Why Catholics Celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday
By Rev. Alfred McBride, O.Praem.
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On the Second Sunday of Easter of the Jubilee Year 2000, at the Mass for the
canonization of St. Faustina Kowalska, Pope John Paul II proclaimed to the
world that “from now on throughout the Church this Sunday will be called
Divine Mercy Sunday.”
Pope John Paul had actively promoted the message of St. Faustina. In his 1980
encyclical on God’s mercy, Rich in Mercy, he developed a scriptural and doctrinal basis
for our faith in the mercy of God. By linking the revealed truth about God’s mercy to
one of the most solemn Sundays after Easter itself, he illumined the fact that the liturgy
already proclaimed the divine mercy. The truth has been embedded for two millennia
in the worship of the Church. Once again we see an illustration of the ancient saying,
“The law of faith is the law of prayer.”
On the Second Sunday of Easter, the responsorial psalm and Gospel for Cycles A,
B and C center on the theme of mercy. In Psalm 118 we sing three times, “His mercy endures forever.” The Gospel, from John 20:19-31, begins
with the risen Christ appearing to the apostles on Easter night.
Jesus calms his disciples by saying and giving them “Peace.”
He shows them the scars of his Passion, his wounded hands
and side. His glorified body retains the evidence of his saving
work through his suffering, death and resurrection.
He fills them with joy and again says to them—and
produces in them—“Peace.” Then he breathes on them and
explains what the divine breathing means with the words,
“Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven
them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” He gives the
apostles the power of God’s mercy for the sinner, the gift of
forgiving sins from God’s treasury of mercy. The other texts
speak of healing and give the assurance there is nothing to fear.
From Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday to the Eighth Day
of Easter, the divine love song of mercy is chanted amid
abundant alleluias. For centuries in liturgy the Church has
proclaimed the mercy of God through the Word of God and
the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. The tables
of Word and Sacrament are heaped with the promises of
Divine Mercy and its grand effect in the lives of millions.
The liturgy is the storehouse of the wisdom of God and a
treasure chest for all the worshipers.
‘I spoke as a brother’
A TIME magazine issue in 1984 presented a startling
cover. It pictured a prison cell where two men sat on
metal folding chairs. The young man wore a black
turtleneck sweater, blue jeans and white running
shoes. The older man was dressed in a white robe and had a
white skullcap on his head. They sat facing one another, up close
and personal. They spoke quietly so as to keep others from
hearing the conversation. The young man was Mehmet Ali
Agca, the pope’s attempted assassin; the other man was Pope
John Paul II, the intended victim. The pope held the hand that
had held the gun whose bullet tore into the pope’s body.
In the cell, unseen in the picture, were the pope’s secretary
and two security agents, along with a still photographer and
videographer. John Paul wanted this scene to be shown
around a world filled with nuclear arsenals and unforgiving
hatreds. The Church has always used paintings, sculpture and
architecture to communicate spiritual meanings. This was a
living icon of mercy.
The Church was celebrating the 1,950th anniversary of
Christ’s death and Christian redemption. The pope had been
preaching forgiveness and reconciliation constantly. His
deed with Ali Agca spoke a thousand words. John Paul’s
forgiveness was deeply Christian. He embraced his enemy
and pardoned him. At the end of their 20-minute meeting,
Ali Agca raised the pope’s hand to his forehead as a sign
of respect. John Paul shook Ali Agca’s hand tenderly.
When the pope left the cell he said, “What we talked
about must remain a secret between us. I spoke to him as a
brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete
trust.” This is an example of God’s divine mercy, the same
divine mercy whose message St. Faustina witnessed.
Ways to observe Divine Mercy Sunday
With a relatively new liturgical celebration like
Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church will look
among its members for ways to celebrate. When
he was archbishop of St. Louis, in 1998, Cardinal
Justin Rigali wrote a pastoral letter to his priests in which he
urged them to preach on the mystery of the riches of God’s
mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday:
I ask that each of our Archdiocesan parishes observe
the Second Sunday of Easter as a celebration of Divine
Mercy. . . . I ask that the principal focus of our observance
be the Eucharistic Liturgy itself, with special attention
given in the homily to preaching on Divine Mercy. The
link between Divine Mercy and the Easter celebration,
especially on the Second Sunday of Easter, exists on
many levels . . . .The Scripture readings lend themselves
to linking Easter and Divine Mercy since the texts
highlight the forgiveness of sins.
The disposition of trust in God’s mercy is essential
for receiving the graces God wants us to have. The time
of preparation for the Divine Mercy Sunday is meant to
strengthen our people’s trust in God’s mercy. Artwork
or holy cards related to Divine Mercy can play an
important role. There is one image of St. Faustina that
speaks to many hearts in a way that is deeper than words.
