By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 22, 2013)
One of the things that baffles people who dig into the story of the spread of the Divine Mercy message and devotion is that the message seems to have caused controversy among theologians at first. And it still does.
This is a bit hard for many of us to understand. We can see why there was controversy and debate over its origin: the "private revelations" of an uneducated nun. We can understand why the Church would want to proceed very carefully before giving credence to extraordinary revelations like these. We know that the Vatican in the 1950s had received a faulty translation of St. Faustina's Diary into Italian, and that this had caused a great deal of confusion and serious doubt about the authenticity of her revelations.
But why in the world would any Catholics object to the message itself: Isn't the doctrine of the merciful love of God the very heart of the Catholic faith? So what was the problem?
One of our readers, named Jim, put the question this way:
Can you tell me why there would be obstacles of a theological nature to the message of mercy? Would it be because the Church felt that God was more just than merciful then? Is this why the message was met with such suspicion?
Well, not exactly, Jim. Blessed Michael Sopocko, St. Faustina's principal spiritual director, stated in his own recollections that when he first began analyzing the content of St. Faustina's messages, such as the one where Jesus states that "mercy is the greatest attribute of God" (Diary, 301), he "found nothing on this subject in the works of the more modern theologians."
As a matter of fact, it wasn't that theologians or bishops were teaching that God's justice was greater than His mercy. Nor were they forgetting about God's mercy altogether. In 1928, for example, when St. Faustina was 23 years old, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical entitled Miserentissimus Redemptor ("Most Merciful Redeemer") that centered on the merciful Heart of Jesus, and the importance of making reparation to His Heart.
This encyclical includes the beautiful teaching that we can actually console the Heart of Jesus by our works of love and piety (the subject of my doctoral thesis in Rome!). So it is not as if Divine Mercy was completely forgotten by Catholics at the time or that God's justice was considered greater than His mercy. But most Catholics just weren't prepared to say that any of God's attributes were "greater" than any other.
That God's merciful love is indeed His "greatest" attribute is implied in the Scriptures and had been taught by great saints of the Church such as St. Augustine in his commentaries on the Psalms and St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae.
In the mid-20th century, however, Catholic intellectuals were in the process of recovering the philosophical aspects of St. Thomas Aquinas's thought. Saint Thomas had taught that, seen from the philosophical angle, in the simplicity of God's essence, all the attributes of God are really one; they all refer to the same infinite, eternal act of God's perfect being. God does not have "parts," or attributes that are separable from each other. They are always in act, all at once, and inseparably so, bound up with each other at every moment.
Thus, God's justice is always loving, and His mercy is always just, from all eternity. Therefore, from a philosophical perspective, one cannot say that one of God's attributes is "greater" than any other; they all just refer to the same thing: His perfect being! At Vatican II, however, the Church strongly encouraged the faithful, including Catholic theologians, to recover biblical perspectives on the faith, and not just philosophical perspectives. Thus, Fr. Ignacy Rozycki, who analyzed St. Faustina's Diary for the Vatican in the 1970s, pointed out that if we consider God's attributes not just in an abstract, philosophical way, in themselves, but in their relation to us, as the Bible does, then we can indeed say that mercy is God's greatest attribute for His creatures.
Father Rozycki put it this way: "Within this biblical understanding, the results of the activity of merciful love are the greatest in the world, and in this respect, mercy surpasses all other Divine attributes." In other words, since God's mercy is synonymous with His compassionate love that seeks to meet the needs and overcome the miseries of His creatures,to us (that is, from our perspective as His creatures) there is no attribute of God that we need more, and that makes a bigger difference! And of course, this is precisely what Pope John Paul II taught in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia ("Rich in Mercy"): "Some theologians affirm that mercy is the greatest of the attributes and perfections of God, and the Bible, Tradition, and the whole faith life of the People of God provide particular proofs of this" (no. 13).
In short, the recovery by the Church of a more biblical perspective on God (a perspective that does not contradict true philosophical perspectives on God, but completes them — "rounds out the picture," so to speak) was a big step on the road to opening the minds and hearts of Catholic thinkers to appreciate the revelations of God's merciful love given to St. Faustina.
Of course, the Divine Mercy message was controversial at first for other reasons, too. Saint Faustina reported that Jesus had asked for the Second Sunday of Easter, the octave day of Easter, to be named the Feast of The Divine Mercy, and many liturgists felt that this was inappropriate. They feared it might obscure the celebration of Easter or set a precedent of establishing feast days for all the other attributes of God.
Blessed Sopocko began answering these objections as early as 1952, with the appearance of the first English edition of his booklet "The Feast of the Most Merciful Savior." Many of these objections are also addressed and answered here on this website in a long essay entitled "Understanding Divine Mercy Sunday".
A big breakthrough on this issue came in the research of our own Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, who served as vice-postulator of the Cause for the Canonization of Sister Faustina. Father Seraphim discovered that in the early Church, St. Gregory Nazianzen and The Apostolic Constitutions had pointed to the importance of the octave day of Easter as a special feast day. So to establish that octave day as "Divine Mercy Sunday" would not really be the creation of a new feast day, but the revival and renewal of an ancient one!
Finally, many theologians had lost the sense of the distinction between "private revelations" and "prophetic revelations." Private revelations are given to souls primarily for their own benefit and for their own sanctification. Prophetic revelations are given to chosen souls to communicate to the whole Church, to call the Church back to some neglected aspects of the Gospel, or to deepen the Church's appreciation of some aspects of the Gospel more than ever before. When our Lord manifested His Sacred Heart to St. Margaret Mary in the 17th century, that was a "prophetic revelations." He gave the Church a reminder, and deeper appreciation, of our Savior's tender and compassionate love for humanity. It was precisely what the world needed at the time — in an age of cold, arid rationalism and widespread loss of faith.
After Our Lady appeared to the children of Fatima, theologians began to reconsider this distinction between "private" and "prophetic" revelations, but it was still not widely appreciated when St. Faustina received her revelations in the 1930's — and, sadly, is still not widely appreciated today. (Again, you can read more about this in that essay "Understanding Divine Mercy Sunday".)
As you can see, gradually the Lord has been breaking down the initial misgivings of theologians to the Divine Mercy message and devotion. But we Divine Mercy theologians still have much work to do to convince the sceptics!
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.