Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), the second encyclical of St. John Paul II’s pontificate, is arguably one of the greatest treasures of the Church, and one that is particularly significant for this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. Issued in 1980, thirty years before the canonization of St. Faustina who St. John Paul declared the “Apostle of Divine Mercy”, this work is indeed a most necessary message for our times.
While every era of history has had its struggles, sometimes struggles of enormous proportions, it seems that in recent years the moral decay in our culture has gone from bad to worse. It wouldn’t be hard for most of us to come up with a long laundry list of societal ills that would have been a rarity, or even non-existent, just a generation ago. Those living with broken hearts, and those lost in the misery of sin (all of us at one time or another, or to varying degrees) evoke a particular compassion in the heart of a Christian. St. John Paul notes the worry caused by
“the decline of many fundamental moral values…[which] 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… the purely utilitarian relationship between individual[s], and the loss of a sense of the authentic common good…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” (DM, VI, 12).
Pope John Paul said this nearly forty years ago! His observation could certainly be called prescient, if not prophetic. It is precisely these kinds of wounds – involving life, marriage, family, and the common good – that are all around us. No wonder Pope Francis talks about the Church as a field hospital!
Particularly painful are the wounds inflicted by a misuse or misunderstanding of the gift of human sexuality, which we see manifest most especially in the broken hearts that come from pre-marital sex, cohabitation, contraception, the failure of marriages, and abortion – all of which speak of a lack of reverence for the human person as an unrepeatable individual made in the image and likeness of God.
How many hurting women and men coming to Project Rachel, the Catholic Church’s ministry of healing and reconciliation to those wounded by abortion, find it so hard to accept the idea that God can truly forgive them, and sometimes find it even more difficult to forgive themselves – and yet that is their deepest desire – to be forgiven, to find peace. How often do we hear post-abortive women and men say, “I feel like I’ve committed the unforgiveable sin; how can God ever forgive me?”
And this is why we need a Year of Mercy – to remind us that God’s greatest attribute, Mercy, is greater than any sin. St. John Paul explains,
“Mercy in itself, as a perfection of the infinite God, is also infinite. Also infinite therefore and inexhaustible is the Father’s readiness to receive the prodigal children who return to His home. Infinite are the readiness and power of forgiveness which flow continually from the marvelous value of the sacrifice of the Son. No human sin can prevail over this power or even limit it. On the part of man only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words persistence in obstinacy, opposing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the cross and resurrection of Christ” (DM, VII, 13).
This is illustrated poignantly in the Holy Father’s lectio divina on the parable of the Prodigal Son. He points out a particularly significant insight: the root of the prodigal son’s misery is not merely a squandering of material goods, but rather a tragic loss of the dignity of his sonship. Pope John Paul describes the development of the son’s understanding which brings him to repentance. The son’s decision to return home to his father are marked by the words, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” It is in these words, Pope John Paul notes, that the son’s thinking demonstrates a maturing of his understanding of his sense of lost dignity. Through his repentant disposition, all that the son has been through can be seen as a sort of catalyst to restoration. And, it is in the father’s loving embrace where all the son’s misery is transformed, the dignity of his sonship restored.
This is truly a message that those weighed down by the heavy burdens of sin need to hear. Whether one is suffering from their own sins, the sins of another, or both, their dignity has in some way been damaged. We long for hope and healing, and sometimes we can’t seem to find the strength to even dare to believe this is actually possible. But it is! As desperately lost as the Prodigal Son was, the Father’s love was stronger. In his return home, the remorseful son is ready to undergo the humiliation of becoming a mere servant, and yet from his father’s perspective, his love for his son “could never be altered or destroyed by any sort of behavior, [for it] springs from the very essence of [his] fatherhood”; his focus is on the truth of love, of restoring his lost dignity (DM, IV, 5, 6).
“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 father first and foremost expresses to him his joy that he has been ‘found again’ and that he has ‘returned to life’. This joy indicates a good that has remained intact: even if he is a prodigal, a son does not cease to be truly his father’s son; it also indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself” (DM, IV, 6 – emphasis added).
If we are to be God’s instruments in healing a wounded culture, we must entrust all people and situations to His Mercy. St. John Paul II concludes Dives in Misericordia by exhorting us to ardent prayer,
“…a cry that implores mercy according to the needs of man in the modern world…With this cry let us, like the sacred writers, call upon the God who cannot despise anything that He has made, the God who is faithful to Himself, to His fatherhood, and His love….The reason for [the Church’s] existence is, in fact, to reveal God, that Father who allows us to see Him in Christ. No matter how strong the resistance of human history may be,…no matter how great the denial of God in the human world, so much the greater must be the Church’s closeness to that mystery which, hidden for centuries in God, was then truly shared with man, in time, through Jesus Christ” (DM, VII, 15).
In this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, may we be graced with renewed zeal to proclaim in word and deed, The Divine Mercy, the Love that is more powerful than sin.