The Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday, a new feast created by St. John Paul II, in response to a call by St. Faustina Kowalska. It is a wonderful feast – but it takes some unpacking.
It should be said, first, that feasts do not come from one visionary alone. Take the Sacred Heart. People associate devotion to the Sacred Heart with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a nun in France in the seventeenth century. She did indeed call for such a feast.
But she didn’t make it up. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was already important in the Middle Ages. And the Church didn’t accept it merely because Margaret Mary said so. It was providing insight into the needs of the time – more on that in a minute. This doesn’t mean Margaret Mary is bad or unimportant – in fact, it points out that Margaret Mary had both a great grasp of the Tradition and an inspired eye for the needs of her time. She is a great saint – but she is a great saint because she was not suggesting wild ideas.
Similarly, St. Faustina has important insights that we should hear. But those insights are important not because she made them up, but because she didn’t. And the Church’s articulation of those insights take them beyond St. Faustina, into the teaching of the Church. Divine Mercy is the Church’s feast, not just St. Faustina’s. That’s why St. Faustina is a saint: because she preaches the Catholic truth.
Now, there is reason to be hesitant about the Divine Mercy devotion, if not rightly understood.
The key problem is abstraction. Divine Mercy has in many ways supplanted devotion to the Sacred Heart. But the Sacred Heart focused on the person of Jesus, particularly the union between his divinity and humanity. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is not abstract, it is personal and it is intensely incarnational.
Divine Mercy, by itself, runs the risk of becoming an abstraction. To be specific, the danger is that “mercy,” apart from Christ, can lead us to think that our conversion doesn’t matter. People tend to think that mercy means God overlooks our sins. To the contrary, God’s mercy is in healing us and converting us.
The Sacred Heart, being so intensely human, reminds us that God’s mercy restores our humanity. It reminds us of the need to love. It reminds us of the humanity of Jesus, and of his virtues. We pray, “make our hearts like unto thine” – which is the right understanding of mercy, the opposite of God just overlooking our sin.
It is important that our devotion to Divine Mercy maintain this incarnational, human element.
St. Faustina, of course, helps us. Her image of Divine Mercy (above) shows that Divine Mercy is a commentary on the Sacred Heart, and on the sacraments – not a replacement for them. In the image, Jesus does not overlook us, he looks intently on us – and the sacraments pour forth from his Sacred Heart to heal our sins and unite us to his glory.
St. Faustina also gives us the Divine Mercy chaplet, which reminds us of “his sorrowful passion,” the pouring out of his Heart on the Cross, and of the Eucharist, “the body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son.”
And underlining it all are the words, “Jesus I trust in you.” St. Faustina does not let us turn Divine Mercy into an abstraction. It is another insight into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So too the Mass that the Church gives us. The Feast is placed on the octave of Easter Sunday. As Pope Francis has said, it is thereby “dedicated to the glorious wounds of the risen Jesus.” Like the image, it points us not into abstraction but into Easter.
The reading from Acts tells us of grace mediated by the apostles, as Peter’s shadow brings healing to the humanity of the sick. The second reading, from Revelation, has us falling before the feet of him who “was dead, but now [is] alive forever and ever” – embracing the feet of the Risen Lord. And the Gospel has Doubting Thomas probing the wounds of the Risen Christ and the Apostles given the ministry of Confession: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,” “Peace be with you.”
The Divine Mercy comes to us through the sacraments of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mercy is no abstraction, it is union with Christ, crucified and alive.
What does the Heart of Christ teach you about Divine Mercy?