Is Divine Mercy 'Just Another Devotion'?

One of our readers, named Rita, was distressed when she read the following notice in her parish Sunday news bulletin:

Morning Prayer continues to be celebrated in the church every morning. It is important to remember that Morning Prayer is part of the Liturgy of the Hours, one of the official liturgies of the Church, along with the Mass and other Sacraments. Morning Prayer is not a mere devotion such as the Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet.

Well, on the one hand, Rita, you pastor is technically correct: Morning Prayer is one of the official liturgical rites of the Church. The Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet are, in that sense, less "central" to the worship life of the Church than Morning and Evening Prayer. It is clear that your pastor wants to encourage people to attend Morning Prayer which, in most parishes, happens just before morning Mass.

On the other hand, sadly, I have to say that from my experience that your pastor - along with most of the pastors of the Church - is not likely to succeed with this good intention. The fact is that the official "Morning" and "Evening" prayer services, as presently constituted in the Liturgy of the Hours, are just too "busy," with too many options, too many alternative readings and too many antiphons and canticles, involving too much "page turning." Most lay people find it all too complicated and distracting. Even the simplified forms available in print are a bit too much. This is a lesson that the Church of England learned back in the 16th century when they created the famous Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Morning and Evening prayer rites in that book were filled with traditional material, but much more simply laid out and much easier to follow. The result was that their Morning and Evening Prayer services were regularly used by the Anglican laity for centuries, and even spawned a whole genre of sacred choral music to accompany them. If the Catholic Church really wants Morning and Evening Prayer to be widely used by the laity, we are going to have to learn from what the Anglicans accomplished. Your pastor's intention is very good, but I am not sure the Church as a whole has come up with the means to make this good liturgical tradition come alive again for the faithful.

More importantly, there is one word in your Sunday news bulletin that is not really fair. That is: to call the Rosary and the Chaplet "mere" devotions. Mere private devotions do not have feast days in the liturgical calendar to honor and encourage their practice, as the Rosary does. Nor do mere devotions usually have the depth and theological centrality of the Chaplet. Consider the wording of the main portion of the Chaplet:

Eternal Father, 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.

For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.

Clearly, what we are doing in the Chaplet is uniting our intercessions and petitions with the sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ in the Mass. The Council of Trent in the 16th century stated: "In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ, and therefore the whole Christ, is truly, really, and substantially contained" (see Catechism 1374). The Council also proclaimed that the Mass truly makes present for us the "propitiatory" sacrifice by Christ to the Father on the Cross, a sacrifice which takes away our debt of sin to divine justice, and merits for us all the graces of salvation. Similarly, in the Chaplet, we extend this same Eucharistic offering and sacrifice: we offer up the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ to the Father, in atonement for our sins, and those of the whole world. So it is on the basis of Jesus' own sacrificial offering, made present at every Mass, that we ask God to pour out His mercy on us, and on the whole world. You see, Rita, recited with sincerity and faith, the Chaplet is a profound and powerful devotion because it flows directly from the Cross and the Eucharist, and, in a sense, extends the offering of the Eucharist, with an intercessory intention. Not many "mere" devotions "tap into" the heart of the life of the Church, the Cross and the Eucharist, in such a direct way. No doubt that is why Jesus attached such extraordinary promises to the devout recitation of the Chaplet:

Encourage souls to say the Chaplet I have given you. ... Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death. ... When they say this chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge but as the merciful Savior. ... Priests will recommend it to sinners as their last hope of salvation. Even if there were a sinner most hardened, if he were to recite this chaplet only one, he would receive grace from My infinite mercy. ... I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy. ... Through the chaplet you will obtain everything, if what you ask for is compatible with My will (Diary, 1541, 687, 1541, 687, 687, 1731).

That brings up another reason why it is not appropriate to call both the Rosary and the Chaplet "mere" devotions: both were given to the faithful through supernatural, prophetic revelations that the Church subsequently authenticated. In the case of the Rosary, it was our Lady of Fatima who asked the faithful to try to recite a portion of it every day. In the case of the Chaplet, it was our Lord Himself who taught St. Faustina the Chaplet and asked her to encourage everyone to say it. Granted that these prophetic revelations do not have to be accepted by every Catholic as articles of Faith, nevertheless, they are strongly commended by the Church as worthy of belief. (See previous instalments of this Q and A series, in which we delved into this matter in some detail.) Moreover, since these two "devotions" are so closely related to the central mysteries of the Faith, they fit the description of true "popular devotions" encouraged by the Second Vatican Council:

Popular devotions of the Christian people are warmly commended, provided they accord with the laws and norms of the Church. Such is especially the case with devotions called for by the Apostolic See. ... These devotions should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some fashion derived from it, and lead the people to it, since the liturgy by its very nature far surpasses any of them (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no.13).

Finally, whenever I hear someone, clergy or lay, say that the Divine Mercy is a "mere devotion," "just another devotion," I like to respond with the words of Fr. George Kosicki, CSB, one of the great Divine Mercy evangelists of our time. Fr. George likes to say that the Divine Mercy devotion is different because it is not primarily about our devotion to God, rather, it is about His devotion to us. It centers our hearts and minds on the merciful love of God for weak, sinful, and stumbling creatures like us, and it continually reminds us that His mercy is always there for us, and will never stop seeking us out. Our "devotions" are always limited, imperfect, and inconstant. His merciful devotion to us, however, is constant, perfect, and infinite - even beyond our imagining. That is what makes the Divine Mercy devotion such a bearer of the "gospel," the "good news," to so may people in our time. And that is another reason - perhaps the best reason - why Divine Mercy is no "mere devotion."

Robert Stackpole, STD
John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy

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