Like a good icon, it confronts the praying and worshiping
person with the merciful love of Christ, and its
inscription, “Jesus, I trust in you,” encourages the believer
to respond to this invitation with greater confidence.
One way the Church celebrates God’s mercy throughout
the year is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Cardinal
Rigali notes, “This beautiful Sacrament was presented to the
Church by Christ himself on the day of his Resurrection,
hence this Sacrament of Mercy is supremely relevant also in
this Easter season.” The cardinal also suggests that finding
times for Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is another good
way to observe Divine Mercy.
St. Faustina Kowalska: Apostle of Divine Mercy
The story of St. Faustina Kowalska reveals the inspiration
behind the Divine Mercy devotion. Helena
Kowalska was born in Poland on August 25, 1905.
She was the third child of a devout Catholic family.
As a small child she reported seeing bright lights during her
night prayers. At age 16 she went to work as a servant in a
neighboring city. She soon resigned after a fainting spell,
even though a doctor said she was healthy.
Helena told her parents that she wanted to enter religious
life but failed to obtain her father’s permission because he felt
she was too young. She took another post as a servant and
made friends with a circle of young women. At a dance, she
experienced a vision of Christ suffering that touched her
conscience and revived her desire to be a nun. She soon left
her job and sought entrance in a religious congregation.
In 1925, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of
Our Lady of Mercy, taking the name Faustina. She served
as a cook, gardener and doorkeeper in Krakow and several
other community convents. The sisters liked her but did not
appreciate or understand her deep interior life, which included
visions and prophecies. On February 22, 1931, Sister Faustina
experienced a new and life-changing vision of Christ. She saw
him wearing a white robe and raising his right hand in blessing
with his left hand resting on his heart from which flowed
two rays of light. Jesus told her, “Paint an image according to
the pattern you see, with the prayer, Jesus, I trust in you.”
Faustina could not paint, and struggled to convince her
incredulous sisters about the truth of her vision. Ultimately she
persuaded her spiritual director,
Father Michael Sopocko,
that the vision was real.
He found an artist to create
the painting that was named
The Divine Mercy and
shown to the world
for the first time on
April 28, 1935.
Faustina to record
her visions in a diary.
At one point she wrote
that “Jesus said I was his
secretary and an apostle
of his divine mercy.” She
devoted the rest of her
life to spreading the
message of divine mercy
and the growth of popular devotion to it. Her mystical
writings have been translated into many languages. She died
of tuberculosis at age 33. Pope John Paul II canonized her
on April 30, 2000.
The revelations experienced by St. Faustina were of a
private nature, which are not essential to anyone’s acceptance
of the Catholic faith. These types of visions and revelations
are described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“Throughout the ages, there have been so-called ‘private’
revelations, some of which have been recognized by the
authority of the Church. They do not belong, however, to
the deposit of faith. It is not their role to improve or complete
Christ’s definitive Revelation, but to help live more fully
by it in a certain period of history” (#67).
In another section, the Catechism describes popular
piety, which helps us to put St. Faustina’s revelations
into a broader context: “The religious sense of the Christian
people has always found expression in various forms of
piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as
veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the
rosary, medals, etc. These expressions of piety extend the
liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it....Pastoral
discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety”
So we see that devotion to divine mercy in no way replaces
any of our rich liturgical traditions. The Divine Mercy devotion
fosters the virtue of trust in God’s mercy that finds its
fulfillment in the liturgy of Reconciliation and the Holy
Eucharist. Popular piety animates the faith attitudes that make
participation in the sacraments more vital and fruitful.
Mercy in the midst of tragedy
The news is filled with illustrations of mercy—or the
need for mercy—in our world. One of the most moving
stories came to us on October 6, 2006, when an
armed man entered an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel
Mines, Pennsylvania. He chased out the little boys and lined
up the 10 little girls in front of the blackboard. He shot all of
them and then killed himself. Five of the girls died. After the
medics and police left, the families of the fallen came and
carried their slain children home. They removed their bloody
clothes and washed the bodies. In each home they emptied a
room of furniture except for a table and chairs. They sat for
a time and mourned their beloved children.
After a while they walked to the home of the man who
killed their children. They told his widow they forgave her
husband for what he had done, and they consoled her for
the loss of her spouse. They buried their anger before they
buried their children.
On the wall of the local firehouse is a watercolor of the
schoolyard painted by a local artist, Elsie Beiler. Its title is
“Happier Days,” and it depicts the Amish children playing
without a care before the shooting. Five birds, which some
say represent the dead girls, circle the blue sky above.
Amish Christians teach us that forgiveness is central.
They believe in a real sense that God’s forgiveness depends
on their extending forgiveness to other people. That’s what the
mercy of God is all about. That mercy is why we celebrate
Divine Mercy Sunday.