Easter and Divine Mercy form a whole, both liturgically and spiritually. It is no coincidence that the Feast of Divine Mercy falls on the octave day of Easter. Remember that although the Feast originally formed the heart of a private devotion, the Church has seen fit to establish that Feast liturgically under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Who is the very breath of the Church. Divine Mercy Sunday is not really a new feast at all – it is an ancient and venerable one, but one which we had almost lost sight of as the centuries moved forward, and to which we now give a new name.
And so, regardless of any particular personal feeling for or against the Divine Mercy devotion proposed by St Faustina (and which has been accepted fully by the Church in Her wisdom), we are obliged to look at the Feast of Divine Mercy in a very particular way – as a solemn liturgical feast of the Catholic Church.
Our Catholic faith derives from the Jewish faith – like us, our elder brothers and sisters of this community celebrated octaves, such as the one for the Feast of Tabernacles. It is from the Jewish faith, remember, that our own faith derives; this was the religion of Jesus until He established the Church. For this reason, we should always have the greatest affection and respect for our Jewish brothers and sisters, who have led us in faith and to whom we owe so much.
In the ancient Church, and up until not so many decades ago, the idea of an octave day was a concrete reality which expressed something very important; not only was it the eighth day after a great feast, but each of the days between formed part of that feast, the octave day being the greatest of them. The Catholic liturgy itself celebrates this fact, with the days after Easter being as solemn as that of Easter Sunday. These days are celebrated as solemnities, with proper readings and prayers – indeed, we still call each of these days by their proper name, such as ‘Easter Monday’.
And so it is with Divine Mercy Sunday – it extends the joy of Easter Sunday and along with it, forms a continuous unity.
“‘Peace be with you!’ This is how Jesus greets His Apostles in the Gospel for this Sunday, that closes the Octave of Easter. Peace is the gift of God.. When the merciless logic of arms prevails everywhere, only God can redirect hearts to thoughts of peace. Only He can give the energies that are necessary to be freed from hatred and the thirst for revenge and to undertake the process of negotiation for an agreement and for peace. This liturgy today invites us to see in the Divine Mercy the source of that authentic peace that the Risen Christ offers us. The wounds of the risen and glorious Lord are the permanent sign of God’s merciful love for humanity. From them flows a spiritual light that enlightens consciences and pours into hearts comfort and hope.” (St John Paul II, quoted in the CTS New Sunday Missal)
The Collect of this Mass reminds us of the ‘God of everlasting mercy’ and asks Him to allow us to ‘rightly understand in what font they have been washed, by whose Spirit they have been reborn, by whose Blood they have been redeemed’.
The second reading, taken from the first letter of St Peter, opens with a prayer – “blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who in His great mercy has given us a new birth as His sons, by raising Jesus Christ from the dead”.
And the Gospel of this Mass is taken from St John. It describes the appearance of the Risen Christ to the Apostles in the Upper Room, on the evening of the day of the Resurrection and again a week later, when St Thomas was finally present. In other words, it covers – and refers to – a period of eight days; you might rightly call this an octave.
Standing among the Apostles, Jesus says to them – “Peace be with you!” and shows them the marks of the Passion in His hands and side. Again, He says “Peace be with you!” and then He breathes on them, telling them – “Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; for those whose sins you retain, they are retained”. (cf. Jn.20:19-31)
If these prayers, these readings and this Gospel passage suggest an image to you, it is that of the Image of the Merciful Jesus – this is what it is describing. In the Image given to St Faustina, it is the same Jesus depicted, and on this same occasion – appearing as He did to the Apostles, giving His own peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is symbolised in the pale ray emanating from His pierced Heart, which denotes the Sacraments of Baptism and Confession. The red ray, of course, symbolises the Blood spilled for us on Golgotha and by which we are redeemed; in other words, the Sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Diary of St Faustina, the Merciful Jesus explains this explicitly.
