Photo: Marie Romagnano, RN
By David Came (Feb 11, 2013)
Pope Benedict XVI has announced plans for his retirement. Among his many contributions to the Church has been his steadfast support of the "gift of Divine Mercy." The following is an excerpt from David Came's 2009 book Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate (Marian Press).
On April 20, 2005, in his first message as Pope, Benedict XVI spoke with remarkable candor about his apprehension upon being elected. It's telling that in the midst of what he called "contrasting emotions," he expressed "deep gratitude for a gift of Divine Mercy." Further, the new Pontiff emphasized how he believed that this gift had been obtained for him through the intercession of his predecessor, John Paul II:
At this time, side by side in my heart, I feel two contrasting emotions. On the one hand, a sense of inadequacy and human apprehension as I face the responsibility for the universal Church, entrusted to me yesterday as Successor of the Apostle Peter in this See of Rome. On the other, I have a lively feeling of profound gratitude to God who, as the liturgy makes us sing, never leaves his flock untended but leads it down the ages under the guidance of those whom he himself has chosen as the Vicars of his Son and has made shepherds of the flock (cf. Preface of Apostles I).
Dear friends, this deep gratitude for a gift of Divine Mercy is uppermost in my heart in spite of all. And I consider it a special grace which my Venerable Predecessor, John Paul II, has obtained for me. I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, "Do not be afraid!"
Predisposed to Receive the Gift
What exactly was the context for the new Pope receiving "a gift of Divine Mercy"?
To answer this question, we should consider Pope John Paul II's Regina Caeli message for Divine Mercy Sunday 2005 that was shared with the faithful in St. Peter's Square on April 3, 2005, the day after his death, which was Mercy Sunday. We should also reflect on then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's words in his April 8, 2005, funeral homily for John Paul II. When we do, we discover why Pope Benedict was predisposed to receive this gift when he became Pope.
First, before we consider John Paul's Regina Caeli message, it's important to realize that he was seriously ill and surely knew that this would probably be his last annual Divine Mercy Sunday message to the Church and the world. Further, it's likely the future Pope Benedict, then Cardinal Ratzinger — as John Paul's longtime prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who had met with him weekly for nearly 24 years —was cognizant of all this and reflected deeply on these inspiring words after the death of his beloved Pope:
As a gift to humanity, which sometimes seems bewildered and overwhelmed by the power of evil, selfishness and fear, the Risen Lord offers his love that pardons, reconciles and reopens hearts to love. It is a love that converts hearts and gives peace. How much the world needs to understand and accept Divine Mercy! Lord, [you] who reveal the Father's love by your death and Resurrection, we believe in you and confidently repeat to you today: Jesus, I trust in you, have mercy upon us and upon the whole world (Regina Caeli message of Pope John Paul II, prepared for Divine Mercy Sunday, April 3, 2005).
Notice how John Paul talks of the Risen Lord offering "a gift to humanity" and emphasizes how humanity is sometimes "bewildered and overwhelmed" by fear. Compare this to Pope Benedict's mention in his first message as Pontiff of his own "sense of inadequacy and human apprehension." Further, we see a striking correspondence between John Paul's enthusiastic devotion to Divine Mercy in declaring, "How much the world needs to understand and accept Divine Mercy!" and Benedict describing in endearing terms a personal encounter with John Paul as he received "a gift of Divine Mercy": "I seem to feel his strong hand clasping mine; I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, at this moment addressed specifically to me, 'Do not be afraid!'"
Finally, in his last Divine Mercy Sunday message, John Paul speaks of humanity being "overwhelmed by the power of evil." This is a theme that then Cardinal Ratzinger picks up in his homily at John Paul II's funeral Mass at which he presided as dean of the College of Cardinals:
[Pope John Paul II] interpreted for us the paschal mystery as a mystery of Divine Mercy. In his last book, he wrote: The limit imposed upon evil "is ultimately Divine Mercy" (Memory and Identity, pp. 54-55). And reflecting on the assassination attempt, he said, "In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love. ... It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good" (pp. 167-168).
This key insight of John Paul's about Divine Mercy imposing a limit upon evil — especially as expressed in the paschal mystery of Christ's suffering — was most likely on Cardinal Ratzinger's mind not only at the funeral but in the days leading up to his election as Pope. It surely helped sustain him during his mourning for John Paul and then helped make him receptive to a gift of Divine Mercy upon his own election.
To shed more light on this gift and its personal connection for Pope Benedict with John Paul, it's also helpful to consider an interview of Pope Benedict conducted by Polish State Television (TVP) to mark the occasion of the Polish Parliament in 2005 establishing October 16th (the day Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was elected Pope) as Pope John Paul II Day in Poland.
The Internet news service Zenit reported that when Pope Benedict was asked by the Polish State Television interviewer to highlight "the most significant moments of the Pontificate of John Paul II," he mentioned among the late Pope's main legacies that "he created a new awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy."
Interestingly, as we have just seen, John Paul's "awareness of the greatness of Divine Mercy" certainly had a profound impact on Benedict himself, both when he presided at John Paul's funeral and then at his own election as Pope.
