Pope St. John Paul II has been referred to by many as the “Mercy Pope.” When the Diary of St. Faustina, Divine Mercy in My Soul was banned by the Vatican because of a faulty translation, it was he who was then Archbishop of Krakow that initiated the process to remove any impediments to the spreading of the devotion to Divine Mercy. As pope he canonized St. Faustina as the first saint of the Third Millennium and established Divine Mercy Sunday for the Universal Church. Even Pope Benedict recognized this “Mercy Pope” when he pointed out in a homily that “Providence decided that he should die right on the eve of that day [Divine Mercy Sunday—April 2, 2005] in the arms of Divine Mercy” so that his first day in Heaven was Divine Mercy Sunday. Clearly this was a man who God used to reveal His mercy is a unique way. With the celebration this Sunday of God’s Divine Mercy, it is a good time to reflect on the Mercy of God and use this saint as our guide.
In his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, John Paul II wrote what would serve as the framework of his mercy apostolate. He offered an extended meditation on the Prodigal Son in order to remove our “prejudices about mercy [that] are mostly the result of appraising them only from the outside.” His point is that we struggle to experience mercy and give mercy because we do not understand it. We do not understand what we mean when we say that God is merciful and therefore what it means for us to be merciful.
In his commentary on the line from Ephesians 2:1, “God who is rich in mercy,” St Thomas says that God’s merciful love is the basis for the divine love of mankind. He distinguishes between mercy and justice by pointing out that when “a man’s love is caused from the goodness of the one he loves, then that man who loves does so out of justice but when loves causes the goodness in the beloved then it is a love springing from mercy. The love with which God loves us produces goodness in us; hence mercy is presented here as the root of the divine love.” God’s love for us is what causes all that is good in us. So mercy is not just primarily about forgiving our sins but a recognition that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). We all are beneficiaries of God’s mercy not just those who have sinned greatly. All too often we offer pious platitudes to His mercy without ever consciously experiencing it. Once we recall that it is His mercy that elevates us however we will see it everywhere in our lives.
This is the model for our own mercy towards others. Mercy is not a lowering of myself to help those less fortunate than I. This is one of the prejudices the Holy Pontiff warns us of: “(W)e see in mercy above all a relationship of inequality between the one offering it and the one receiving it.” Our acts of mercy ought to raise others up. But true “mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him.” It is a desire to help another restore their proper dignity. This is the affective aspect of mercy that leads us to compassion. But in order to properly be an instrument of God’s mercy then it must also be effective. Effective mercy does something to relieve the needs of others. Humanly speaking both aspects are needed—the man who performed great acts of “mercy” with no feeling would probably frigidly scare most people away.
John Paul II goes on to say that “mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission. His disciples and followers understood and practiced mercy in the same way.” What he means is that the early Church saw it as her mission to spread and make known God’s mercy. They were to be Apostles of Mercy by living out the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Mt 5:7). To remind all of us of this mandate, Jesus gave a similar message to St. Faustina “I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it.” (Diary 742).
Jesus has given us the Mercy Mandate and the Church has instructed us on how to realize it through the Corporal and Spiritual Acts of Mercy. We must remember that they are done first of all with the intention of loving God. This intention ought to animate everything that we do. This is why we are infused with the virtue of charity in Baptism. It gives us a share of God’s love for Himself and infuses into us the habit of loving like He does. Like all habits it grows in strength each time we exercise it. So when we love our neighbor for God’s sake, it is not some disinterested love that they merely benefit from. Instead it enables us to love them more purely and to desire their good more intently.
Only by doing them with this spirit can they truly be acts of mercy; acts that aid in the restoration and remembrance of the great dignity of those we serve. It is the love of God that awakens this sense. The Canonized Pope goes on to makes it a point to mention how important the approach that we take in brining others to mercy. He says that it is only when the prodigal’s “sense of lost dignity had matured” that he decided to return to his father. This should serve as model of conversion and evangelization for us. Christianity is not primarily a moral message but an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ, Mercy Incarnate. Once someone has been restored to sonship, they will act like it. But first they must know (or be reminded) of their great dignity as beloved of the Father. This seems to me to be at the heart of the overall message of Pope Francis that many people recoil at. It is not that the moral teachings aren’t true or are unimportant. But they are not the Gospel. They need to be preached, but preached as second things. They are preached to those who have encountered Jesus and now turn to Him and ask “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.”
I spoke recently with someone who was counseling someone against moving in with her boyfriend. He said he was having difficulty reaching her because she was filled with the values of the world. He asked for what arguments he should make. Recalling what John Paul II said above, I told him to tell her “she is worth so much more than that.” She deserves to be loved for who she is and not merely tried out as if she was a used car. That is the first step that he is talking about. The message is still clear—moving in with your boyfriend is wrong, but it is first a message reminding her of her dignity. Like the prodigal son, it is the recollection of her dignity that will set her on the path of mercy. Remembering whose daughter she is, she no longer desire to be a mere servant.