How One Divine Mercy Critic Misses the Mark
Robert Stackpole Answers Your Divine Mercy Questions
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 1, 2010)
It sometimes happens that well-intentioned, doctrinally "orthodox" Catholic believers get a hold of wrong information about the Divine Mercy message and devotion, and they end up discouraging their friends or parishioners from having anything to do with it. This seems to be the case with an essay that is circulating among traditional Catholics, an essay written by a priest who questions the orthodoxy not only of devotion to The Divine Mercy, but also of the teachings on Divine Mercy of our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II.
I will refer to this priest simply as "Father S" because his identity does not matter, and this column is in no sense a personal attack on him or an attempt to damage his reputation as a shepherd of souls. In fact, from reading what he has written, I would surmise he is a sincere, traditional Catholic, well versed in theology, but that he has just gotten hold of "the wrong end of the stick," so to speak. Inadvertently, he is misleading others on these matters, and so I think a response from this column is in order. Here is the full text of his short essay on the subject:
Question: What are we to think of the Divine Mercy devotion?
Answer: Many people have certainly received graces from the devotion to Divine Mercy propagated by St. Faustina. However, this does not necessarily mean that this devotion is from God, but rather that it is practiced by persons who are docile to the reception of grace. It is true that Pope John Paul II has promoted this devotion, that it was through his efforts that the prohibition was lifted on April 15, 1978, and that he even introduced a feast of Divine Mercy into the Novus Ordo. However, it was not so approved before Vatican II. In fact it was condemned, and this despite the fact that the prayers themselves of the chaplet of Divine Mercy are orthodox.
In fact, there were two decrees on this question, both of the time of Pope John XXIII. The Supreme Congregation of the Holy Office, in a plenary meeting held on November 19, 1958, made the following decisions:
1. The supernatural nature of the revelations made to Sister Faustina is not evident.
2. No feast of Divine Mercy is to be instituted.
3. It is forbidden to divulge images and writings that propagate this devotion under the form received by Sister Faustina.
The second decree of the Holy Office was on March 6, 1959, in which the following was established:
1. The diffusion of images and writings promoting the devotion to Divine Mercy under the form proposed by the same Sister Faustina was forbidden.
2. The prudence of the bishops is to judge as to the removal of the aforesaid images that are already displayed for public honor.
What was it about this devotion that prevented the Holy Office from acknowledging its divine origin? The decrees do not say, but it seems that the reason lies in the fact that there is so much emphasis on God's mercy as to exclude His justice. Our sins and the gravity of the offense that they afflict on God is pushed aside as being of little consequence. That is why the aspect of reparation for sin is omitted or obscured.
The true image of God's mercy is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, pierced with a lance, crowned with thorns, dripping precious blood. The Sacred Heart calls for a devotion of reparation, as the Popes have always requested. However, this is not at all the case with the Divine Mercy devotion. The image has no heart. It is a Sacred Heart without a heart, without reparation, without the price of our sins being clearly evident. It is this that makes the devotion very incomplete and makes us suspicious of its supernatural origin, regardless of Sister Faustina's own personal holiness. This absence of the need for reparation for sins is manifest in the strange promise of freedom from all the temporal punishment due to sin for those who observe the 3:00 p.m. Low Sunday devotions. How could such a devotion be more powerful and better than a plenary indulgence, applying the extraordinary treasury of the merits of the saints? How could it not require as a condition that we perform a penitential work of our own, nor the detachment from venial sin that is necessary to obtain a plenary indulgence?
