By David Came (Apr 2, 2009)
To mark the fourth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II, on April 2, the following is an excerpt from David Came's new book Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate (Marian Press).
Pope Benedict is carrying on, even solidifying, the Divine Mercy legacy of his predecessor, John Paul II. He understands and emphasizes that God's mercy is expressed most fully in connection with the paschal mystery of our salvation. Indeed, as we saw in our last chapter, the Holy Father tells us with clarity on Divine Mercy Sunday 2008 that "mercy [is] the central nucleus of the Gospel message."
In this and other ways, the Pope is serving as a guarantor of John Paul's Divine Mercy legacy. He is helping us make this important legacy of mercy our own. We saw this especially in his pastoral visit to Poland in 2006, and we have seen it on each Divine Mercy Sunday that he has celebrated as Pope.
Following in the Footsteps of the 'Great Mercy Pope'
When Pope Benedict arrived at the Warsaw Airport on May 25, 2006, for his pastoral visit to John Paul II's homeland, he set the tone, saying, "I have very much wanted to make this visit to the native land and people of my beloved Predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II. I have come to follow in the footsteps of his life, from his boyhood until his departure for the memorable conclave of 1978." In essence, the Pope was coming to celebrate the life of his predecessor with those who knew him best, his beloved countrymen.
In following "in the footsteps" of the man many have hailed as the "Great Mercy Pope," his pastoral visit naturally had to include The Divine Mercy Shrine in Lagiewniki, Poland. He knew it was where St. Faustina, the visionary associated with The Divine Mercy message, lived and was buried. Benedict knew Pope John Paul II himself dedicated the shrine in 2002 and also entrusted the world to Divine Mercy there. In fact, when he visited Lagiewniki on May 27, 2006, Benedict hearkened back to John Paul's entrustment when he repeated the latter's words on that special occasion:
As Pope John Paul II said in this place: "The Cross is the most profound bowing down of the Divinity towards man ... the Cross is like a touch of eternal love on the most painful wounds of humanity's earthly existence" (August 17, 2002).
It's no surprise, then, that Pope Benedict said in his May 31, 2006, General Audience that a stop at the shrine in Lagiewniki "could not have been omitted from my itinerary."
In recalling the visit to the shrine during his General Audience, Benedict spoke of John Paul "echo[ing] and interpret[ing]" "a message of trust for humanity" that St. Faustina received from the Risen Christ:
It was here at the neighboring convent that Sr. Faustina Kowalska, contemplating the shining wounds of the Risen Christ, received a message of trust for humanity which John Paul II echoed and interpreted and which really is a central message precisely for our time: Mercy as God's power, as a divine barrier against the evil of the world.
We will see time and again how Pope Benedict has linked The Divine Mercy message given to St. Faustina and the pontificate of John Paul II, the Great Mercy Pope.
Divine Mercy Sunday: A Keystone of John Paul II's Legacy
Pope Benedict is most incisive in making the connection between St. Faustina, the Divine Mercy mystic, and her interpreter, John Paul II, in his Divine Mercy Sunday messages. It makes perfect sense since Pope John Paul II chose the occasion of St. Faustina's canonization on April 30, 2000, to declare the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday for the universal Church. The Great Mercy Pope also died on April 2, 2005, at 9:37 p.m., which was the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday that year.
Consider these strong Mercy Sunday statements of Pope Benedict that connect the mystic and her interpreter. On Divine Mercy Sunday, April 23, 2006, he noted in his Regina Caeli that "the Servant of God John Paul II, highlighting the spiritual experience of a humble Sister, St. Faustina Kowalska, desired that the Sunday after Easter be dedicated in a special way to Divine Mercy; and Providence disposed that he would die precisely on the eve of this day in the hands of Divine Mercy."
Then, on Divine Mercy Sunday 2008, in his Regina Caeli message, Benedict goes further by linking both John Paul and St. Faustina as apostles of Divine Mercy. You almost get a sense of John Paul taking up where Faustina left off in spreading the Good News of God's mercy:
Like Sr. Faustina, John Paul II in his turn made himself an apostle of Divine Mercy. In the evening of the unforgettable Saturday, April 2, 2005, when he closed his eyes on this world, it was precisely the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter and many people noted the rare coincidence that combined the Marian dimension — the first Saturday of the month — and the dimension of Divine Mercy. This was in fact the core of John Paul II's long and multi-faceted Pontificate. The whole of his mission at the service of the truth about God and man and of peace in the world is summed up in this declaration, as he himself said in Krakow-Lagiewniki in 2002 when he inaugurated the large Shrine of Divine Mercy: "Apart from the mercy of God there is no source of hope for mankind." John Paul II's message, like St. Faustina's, thus leads back to the Face of Christ, a supreme revelation of God's mercy. Constant contemplation of this Face is the legacy he bequeathed to us which we joyfully welcome and make our own.
