Dear followers of John Paul II
It is my honor and delight to share some reflections by Leonie Caldecott on the significance of "Divine Mercy Sunday" as the day selected for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. It was written for a Catholic newspaper in the UK (The Catholic Herald) last month and used with the permission of the author. Readers may recall the Stratford Caldecott, Leonie's husband, spoke at UST last year in conjunction with Environmental Studies and the Forum. His talk may be found on the JP2 Forum website. Their website, Beauty for Truth's Sake, is a real treat and highly recommended; find it here. I should also mention that the Forum is working with the chaplain at UST to plan a special event for May 1 to celebrate the beatification. Details will be forthcoming. But let us appreciate the connection of Pope John Paul II and Divine Mercy Sunday as explained by Leonie Caldecott.
Rich in Mercy by Leonie Caldecott
When the Holy Father decreed last week that his predecessor, John Paul II, would be beatified on May 1st this year, he knew exactly what he was doing. For this, the first Sunday after Easter, is Divine Mercy Sunday. "The Message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me,” said John Paul II. He went so far as to describe it as forming “the image of this Pontificate." He himself died on the vigil of the feast, 2nd April 2005.
“The power that imposes a limit on evil is Divine Mercy,” Pope Benedict has said. Poland is a country that has experienced many evils, and yet survived. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that the devotion to Divine Mercy comes out of Poland. During the 1930s, in a series of mystical experiences, Sister Faustina Kowalska, a nun in a convent in Krakow, was entrusted with renewing the Church’s sense of God’s mercy, poured out through the wounded heart of Christ. It was in many ways an extension of the devotion to the Sacred Heart: a deepening of our appreciation of God’s love for us, focusing specifically on the Easter message of redemption. The devotion involves celebrating the first Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, the reciting of the chaplet of Divine Mercy, imploring God’s mercy on the Church and on the world, and a Holy Hour in memory of Christ’s death. As Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla enthusiastically promoted Sr Faustina’s message, and initiated the cause for her beatification, which as Pope he took to its conclusion in 1993. In 2000, he also canonised her, and announced that Divine Mercy Sunday was to be celebrated throughout the universal Church. He described it as “the happiest day of my life.”
In order to understand why this devotion was so important to John Paul II, you have to know the extent to which he both suffered in his own life, and witnessed the suffering of others. Karol Wojtyla was born in 1920, just as Poland attained her longed-for independence. His mother and older siblings all died during his childhood. By the time he was 22 his father too had died, leaving the young Karol alone in the world. Meanwhile his beloved country was subjected to immense suffering, first during the Second World War (St Faustina died just on the eve of that war, in 1938), then during decades of suffocating communist rule. No wonder that the second of the three Trinitarian encyclicals which marked the beginning of John Paul’s pontificate, the one devoted to God the Father, was entitled Dives in Misericordia – Rich in Mercy. The central message of that document, which George Weigel has called “the clearest expression of the pastoral soul of John Paul II”, is that God is with those who suffer.
Suffering is of course the result of sin, the result of alienation from God. John Paul II, whose close relations with the Jewish community began early in his life and was deepened by the agony he watched Jews go through during the Nazi occupation, meditated deeply on the experience of mercy in the Old Testament. The chosen people, even when they have gone astray, are brought back over and over again into communion with a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
But it is in Christ, wrote John Paul II, that this loving Father is made fully present among men. Both in his ministry of healing and liberation from sin, and in his own suffering and death, he shows what God’s mercy really means. “The Cross is like a touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man’s earthly existence.” For not only does God show us the ultimate mercy of taking our sins on himself, but, astonishingly, he asks us to have mercy on him. And of course we fail. He is betrayed by one of his own; even his closest allies flee or deny him in the moment of trial. The radical, even shocking, impact of this redemptive mystery is a theme which ran throughout Karol Wojtyla’s life. His priestly vocation, and everything which followed, flowed from a desire to offer his life as Christ did, that others might have ‘life to the full”. For him, the meaning of life was to be found in the gift of self to the Other.
Dives in Misericordia points out that in our times, torn by war and injustice on an unprecedented scale, wounded by our abandonment of God and all this entails, humanity has more need of mercy than ever. And yet the concept of ‘mercy’ is not well understood. It is often viewed only from the outside, and thus appears to be a condescending thing, an imbablance of power, something dispensed to the powerless by the powerful. Yet for us who are not God, mercy is impossible to practise without a profound sense of our equal dignity. In the parable of the prodigal son, for example, Jesus demonstrates how true fatherhood means having a profound respect for the dignity of even the wayward child. The father in the parable runs to meet his son; he does not dwell on the ingratitude and waste of the past. For what he is restoring to his son is precisely the meaning of his sonship. “The person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather ‘found again’.”
This is why the meditation on Mercy, which he called ‘love’s second name’, is at the core of Karol Wojtyla’s mission. Pope Benedict knows this well. As the Church is rocked by scandal and dissension, attacked from without and undermined from within by our often merciless treatment of one another, he clearly means Blessed John Paul II to stand as a beacon of hope amidst the chaos. “Whoever looks for hope will find comfort,” said John Paul in 2002, when wracked with infirmity, he travelled one last time to his mother country for the dedication of the shrine of Divine Mercy at Lagiewniki near Krakow. It is for this reason that his successor has hastened to raise him to the altars. For it is not enough to talk about hope: we have to see it incarnated. We have to see someone living it.
Likewise it is not enough to beg for mercy. We have to incarnate it ourselves, following Christ, forgiving even those who may have harmed us. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” As Papa Wojtyla knew from his experiences of man’s inhumanity to man, and told young people as he shepherded them toward the new millennium, changing the world cannot happen unless we go beyond mere human justice: “Love is the only driving force that impels us to share with our brothers and sisters all that we have and are…. Sometimes one has the feeling that Love has lost its power, that it is impossible to practise it. And yet in the long run Love always brings victory: Love is never defeated!”
Leonie Caldecott is the author of ‘What do Catholics Believe?’ and the author of ‘Divine Comedy: A Theresian Mystery Play’. She is working on a play about the charism of John Paul II, to be performed in the week before his beatification.