By Lydia M. Borja
Since the year 2000, the universal Church has concluded the Octave of Easter by celebrating Divine Mercy Sunday. This great solemnity calls the faithful to rejoice in the merciful love of God as it is most profoundly manifested in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.
But what exactly is the Divine Mercy? Where did this devotion to the Divine Mercy begin? Is this a new feast day in the Church?
A History of Mercy
In his 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), Pope John Paul II writes, “Believing in [God’s] love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensible dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed” (No. 7).
Salvation history is rich with evidence of this truth. From the beginning, the Covenant that the Lord established with the people of Israel reflected the nature of His love. As He gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, He promises to show “mercy to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:6, RSV).
Later, again to Moses, God gives this description of himself: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy and faithfulness, keeping merciful love for thousands” (Ex 34:6-7, RSV).
As the Old Testament narratives continue, we see the people of Israel habitually turning to God in their sin and misery as a child turns to his father, trusting in his merciful forgiveness.
King David sings of the Lord who is “merciful and gracious,” “slow to anger and abounding in mercy” and who does not deal with us according to our sins (see Psalms 103, 145). Even the prophets, who preach a message of destruction to Israel for its infidelity, speak also of the mercy that the Lord wishes to lavish upon it if only the people will return to Him (see Jer 3:12; Hos 14:3).
Although the reality of God’s great compassion is unmistakably established and confirmed in the history of the Old Testament, it is the coming of His Son that gives the world the actual incarnation of this love and mercy. Pope John Paul’s encyclical observes:
“Christ confers on the whole of the Old Testament tradition about God’s mercy a definitive meaning. Not only does he speak of it … but above all he himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He himself, in a certain sense, is mercy” (No. 2).
Christ’s entire life can be seen as a testimony to the mercy of God.
At His conception, Our Lady sang her great hymn of thanksgiving: “His mercy is from age to age to those who fear Him” (Lk 1:50).
At the start of Christ’s public ministry, He proclaimed, “release to the captives” (Lk 4:18, RSV), and later, “blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt 5:7).
In the words of His last agony, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34). Indeed, the presence of Jesus Christ in the world reveals to us the face of God, who is the “Father of mercies” (2 Cor 1:3, RSV).
Simply speaking, then, the “Divine Mercy” is another name for the revelation of this magnificent love of God, which culminates in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Christians have long known and praised this abundant mercy. In this sense, devotion to the Divine Mercy is not new.
Less than a century ago, however, Christians were challenged by God himself to a renewed awareness and trust in His mercy, which has begun to fan the old flame of devotion into a more ardent veneration. Our Lord spoke to a young Polish nun, giving her a timeless reminder for all of humanity:
“Mankind will not have peace,” He said, “until it turns with trust to My mercy. … Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God.”
Sister Mary Faustina Kowalska, born in 1905, was a cloistered nun of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Poland. On Feb. 22, 1931, Jesus first appeared to Sister Faustina.
He was clothed in a white robe, with two rays of light emanating from His heart — one red and one white, representing the blood and water that came forth from His pierced side at His crucifixion. He requested that this image be painted with the signature, “Jesus, I trust in You,” and promised that even the most hardened sinners who would revere this image would be saved. Our Lord told Faustina of His great desire that the first Sunday after Easter be dedicated as the “Feast of Mercy,” and that this image of His mercy be known and venerated by the whole world.
Our Lord appeared to Sister Faustina — whom He called His “apostle of mercy” — many other times over the course of several years, each time speaking of His great mercy for all souls. At the direction of her confessor, Faustina documented all of her dialogues with Christ in what she called her “Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul” (which received ecclesiastical approval from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1979).
Within these pages we read the repeated and urgent plea of Our Lord’s love and the purpose of His conversations with Faustina: “My Heart overflows with great mercy for souls. … If only they could understand that I am the best of Fathers to them and that it is for them that the Blood and Water flowed from My Heart as from a fount overflowing with mercy” (Diary, p. 165).
Sister Faustina’s encounters with Jesus are considered private revelation — that is, a revelation outside of the deposit of faith, and one which the faithful are not obligated to believe. However, these mes-sages have been officially approved by the Church as containing nothing contrary to faith or morals.
In addition, Pope John Paul II recognized in Sister Faustina’s writings a message that was truly from Christ, and relevant to all mankind in every day and age. On April 30, 2000, the first Sunday following Easter, Pope John Paul both canonized Sister Faustina Kowalska and declared in his homily of that day his own desire that the “Second Sunday of Easter … from now on throughout the world will be called ‘Divine Mercy Sunday.’”
In conjunction with the Pope’s wishes, on May 5, 2000, the Con-gregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued a decree officially establishing the Second Sunday of Easter as “Divine Mercy Sunday.”
It is important to understand that this is not a new feast day in the Church. As explained in the congregation’s document, Divine Mercy Sunday gives an additional name — a new “appellation” — to the day that is already a solemnity of the liturgical year — that is, the Second Sunday of Easter. With regards to that day’s liturgy, nothing is to be changed in either the texts of the Divine Office or the Missal. In fact, the previously established liturgical readings for the day fit in perfectly with the theme of mercy. In the Gospel, the Lord imparts to the apostles His authority to bind and release the sins of men, thereby instituting the Sacrament of Penance.
The feast of Divine Mercy, then, is a continuation of the celebration of Easter; it is, as Pope John Paul once said, Christ’s “Easter gift” to the world.
The feast of Divine Mercy is not only a beautiful reminder of the love of God, but also a challenge to a deeper understanding of who He is, and who we are in relation to Him. St. Faustina recognized this truth and responded in her weakness to the power of Christ’s mercy.
At the Mass for Faustina’s canonization, Pope John Paul prayed for her intercession. We should join him in this prayer:
“Divine Mercy reaches human beings from the Heart of Christ crucified. … Today, fixing our gaze with you on the face of the Risen Christ, let us make our own your prayer of trusting abandonment and say with firm hope: ‘Jesus, I trust in You!’” TCA
Our Lord gave St. Faustina a set of prayers to invoke His mercy, called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. On standard rosary beads, pray the following prayers:
First, on the crucifix, one Our Father, Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed.
On each Our Father bead, pray: “Eternal Father, I offer You the most precious Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world.”
On each Hail Mary bead, pray: “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us, and on the whole world.”
Repeat for five decades. To conclude, pray three times: “Holy God, holy mighty One, holy immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
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