Is the Chaplet an Ecumenical Prayer?

Over the past few months I have received several questions about the possible use of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy by non-Catholics. With the consent of the authors of these letters, I have saved them up until now to answer all at once, because I think they all really require the same response.

For example, one fellow named Peter wrote:

A friend who is a former Catholic and dedicated Episcopalian presumably married outside of the Church years ago. His wife's father is, evidently, dying. Joe considers himself to be a devout Christian and is very respectful of Catholicism. Indeed, he has spoken of praying the Rosary. Is it a good thing to encourage him to pray the chaplet for his father-in-law? My concerns include when he prays the [Apostles'] Creed, there may be a certain lack of integrity, for he is not united with the Catholic Church. I realize that it is good for anyone to invoke our Lord's mercy, however, the Church does reserve receiving the sacraments to Her own members. The chaplet is not a sacrament, but I am wondering if the spirit, so to speak, of such a principle would prevail.

Well, Peter, the Apostles' Creed may not be the main problem. Most non-Catholic Christians use the Apostles' Creed in all sincerity; they just interpret a few of its phrases (for example, "the Holy Catholic Church" and "the communion of saints") in a somewhat different way than we do. The bigger obstacle to sincere and honest recitation of the chaplet would probably be the phrase in the prayer repeated at the start of each decade: "I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Your Dearly Beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world."

This phrase implies two things:

1. In order for the merits of Christ's redeeming death to apply to our souls, it is not enough that He died for our sins once and for all on the Cross; we also need to offer in faith His saving death to the Father on our behalf so that the precious Blood of Christ, with all its benefits, fully applies to each of us in particular.

2. We do so through the Holy Eucharist, where the "Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity" is really, truly, and substantially present - in a unique, mysterious, and intimate way - in the consecrated bread and wine on the altar. In other words, the chaplet is a prayer that unites us with the Eucharistic offering of Christ to the Father, where we plead that all the benefits of Christ's Passion may be poured upon the world: "For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world."

Now, the question is, which non-Catholic Christians sincerely believe all this about the Eucharist? Eastern Orthodox Christians certainly do (Russian, Greek, and Serbian Orthodox, for example), and a fair number of "High" Anglicans and even some Lutherans do. I see no obstacle to Christians from these traditions saying the chaplet and meaning every word of it (the Catholic Church would dispute the claim of some Anglicans that they really do have the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine in their Anglican Eucharistic celebrations, but the fact that we believe they are unwittingly in error on this point does not mean that they are insincere and lacking integrity when they recite the chaplet).

In short, I can see no reason why such Christians cannot join with Catholics in the private and public recitation of the chaplet. It would be a fitting way for us all to unite at the foot of the Cross of Jesus our Savior and pray for His mercy upon the whole world, and especially for the mercy of the unity of all Christians in truth and love. And I can see no reason why we should not encourage Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Christians to say the chaplet on their own at any time, as an intercessory prayer.

That is also the answer I would give to another letter I received - this one from an Anglican priest named Fr. David:

I am an Anglican priest of the Church of England, and for some time now I have been saying and joining EWTN in the Divine Mercy Chaplet. [Divine Mercy] Sunday saw my parish share The Divine Mercy with the congregation, and there were 20 members praying the chaplet together. I know the power of The Divine Mercy in my ministry and wondered if there was an interdenominational network of outreach. I would be much obliged if you could advise me in this area, and I pray and offer Mass for your mission and work.

Thanks so much for your prayers, Fr. David. We need them! To the best of my knowledge, there is no formal or official interdenominational network of Divine Mercy outreach. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will inspire you to start one! Again, from the Catholic side, I can see no reason that Catholics could not participate in such an Anglican and Eastern Orthodox fellowship of prayer, united around the chaplet, in good conscience.

Still, our readers may want to know: What about other non-Catholic Christians? Can, say, evangelicals and other Protestant Christians say the chaplet with us? Should we invite them to do so?

Well, it's a bit like inviting them to say the Rosary with us. There is nothing wrong with issuing the invitation, if you make it clear that they are welcome to join us in the Rosary or chaplet to the extent that it does not violate their beliefs and their conscience in doing so. Some may be willing to do so and may simply meditate on the mysteries and skip saying the "Hail Marys" and the "Hail Holy Queen" (since they do not believe in invoking the saints in heaven to pray for us). Most will decline the invitation to the Rosary because there is just too much Marian devotion in it for them to be comfortable with and to recite with us with a sincere heart.

The same with the chaplet. They certainly share with us the belief that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. But when they hear the words "I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, in atonement for our sins" etc., if they are paying attention, and if they are well instructed in their faith, they will wonder, "Why in the world do I need to do that? After all, Jesus died for my sins and I am already saved" (see a previous column on how we are "saved" by Divine Mercy). So, there is nothing wrong with inviting them to take part in our prayers to the extent that their own beliefs will permit, but just be sure to make it clear to them, if they are newcomers to the chaplet, that it includes beliefs about the Eucharist that they may not share. Such a warning is only common courtesy.

A better way to draw Evangelical Protestants deeper into The Divine Mercy is to give them a prayercard with the image of The Divine Mercy on it. There are even storefront Baptist churches in the United States, I am told, that use the image as a decoration in their worship space! That stands to reason, for the image is clearly Biblical: It depicts the Risen Christ, giving His blessing, while the streams of blood and water flow out from His breast, as they did from the Cross, according to the gospels. Moreover, the inscription at the bottom of the image, "Jesus, I trust in You!" is the response that all of us, Protestant and Catholic alike, need to make to the personal love of Christ for us: to entrust ourselves completely to that merciful love. The image can be an ecumenical bridge builder in the widest possible sense (except for those Christians who object to having any holy images or sacred art in their churches, or in their prayer life at all). It clearly and simply expresses our common faith in the Merciful Jesus.

Finally, I know that there are occasions when non-Catholic Christians might find themselves drawn into the recitation of the chaplet unexpectedly. For example, around the bedside of a dying Catholic friend or relative as others around them are saying the chaplet, or an uninstructed Protestant or non-believer of some kind might just feel someone or something tugging on his heart to recite this odd-sounding prayer that they found one day on the back of a prayercard. I don't think our Lord is offended by this at all. He is far more concerned about the intention in our hearts when we pray than with whether or not we have fully thought through all our doctrines carefully, or whether we entirely know what all the words mean that we are saying.

The Lord looks on the heart, and anyone who is honestly and sincerely seeking His mercy will surely find it. As He said in the gospels, "I will never turn away anyone who comes to Me" (Jn 6:37).

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).

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