This statement is extraordinary for its richness and implications, but let's focus for our purposes here on only the last couple of sentences. First, notice Benedict speaks of how "John Paul II's message, like St. Faustina's, ... leads back to the Face of Christ, a supreme revelation of God's mercy." Upon reading this, anyone familiar with The Divine Mercy message and devotion would immediately think of The Divine Mercy image, which is an image of the Risen Christ, with glorious rays of healing streaming forth from His pierced Heart.
And as the merciful Savior instructed St. Faustina, this image should be venerated precisely on Divine Mercy Sunday to inspire the faithful to trust in the Lord Jesus and to perform works of mercy out of love for Him. It is no coincidence, then, that this statement of Pope Benedict came on Mercy Sunday.
More relevant to our point here, Pope Benedict talks of "the legacy [John Paul II] bequeathed to us which we joyfully welcome and make our own." In effect, as the current Holy Father, Pope Benedict is saying that we are carrying on John Paul's Divine Mercy legacy and making it our own. We are even "joyfully welcom[ing]" it as our own. John Paul's legacy of mercy, then, is an inheritance to the whole Church — an inheritance we are called to embrace.
'God's Mercy ... a Privileged Key' to Interpreting John Paul II's Life
A signal moment for Pope Benedict in helping the Church understand and appreciate John Paul's legacy of mercy came on April 2, 2008, during Holy Mass on the third anniversary of the Great Mercy Pope's death. In his homily, Pope Benedict examines his predecessor's life through the lens of Divine Mercy to explain why it is essential to understanding John Paul's papacy. Once again, Benedict presents St. Faustina as a pivotal figure for John Paul. This time, he describes her as a "prophetic messenger of Divine Mercy" amidst "the terrible tragedies of the 20th century" that Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul II) and his Polish compatriots experienced, alluding especially to the horrors of World War II:
God's mercy, as [Pope John Paul II] himself said, is a privileged key to the interpretation of his Pontificate. He wanted the message of God's merciful love to be made known to all and urged the faithful to witness to it (cf. Homily at Krakow-Lagiewniki, August 17, 2002). This is why he raised to the honor of the altars Sr. Faustina Kowalska, a humble Sister who, through a mysterious divine plan, became a prophetic messenger of Divine Mercy. The Servant of God John Paul II had known and personally experienced the terrible tragedies of the 20th century and for a long time wondered what could stem the tide of evil. The answer could only be found in God's love. In fact, only Divine Mercy is able to impose limitations on evil; only the almighty love of God can defeat the tyranny of the wicked and the destructive power of selfishness and hate. For this reason, during his last visit to Poland, he said on his return to the land of his birth: "Apart from the mercy of God there is no other source of hope for mankind" (Homily at Krakow-Lagiewniki, August 17, 2002).
In this homily, we can almost hear Benedict talking with John Paul about his life when he observes that "for a long time" Karol Wojtyla had "wondered what could stem the tide of evil," based upon his own tragic experiences in Poland. Benedict is then saying that the prophetic revelations of St. Faustina provided the key to opposing evil for Wojtyla, so that on his last visit to his homeland, as Pope John Paul II, he could confidently proclaim to the Church and the world, "Apart from the mercy of God there is no other source of hope for mankind." Further, Benedict closes his homily with a remarkable statement that leaves no doubt that he has taken up his predecessor's "priceless spiritual legacy" and is calling the Church to follow John Paul II's "teaching and example":
And while we offer the redeeming Sacrifice for [John Paul II's] chosen soul, let us pray to him to continue to intercede from Heaven for each one of us, especially for me whom Providence called to take up his priceless spiritual legacy. The Church, following his teaching and example, faithfully continues without compromising in her evangelizing mission and never ceases to spread Christ's merciful love, a source of true peace for the whole world.
'Beloved John Paul II, a Great Apostle of Divine Mercy' for Our Time
It's significant that Benedict chooses to highlight the Divine Mercy legacy of John Paul II not only on special occasions but during his ordinary teaching office as Pope. In his September 16, 2007, Angelus message, for instance, he talks about "the three parables of mercy" in that Sunday's Gospel reading from Luke 15. Then he points to the significance in our time of John Paul II's "strong proclamation and witness of God's mercy":
In our time, humanity needs a strong proclamation and witness of God's mercy. Beloved John Paul II, a great apostle of Divine Mercy, prophetically intuited this urgent pastoral need. He dedicated his second Encyclical to it and throughout
his Pontificate made himself the missionary of God's love to all peoples. After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, which darkened the dawn of the third millennium, he invited Christians and people of good will to believe that God's mercy is stronger than all evil, and that only in the Cross of Christ is the world's salvation found.
