With the canonization of Pope John Paul II on April 27, 2014, the world exceedingly rejoices. In God’s providence, the Holy Father’s elevation to sainthood occurs on Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast instituted by “the Great Mercy Pope” himself when he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska on Divine Mercy Sunday in the year 2000.
The meaning and message of Divine Mercy were central to Pope John Paul’s pontificate. He outlines this in a particular way in his second encyclical, issued on November 30, 1980, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), and this reflection is clearly intertwined with the events of the 20th century and beyond, including the beatification and canonization of St. Faustina, the Apostle of Divine Mercy. It was on John Paul’s final visit to Poland in 2002 that the Holy Father entrusted the whole world to Divine Mercy when he consecrated the International Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Lagiewniki, near Krakow.
It seems that the more we read of Pope John Paul’s many writings, the more awed we are by the integrity of his thought and the depth of the mission to which God called him. Indeed, the themes on which he reflected, wrote, and preached bring together a critical message for our time.
There is a beautiful insight we gain into the saint’s heart that is evident in a 1968 letter that then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla wrote to his friend, theologian Fr. Henri de Lubac, in which he said, “I devote my free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the PERSON. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person….”
Decades later this still rings true. Our world is plagued by physical and moral evils that result in the “pulverization” of the human person; and we can clearly see that the need for God’s mercy is real indeed. In fact, some of today’s most markedly troubling issues were identified by name in Pope John Paul’s Dives in Misericordia:
“…one cannot fail to be worried by the decline of many fundamental values, which constitute an unquestionable good not only for Christian morality but simply for human morality, for moral culture: these values include respect for human life from the moment of conception, respect for marriage in its indissoluble unity, and respect for the stability of the family. Moral permissiveness strikes especially at this most sensitive sphere of life and society. Hand in hand with this go the crisis of truth in human relationships, lack of responsibility for what one says, the purely utilitarian relationship between individual and individual, the loss of a sense of the authentic common good and the ease with which this good is alienated. Finally, there is the “desacralization” that often turns into “dehumanization”: the individual and the society for whom nothing is ‘sacred’ suffer moral decay, in spite of appearances” (n. 12, emphasis added).
Many consciences today have become dulled, even desensitized, to the reality of sin and its effects. How can we set out on our journey to eternity if we don’t even know how to find a map? John Paul’s reflection on the Prodigal Son (cf. Dives in Misericordia, n. 5, 6) is very applicable here in helping us to understand that we must address the reality of sin and proclaim this redeeming antidote of Divine Mercy that is so need by a suffering humanity. As he probes the depths of this Gospel parable, the Holy Father notes that the son who squanders his inheritance loses much more than his material goods: what he comes to understand is the loss of his dignity as a son. This awareness, that his conduct had deprived him of his dignity as a son, is ultimately what drives him home.
The pontiff simultaneously explains the role of the father to whom the prodigal son returns, for he too has suffered – out of love for his son who has gone astray. In describing the son’s return, the Gospel tells us that when the father saw the son returning home “he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.” John Paul tells us,
“Notice, the father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son’s humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved….The father’s fidelity to himself is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity. This explains above all his joyous emotion at the moment of the son’s return home.”
“Mercy – as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son – has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and ‘restored to value.’…The joy [of the father] indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself….the prodigal son begin[s] to see himself and his actions in their full truth (…a genuine form of humility)…[and] the father sees so clearly the good which has been achieved thanks to a mysterious radiation of truth and love, that he seems to forget all the evil which the son had committed…Mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission.”
At the heart of St. John Paul II’s teaching is the challenge to each of us to uphold and reverence the dignity of the human person created in the image and likeness of God. While it’s all too easy to be tempted to discouragement by the disastrous effects of sin upon ourselves, our world, and our brothers and sisters in Christ manifest in so many painful forms, we can indeed have hope. St. John Paul the Great has been to the world God’s instrument of the message of Divine Mercy. He reminds us, “The cross is like a touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man’s earthly existence” and “Mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name”.
So, what are we called to do? How can we help to facilitate the conversion of hurting and hardened hearts? Pope John Paul tells us that the Church is called to appeal to the mercy of God. We must “proclaim the truth of God’s mercy revealed in the crucified and risen Christ”, and practice mercy “towards people through people”. We must implore God’s mercy upon the world:
“At no time and in no historical period – especially at a moment as critical as our own – can the Church forget the prayer that is a cry for the mercy of God amid the many forms of evil which weigh upon humanity and threaten it…The more the human conscience succumbs to secularization, loses its sense of the very meaning of the word “mercy,” moves away from God and distances itself from the mystery of mercy, the more the Church has the right and the duty to appeal to the God of mercy “with loud cries.” These “loud cries” should be the mark of the Church of our times, cries uttered to God to implore His mercy, the certain manifestation of which she professes and proclaims as having already come in Jesus crucified and risen, that is, in the Paschal Mystery. It is this mystery which bears within itself the most complete revelation of mercy, that is, of that love which is more powerful than death, more powerful than sin and every evil, the love which lifts man up when he falls into the abyss and frees him from the greatest threats.” (DM, n.15)
Let us heed the call of our new saint and fervently call upon Him who is “Love’s second name”:
Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us, that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself. Amen. (Diary of St. Faustina, n. 950)