He's Back, with Answers

Now that I am back from my brief post-Divine Mercy Sunday respite, I find myself with a pile of questions to answer that came in just after the feast day, and some of them from people who are still wrestling with the meaning of the day itself.

For example, a woman named Julie asked me about the plenary indulgence she sought for her grandmother on Divine Mercy Sunday: "If I went to Confession and received the Eucharist and prayed the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy ... and I asked for an indulgence that my grandma could be thoroughly purified of her sins and be accepted into heaven, is it correct for me to believe that she is no longer in purgatory and now in heaven?" she asked me.

Well, Julie, first, I assume that by "plenary indulgence" you are referring to the one offered by Pope John Paul II to those who fulfill the usual conditions for obtaining a plenary indulgence - Confession, Communion and prayer for the pope's intentions - plus, in this case, joining in special acts of devotion to The Divine Mercy on Divine Mercy Sunday. Secondly, in order for any Catholic to obtain a plenary indulgence for himself, or for a soul suffering in purgatory, as you may know, the indulgenced work must be carried out with a completely pure intention, without any attachment to sin in the soul (not even attachment to a venial sin).

Of course, the only one who truly can fathom the human heart is God. As the Catechism tells us in entry 2563: "The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others: only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully." Psalm 139 tells us the same thing, when the psalmist prays:

O Lord, Thou hast searched me and known me!
Thou knowest when I sit down and rise up;
Thou discernest my thoughts from afar ...
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain it....

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any way of wickedness in me,
And lead me in the way everlasting!

So, you see, only our Lord really knows whether you accomplished the indulgenced work on Divine Mercy Sunday without any attachment to sin in your heart. But even if He knows that you did not, there is no reason to worry or be dejected! God is so merciful and compassionate, and you still obtained a partial indulgence for your grandmother, which means you obtained for her a refreshment of divine grace and a shortening of her time there.

Of course, there is another possibility as well: that your grandmother was already finished with her purification in purgatory, and was already rejoicing in heaven when you sought that indulgence for her. Again, our Merciful Lord makes every good intention and every good work come out for the best! If your grandma did not need it, then our Lord accepted your plenary or partial indulgence and applied it to the needs of a soul still in purgatory, probably one who had no one on earth to pray for them!

You see, "All things work together for good to those who love God!" (Rom 8:28). Sincerely seeking a plenary indulgence for someone else, or even for yourself, is always a "no lose" proposition, however it turns out!

Another person wrote to me about a scholarly attack on the liturgical integrity of the feast. A friend of his cited an excerpt from the writings of the famous 20th century liturgist Dom Gueranger, who commented on the Sunday after Easter in his book The Liturgical Year: "Such is the solemnity of this Sunday that not only is it of greater double rite, but no feast, however great, can ever be kept upon it." In other words, the First Sunday of Easter, or octave day of Easter, is so important and so tied in with Easter, that no one should ever presume to try to turn it into a feast day focused on something else!

The answer, of course, is that giving the Sunday after Easter the title "Divine Mercy Sunday," as Pope John Paul II did, does not, in fact, focus the day on "something else," and is not, in fact, the establishment of a new feast day at all.

As Gueranger points out, the day was already a "solemnity" in the liturgical calendar, a feast day of the highest rank, so to speak. The new title for the day simply brings out and makes explicit what was always the theme and meaning of the day in the ancient liturgical tradition of the Church.

If you have a copy of the Roman Missal, look up the readings, psalms and prayers appointed for Mass on that day. Most of them focus on Divine Mercy! That is why the Holy See instructed that the psalms and readings of the day must not be changed for the celebration of the day as "Divine Mercy Sunday" - because they were already all about God's mercy and always had been!

The Gospel is of Jesus appearing in the upper room and bestowing the authority to forgive sins, and the responsorial psalm for the day is the great Easter Psalm 118, which sings of the mercy of God enduring forever. One of the epistle readings expresses the great hope of God's everlasting mercy (I Pet 3:3-4): "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you." Even the opening prayer at Mass that day begins with the words "God of Mercy"!

So, I hope you can see that the Holy Father did not impose a new feast day on this day that Gueranger rightly wanted to protect from distortion. Pope John Paul II only intended to make clear that this day we celebrate the merciful love of God that lies behind and shines through the whole Easter mystery, the whole mystery of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ for us!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

Got a question ? E-mail me at [email protected].

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