Photo: Marian Archives
Pope John Paul II in 2000, during the canonization of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska.
His Legacy Assessed
New Biography on Blessed Yields Fresh Mercy Insights
By David Came (May 23, 2011)
As we bask in the afterglow of the beatification of Pope John Paul II on Divine Mercy Sunday, May 1, there's exciting news to share. Preeminent papal biographer, George Weigel, touts John Paul's legacy of Divine Mercy in his new book, The End and the Beginning (Doubleday), which is the sequel to his bestselling Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. In fact, Weigel shows us how John Paul's Divine Mercy legacy has included the renewal of devotional life in thousands of Catholic parishes worldwide and giving the Church a rationale or philosophy for living mercifully in the third millennium.
'Recovery of Devotional Life in Catholic Parishes'
Consider this power-packed quote in which Weigel assesses Divine Mercy as a major theme of what he calls John Paul's "evangelical" papacy:
The divine mercy, manifest in God the Father of mercies, was ... an element of the Christian kerygma, or proclamation, that was of consequence [for Pope John Paul II and the universal Church] far beyond Krakow and Poland. To proclaim the compassion of the Father who welcomes home his prodigal children and restores them to the dignity they have squandered was to meet a universal need, after a century in which humanity had turned its creations upon itself and turned the world into a slaughterhouse in the process. That was why John Paul II, the evangelical pope, made divine mercy one of the focal points of his teaching: in the 1980 encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy); in lifting up the healing riches of sacramental confession and penitential practice in the 1984 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia (Reconciliation and Penance), in beatifying Sr. Faustyna in 1993 and making her the first saint of the new millennium in 2000; and by decreeing that the Octave of Easter should be celebrated throughout the Church as Divine Mercy Sunday. That the Divine Mercy devotion outlined by Saint Faustyna Kowalska became, during the pontificate of John Paul II, a means for the recovery of devotional life in Catholic parishes throughout the world suggested that John Paul II's pastoral intuitions about the imperative of the Church's preaching God's mercy at the turn into a new millennium were squarely on target.
In unpacking this quote from The End and the Beginning it's helpful to notice the foundation Weigel lays for assessing John Paul's Divine Mercy legacy. First, the Divine Mercy message that Pope John Paul II proclaimed focused on revealing "God the Father of mercies" as an element of the Gospel message or "Christian kerygma." After all, Jesus' fundamental mission was and is restoring our relationship with the Father, who is "rich in mercy." So, as Pope, John Paul proclaimed "the compassion of the Father who welcomes home his prodigal children and restores them to the dignity they have squandered." John Paul II set forth this message in its most complete form in his 1980 encyclical, Rich in Mercy, which Weigel highlights as one of John Paul's mercy milestones.
Second, John Paul's proclamation of Divine Mercy "was of consequence" for the Church far beyond his native Poland precisely because it addressed "a universal human need" — our need for Divine Mercy in addressing the horrors of the 20th century that had "turned the world into a slaughterhouse." Weigel enumerates these horrors earlier as "the slaughters of World Wars I and II, the mass murders of the Gulag, the Holocaust, the Ukrainian terror famine, Mao's Great Leap Forward, and so on."
Along with these foundational points for understanding John Paul's emphasis on Divine Mercy, it's worth studying Weigel's final sentence in this quote. There, he astutely observes that Pope John Paul II was right on target to preach God's mercy at the turn of the millennium. The fruit of John Paul's "pastoral intuitions" is that the Divine Mercy devotion he promoted has led to "the recovery of devotional life in Catholic parishes throughout the world."
One thinks here, for instance, of the millions of Catholics who now pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy every day at 3 p.m., the Hour of Great Mercy. Or the thousands of Divine Mercy prayer groups in parishes whose members perform works of mercy in their local communities.
Weigel's assessment of the fruit of Blessed John Paul II's Divine Mercy legacy can encourage all of us to embrace the message and devotion as a way of life. In ways we can't fathom, our prayers and works of mercy can make an eternal difference.
So let's take a moment to examine our hearts and lives. Are we trusting in Jesus? Are we receiving His mercy through daily prayer and reception of the Sacraments? Are we praying for mercy for others, especially by reciting the chaplet? Do we look for opportunities to perform works of mercy?