There are three things worth noticing about Pope Benedict's remarks here. In arresting language, he describes John Paul in his own right as "a great apostle of Divine Mercy," who "prophetically intuited [the] urgent pastoral need" for God's mercy in our age. This is akin to what Pope Benedict said in our last section about St. Faustina when he described her as a "prophetic messenger of Divine Mercy" in helping the younger Karol Wojtyla come to terms with his experience of evil in his homeland. Now, John Paul II is being hailed as a prophet of mercy in his own right.
Second, Pope Benedict mentions how his predecessor "dedicated his second Encyclical" to God's mercy. He is referring to Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) in which John Paul II demonstrated how God the Father is "rich in mercy" through a masterful exposition of Scripture, especially the Gospel parable of the prodigal son. And this is the main parable from Luke 15 that Benedict himself had just commented on as the Gospel of the day before making his own remarks here about John Paul.
In fact, earlier in his Angelus message of September 16, 2007, Benedict echoes John Paul II's encyclical by speaking of how God the Father is "rich in mercy" toward all his children and calls us to do likewise:
True religion thus consists in being attuned to [God's] Heart, "rich in mercy," which asks us to love everyone, even those who are distant and our enemies, imitating the Heavenly Father who respects the freedom of each one and draws everyone to himself with the invincible power of his faithfulness.
Third, notice the particular context in our time in which Pope Benedict speaks of John Paul "prophetically intuit[ing]" the "urgent pastoral need" for the "witness of God's mercy." It is none other than "the tragic events of September 11, 2001" — a defining moment in the new millennium that highlights the urgent need for "Christians and people of good will to believe that God's mercy is stronger than all evil."
This is a firm conviction of John Paul II and now Pope Benedict that we sorely need today in confronting the specter of terrorism in our troubled times — lest we give in to despair. In believing it, we stand on solid ground spiritually —the trustworthy mercy of God.
Remembering John Paul II's 'Testament' of Mercy
This solid ground on which we stand includes "a testament" of mercy from John Paul II that can assure us whenever we face evil in our world — as it has Pope Benedict himself. Let me explain.
It was nearly a year after the death of John Paul II on March 26, 2006, and Benedict was visiting the Roman parish of God the Merciful Father on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. He was speaking of the importance of "a personal encounter with the Crucified and Risen Christ," based on the Sunday readings, when he turned to the testament of mercy that John Paul left the Church in his last words:
In meditating on the Lord's mercy that was revealed totally and definitively in the mystery of the Cross, the text that John Paul II had prepared for his meeting
with the faithful on April 3, [Divine Mercy Sunday] the Second Sunday of Easter, comes to my mind.
In the divine plans it was written that he would leave us precisely on the eve of that day, Saturday, April 2 — we all remember it well — and for that reason he was unable to address his words to you. I would like to address them to you now, dear brothers and sisters, "To humanity, which sometimes seems bewildered and overwhelmed by the power of evil, selfishness and fear, the Risen Lord offers
his love that pardons, reconciles and reopens hearts to hope. It is a love that
converts hearts and gives peace."
The Pope, in this last text which is like a testament, then added: "How much the world needs to understand and accept Divine Mercy!" (Regina Caeli message,
read by Archbishop Leonardo Sandri, Substitute of the Secretariat of State, to
the faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square, April 3, 2005).
In this poignant remembrance of John Paul II's last words, Benedict singles out John Paul's powerful cry of the heart to the world — which includes each of us — to understand and accept Divine Mercy. These words are like a testament we can turn to whenever we are "bewildered and overwhelmed by the power of evil," as we were on September 11, 2001. He identifies what we truly need most of all.
When we commit ourselves to understand and accept Divine Mercy, we are no longer helpless when confronted by evil. We are empowered through Christ to face it and place a limit upon it. As Pope Benedict told the parishioners at God the Merciful Father Church in the Diocese of Rome, "To understand and accept God's merciful love: may this be your commitment, first of all in your families and then in every neighborhood milieu."
On a personal note, perhaps Pope Benedict himself was thinking back to his own need to understand and accept the gift of Divine Mercy he received on his election as Pope through the intercession of John Paul II. He had received the gift, and now he was sharing it with the Church nearly a year after John Paul's death.
Following the example of Pope Benedict, reflect for a moment on how you have understood and accepted the gift of Divine Mercy in your own life. Did it involve a special occasion or pivotal moment in your life?
For myself, I think back to the time when my son nearly died at the age of 5 after experiencing severe, uncontrollable seizures. He was in intensive care at the local hospital for a couple of days, but he pulled through and was hospitalized for more than a week. I remember dropping everything to be at my son's bedside during those days of personal anguish. He is now a healthy 19-year-old with no repercussions from the seizures. That close call helped me begin to understand and accept Divine Mercy as a dad.
Yet in understanding and accepting God's mercy, why is our trust and hope in Him important? That is the topic of our next chapter.
You may order a copy of Pope Benedict's Divine Mercy Mandate online.