated would be nothing but a world of cold and unfeeling justice, in the name of which each person would claim his or her own rights vis-a-vis others…. For this reason, the church must consider it one of her principal duties--at every stage of history and especially in our modern age--to proclaim and to introduce into life the mystery of mercy, supremely revealed in Jesus Christ…. It is precisely in the name of this mystery that Christ teaches us to forgive always…. It is obvious that such a generous requirement of forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice. Properly understood, justice constitutes, so to speak, the goal of forgiveness. In no passage of the gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence toward evil, toward scandals, toward injury or insult. In any case reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness. Thus the fundamental structure of justice always enters into the sphere of mercy. Mercy, however, has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness. Forgiveness, in fact, shows that, over and above the process of “compensation” and “truce” which is specific to justice, love is necessary so that human beings may affirm themselves as human. Fulfillment of the conditions of justice is especially indispensable in order that love may reveal its own nature (nos. 153-155, 157-158 passim).

IV

     Now in all of the devotions I have mentioned previously – to the Sacred Heart, to the Precious Blood and now to the Divine Mercy -- we see a progressive unfolding of an image of God in stark contrast to any that would portray the One revealed in the gospels as some kind of wrathful Deity – the kind evoked by fire and brimstone preachers such as Jonathan Edwards in his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” delivered in Enfield, Connecticut on July 8, 1741 during the religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Although Edwards was a Protestant, the following excerpt might stir some memories of Catholic preaching prior to the Second Vatican Council:  

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment.

     While Edwards’ language was meant to invite repentance and his sermon does end with a reference to the mercy of Christ, it reportedly had such a powerful impact on his congregation that some of its members ran from the church screaming in terror – perhaps never to return out of fear. What Edwards’ sermon seems to obscure, and the Catholic devotions under consideration seek to highlight, is that God’s wrath—wrath, by the way, which the New Testament is not afraid to name and describe—has been subsumed and transformed by the paschal mystery. For “now that we have been justified by [Christ’s] blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” (Rm. 5:9).

     The Cistercian abbot André Louf describes this further in his book Tuning In To Grace in words members of the Precious Blood Family will no doubt find attractive:

The image of the cup of his wrath, which God has to give us to drink, comes very close to that other cup of which Scripture speaks: the cup of Jesus’ suffering. In the hand of Jesus the cup of wrath became the cup of salvation; the deadly drink of fury became the drink of love. Like Jesus, we in turn will come to drink of that cup from the hands of God. And for us also that cup is either the cup of wrath or the cup of love, and we will either become intoxicated with God’s fury or drunk with his love. The latter can happen to us only together with Jesus and thanks to Jesus. For that reason our cup of suffering can be no other than that of Jesus himself. He alone, because in his love he emptied that cup to the very dregs, can save us from the wrath of God, ensuring that the cup of wrath will also be for us the cup of salvation (p. 3).

     All of which is symbolized in these three devotions which together help lead us to a realization of the paschal mystery. The sacred heart of Christ symbolizing as it were the cup containing the precious blood of God’s love; blood that flows from Christ’s pierced side as the sacramental sign of divine mercy coupled with the life-giving water of the Spirit. The sinner is thus no longer consigned to the hands of an angry God thirsty for the satisfaction of justice, but into the arms of a Savior who subsumes and transforms justice into a facet of mercy.

V

     There can be no doubt that the spirituality to which devotion to the Divine Mercy gives rise has practical implications for a life-style of mercy, so to speak. The first sign of which must certainly be compassion towards oneself and others who so frequently offend against the goodness of God. While no inducement to take sin lightly, the devotion to the Divine Mercy ought to restore the sinner to confidence in Jesus who came to save the fallen and lost above all, more so than the righteous (cf. Mt. 9:13). St. Faustina’s Diary repeatedly encourages trust in a compassionate and forgiving God. For example, Jesus once says to her, “when a soul sees and realizes the gravity of its sins, when the whole abyss of the misery into which it immersed itself is displayed before its eyes, let it not despair, but with trust let it throw itself into the arms of My mercy, as a child into the arms of its beloved mother. These souls have a right of priority to My compassionate Heart, they have first access to My mercy. Tell them that no soul that has called upon My mercy has been disappointed or brought to shame. I delight particularly in a soul which has placed its trust in My goodness (1541).

