With his May 1 beatification, Pope John Paul II draws a major step closer to sainthood — the crowning glory for an extraordinary pope whose 26-year-long papacy revitalized the Catholic Church.
He visited 133 countries, energizing local churches and connecting them ever more strongly to the universal Church and the papacy. He encouraged new lay movements and organizations, which sought to help Catholics grow in personal holiness. He authorized the first universal catechism for the Catholic Church since the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century. He introduced World Youth Day to reconnect young Catholics with their faith. He helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire, and then set about reviving Catholicism in Eastern Europe.
But in such an active, momentous pontificate, one crucial element of his spirituality tends to be overlooked — his devotion to the Divine Mercy. Pope Benedict XVI drew our attention to this fact in 2006 when he said, “The mystery of God’s merciful love was the center of the pontificate of my venerable predecessor.” Then he added that Pope John Paul taught us “the cult of Divine Mercy is not a secondary devotion but an integral dimension of Christian faith and prayer.”
God’s gift to our time
In 2000, Pope John Paul canonized Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), the young Polish nun whose visions of Jesus Christ revealed to the world the boundless love and mercy of Our Lord. “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to my mercy,” Jesus said to St. Faustina. In his homily at the canonization Mass, Pope John Paul declared that the message of Divine Mercy is “God’s gift to our time.” In a world filled with suffering, violence and confusion, the pope urged us to take refuge in the Divine Mercy. And to encourage this devotion, which he considered so important to the spiritual life of all Catholics, he proclaimed that the Sunday after Easter would henceforth be the feast of Divine Mercy, thereby fulfilling one of the requests Christ made through St. Faustina.
Blessed John Paul recognized that the choice of the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday was not random, but drew attention to the intimate connection between the paschal mystery and the infinite mercy of God. Filled with loving compassion for all of fallen, sinful humanity, Christ suffered a terrible death on the cross to reconcile the world with the Father. “In this way,” Pope John Paul wrote in his 1980 encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), “redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.” Five years after canonizing Sister Faustina, as he faced the last hours of his life, Blessed John Paul II made two final requests: to have the Bible read to him, and to celebrate the vigil Mass for the feast of Divine Mercy. He would die on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday, April 2, 2005.
‘Let us learn to forgive’
The mercy of God was thus a theme Pope John Paul addressed often. In 1995, he spoke of mercy to a crowd of pilgrims who had gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray the Regina Caeli (the prayer Queen of Heaven). On that occasion, the pope reminded the crowd that forgiveness is intimately linked with mercy. “Let us learn to forgive,” he said.
Of course, Blessed John Paul gave the world an especially vivid example of mercy and forgiveness.
On a warm, sunny afternoon, May 13, 1981, Pope John Paul II was standing in his popemobile, cruising slowly through a crowd of approximately 20,000 pilgrims, preparing to begin his weekly outdoor public audience. Suddenly, Mehmet Ali Agca, a 23-year-old escaped convict from Turkey, aimed a pistol at the pope and fired six shots, wounding Pope John Paul in the abdomen, his right arm and his left hand.
The abdominal wounds were grave, but the bullets had not struck the pope’s spine, nor any major organs, nor severed the abdominal artery. For the rest of his life, Pope John Paul believed that none of his wounds had been mortal because the hand of the Blessed Virgin Mary had deflected the bullets. Nonetheless, it would take months for him to recover from this attempt on his life.
Four days after the shooting, while still hospitalized, Pope John Paul taped his Sunday Angelus message so it could be played to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square.
“Pray for the brother who shot me, whom I have sincerely forgiven,” the pope said.
In December 1983, Pope John Paul visited Rebibbia Prison in Rome, where Agca was serving a life sentence for his attempt to kill him. They sat together for 21 minutes, heads close together, speaking softly so the security guards, the pope’s secretary and the Vatican photographer and film crew could not hear what the two men were saying.
Looking at the photo of Pope John Paul and Agca, heads together, many observers have remarked that it looks like a confessional scene. Whether Agca admitted his guilt and asked for pardon, we do not know, but we do know that the pope embraced Agca and said that he forgave him.
Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of OSV’s Catholic Cardlinks series. Adapted from the pamphlet “Blessed John Paul II: The Pope of Divine Mercy” (OSV, $14.95 for a packet of 50).
Ways of Divine Mercy
Speak of God’s mercy: Share it with family, friends and co-workers who are worried or fretful.
Practice works of mercy: Use the Church’s list of spiritual and corporal works of mercy as a guide.
Pray to obtain mercy: Pray for yourself, of course, but pray for others as well. Naturally, the people you know and love will be at the top of your list, but pray for strangers, too. Pray for the world as a whole, which is so desperately in need of God’s mercy. You might select someone who is especially notorious and pray that that person will turn away from a life of evil and experience the mercy of Jesus Christ. St. Thérèse of Lisieux did so: She prayed fervently for a convicted murderer. All the while he was in prison, he had rebuffed the Catholic chaplain, but moments before he was to be executed, the convict asked the chaplain for a crucifix, took it in his hands, and kissed it.
Let Mary be your guide: Blessed John Paul called her “the Mother of Divine Mercy.” Through Mary’s prayers you can receive God’s mercy and learn to be merciful to others.
Chaplet of Divine Mercy: Pray it daily.(see instructions in sidebar below).
Deepen your love for Jesus: Increase your trust in his Divine Mercy. Basilian Father George W. Kosicki, author of “A Pocket Guide to Living the Divine Mercy,” suggests frequent attendance at Mass; regular confession — at least monthly — because in this sacrament especially we experience the mercy of God; eucharistic adoration where possible, or a daily spiritual communion, when you stop your work for one minute and turn your heart and mind to Jesus.
Devotion to the Divine Mercy can transform your life. With the help of God’s grace, you will learn to place all your confidence in Jesus, while growing closer to him and showing more patience, compassion and mercy to everyone you encounter in daily life.
How to Pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy (sidebar)
In 1935, an inner voice taught this devotion to St. Faustina Kowalska. It is customary to recite this prayer at 3 p.m., the hour when Jesus died on the cross.
Take your rosary and make the Sign of the Cross. Then pray one Our Father, one Hail Mary and the Apostles’ Creed.
On the Our Father beads, say the following: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and 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 the 10 Hail Mary beads, say the following: “For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
When you have recited these prayers on all five decades, recite the following prayer three times: “Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world.”
St. Faustina (sidebar)
Sister Mary Faustina Kowalska was born in 1905 to a devout family in Poland. She had little formal education and worked as a domestic before entering the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in 1925.
On Feb. 22, 1931, Jesus first appeared to her and requested she paint an image of the Divine Mercy: Jesus dressed in a white robe with two rays emanating from his heart — one red and one white, representing the blood and water that came forth from his pierced side at his crucifixion — with the words “Jesus, I trust in you” at the bottom.
Faustina continued to experience visions and prophecies, which she recorded in her diary. Faustina predicted the date of her own death at the age of 33 — Oct. 5, 1938.
At the canonization Mass for St. Faustina, Pope John Paul II prayed for her intercession: “[O]btain for us an awareness of the depth of Divine Mercy; help us to have a living experience of it and to bear witness to it among our brothers and sisters. … 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!’”
Related Reading (sidebar)