My final comment is that it is not accidental at all that Pope John Paul II has promoted this devotion, so much in line with his encyclical Dives in misericordia. In fact, the Paschal Mystery theology that he teaches has pushed aside all consideration of the gravity of sin, and the need for penance, for satisfaction to divine Justice, and hence of the Mass to be a expiatory sacrifice, and likewise the need to gain indulgences and to do works of penance. Since God is infinitely merciful, and does not count our sins, all this is considered of no consequence. This is not Catholic. We must make reparation for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world, as the Sacred Heart repeatedly asked at Paray-Le-Monial. It is renewal of our consecration to the Sacred Heart, and frequent holy hours of reparation that is going to bring about the conversion of sinners. It is in this way that we can cooperate in bringing about His Kingdom of Merciful Love, because it is the perfect recognition of the infinite holiness of the Divine Majesty, and complete submission to His rightful demands. Mercy only means something when we understand the price of our Redemption.
I will direct my response to Fr. S. himself:
Dear Fr. S,
It seems to me that while your intentions are the best, you have been misinformed on both the history and theology of the Divine Mercy message and devotion, as well as on some of the writings of Pope John Paul II, and this has blurred your vision with regard to these matters.
First of all, you quote the decrees of the Holy Office of 1958 and 1959 establishing the ban on the Divine Mercy message and devotion at that time, but you fail to quote the lifting of that ban by the same Office of the Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the CDF), in 1978, including the following explanation of why that ban was lifted:
This Sacred Congregation, having now in possession the many original documents unknown in 1959, and having taken into account the profoundly changed circumstances, and having taken into account the opinion of many Polish Ordinaries, declares no longer binding the prohibitions contained in the Notification [of 1959]. [Emphasis mine]
This provides the clue as to why the devotion was banned in the first place. The fact is that the only translation the Vatican possessed of the Diary of St. Faustina in the 1950s was a faulty translation of the book into Italian, which included gross distortions of what Sister Faustina had written (for example, our Lord said to Sister Faustina, "I am Love and Mercy itself" in entry 1074, but the Italian translation makes it appear that Faustina was making this claim about herself!). It was almost impossible for religious documents of any kind to be smuggled out of Poland to the Vatican in the 1950s because Poland was trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and Eastern Europe lay under the grip of Stalin. Thus, the Vatican placed a ban on the message and devotion largely because it was operating without the original documents, that is, on the basis of misinformation.
Cardinal Wojtyla knew this, and when the opportunities arose later to get the correct information about Sister Faustina to the authorities in Rome, he and his confreres in the Polish episcopate did not hesitate to do so. Moreover, by 1978 the authorities in Rome also had on file the extraordinarily detailed theological analysis of Sister Faustina's Diary written in French by Fr. Ignacy Rozycki, one of Europe's leading Thomists and a member of the Pontifical Theological Commission. This weighty tome by Fr. Rozycki exonerated Sister Faustina of all suspicions of heterodoxy, and must have been another factor that led the CDF to lift the ban.
In short, Fr. S, there is no need for you to speculate as to why the Vatican banned the Divine Mercy devotion in 1958-1959. We know from the historical sources that they had very few — and largely inaccurate — sources to rely on in 1958, as the CDF itself implies in 1978 when the ban was lifted. Moreover, Fr. S., your essay, states that it was through the "efforts" of "Pope John Paul II" that the ban was lifted. Actually, to be accurate, the ban was lifted on April 15, 1978 several months before Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope on October 16, 1978. Whether or not it was your intention, the text of your essay as written insinuates that Pope John Paul II used (misused?) his papal authority to get the ban lifted, but that is certainly not what happened.
Second, you speak of "the true image of God's mercy" being the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. That is certainly "a" true image of God's mercy, and in some ways the principal one (according to Catechism 472), but it is not meant to be the only one in the Church's rich heritage of sacred art. How about the crucifix? How about the icons of the Resurrection? No single image painted by human beings can capture the fullness of the mystery of the merciful love of Christ. That is why there is room for many authentic images of our Lord in the life of the Church, especially ones that are rooted in Scripture, and that have come to us through the saints, such as the Image of the Sacred Heart received by St. Margaret Mary and the Image of The Divine Mercy received by St. Faustina.
