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'Trifecta of Mercy'
The following is the cover story in the Spring issue of Marian Helper magazine.
By Fr. Joseph, MIC
I grew up just down the street from a huge horse-racing track in Southern California. While I myself never attended the races to gamble, I did pick up some of the lingo.
One of my favorite horse-racing terms is "trifecta," which is when a person selects the first three horses to win a race in exact order. And to win a trifecta, I've heard, can be quite a joyful (and profitable) event. More generally speaking, though, a trifecta can also mean any three things coming together in an awesome way. Using this more general meaning, I'd say the upcoming canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II is a kind of "trifecta of mercy."
"Wait a minute," you may be saying, "I count only two Popes, not three." True. The third is Pope Francis, who will be leading the canonization ceremony. And this is a trifecta of mercy because all three Popes — John, John Paul, and Francis — are all about mercy. Also, the event itself will be taking place on the great day of mercy, Divine Mercy Sunday.
John Paul II's own trifecta of mercy
The canonization ceremony is a trifecta of mercy for yet another reason — a "double
trifecta," if you will. This reason has to do solely with Pope John Paul II and the date of the canonization, Divine Mercy Sunday. Did you know that this Divine Mercy Sunday represents the third time this day of grace has featured prominently in John Paul's legacy since his death? Actually, the first time happened on the very day of his death, which was the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday (2005). Next, he was beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2011. And now, he'll be canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday — trifecta!
Alright, but now let's turn our attention to the first trifecta of mercy I mentioned: the fact that three Mercy Popes will come together in the "winner's circle of grace" this Divine Mercy Sunday.
Three Mercy Popes? Really? In the case of John Paul II, it's obvious. He's the original "Mercy Pope." Pope Francis also clearly deserves the title of "Mercy Pope," since almost every one of his homilies has been about mercy. In fact, he's been speaking about mercy even more frequently than John Paul II did! What's not so obvious is the idea that Pope John XXIII is also a mercy pope. Let's start right there as we assess the upcoming day of grace, Divine Mercy Sunday 2014, as a trifecta of mercy.
While it may not be completely obvious that Pope John XXIII deserves the title "Mercy Pope," it certainly fits him. After all, he's popularly known as "Good Pope John," who won so many hearts by his informal style and grandfatherly mien. Nevertheless, his mercy legacy particularly comes down to the Council he convened, Vatican II, which was a kind of "mercy council."
John XXIII: 'The medicine of mercy'
How was Vatican II a "mercy council"? Well, it's like this: The Second Vatican Council was unique in the history of the Catholic Church. While other ecumenical Councils were apologetic in character — in other words, they had to do with the Church defending her doctrines against attacks of heresy — Vatican II was different. It was the first pastoral Council.
That Vatican II was a pastoral council does not mean it wasn't responding
to a problem. In fact, it was responding to a huge problem, but it was pastoral, not doctrinal. Specifically, it was responding to the pastoral problem of hypocrisy, the scandalous split between what people profess and how they live.
Of course, the pastoral problem of hypocrisy is as old as the Old Testament. After all, the prophets railed against it, and even Jesus didn't mince words with the scribes and Pharisees, saying, "You hypocrites!" But there is something about our
modern age that makes hypocrisy even more prevalent than ever. Indeed, there's something about our contemporary way of life that makes it so easy to profess Christian faith even while living like a pagan.
To solve this modern pastoral problem, taking its lead from Pope John XXIII, the Church decided to enlist the power of mercy. In other words, the "mercy Council" did not set out to condemn the likes of us modern Catholics. Rather, it aimed to help us. Specifically, it aimed to help us overcome the scandalous split between faith and life. And so, the Council struck a much different tone than the other Councils, which were often loaded with condemnations. As Pope John XXIII put it when he opened the Council, "Nowadays ... [the Church] prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity."
And how did the Council go about helping us? What was its merciful approach? Well, for one, it used a whole new tone and language. The documents were written in such a way that one does not have to be a theologian to understand them. In fact, they were written in layman's terms (literally), so everyone could grasp their meaning. For instance, the Council taught that the call to holiness applies to all Christians, not only priests and religious: "... all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love" (Lumen Gentium, 40). In other words, every Christian is called to be a saint.
The logic of the Council Fathers was that you cannot live what you do not love, and you cannot love what you do not understand. In short, the aim of the Council Fathers was to help the faithful bring the faith from their heads to their hearts and into their lives.
John Paul II: God is mercy
Inspired by Pope John XXIII's Council, Pope John Paul II wholeheartedly took up its pastoral strategy of mercy. In fact, he even took this strategy a step further.
Pope John Paul II believed that of all the truths that modern Catholics need to bring from their heads to their hearts to their lives, the truth that God is mercy is the most important. It's this truth, John Paul believed, that helps us come to truly understand our Father in heaven and the Heart of our Savior.
And so, as Pope, John Paul II emphasized the theme of mercy. He powerfully proclaimed mercy in one of his first encyclical letters, Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia). He pushed for the canonization of Sr. Faustina and promoted the modern message of Divine Mercy as a concrete way to help people appreciate the truth of God's merciful love. For instance, in the year 2000, he officially declared the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. Finally, he consistently announced that there is nothing the world needs more than mercy. Indeed, in his last Divine Mercy Sunday message, he emphasized, "How much the world needs to
understand and accept Divine Mercy!"
Francis: Everything is mercy
It's not surprising to learn that John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, continued to emphasize this theme of mercy. Nor is it surprising to learn that Pope Francis, since becoming Pope, has also continued the same proclamation. What is surprising, however, is just how frequently and strongly Pope Francis has been preaching this message. Indeed, he hasn't ceased to proclaim the mercy of God. From his first public homily to his countless gestures of mercy, Pope Francis is showing that everything is mercy. And for this reason, the Church and the world have fallen in love with him. Why? Because as Jesus told St. Faustina, "To priests who proclaim and extol My mercy, I will give wondrous power; I will anoint their words and touch the hearts of those to whom they will speak" (Diary of St. Faustina, 1521).
Truly, Pope Francis is touching hearts, including those of Catholics, Protestants, agnostics, and atheists. He's helping everyone to discover and rediscover the beauty of mercy, the beauty of the Church, and the heart of the Gospel. In fact, his efforts have led to "the Francis effect," as many in the media have called it, meaning that people throughout the world are flocking to the Church.
Thanks to Pope Francis, they understand the Church to be a field hospital for the wounded who are in need of healing, rather than as a moralistic scold. But despite reports in the media, this apostolic fruit isn't all Francis's. As I've argued in this article, the foundation was laid by several of his predecessors — the previous Mercy Popes — and now Francis is reaping the harvest. It's been a team effort of the Church, and soon the whole Church will celebrate this effort, making this Divine Mercy Sunday a great "trifecta of mercy."
In preparation for the canonizations of Blesseds John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27, we've gathered some of the highlights of the papacies of both men. Visit our special resource page.