Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 26, 2008)
One sometimes finds well-meaning and devout Catholics who seem to have an aversion to the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy. For example, a woman named "Millie" wrote to me recently about her pastor, "a very holy and prayerful man," who told her that he doesn't like the wording of the Chaplet when it repeats "for the sake of His sorrowful passion." He thinks it should say "for the sake of His sorrowful passion, death, and resurrection." He told her that to use devotions that focus only on Christ's passion "is like being in the dark ages."
Well, Millie, on the one hand, your pastor is certainly within his rights to prefer devotions that focus on other aspects of the sacred humanity, or saving work of Jesus Christ. Some people find more help in being devoted to the Holy Childhood of Jesus, or to His Transfiguration or His Resurrection. Moreover, different eras in the life of the Church tend to focus more on some mysteries of the life of our Lord than others. Your pastor is right that, in the medieval period, Catholic devotion did tend to emphasize the saving passion of Jesus, perhaps because it was an age of great human misery and suffering and Christians needed to be reassured at that time that Jesus understood the sorrows of life that they were going through.
On the other hand, it would be unfair to say that any devotion that emphasizes the saving passion of our Lord is therefore "dated," or just a "throwback" to "the dark ages." After all, there have been many Catholic saints in more recent centuries who have focused their spiritual life on the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Saint Alphonsus Ligouri (1696-1787) is a good example. He was the founder of the "Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer," and read what he wrote about devotion to the cross of Jesus in his classic work The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ (chapter 1, sections 12 and 20):
Who can deny that of all devotions, devotion to the Passion of Jesus Christ is the most useful, the most tender, the dearest to God, the one that most consoles sinners and most inflames loving souls? Where else do we get so many blessings as from the Passion of Jesus Christ? Where else do we have the hope of pardon, strength against temptations, and confidence that we are going to paradise? Whence come so many bright lights of truth, so many loving calls, so many promptings to change our life, so many desires to give ourselves to God, as from the Passion of Jesus Christ? ...
If people would only stop to consider, looking at Jesus on the cross, the love that He has borne each one of them! "With what love," says St. Francis De Sales, "would we not be set ablaze at the sight of those flames of the Redeemer's breast! And oh, what happiness, to be able to be burned by that same fire with which God burns for us! What joy to be bound to God by chains of love!" Saint Bonaventure called the wounds of Jesus wounds that cut through the most senseless hearts, and which inflame the most frigid souls. How many arrows of love come forth from those wounds, to strike the hardest hearts! What flames issue from the burning heart of Jesus Christ, setting on fire the coldest souls! And how many chains come from that wounded side to bind the most rebellious hearts!
If one is of a mind to dismiss the writings of saints like Alphonsus on the ground that their spirituality also is "dated," and too "baroque" in sentiment for modern tastes, then let's go right back to the source and standard of all Catholic spirituality: the teachings of the apostles. Saint Paul arguably has much the same emphasis on the Cross as St. Alphonsus (if less of the florid, baroque use of language!). In I Corinthians 2:1-2, and 1: 22-23, St. Paul writes:
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom, for I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. ... For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.
In Romans 5: 6-8, St. Paul marvels above all at the manifestation of God's love for us displayed on the Cross:
While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man — though perhaps for a good man one will even dare to die. But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
In short, an emphasis on the passion of Christ is hardly a characteristic merely of medieval spirituality. It is an enduring part of the Biblical and Catholic spiritual and theological heritage. Of course, if one fears that the frequent repetition of the Chaplet might make us forget the equal importance of the resurrection of Jesus to our salvation, then why not be sure to recite the Chaplet before the image of The Divine Mercy? The image is, first and foremost, an image of the Risen Lord, so by reciting the Chaplet before the image, we are contemplating the fullness of the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.