You complain that the image of The Divine Mercy "has no heart," and therefore does not articulate the need for reparation to the Heart of Jesus. But neither do the crucifix nor the icons of the Resurrection in most cases. Does every image in Catholic sacred art have to emphasize the need for reparation to the Heart of Jesus? Of course not! The image of The Divine Mercy emphasizes what necessarily precedes and empowers true reparation: the merciful love of Christ, signified by the Blood and Water that flowed from His side on the Cross, flowing now from the risen Christ to us. That Heart of Jesus is "hidden" or "veiled" in the mercy image, it seems to me, because until we receive those rays of mercy with trustful surrender we cannot know from living personal experience (and thus we cannot "see" clearly with our own hearts) the depth of love in the Heart from which they flow. Nor can we offer true, loving reparation (as opposed to, say, acts of reparation motivated by servile fear of divine Justice) unless we first let His mercy flow into our hearts and transform us. "We love, because He first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19). Again, that is why we need more than one image of our Lord in the life of the Church: because their varying emphases complete and complement each other! I have written about this whole matter of the relationship of the devotion to The Divine Mercy and the devotion to the Sacred Heart in my book Jesus, Mercy Incarnate (Marian Press, 2000).
The devotion to the Sacred Heart was central to my conversion to the Catholic faith back in 1993-1994, and the theology of the Sacred Heart was the subject of my doctoral thesis for the Angelicum in Rome. I remain convinced that these two devotions, The Sacred Heart and The Divine Mercy, complement each other beautifully, as they did in the life of St. Faustina herself. If there was any contradiction between them, you can bet I would be among the first to complain about it!
Third, you confuse the promise Jesus made to St. Faustina of extraordinary graces from devout reception of Holy Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday with the customary performance of devotions to The Divine Mercy at 3 p.m. on the same day. The two things are quite different. It would take much too long here for me to defend in detail the notion that you attack: that Christ can grant a complete remission of sins and punishment without also requiring works of penitential reparation (as are required for a plenary indulgence). Suffice it to say here that He does so in every Holy Baptism. And for sins committed after baptism, whenever the sinner makes an act of contrition out of pure love of God, there is the same complete remission of sins and punishment. (Of course, due to the ease with which we can deceive ourselves about the state of our own hearts, it is entirely right that the Church requires us to make a sacramental confession of all mortal sins that we commit, even if we think we already might have made an act of pure contrition beforehand.) The extraordinary grace that Jesus offered for devout reception of Holy Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday is the equivalent of the same complete renewal of baptismal grace. For more on this see the essays by myself and Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, "Understanding Divine Mercy Sunday".
You also complain, Fr. S, that the extraordinary grace that Jesus promised for those who receive Holy Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday does not require as a condition the complete "detachment from venial sin that is necessary to obtain a plenary indulgence." But again, neither does any adult baptism require such complete detachment from venial sin in order for the baptized person to receive all the graces of the sacrament. Moreover, to receive the extraordinary grace of Holy Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday, the soul must be in the state of grace, having already gone to confession, and must have the disposition of trust in the merciful love of God. Who are we to say that God cannot be more gracious under these special circumstances, and on this special day (the very octave day of Easter), than He is through the granting of a plenary indulgence?
Why do you assume that the provisions for a plenary indulgence are the absolute "upper limit" to divine generosity? After all, Jesus gained an infinite, superabundant merit for us through His life, death, and Resurrection. Who are we to set such strict limits on the ways He can mercifully distribute the graces that He merited for us at so great a cost?
Fourth, the supposition that St. Faustina's own spirituality contradicts the need for reparation for our sins to the Heart of Jesus can only be made by someone who has never actually read her Diary. As a matter of fact, her Diary is replete with her intention to offer reparation on behalf of sinners. For example, she wrote in entries 1023, 485, 604, 323-324, and 607:
[Jesus said from the Cross] I thirst. I thirst for the salvation of souls. Help me my daughter to save souls. Join your sufferings to My passion and offer them to the heavenly Father for sinners. ...
O my God, I am conscious of my mission in the Holy Church. It is my constant endeavor to plead for mercy for the whole world. I unite myself closely with Jesus and stand before him as an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the world.
