Divine Mercy 101: Mercy is God's Greatest Attribute

A weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, the Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy


2. Mercy is the Greatest Attribute of God

The Holy Father wrote in Dives in Misericordia (no. 13), "the Bible, Tradition, and the whole faith life of the People of God provide unique proof... that mercy is the greatest of the attributes and perfections of God."

As we shall see later in this course, the pope was merely reiterating here the teaching of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. But we still may want to know how this can be true. How can any of God's perfections be "greater" than any other? According to the Christian philosophical tradition, and the definition of God given at the first Vatican Council, God is one, simple, spiritual, infinitely perfect act of Being. He does not have "parts" as bodily creatures do. Rather, each of His perfections, such as His love, His goodness, His power, and His wisdom, is just another name for what He is. The Polish theologian Fr. Ignacy Rozycki explained it like this (Pillars of Fire, p.96):

"In this sense, all of God's attributes are God, one and the same. For this reason, all are absolutely equal to each other. Divine Mercy is as infinitely perfect as His Wisdom or Power, for it is likewise god, and the same God, just as Divine wisdom and Divine Power are God."

In other words, God does not just do merciful things sometimes, nor does He have a merciful "side" to His character, as a human being might have. On the contrary, He is always and everywhere and at all times merciful. Everything He does is an expression of His Mercy - and of all of His other attributes too, all at once. All of His attributes are eternally in action! But then Fr. Rozycki goes on to write:

"If, on the other hand, mercy is understood in the Biblical sense as functional, then, even though it is called an attribute, it first of all denotes the results of the infinite and eternal love of God in world history, and especially in the history of mankind's salvation. In fact, both hesed (mercy in the Old Testament), as well as eleos (i.e., mercy in the New Testament) signify active manifestations of God's love toward mankind. In the Old Testament the manifestations found their expression in the calling and directing of the chosen people, and in the New Testament they were found in the sending of the Son of God into the world and in the entire work of redemption. This Biblically formulated relationship between love and mercy is expressed by [St.] Faustina in the words: 'Love is the flower, mercy the fruit' (Diary, 948)."

So, if we understand mercy in the Biblical sense, then without any fear of error contrary to the faith, it can be said that mercy is the greatest attribute of God... [in other words] 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.

Another way to express this insight would be as follows: Divine Mercy is supremely manifest in all of God's actions toward mankind, and to show mercy must be the motive and intention behind all of God's actions in the world.

Drawing upon the Biblical words for mercy, and upon the magisterial teachings of Pope John Paul II, therefore, let us try to formulate a clear definition of what we mean by "Divine Mercy."

According to the first epistle of St. John (4:8) "God is love." He is infinite, eternal, self-giving love within His own being, among the three persons of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From all eternity, therefore, within His own infinite essence, He enjoys the fullness of love given, love received, and love returned. He enjoyed that fullness of perfect love before He ever made the world - and even if He had never made any world at all, He still would have enjoyed this perfect beatitude of eternal love, for "God is love."

In that infinite, eternal love that He is, in the inner life of the Blessed Trinity, there is no need for "mercy," for there is no "want" or "misery" or "suffering" that needs to be overcome in the Infinitely Perfect Being. What then is Divine Mercy?

Saint Thomas Aquinas defined mercy in general as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him." Divine Mercy, therefore, is the form that God's eternal love takes when he reaches out to us in the midst of our need and our brokenness.

Saint Thomas Aquinas defined mercy in general as "the compassion in our hearts for another person's misery, a compassion which drives us to do what we can to help him." Divine Mercy, therefore, is the form that God's eternal love takes when he reaches out to us in the midst of our need and our brokenness. Whatever the name of our need or our misery might be - sin, guilt, suffering, or death - He is always ready to pour out his merciful, compassionate love for us, to help in time of need (Robert Stackpole, Jesus, Mercy incarnate, Marian Press, 2000, p. 112):

"In fact, God's love for His creatures always takes the form of merciful love. As we read in the Psalms (25:10) 'all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth,' and again (145:9), 'His tender mercies are over all His works.' "When He created the world 'ex nihilo,' therefore, and holds it in being at every moment, it is an act of merciful love: His merciful love overcoming the potential nothingness, the possible non-existence of all things.

"When the divine Son became incarnate and dwelt among us, that was an act of merciful love too: His merciful love in sharing our lot, showing us the way to the Father, and making the perfect offering for our sins.

"When He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to refresh and sanctify us, that too is His merciful love: His merciful love pouring into our hearts the power to grow in faith, hope, and love, and to serve him with joy. Psalm 136 says it best; while celebrating all the works of the Lord in creation and redemption, the psalm bears the constant refrain: 'for His mercy endures forever.'"

This series continues next week, on the theme "Divine Mercy in the Bible."

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