Herald of Hope

One of the favorite topics of Pope Francis is the mercy of God.  In fact, as you may recall, our Holy Father designated an entire year of prayer and reflection upon it, the “Jubilee Year of Mercy,” which lasted from Dec. 8, 2015, to Nov. 20, 2016.

Given the Holy Father’s devotion to the mercy of God, someone once asked him about some of his favorite confessors. One story he told was about a Capuchin priest who served in his native city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. This priest was a very popular confessor.  He always had long, long lines of penitents queued up at his confessional.

In fact, this priest was so popular that some of the other priests of Buenos Aires became jealous. They confronted him and charged that the only reason he had such long lines was because he was too lenient in the confessional.  He was too easy, and he gave light penances.

Naturally, these charges bothered the confessor, and he started to worry and wonder if he was too easy in offering the sacrament of Reconciliation. So, he went to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament, and he offered heartfelt prayers to the Lord for guidance.

After a long time of meditation, he finally raised his hands up to heaven and he said, “Lord Jesus, please forgive me if I have been too lenient as a confessor.  Please forgive me if I have forgiven too much.  But, if I have been too easy, you need to remember, you are the one who gave me a bad example.”

It is fitting to recall this story and the topic of mercy, because we soon will be celebrating on the second Sunday of Easter a solemnity known as Divine Mercy Sunday. This date on the liturgical calendar received this designation from Pope St. John Paul II in May 2000.

Pope John Paul II was influenced by a special devotion he had to a Polish mystic named Faustina Kowalska.  She was a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She lived from 1905-38, and she was canonized a saint by him.

St. Faustina was the recipient of a number of private revelations from the Lord on the topic of Divine Mercy, which she recorded in a diary. There are 14 occasions in the diary in which Faustina notes a request from Jesus for the establishment of a feast dedicated to Divine Mercy.

One of the requests states, “My daughter, tell the whole world about my inconceivable mercy.  I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners.  On that day, the very depths of my tender mercy are open.  I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of my mercy.  The soul that will go to confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. Let no soul fear to draw near to me.”

Of course, the topic of Divine Mercy actually has been a significant component of the second Sunday of Easter for many years — long before it was given this special designation as a feast day. Early in the fifth century, St. Augustine referred to the time of the Octave of Easter as the “days of mercy and pardon,” since it is the time of particular devotion to the redemption wrought by Jesus Christ in his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

The focus on mercy also has long been illustrated in chapter 20 of the Gospel of John, which is proclaimed that Sunday. And, while many often consider that biblical passage an illustration of faith and doubt due to the presence of St. Thomas the Apostle in the narrative, the emphasis on the theme of mercy is just as prominent.

Remember, this was a situation in which the Apostles were in great need of forgiveness. Other than St. John, the Beloved Disciple, the rest of the apostles had deserted the Lord.  When the authorities arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, they fled. Granted, St. Peter did follow along to the Court of the Sanhedrin, but, as we all know, there he denied that he knew Christ three times. And, shortly thereafter, the Apostles retreated to the upper room, locked behind doors in fear and just as imprisoned by their sin and guilt.

It is then that the Lord Jesus appears in their midst, and the message that he speaks is “Peace.”  This is not simply a greeting but a proclamation of forgiveness and mercy. Then, our Lord goes one step further and breathes the Holy Spirit into the Apostles and empowers them to become bearers of the same mercy they had just received to others. He sends them forth with the power to forgive sins. For us Catholics, we look upon this text as the institution of the sacrament of Reconciliation.

I think there is a profound need in our world today for the mercy of God.  There is a great hunger for forgiveness. St. John Paul II commented upon this in the second of his encyclicals, “Dives in Misericordia” (Rich in Mercy).  He wrote, “As a gift 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 love.  It is a love that converts hearts and gives peace.  How much the world needs to understand and accept Divine Mercy.”

I think we live in a world where a significant segment of society seems to have traded the recognition of the need for forgiveness for a sense of permissiveness — a sense of permissiveness that seeks to avoid guilt or blame. A number of people seem to rationalize or make excuses for their faults or — in some cases — even seek to redefine morality, maintaining that some faults no longer should be considered sins.

Yet, I would suggest that such an attempt is a failure.  Deep down, we know what sin is.  The nature of right and wrong has been written into the very core of our hearts and minds. People may try to explain wrongdoing away, but they will not be successful.  For the burden of sin will still weigh heavy upon us.  In fact, I think we see the weight of that sin afflicting much of society as those who have traded forgiveness for permissiveness manifest such unrest with a penetrating sense of a lack of fulfillment and explosive anger.  Deep down, they know that something is wrong.

The celebration and reception of Divine Mercy, however, is the way to right this wrong.  Once again, St. John Paul II wrote, “Who can say that he is free from sin and does not need God’s mercy?  As people of this restless time of ours, wavering between the emptiness of self-exaltation and the humiliation of despair, we have a greater need than ever for a regenerating experience of mercy.”

We are invited, therefore, to turn to the God of infinite mercy, who loves us — all of us — no matter how bad our sins.  God wants us to know that his grace is greater than our faults.  All that we have to do is to call upon him with trust and open our hearts in humility to receive his absolution and reconciliation.  May we then allow the abundance of God’s grace to transform us and fill us with compassion as we strive to become vessels of mercy through which God’s forgiving love can be poured out upon our world.