I see pure and innocent souls upon whom God exercised His justice [that is, "victim souls"]; these souls are the victims who sustain the world and who fill up what is lacking in the Passion of Jesus. They are not many in number. ...
I united my sufferings with the sufferings of Jesus and offered them for myself and for the conversion of souls who do not trust in God. ... And Jesus said ... When I was dying on the cross, I was not thinking about Myself, but about poor sinners, and I prayed for them to My Father. I want your last moments to be completely similar to Mine on the cross. There is but one price at which souls are bought, and that is suffering united to My suffering on the cross. Pure love understands these words; carnal love will never understand them. ...
You are not living for yourself but for souls, and other souls will profit from your sufferings. Your prolonged suffering will bring them light and strength to accept My will.
It is not surprising, therefore, that at several points in her Diary, St. Faustina summed up her mission on earth as a total oblation of herself and all her sufferings for the good of souls lacking trust in God's mercy (see Diary, entry 309). Near the end of her life, Faustina renewed her reparatory self-offering, in view of the terrible sufferings she was enduring because of her final illness:
O my Jesus, may the last days of my exile be spent totally according to Your most holy will. I unite my sufferings, my bitterness, and my last agony itself to Your Sacred Passion; and I offer myself for the whole world to implore an abundance of God's mercy for souls. (1574)
There are also passages in St. Faustina's Diary where she explicitly mentions the Heart of Jesus as the object of our reparation. This is especially true of each day of the "Novena to The Divine Mercy" that Jesus dictated to her, as recorded in Diary entries 1209-1229 and summed up in His instructions to her at the very beginning:
On each day you will bring to My Heart a different group of souls, and you will immerse them in the ocean of My mercy, and I will bring all these souls into the house of My Father. You will do this in this life and in the next. I will deny nothing to any soul whom you will bring to the fount of My mercy. On each day you will beg My Father, on the strength of My bitter Passion, for graces for these souls.
In fact, St. Faustina also wrote of Jesus' desire for her to bring consoling reparation to His Heart, especially during her times of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, in a way that breathes the very spirit of the writings of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (e.g. entries 1664, 310, 1058, and 367):
My daughter, know that your ardent love and the compassion you have for Me were a consolation to Me in the garden of Olives. ...
I am giving you a share in the redemption of mankind. You are solace in My dying hour. ...
Beloved daughter of My Heart, you are my solace amidst terrible torments. ...
My Heart overflows with great mercy for souls, and especially for poor sinners. If only they could understand that I am the best of Fathers to them and that it is for them that the Blood and Water flowed from My Heart as from a fount overflowing with mercy. For them I dwell in the tabernacle as King of Mercy. I desire to bestow My graces upon souls, but they do not want to accept them. You at least, come to me as often as possible and take these graces they do not want to accept. In this way you will console My Heart.
Given all this, Fr. S, how can you possibly tell people that St. Faustina's devotion to The Divine Mercy omits the need to make reparation to the Heart of Jesus on behalf of sinners, and especially for the sake of their conversion? It is true that this is not the main focus of her writing; she puts central emphasis not on our need to make reparation to Him, but on His prior merciful outreach to us:
Today the Lord said to me, 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. Sinners will attain justification, and the just will be confirmed in good. Whoever places his trust in My mercy will be filled with My divine peace at the hour of death. (Diary, 1520).
Nevertheless, how could one argue that this different emphasis actually excludes the theology of the devotion to The Sacred Heart? Rather, it is an emphasis entirely complementary to that devotion! Moreover, it is also entirely appropriate to the "New Evangelization" needed today, in our historical circumstances, in which all people (including Catholics!) need to hear the basics of the Gospel proclaimed afresh — God's merciful love for us in Christ — before we are even ready to make loving reparation to His Heart in return.