The Passion and Death of Christ on the Cross was for all people; and yet, not all will benefit and many will still be lost, despite this singular Sacrifice of the Lamb of God. There can be no doubt that this must be a deep and painful wound in the Heart of Christ – He desires the salvation of all souls, not only some. Perhaps the Feast of Mercy is a deep sigh, echoing this desire of His Heart that all be saved by His Death on the Cross.
There are many reasons why souls reject the Lord. Some are stubborn in their sin, while others believe (wrongly) that their sin is too great, or that mercy is not for them. And yet the Merciful Lord told St Faustina that this Feast emanates from the very depths of His mercy, and in it, He calls sinners to approach Him with trust in His mercy – even though their sins be as scarlet. It is a continuation of His call throughout the Gospels – He came to save sinners. And all of us are sinners.
The Church is a mother. Her duty is to call souls to approach the Lord in the Sacraments, those mystical conduits of Divine Grace and Mercy, established by the Lord Himself. In the Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary issued in August 2002, she sets forth a clear way to do this with regard to the Feast of Mercy. She even goes so far as to note that this Decree “has perpetual force, any provision to the contrary notwithstanding”.
The Church begins the Decree by reminding us of the limitless compassion of God –
“O God, Your mercy knows no bounds and the treasure of Your goodness is infinite.. O God, You reveal Your almighty power above all by showing mercy and forgiveness.. in these prayers, Holy Mother Church humbly and faithfully sings of Divine Mercy.. indeed, Divine Mercy knows how to pardon even the most serious sins”.
Having reminded us of this reality, the Church then reminds us of our corresponding duty –
“The faithful with deep spiritual affection are drawn to commemorate the mysteries of divine pardon and to celebrate them devoutly. They clearly understand the supreme benefit, indeed the duty, that the People of God have to praise Divine Mercy with special prayers and, at the same time, they realize that by gratefully performing the works required and satisfying the necessary conditions, they can obtain spiritual benefits that derive from the Treasury of the Church..”
She knowns only too well that sometimes, She needs to cajole and encourage Her poor children to come home to the Lord. And so, in Her compassion, She offers us a little enticement to do so; for the Feast of Divine Mercy, She offers us this most beautiful Feast itself and then the gift of a plenary or partial indulgence for the celebration of this Feast of Mercy –
“And so with provident pastoral sensitivity and in order to impress deeply on the souls of the faithful these precepts and teachings of the Christian faith, the Supreme Pontiff, John Paul II, moved by the consideration of the Father of Mercy, has willed that the Second Sunday of Easter be dedicated to recalling with special devotion these gifts of grace and gave this Sunday the name, “Divine Mercy Sunday” (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Decree Misericors et miserator, 5 May 2000). To ensure that the faithful would observe this day with intense devotion, the Supreme Pontiff himself established that this Sunday be enriched by a plenary indulgence, as will be explained below, so that the faithful might receive in great abundance the gift of the consolation of the Holy Spirit. In this way, they can foster a growing love for God and for their neighbour, and after they have obtained God’s pardon, they in turn might be persuaded to show a prompt pardon to their brothers and sisters.. And so the Supreme Pontiff, motivated by an ardent desire to foster in Christians this devotion to Divine Mercy as much as possible in the hope of offering great spiritual fruit to the faithful, in the Audience granted on 13 June 2002, to those Responsible for the Apostolic Penitentiary, granted the following Indulgences:
A plenary indulgence, granted under the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer for the intentions of Supreme Pontiff) to the faithful who, on the Second Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday, in any church or chapel, in a spirit that is completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin, take part in the prayers and devotions held in honour of Divine Mercy, or who, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed or reserved in the tabernacle, recite the Our Father and the Creed, adding a devout prayer to the merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!”); A partial indulgence, granted to the faithful who, at least with a contrite heart, pray to the merciful Lord Jesus a legitimately approved invocation..
