Long before he became known as St John Paul the Great – before he was even Pope John Paul II – he was simply Karol Wojtyla, a young and unknown Pole studying to become a priest (in secret, mind you, for fear of repercussions from the brutal communist regime in charge at the time). It was during his underground studies that Wojtyla discovered the private revelations of St Faustina Kowalska, only two years after she died.

By now, the Divine Mercy has become a beloved devotion of so many people. The Divine Mercy Chaplet is a prayer given to St Faustina by Jesus during his appearances to her, a way in which people could open themselves, and the world, to God’s mercy. In her diary, she recounts Jesus saying to her:

I have opened My Heart as a living fountain of mercy. Let all souls draw life from it. Let them approach this sea of mercy with great trust’ (Diary, 1520).

It was this message of God’s infinite mercy that Karol Wojtyla felt the world needed to hear. After discovering St Faustina, he felt it was a mission bestowed upon him by God to bring the message of Divine Mercy to the world. In 1981, he said:

I considered this message my special task. Providence has assigned it to me in the present situation of man, the Church, and the world.’

As a priest and a bishop, Wojtyla would visit the convent where St Faustina lived in order to pray and give retreats. When he became Archbishop of Krakow, he pioneered the movement to bring St Fautina to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. And during his pontificate, he canonised St Faustina, instituted the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, and dedicated a whole encyclical to the devotion called Dives in misericordia (“Rich in mercy”).

In order to understand why he was so passionate about the Divine Mercy, we have to understand what mercy is and the world Wojtyla grew up in.

Evil, misery & mercy

Mercy, according to St Thomas Aquinas, is ‘the compassion in our hearts for another person’s misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him’ (ST II-II.30.1). The English word derives from the Latin misericordia, which means, literally, “having a miserable heart” for another person’s misery. It involves both the emotional response to misery and the acting on behalf of that person to relieve them of that miserable situation.

In a way we will never truly understand, living under both German and Russian totalitarianism was an endless source of misery for everyone. Pope John Paul II gave us insight that this was partly behind the popularity of the devotion. At the Shrine of the Divine Mercy in Krakow-Lagiewniki, he said:

The Message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me. It is as if history had inscribed it in the tragic experience of the Second World War. In those difficult years it was a particular support and an inexhaustible source of hope, not only for the people of Krakow but for the entire nation.’

Likewise, in his last book Memory and Identity (2005), he talks about the positive reception St Faustina’s private revelations received: ‘The people of that time understood her message. They understood it in light of the dramatic build-up of evil during the Second World War and the cruelty of the totalitarian systems . . .

It was as if Christ wanted to say through her: “Evil does not have the last word!” The Paschal Mystery confirms that good is ultimately victorious; that life conquers death and that love triumphs over hate.’

It is through the idea of mercy that we can understand the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus: The God who sees humanity languishing in misery is moved to do something about it, and does so. In Dives in misericordia, the Pope writes:

Believing in the crucified Son means “seeing the Father,” means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name . . .’ (§7).

In this sense, mercy is a deeply personal reality. We cannot understand it abstractly. Only in understanding the reality of human misery and the depths of God’s love will we become more attuned to the profundity of the Divine Mercy.

Divine Mercy Kazimirowski Eugeniusz Divine Mercy 1934 Copy
Divine Mercy. Painting in Divine Mercy Sanctuary in Vilnius Eugeniusz Kazimirowski (1873-1939)

For a more human society

Amidst the horrors of the Second World War, and the brutal totalitarianism Poland languished under, the message of the Divine Mercy lived with them, encouraging them in the belief that love is greater than evil. You might think that, suffering under such conditions, people would be more than justified in allowing resentment and hatred and bitterness towards their enemies to consume them. This was never something St John Paul the Great displayed, and actually, he said, the Divine Mercy was a powerful antidote to this temptation.

Again, in Dives in misericordia, he wrote:

Although they continue to appeal to the idea of justice, nevertheless experience shows that other negative forces have gained the upper hand over justice, such as spite, hatred and even cruelty. In such cases, the desire to annihilate the enemy, limit his freedom, or even force him into total dependence, becomes the fundamental motive for action . . . The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions’ (§12).

It is only when we embrace mercy and forgiveness that we can create a society that is ‘ever more human’ (§14). It could be said that our culture is becoming increasingly unforgiving. The extent to which it does that, it becomes less human, less liveable. To embrace justice alone is to destroy justice itself.

During St Faustina’s canonisation, Pope John Paul II said that he wanted to bring this message of the Divine Mercy to the Third Millennium. This was not only for the sake of a more human society, but for the sake of the Gospel itself, at the heart of which is the ‘merciful love’ of the Triune God (DM §14). This Divine Mercy Sunday, let us take up the call of Pope John Paul II and St Faustina and open our hearts to God’s mercy, and through the Chaplet pray for the opening of other people’s hearts as well.

This Sunday is Divine Mercy Sunday (24 April). Across the Archdiocese of Melbourne and beyond, parishes will be celebrating special Masses to which all are invited. To view what’s happening in your area, click here.