     But here I have noticed a paradox among the more ardent devotees of the Divine Mercy. One gets the impression at times that the most enthusiastic promoters of the devotion seem to think they need it the least. Often enough, I have noticed how it attracts those whom Abbot Louf refers to as the “hardened righteous,” whom he thinks far outnumber hardened sinners. These are people who, despite protestations to the contrary, do not live from a profound sense of themselves as forgiven sinners. They strike others instead as convinced of their own righteousness while constantly seeking to curry God’s favor with their various acts of piety, and flattering themselves before others for their presumed virtue. These are people who are always telling others of their shortcomings in the faith and how their spiritual lives are amiss, because they do not follow the same path as they.

     As Louf puts it, “they still know nothing of love, and what is alive in them is rooted in a kind of self-sufficiency and self-absorption which tend to isolate them from others” (Tuning In To Grace, 9). Driven by a secret fear that they are still under wrath, these latter-day Pharisees and Jansenists, betray themselves as the hypocrites Jesus condemned. Desperate to convince themselves and others that they are among the predestined, they fail to see how the devotions to Jesus’ heart, blood and mercy are precisely the antidote to their own attempts to save themselves. For as Louf goes on to say, “There is neither hardened sinner nor hardened righteous, but only a sinner who may continually be caught up in a conversion process” Or in St. Gaspar’s famous saying, “The whole world’s a hospital and we are all patients therein” -- reminiscent of Abbot Polan’s insistence that the bodies of his slain monks be transported together with that of their murderer, for “they’re all children of God.”   

     Now in addition to transforming one’s understanding of God and self, a spirituality of mercy obviously extends to relationships with one’s neighbor as well. Christian morality has always known this under the traditional headings of the spiritual and corporal “works of mercy.” And while these remain touchstones for such a spirituality, it seems to me the appearance of devotion to the Divine Mercy as St. Faustina promoted it calls for still more. Let me relate an example via the words of Rochester Democrat and Chronicle columnist Mark Hare in an essay that appeared on October 22, 2002 entitled, ”Reflect for a moment on this simple act of mercy.”

     He relates the story of Trevor Dalton, a 19-year-old man from Avon, NY dying of a fatal blood disease. He was in prison for criminally negligent homicide. He helped his girlfriend Ashley Nevin inject herself with a fatal overdose of heroin.  As death was imminent, Trevor’s family requested a medical parole. It was granted in part because Ashley’s parents readily agreed to the release. Trevor died soon after at home surrounded by his own parents and friends.

     In his column, Hare noted how “Mercy is underappreciated.  It is often mistaken for going soft, for the failure to administer sufficient punishment. It is no such thing. It is, rather, a gift—not earned, a reflection of the basic humanity of the giver and receiver.”  He goes on to quote Shakespeare in the Merchant of Venice: “[Mercy is] the gentle rain from heaven…It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. It is an attribute of God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s, When mercy seasons justice.”

     “So it was here,” continues Hare. “The gentle rain rinses away the hurt of so many broken hearts, of pain that accumulates as layers of dust on the human soul. Mercy lets us see the humanity in those who have robbed us of what matters most. Mercy enables us to surrender our resentment—not to forget injustice, but to forgive it. Mercy is a gentle rain awakening seeds of kindness trapped below the surface of the parched landscape of tragedy.  Mercy will not bring back Ashley Nevin, nor did it prolong the life of Trevor Dalton. But it is a fresh start—for those who give it, and for those who receive it. It should not go unremarked upon.”  Indeed, it should not.

VI

     From William Shakespeare to Faustina Kowalska, we have heard how mercy is an attribute of God–one of those properties that helps us understand something of God’s mystery. To add another familiar voice, St. Gaspar del Bufalo writes in a homily on the divine mercy, “It appears, my God, that in a special way you wish to be the Father of the ungrateful, the Benefactor of the guilty, the Consoler of penitents; it seems you are not content to make yourself known to our way of understanding by magnificent titles expressing your greatness and power, but wish instead to be called by the sweet name of Father of mercies, God of all consolation, Shepherd endowed with incomparable zeal and concern” (Scritti spirituali, no. 254).