But there's more. When the interviewer asked Pope Benedict if he continues "to feel the presence of John Paul II," his response is reminiscent of the personal tone of his comments about John Paul during his first message as his successor. It's almost as if he is reading off the same page several months later:
Certainly ... the Pope is always close to me through his writings: I hear him and I see him speaking, so I can keep up a continuous dialogue with him. He is always speaking to me through his writings. ... So I can continue my conversations with the Holy Father. This nearness to him isn't limited to words and texts, because behind the texts I hear the Pope himself. A man who goes to the Lord doesn't disappear: I believe that someone who goes to the Lord comes even closer to us, and I feel he is close to me and that I am close to the Lord. I am near the Pope and now he helps me to be near the Lord, and I try to enter this atmosphere of prayer, of love for our Lord, for Our Lady, and I entrust myself to his prayers. So there is a permanent dialogue, and we're close to each other in a new way, in a very deep way.
In sum, we see that, after his death, John Paul has continued to speak to Benedict through his writings and that "behind the texts," John Paul continues to inspire Benedict. Further, Benedict's relationship with John Paul even deepened spiritually after the latter's death and must have been particularly intense in the days before Benedict's election — thus setting the stage for the new Pontiff 's receptivity to "a gift of Divine Mercy" through the intercession of John Paul II. Their weekly meetings of nearly 24 years as Pontiff and prefect had borne fruit.
'A Great Gift of Divine Mercy,' 80 Years of Life
Two years later, Pope Benedict mentions his gratitude for "a great gift of Divine Mercy to have been granted birth and rebirth" upon celebrating his 80th birthday. He includes his rebirth in his remarks, since he was baptized with the first water of Easter on Holy Saturday, the very day he was born.
The occasion is significant. It is April 15, 2007, which is Divine Mercy Sunday that year, and he chooses to celebrate his birthday on Mercy Sunday even though his birthday is on April 16.
In his homily for the occasion, Pope Benedict seems almost to take up where he had left off with his comments about John Paul and "a gift of Divine Mercy" two years earlier at his election. Read carefully and compare these words with those in the last section:
Two years ago now, after the First Vespers of this Feast, John Paul II ended his earthly life. In dying, he entered the light of Divine Mercy, of which, beyond death and starting from God, he now speaks to us in a new way.
Have faith, he tells us, in Divine Mercy! Become day after day men and women of God's mercy. Mercy is the garment of light which the Lord has given to us in Baptism. We must not allow this light to be extinguished; on the contrary, it must grow within us every day and thus bring to the world God's glad tidings.
In these days illumined in particular by the light of Divine Mercy, a coincidence occurs that is significant to me: I can look back on over 80 years of life.
The Pope then continues in a more personal vein:
I have always considered it a great gift of Divine Mercy to have been granted birth and rebirth, so to speak, on the same day, in the sign of the beginning of Easter. Thus, I was born as a member of my own family and of the great family of God on the same day.
As Benedict celebrates the gift of Divine Mercy in his own rebirth through Baptism, observe in particular how he speaks of mercy as "the garment of light which the Lord has given to us in Baptism." He is saying that the great dignity we have all been given in Baptism as children of God is a result of God's great mercy in saving us from our sins. He encourages all of us who are baptized to let this light of mercy from our Baptism "grow within us every day."
Pope Benedict develops this theme further for all of us later in his homily when he sums up, "Birth and rebirth, an earthly family and the great family of God: this is the great gift of God's multiple mercies, the foundation of which supports us."
But he doesn't end there. No, he encourages us to be aware of "God's multiple mercies" every day of our life. "God's mercy accompanies us daily," he says. "To be able to perceive his mercy it suffices to have a heart that is alert. We are excessively inclined to notice only the daily effort that has been imposed upon as children of Adam."
Here, the Holy Father is reminding us that as children of the light who now live in Christ, we need to grow in daily awareness of "God's multiple mercies." We must ask for spiritual sight to recognize the mercies of the Lord and express our gratitude to God for them every day.
In responding to this call, the challenge for me is that I tend to develop tunnel vision when I am under the press of deadlines as an editor or a writer. All I can see at such times is the immediate goal of finishing an issue of the magazine I edit or writing a particular article. At such times, I can fail to appreciate fully the natural beauty that surrounds me when I arrive to work on Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I can miss the wonder of my daily participation in weekday Mass at Our Lady of Mercy Oratory here at the Marian Helpers Center.
What about you?
All of us — as baptized children of God — have received "a great gift of Divine Mercy." In that light, our Holy Father is inviting us to open the eyes of our heart in order to receive it. It is expressed daily in "God's multiple mercies" toward us. But if we don't keep our eyes on the Lord and His mercies, we become weighed down by our sinful tendencies as children of Adam. As a result, our spiritual vision becomes clouded, and we miss the blessing — the sense of gratitude and joy — that God intended for us.
You may order a copy of Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate online.
David Came is executive editor of Marian Helper magazine, the flagship publication of the Association of Marian Helpers, which is headquartered in Stockbridge, Mass.