A Philosophy to Guide Us in Living Mercifully
Now, let's turn to another quote from The End and the Beginning. It's particularly interesting because Weigel shows how Pope John Paul II connected two major themes of his papacy in his homily at the canonization of St. Faustina on April 30, 2000: "the Law of the Gift" and the call to live mercifully, inspired by God the Father of mercies. The exciting point is that understanding this connection can yield the beginnings of a philosophy of life to guide us in living mercifully in the third millennium. (I'll share more on that later.)
Here's the quote from the The End and the Beginning. (NOTE: Except for the summary from Vatican II, all quoted matter is from the canonization homily):
John Paul concluded his homily by returning to two themes that had been prominent throughout his pontificate. He had spoken frequently about the Law of the Gift — the law of self-giving — built into the human person; the Second Vatican Council's summary of this law, that "man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself," had been one of the two most cited Vatican II texts in his magisterium. The Law of the Gift was not, however, easy to live. For "it is not easy to love with a deep love, which lies in the authentic gift of self. This love can only be learned by penetrating the mystery of God's love. Looking at him, being one with his fatherly heart, we are able to look with new eyes at our brothers and sisters, with an attitude of unselfishness and solidarity. All this is mercy!" And the embrace of that mercy was essential if the third millennium was to be spared the worst experiences of the second:
It is this love which must inspire humanity today, if it is to face the crisis of the meaning of life, the challenges of the most diverse needs, and especially the duty to defend the dignity of every human person. Thus the message of divine mercy is also implicitly a message about the value of every human being. Each person is precious in God's eyes; Christ gave his life for each one; to everyone the Father gives his Spirit and offers intimacy.
In reflecting on these words of Pope John Paul II, notice first how he honestly admits that "it is not easy to love with a deep love, which lies in an authentic gift of self." Sustaining such deep love in giving of ourselves to others just isn't possible because of our human limitations. This is precisely why we need to learn how to love deeply "by penetrating the mystery of God's love" and mercy.
How do we do that? By looking at the Father of mercies, whom Jesus has revealed, and by seeking to be one with His "fatherly heart." Only then are we empowered "to look with new eyes at our brothers and sisters, with an attitude of unselfishness and solidarity." Then, God's mercy can flow through us to our brothers and sisters in need.
To gaze at the Father and learn mercy from Him, I recommend that you meditate on the figure of the merciful father in Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), especially in his relationship with his two sons. This is the central Scripture passage in John Paul II's encyclical Rich in Mercy.
But before you do that, let's return to the words of John Paul II to draw out a significant implication that can guide us in living the message of Divine Mercy and even aid our meditation on the parable. Namely, when we look at our brothers and sisters through the eyes of God the Father, we discover that His mercy excludes no one. It seeks to embrace, for example, not only the wayward prodigal but the older, judgmental brother in the parable. As Blessed John Paul II put it, "Thus the message of divine mercy is ... a message about the value of every human being. Each person is precious in God's eyes; Christ gave his life for each one; to everyone the Father gives his Spirit and offers intimacy."
This merciful outlook can become our guiding philosophy of life. It means we should strive to value and love each person in our lives, looking at the person through the eyes of the Father of mercies and realizing how precious he is.
We are called to be particularly attentive to each person when he is in need by showing him mercy, whether it involves a corporal or spiritual work of mercy. I think of my own situation, where I struggle with Parkinson's disease, particularly in the morning in getting ready for work. Nearly everything I do takes more time. My wife, Helen, is attentive to my need for help. She typically helps me put on my coat and starts my car. As a result, I am even more precious in her eyes.
Now, with this merciful outlook in mind, read Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son and spend some time meditating on the figure of the father. Focus on his relationship with his two sons, examining how he shows mercy to each of them — how each of them is precious in his eyes.
Then, extend the meditation to each of the people in your life — your spouse, children, close friends, and so on. Look at them through the eyes of the Father of mercies and see what you discover. You may be surprised.
End your meditation by thanking Blessed John Paul II, the Great Mercy Pope. Ask for his intercession for you in fulfilling the call to live mercifully. Ponder anew his words that show the message of Divine Mercy is "a message about the value of every human being":
Each person is precious in God's eyes; Christ gave his life for each one; to everyone the Father gives his Spirit and offers intimacy.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass. He is the author of Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate.