Photo: L'Osservatore Romano
Last Will and Testament of Mercy
(The following article first appeared in the Summer 2005 edition of Marian Helper magazine. It has been updated to include plans for next year's World Apostolic Congress on Mercy.)
In his last will and testament, Pope John Paul II left no personal property. Instead, he left a far more precious gift: the legacy of Divine Mercy.
In the first entry of his last will and testament on March 6, 1979, he spoke of Divine Mercy as the very source of his strength as Pope. "I ... ask for prayer, that the mercy of God may appear greater than my weakness and unworthiness."
Then, in one of his last entries, recorded between March 12-18 of the Great Jubilee Year 2000, he wrote, "I ... hope that, as long as I am called to fulfill the Petrine service in the Church, the mercy of God will give me the necessary strength for this service."
A Divine Mercy pontificate
It's no surprise that on two other occasions John Paul spoke of Divine Mercy as his special calling as Pope. "Right from the beginning of my ministry in St. Peter's in Rome, I considered this message [of Divine Mercy] my special task," he said at the Shrine of Merciful Love in Collevalenza, Italy, on Nov. 22, 1981.
So, too, he spoke on June 7, 1997, at the tomb of then Blessed Faustina (the nun associated with Divine Mercy) in Lagiewniki, Poland, of how "the message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me." He explained how he had brought to the See of Peter his personal experience of Divine Mercy in Poland during World II and how it had, in a sense, formed the image of his pontificate.
It was altogether fitting, then, that Pope John Paul II went home to God on Saturday, April 2, 2005, on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, after his trusted personal secretary, Archbishop Dziwisz, presided at a Mass for the feast in his presence.
Significantly, he received Viaticum — his final Holy Communion — at the Mass. This great Pope who established Divine Mercy Sunday for the Universal Church knew well of the great graces promised in the Diary of St. Faustina to souls that receive Holy Communion worthily on the feast day.
Inspired by the legacy of the great Mercy Pope, the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Mass., have sought to follow his lead. Here are some mercy milestones for John Paul II and for the Marians in following his lead.
Mercy milestones in publishing
Early in his pontificate, in 1980, Pope John Paul II published his famous encyclical, Rich in Mercy. John Paul shows how God the Father is "rich in mercy" through a masterful exposition of the Gospel parable of the prodigal son (5-6). He roots the message of mercy in Scripture and Catholic theology, speaking of how the love of the Father is revealed in Christ as the "Incarnation of Mercy" and "the inexhaustible source of mercy" (8).
Publishing an important work on Divine Mercy was also on the minds of the Marians in the early 1980s. In 1981, they prepared and published the original Polish edition of the Diary of Sr. Faustina, whose cause of beatification was initiated by John Paul when he was still Archbishop of Krakow. The Diary is the source book of The Divine Mercy message and devotion as revealed by Jesus to St. Faustina. John Paul II quoted from it on a visit to Sr. Faustina's tomb, at her beatification and her canonization, and when he entrusted the world to The Divine Mercy.
During the next 15 years, the Marians published other editions of the Diary in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. Today, Marian Press is known the world over as the publisher of the Diary in English and Spanish. This work of mystical literature has helped to ignite the Divine Mercy movement — one of the greatest grassroots movements in the history of the Church.
Mercy milestones in St. Faustina's cause
Sister Faustina's cause of beatification was a priority for Pope John Paul even when he was Archbishop of Krakow. This is borne out by a telling entry in The Making of the Pope of the Millennium: Kalendarium of Karol Wojtyla. On Aug. 21, 1965, the Rev. Dr. Michael Sopocko, who had been Sr. Faustina's confessor and spiritual director, met with Archbishop Karol Wojtyla and asked when the diocesan process for Sr. Faustina's cause of beatification would start. "This matter is foremost in my mind," the Archbishop answered. "Maybe we will still be able to begin it this year."
On Oct. 21, 1965 — two months to the day after the meeting — Sister Faustina's cause was launched in the Archdiocese of Krakow.
Following Pope John Paul II's lead, Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC (the current Father Joseph, MIC), served as a vice-postulator for Sr. Faustina's cause for some 20 years. In his role, he was pivotal in securing the documentation and testimony needed for a miracle to be recognized for the nun's beatification, and then another one for her canonization.
In fact, Fr. Seraphim even witnessed the first miracle on March 28, 1981, when Maureen Digan was healed of the incurable disease of lymphedema at the tomb of Sr. Faustina in Poland.
Maureen and Fr. Seraphim were present in Rome on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 18, 1993, when Pope John Paul II beatified Sr. Faustina. "O Faustina, how extraordinary your life is!" John Paul exclaimed in his beatification homily. "Precisely you, the poor and simple daughter ... of the Polish people were chosen by Christ to remind people of this great mystery of Divine Mercy!"
Then, the healing in 1995 of Fr. Ron Pytel, a priest with a serious heart condition, paved the way for the Blessed's canonization in 2000. In considering the cure of Fr. Pytel, the Vatican required greater scientific scrutiny. Father Seraphim located Dr. Valentin Fuster, a world-renowned cardiologist, to review the case. His testimony advanced the case quickly with Fr. Seraphim working with Vatican officials on the needed documentation.
So, on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 30, 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized St. Faustina in Rome as the first saint of the Great Jubilee Year 2000. Father Seraphim, Fr. Pytel, and Dr. Fuster were all present for the big day.
John Paul II even attended the reception after the canonization. He told Dr. Fuster, "This is the happiest day of my life."
Mercy milestones for the Church and the world
What made April 30, 2000, the happiest day of John Paul II's life?
He said and did some truly remarkable things at St. Faustina's canonization. First came his surprise announcement in his homily about Divine Mercy Sunday. "It is important that we accept the whole message that comes to us from the word of God on the Second Sunday of Easter, which from now on throughout the Church, will be called 'Divine Mercy Sunday,' " he said.
