Do the Forms of Devotion Really Foster Conversion of Heart?

A few weeks ago a reader named John shared with me the text of an interview about the Divine Mercy message and devotion. The interview greatly troubled him. He wrote:

I have something I would like to pass by you. As a Eucharistic Apostle of The Divine Mercy, and one who wants to see people become converted and/or experience deeper conversion and devotion to Christ, I find the following comments from a good friend and priest to be quite disconcerting:

"Some people go to Mass so they do not go to hell, and some people stop going to Mass because they do not get anything out of it. Rosary, First Friday, First Sunday - yes, people can lose sight of what it is all about.

"My personal disillusion with some people devoted to Divine Mercy is their concept of 'get out of jail free' with the novena, confession, communion on Divine Mercy Sunday. 'All my sins and the punishment attached to them have been remitted' and there is no obvious desire to change their life because they can always 'do' the novena, confession, and communion next year. My experience has often been with these people - I can perform the external devotion without looking into my heart and desiring conversion. Not all are like this, but so often people ask me if I am aware of Divine Mercy, they try to sell me with the 'get out of jail free' part and not telling me how they have grown into their trust in Jesus, how they keep praying for all the people mentioned on the different days of the novena, and how they have fallen more in love for God through their knowledge of God's love and mercy for them.

"I pray the chaplet and have prayed the novena, but it's private for me because I do not see conversion coming through the public devotion."

John concluded his letter to me by writing:

It is especially the last sentence that really disturbs and saddens me. As Catholics we know that the sacraments and grace can work without one's cooperation, so I would expect to see conversion, however small, despite one's original motives and intentions. That he sees little coming from the devotion seems at odds with this and with the great promises our Lord makes to St. Faustina.

Well, John, I am sorry that your friend has had such a poor experience with Divine Mercy devotees. From my own experience (which is worldwide, and spread over about 15 years now) I can agree that there are many people who get too hung up on the devotional "externals." That is to say, they like to think they can manipulate God into giving them the pardon and the blessings they want merely by participating in the devotional aspects on a regular basis (the novena, chaplet, communion on Divine Mercy Sunday, etc.). Still, I know many more who have found, through the sincere and devout use of these devotional aids and means of grace, a deeper appreciation and deeper trust in the merciful love of God and a rekindled zeal to share that love with others.

It's important to note that one of the risks that our Lord took by the Incarnation itself is that He knew that by becoming flesh and dwelling among us, some would go no farther than the externals. They would wonder at His humanity and never truly come to know the mysterious depths of His divinity that He had come to earth to reveal. They would rejoice at the external miracles, but not be deeply converted by the divine love manifested through them. They would receive the baptismal water and the Eucharistic bread and wine, but rather than fully cooperate with the sanctifying grace they convey, they would treat them as talismans of special favor with God. As a result, the followers of Christ are at various points on the Christian journey, some closer than others to fully accepting Christ's grace and coming to complete conversion of heart.

But Jesus also knew that an incarnational faith, including sacraments and devotions, was still well worth it. He knew that for creatures like us, lost in our various disordered attachments to external, created things (such as wealth, sex, romance, worldly power, and success), only a love that addressed us first of all in the most humble, lowly, and fleshly way would have any chance of getting through to us. Hence, His saving work begins in a lowly manger in Bethlehem, moves to a cross on Calvary, and culminates in His glorious bodily Resurrection on Easter morning. Hence also the sacraments He gave to the Church as the means of grace and as medicine for our souls.

John, you say that if the external forms of the Divine Mercy devotion were truly from Christ you "would expect to see conversion, however small" in most Divine Mercy devotees, since according to our faith, divine grace can work through divinely chosen sacraments and "sacramentals" even without our cooperation. But, honestly, that is precisely what I think we do see: the whole spectrum of deeper conversion in the Divine Mercy movement, from the most superstitious devotees on up to those in the heights of sanctity.

Unfortunately, I think that both you and your friend are hung up on the idea that someone whose initial attachment to the Divine Mercy message and devotion is mostly superstitious or primarily in it for the get-out-of-jail-free cards and has, thereby, not experienced any "conversion, however small." I do not have the gift of reading hearts, but I would guess that in most cases, such people have indeed received a small amount of the grace of conversion. They have attained what the Church calls "imperfect contrition for sin." They are looking mostly to get things for themselves from God (pardon, blessings, etc.) and to avoid divine punishment for their sins. But according to the Catholic faith, even that imperfect contrition will keep them (just barely) from eternal loss. At least they honor the fact that God has a moral claim on their lives, that He is not to be ignored. They are motivated underneath it all by fear of God, of course, but the fear of the Lord is "the beginning of wisdom" (Prov 9:10) - although only a beginning. These people can be helped by the good catechesis that they will encounter in the Divine Mercy movement, from such groups as the Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy, to which you belong, and indeed (I trust) from this very website!

For example, they can be instructed that receiving Holy Communion on Divine Mercy Sunday as an annual get-out-of-jail-free card that will insure their own salvation simply does not work, for obvious reasons. The feast happens once per year, and to put it crudely, to get out of jail on that day is not the same thing as staying out of jail throughout the year. To do the latter, one must remain in a state of grace between the annual feasts and make sure that one does not die out of a state of grace. In short, even the most self-serving, superstitious Divine Mercy devotee can easily be shown that they cannot "beat the system" by going to confession and communion on the annual feast and then proceeding to ignore how they live the rest of the year. As a matter of fact, I find very few Divine Mercy devotees suffering from any such delusion. And again, even such a relatively superstitious faith is at least a beginning. Blessed John Henry Newman once said that he did not get too distressed about the superstitious Catholics in the Church. They may not be altogether filled with Christ's grace yet, he said, but they are also not altogether out of His sight.

Also, isn't there more than just a hint of spiritual pride in your friend's remarks? It is easy to get ourselves into a huff about the lack of desire for deeper conversion among many ignorant and superstitious Catholics. But it is spiritually dangerous to respond to the situation by retreating into our own, private, allegedly superior form of the devotion, withdrawing from the public expressions of it because we think that the group of Divine Mercy devotees in our area is spiritually beneath us. Again, none of us (your friend included) has the gift of reading hearts, and anyway, if the Divine Mercy movement in his area is really so spiritually impoverished, the proper thing to do is to set a good example among them of how the Divine Mercy devotion can truly lead to conversion of heart and (especially if you are a priest, as your friend is) to try to properly instruct them about the true meaning and purpose of the message and devotion.

Just think what would happen if spiritually sensitive Catholics applied your friend's reasoning to the life of the Church as a whole. It would boil down to something like this: "I am so disillusioned by the number of Catholics who treat the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a get-out-of-jail-free card and who go to Mass regularly but miss what it is all about. They get all hung up on the externals, never really seeking true conversion of heart. So, I do not take part in the public expressions of the faith anymore. I confess my sins to God in private and say my own private prayers because I do not see conversion coming through public devotion ..."

Such a person would be falling away from Christ. For to be fully "in Christ" is to be fully in His Body on earth, the Church, and taking up one's responsibilities for mutual care within that Body (see I Corinthians 12). It has been said, "The Church is not a museum for saints; it's a hospital for sinners," and all of us within the hospital are "in recovery" in one way or another. Even those of us who are dismayed about the lack of understanding and commitment to true health of some of the other patients.

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). Got a question? E-mail him at

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