It Set the Tone of His Papacy

Did you celebrate the big 30-30?

November 30th marked the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's epic encyclical, Dives in Misericordia ("Rich in Mercy"). This treatise on the mercy of God was the Pope's second encyclical, following Redemptor Homininis ("The Redeemer of Man"). On that day, the Pope signed the document, which the Church published on Dec. 2. To fully appreciate Dives, you need to consider its predecessor.

In "Redeemer of Man," Pope John Paul examines the many problems of the world (tyranny, militarization, and life's daily struggles), and he continues to do so in "Rich in Mercy." One can in effect read these two texts as Part 1 and Part 2 of a larger, unified piece.

Pope's First Encyclical Set the Tone
The "Redeemer of Man" (signed in Rome on March 4, 1979 and published on the 15th) contains the first "letter" written by the Holy Father (an encyclical, according to The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary, is "a letter written by the pope and usually addressed to ... the whole Church"). Since the "first" of anything sets a tone, we can be sure the Pope thought carefully and prayed deeply about the subject of his first pastoral letter.

"Redeemer" has four sections. In part I, the Pope reminds us of the approaching end of the second millennium, though it was still 21 years away. This is key. It shows John Paul II has already cast his eyes on more than just the immediate moment. All along, he had the long-term future of the Church in mind.

The letter then explores the "Mystery of the Redemption," the problems of the modern world, and the Church's role in the destiny of humanity.

In "Rich in Mercy," the Holy Father continued to examine those themes in an exhaustive analysis and exposition of God's mercy, providing the perfect theological follow-up to Redemptor Hominis. Mercy would be the logical next step for this Pope, given the intimate and intense role that God's mercy played in his personal life.

Karol Wojtyla possessed a deep love for the message of Divine Mercy as revealed through the revelations of Sr. (now St.) Faustina, his fellow Pole. As pontiff, Wojtyla put Divine Mercy "on the map' with his teachings, the institution of Divine Mercy Sunday for the entire Church, and the beatification and canonization of Faustina.

A Lesson in Mercy for the World
"Rich in Mercy" represents the Pope's first major lesson in teaching the world about Divine Mercy. He begins in a startling way. The introduction makes a counterintuitive point. Many in the world aren't comfortable with the notion of mercy, he says. He writes of a world driven by technology, a world whose pace has diminished our humanity and leaving many with "no room for mercy." He asks them, "by heartfelt appeal," that they turn "to mercy, which humanity and the modern world need so much. And they need mercy even though they often do not realize it."

Many people aren't comfortable with this quality, he writes, because mercy implies the need for forgiveness, which in turn suggests there has been an error committed somewhere along the way, what the Church calls sin. People erroneously think that to ask for mercy is humiliating. On the contrary, the Pope teaches: Mercy restores people to dignity and allows them to understand their full value in the eyes of an all-loving God.

Dives in Misericordia is divided into eight sections:
• "He Who Sees Me Sees the Father"
• "The Messianic Message"
• "The Old Testament"
• "The Parable of the Prodigal Son"
• "The Paschal Mystery"
• "Mercy from Generation to Generation"
• "The Mercy of God in the Mission of the Church," and
• "The Prayer of the Church in Our Times."

These sections provide a mini-outline of how the encyclical proceeds, with smoothness and an admirably logical flow.

The first chapter, for example, says that people CAN know God because of Jesus: "We know God especially in His relationship towards man" and especially through Christ, who "in a certain sense, is mercy." John Paul II then builds the rest of the document from that premise.

'Prodigal Son' Parable Illustrates Mercy
The Pope exemplifies the essence of mercy by discussing the parable of The Prodigal Son, which "indirectly touches upon every breach of the covenant of love, every loss of grace, every sin." The Holy Father says the forgiving actions of the father show the readiness of God to always forgive, always welcome back, and always love His wayward children: "The father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son's humanity," his dignity, which "has been ... found again."

The encyclical highlights the implications of mercy's truth. If we accept that God provides an infinite supply of love and if we accept that this supply is available for us for the asking and assent, we have a "superabundance" of what John Paul II calls "the divine dimension." This dimension restores to love "the creative power in man" that can bring all of us, even (and in some ways especially) the greatest sinner "to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness."

Mercy Replicates Itself
In other words, God's mercy is more than equal to any and all of the ills that plague humanity in the post-modern era. This is so because mercy has a replicating effect: The one who shows mercy also receives enormous benefit, and the one who receives it is much more inclined to extend it to others.

"True mercy is, so to speak, the most profound source of justice. ... The equality brought by justice is limited to the realm of the objective and extrinsic goods, while love and mercy bring it about that people meet one another in that value, which is man himself, with the dignity that is proper to him."

How does the Church itself express Divine Mercy?

The Pope says the Church does so by following the teachings of Jesus. That is the source of goodness and truth for all of humanity, the Pope writes. He ends the encyclical with a prayer, "a cry that implores mercy according to the needs of man in the modern world ... [asking] the God who cannot despise anything that He has made" to shower love and mercy on all of creation.

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