For those who cannot go to church or the seriously ill; In addition, sailors working on the vast expanse of the sea; the countless brothers and sisters, whom the disasters of war, political events, local violence and other such causes have been driven out of their homeland; the sick and those who nurse them, and all who for a just cause cannot leave their homes or who carry out an activity for the community which cannot be postponed, may obtain a plenary indulgence on Divine Mercy Sunday, if totally detesting any sin, as has been said before, and with the intention of fulfilling as soon as possible the three usual conditions, will recite the Our Father and the Creed before a devout image of Our Merciful Lord Jesus and, in addition, pray a devout invocation to the Merciful Lord Jesus (e.g. Merciful Jesus, I trust in you).
If it is impossible that people do even this, on the same day they may obtain the Plenary Indulgence if with a spiritual intention they are united with those carrying out the prescribed practice for obtaining the Indulgence in the usual way and offer to the Merciful Lord a prayer and the sufferings of their illness and the difficulties of their lives, with the resolution to accomplish as soon as possible the three conditions prescribed to obtain the plenary indulgence.”
In the Diary of St Faustina when describing the necessities of the Feast, the Lord paid particular attention to the role of His Priests on that day. And so it perhaps not so surprising that the Decree of the Apostolic Penitentiary ends with this paragraph directed explicitly to Priests –
“Duty of priests: inform parishioners, hear confessions, lead prayers. Priests who exercise pastoral ministry, especially parish priests, should inform the faithful in the most suitable way of the Church’s salutary provision. They should promptly and generously be willing to hear their confessions. On Divine Mercy Sunday, after celebrating Mass or Vespers, or during devotions in honour of Divine Mercy, with the dignity that is in accord with the rite, they should lead the recitation of the prayers that have been given above. Finally, since “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5,7), when they instruct their people, priests should gently encourage the faithful to practise works of charity or mercy as often as they can, following the example of, and in obeying the commandment of Jesus Christ, as is listed for the second general concession of indulgence in the ‘Enchiridion Indulgentiarum’.”
There is one last point that should be noted here. We are reminded in a special way at this liturgical time of the year that we are ‘an Easter people’ and that part of our mission is to go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News of the Gospel. This, after all, is the ‘priest’ part of our baptismal role (the other two being ‘prophet’ and ‘king’). This role is for every one of the baptised – so what, then, are we actually doing to fulfil this command and to exercise this role we have been given in Baptism?
Remember, too, that in the Diary of St Faustina, the Merciful Lord is very clear that Divine Mercy is “the last hope of salvation” and “a sign for the end times”, before the second coming of the Lord. He tells us that “mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy”.
If what we are told is true, then our role in proclaiming this Good News, this Easter message, is not only crucial, but crucial now and that Good News is for all the men and women of the world, all of whom so desperately need to hear it and to have the chance to respond to it.
I cannot help but wonder at the fairly recent full approbation of the Church for the Divine Mercy devotion revealed to St Faustina, the establishment of the Feast of Mercy and the meeting of all the demands of the Merciful Lord recorded in the Diary, together with the very recent Jubilee of Mercy. I considered whether this Jubilee was, in fact a turning point or a milestone of sorts.
We cannot now profess ignorance of the message of Divine Mercy.
Now, we are obliged to do something with it, to become mirrors of that Divine Mercy, radiating it out to all souls.
The last word here goes to Pope Emeritus Benedict. At the conclusion of the Via Crucis in Holy Week a few years ago, he said this –
“The Way of the Cross is the way of mercy, the way of mercy that puts a limit on evil: This is what we learned from Pope John Paul II. It is the way of mercy; hence, the way of salvation … Let us pray to the Lord to help us be ‘infected’ by His mercy.”
Merciful Lord, ‘infect’ us deeply with Your mercy; aided by the prayers of the Mother of Mercy, and the intercession of St Faustina, the Apostle and Secretary of the Divine Mercy, may we, too, be channels of mercy to all those around us. In this way, and for the sake of Your sorrowful Passion, may the Eternal Father have mercy on us and on the whole world.