Finally, I am grieved that you are spreading misinformation about the Divine Mercy theology of Pope John Paul II. I trust you are only doing so because such misinformation was previously pandered to you. It is surely nonsense to claim that Pope John Paul II "pushed aside all consideration of the gravity of sin, and the need for penance, for satisfaction to divine Justice, and hence of the Mass as an expiatory sacrifice, and likewise the need to gain indulgences and to do works of penance." I trust you will concede that all of these things you mention are taught in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (e.g. on the gravity of sin, entries 1854-1876; on the need for works of penance, entries 1430 and 1459-1460; on indulgences, entries 1471-1479; and on the Mass as an expiatory sacrifice, 1365-1372), and this catechism was promulgated by the authority of Pope John Paul II as a "sure norm" for the understanding and teaching of the Catholic Faith.
Even with regard to the Divine Mercy devotion itself, this was the Pope who granted a plenary indulgence to all those who would make public acts of devotion to The Divine Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday. He also made headlines around the world for excommunicating a theologian from India precisely for denying the doctrine of the gravity of sin (in particular, original sin).Thus, it is manifestly false to claim that Pope John Paul II "pushed aside all consideration of the gravity of sin ... and likewise the need to gain indulgences"!
Right at the heart of Pope John Paul II's theology of the Paschal Mystery, in the very encyclical Dives in Misericordia itself, we find his clear teaching that Jesus showed us His merciful love for us by making satisfaction to divine Justice for our sins on the Cross (section 7):
In the Passion and Death of Christ — in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but "for our sake made him sin" — absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a "superabundance" of justice, for the sins of man are "compensated for" by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Nevertheless, this justice, which is properly justice "to God's measure," springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and the Son, and completely bears fruit in love. ... The divine dimension of the redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks to which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.
Even in his theology of the Sacred Heart, the Holy Father did not neglect the theme of the need for reparation. I would draw your attention to the study of this subject by Msgr. Arthur Calkins of the Vatican Commission "Ecclesia Dei," a study entitled "The Teaching of Pope John Paul II on the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Theology of Reparation" (Pax in Virtute, pp. 271-323). Monsignor Calkins gives a score of examples, but two here will suffice. In the first of his famous collection of Angelus Meditations on the Sacred Heart, the Holy Father wrote:
Adorers of the Divine Heart become men of a sensitive conscience. And when it is granted to them to have relations with the Heart of our Lord and Master, in them also there then springs up the need for atonement for the sins of the world, for the indifference of so many hearts and their negligence. How necessary this host of watchful hearts is in the Church in order that the Love of the Divine Heart may not remain isolated and unrequited. Among this host special mention needs to go to all those who offer their sufferings as living victims in union with the Heart of Christ, pierced on the Cross. Thus transformed with love, human suffering becomes a particular leaven of Christ's work of salvation in the Church (p. 306).
Finally, here are the words that Pope John Paul II spoke while in Poland in 1999 on the very feast of the Sacred Heart:
Let us make acts of reparation to the Divine Heart for the sins committed by us and by our fellow men. Let us make reparation for rejecting God's love and goodness. (p. 313)
No need to belabor these points. I have gone on long enough. Suffice it to say that both St. Faustina and Pope John Paul II were passionately devoted to the Heart of Jesus. That included the need to make reparation to His Heart and to do so with the intent of gaining the graces of conversion for the multitude of lost sinners in our world. Nothing about this contradicts in any way the message and devotion to The Divine Mercy, for it is out of merciful love that we should seek to make such acts of reparation, as Sister Faustina did, and it is the merciful love of Jesus Himself that enables us to do so by gaining for us a superabundant overflow of graces on the Cross that He now pours out upon us as the risen and ascended one, a supernatural reality portrayed so beautifully in the Image of The Divine Mercy.
These two devotions are two sides of the same coin, Father. The Sacred Heart that seeks for reparation and consolation is the same Heart, The Merciful Heart, which pours out graces upon the world of conversion and sanctification. Because Jesus has only one Heart!
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. 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.
View archived Q&A columns.