Second, he did something that has great relevance to our world's need for Divine Mercy in these times wracked by terrorism and war. "Saint Faustina's canonization has a particular eloquence," he said. "By this act I intend to pass this message [of Divine Mercy] on to the new millennium." John Paul II was underscoring The Divine Mercy message St. Faustina was given as the message of the third millennium.
Interestingly, the Pope's establishing Divine Mercy Sunday for the whole Church came as no surprise to Fr. Seraphim. The evening before the canonization, Fr. Seraphim was informed by Monsignor Stanislaus Dziwisz, John Paul II's personal secretary, of the decision.
It was a recognition of the Marians' "Feast of Divine Mercy Petition" drive, which was announced on the EWTN Cable Network and to the Marian Helpers in the Spring 2000 issue of Marian Helper. In the petition, the faithful asked Pope John Paul II to declare Divine Mercy Sunday a universal feast.
The grassroots response was overwhelming. The Marians received thousands upon thousands of signed petitions by mail and fax from the faithful around the world. For months that spring, the Marians kept on sending the Holy See box after box of signed petitions.
To help the faithful understand these new developments, the Marians asked Fr. George Kosicki, CSB — a collaborator of Fr. Seraphim's — to write two new publications. Both were published by Marian Press before Divine Mercy Sunday 2001. Father George's booklet Why Mercy Sunday? provides a Q&A guide to celebrating the universal feast day. Meanwhile, in his book John Paul II: The Great Mercy Pope, Fr. Kosicki chronicles the rich mercy legacy of John Paul.
Last Mercy milestones crown John Paul's legacy
After the momentous developments surrounding St. Faustina's canonization, the faithful barely had time to catch their breath before the Mercy Pope acted again.
In June of 2002, under John Paul II's direction, the Church granted a plenary indulgence for the faithful who fully participate in Divine Mercy Sunday. The indulgence was available for the first time on Mercy Sunday 2003. Pope John Paul II wanted the indulgence to be available on Divine Mercy Sunday "in order to impress deeply on the souls of the faithful the precepts and teachings of Christian faith" regarding the mercy of God, according to a Vatican announcement.
Then, in August of 2002, John Paul entrusted the world to The Divine Mercy when he consecrated the International Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Lagiewniki, a suburb of his beloved Krakow in Poland. This shrine is located where St. Faustina lived and worked.
"In this shrine, I wish solemnly to entrust the world to Divine Mercy," he said in his homily. "I do so with the burning desire that the message of God's merciful love, proclaimed here through St. Faustina, may be made known to all the peoples of the earth and fill their hearts with hope."
The Marians supported these new developments by publishing before Mercy Sunday 2003 pamphlets with the text of John Paul's entrustment homily and the plenary indulgence.
Institute continues John Paul's legacy
The great Mercy Pope encouraged the Marians to spread Divine Mercy when they gathered for their General Chapters in Rome. At their Chapter in 1993, he charged them, "Be apostles of Divine Mercy under the maternal and loving guidance of Mary." Then, in a written message to the Marians at their most recent Chapter this March, he echoed this charge when he said, "Be apostles and witnesses of Divine Mercy for everyone."
One important way the Marians spread The Divine Mercy message is through their John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, which is headquartered in Stockbridge. Inspired by its namesake, John Paul II, the Institute teaches clergy and lay leaders about the message through its seminars and publications. "Our clergy seminars help priests and deacons in parishes understand why The Divine Mercy message is important," said Institute Director Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD.
Take the example of Fr. Bruce Fogel from St. Francis Borgis Parish in Sturgis, Ky., who attended a clergy seminar two years ago in Stockbridge. "The Divine Mercy seminar more than met my expectations," Fr. Fogel said. "It helped me see that the message of Divine Mercy is more than a devotion, it's a call to a life of mercy and charity."
Congress to continue John Paul's legacy
When Pope John Paul II entrusted the world to The Divine Mercy in 2002, he said, "[The] fire of mercy needs to be passed on to the world. In the mercy of God the world will have peace and mankind will find happiness!"
Now that global vision of John Paul for the spread of mercy is being realized through the first-ever World Apostolic Congress on Mercy, which will be held in Rome on April 1-7, 2008. In fact, the first full day of the Congress, April 2, will mark the third anniversary of John Paul's death. And plans call for the day to be devoted to celebrating his legacy of mercy.
Organizers say that the World Congress will be modeled after the International Eucharistic Congresses, which have been called every few years since 1881. Clergy and laity around the world will be encouraged to give paramount importance to the spirituality and message and devotion of The Divine Mercy.
"The Congress will concern the whole Church — indeed, the whole world," said Fr. Patrice Chocholski of Lyon, France, the General Secretary of the Congress and the personal representative of Cardinal Christropher Schonborn of Vienna, Austria, in organizing it.
After leading a Divine Mercy retreat in 2005 in Lagiewniki, Poland, Cardinal Schonborn approached Pope Benedict XVI with the proposal for the Congress. Pope Benedict then gave it his blessing.
"The Holy Father loves this project," said Fr. Patrice when he recently visited with the Marians in Stockbridge to update them on plans for the Congress and to strategize with them in organizing it. Father Patrice said that he is looking to the Marians to take a leadership role with the Congress, especially here in the United States.
All agreed that Divine Mercy Sunday on April 15 will begin a year of spiritual and logistical preparation for the World Congress.
With that in mind, the Marians will make a formal announcement about plans for the Congress during the live telecast on EWTN of their Divine Mercy Sunday celebration at the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge. So, plan to tune in, as the legacy of the Great Mercy Pope continues to unfold.
David Came is the executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.