     In other words, the saints would have us know the mystery of God through words that speak, and images that reflect, the tenderness and compassion God has for us--what made Moses say to the Israelites: Ask now of the days of old, before your time, ever since God created humans upon the earth; Did anything so great ever happen before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live? Or did any god venture to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, with strong hand and outstretched arm, and by great terrors, all of which the LORD, your God, did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Dt. 4:32-34). 

     This way of knowing “God for us” leaves aside for a moment questions about what God might be like “in Himself.” St. Faustina, for example, provides a warning on human attempts to peer behind the ways of God toward us, into Mystery itself.  Thus we read in her Diary:

     On one occasion I was reflecting on the Holy Trinity, on the essence of God. I absolutely wanted to know and fathom who God is. ... In an instant my spirit was caught up into what seemed to be the next world. I saw an inaccessible light, and in this light what appeared like three sources of light which I could not understand. And out of that light came words in the form of lightning which encircled heaven and earth. Not understanding anything, I was very sad. Suddenly, from this sea of inaccessible light came our dearly beloved Savior, unutterably beautiful with His shining Wounds. And from this light came a voice which said, Who God is in His Essence, no one will fathom, neither the mind of Angels nor of man. Jesus said to me, “Get to know God by contemplating His attributes” (Diary, 30).

     On another occasion, she saw that the greatest of these attributes is, not surprisingly, God’s love and mercy (cf. Diary, 180).  Mercy being, as Pope John Paul would put it, “love’s second name” (Dives in misericordia, 7)

     So in reflecting on this attribute of God, it is not, as the pope goes on to say, “a question here of the perfection of the inscrutable essence of God in the mystery of the divinity itself, but of the perfection and attribute whereby [we], in the intimate truth of [our] existence, encounter the living God particularly closely and particularly often” (Dives in misericordia, 127).

    And this close encounter with the living God comes about, as we know well, through Christ. As St. Faustina says, “The immense love and abyss of mercy are made known in the Incarnation and in the Redemption [of humanity], and it is here that I saw this as the greatest of all God’s attributes” (Diary, 180).

     But this God, for Christians, is a Trinity of Persons, who dwell eternally in a mutual communion of love. To speak therefore of an “attribute” of God must be to say something about the blessed Trinity Itself, not only about God’s mercy shown to the world and to us, but about God in the very mystery of his Divinity – despite the salutary warnings we have just heard. For indeed we do tread here on dangerous waters, upon which it is easy for the dinghy of the human mind to capsize, overwhelmed by the unfathomable ocean of God’s depths.

     Still, there must be something that corresponds to God’s mercy “for us” and the “mercy” the Persons of the Trinity have for one another, for the God who reveals and the God who is revealed are one and the same God. So we must ask the strange question, if the greatest of all God’s attributes is mercy, how then can God “be mercy” in Himself, indeed, how can God “have mercy” on God?

    Well, the answer, I think, lies in the origin of the word “mercy” from the Latin word misericordia. It’s a combination of two words really: miserere—“to show sympathy”--and cor, meaning, “heart”. So literally, mercy means “to have sympathy for another from one’s heart.” And how is God mercy in this sense? By the perfect sympathy, or harmony, the divine Persons have for one another; their unison of mind and will; their being “for one another” like they are “for us.”

    And when Their mercy is shown to us in the forgiveness of our sins, that too is like the “forgiveness” they bear one another. Does that sound even stranger? God “forgiving” God? Not if you listen to that word “forgiveness.” To for-give means to give oneself for another. And that is what the divine Persons are constantly doing, One Person giving all for the Other: the Father giving Himself wholly “for the Son”; the Son giving Himself wholly in return “for the Father”; all in the unity of the Holy Sprit who gives “for the Father and the Son” Personal Love. So yes indeed, mercy and forgiveness belong to God’s very nature as a Trinity of Persons without, of course, the intrusion of sin.

     So as the community baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, who celebrates God’s for-giving mercy in the Eucharist, I close these reflections with a prayer of John Paul II offered on his last visit to Poland, when he consecrated a new church dedicated to the Divine Mercy:

God, merciful Father, in your Son, Jesus Christ, you have revealed your love and poured it out upon us in the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, We entrust to you today the destiny of the world and of every man and woman. Bend down to us sinners, heal our weakness, conquer all evil, and grant that all the peoples of the earth may experience your mercy. In You, the Triune God, may they ever find the source of hope. Eternal Father, by the Passion and Resurrection of your Son, have mercy on us and upon the whole world! Amen.

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