Divine Mercy Sunday, 2013
It’s not that we didn’t know about God’s mercy until the 20th century, but that’s when the devotion as we know it really took off. It followed what I think must easily be the worst 50 or 60 year period in the history of the world. The warring kings of the ancient world, at their most bloodthirsty, were amateurs by the standards of the last hundred years. Europe, who had thought of herself as the light of reason and civilization in the world, provided the opening act in a barrage of artillery and mustard gas and trench warfare. They didn’t call it “World War I.” One of the things they called it was “the war to end all wars,” partly because it was so awful that it couldn’t possibly be allowed to happen again. But it did happen again, incredibly quickly and incredibly worse. In the same half-century span, half the world fell under the shadow of Communism, which wasn’t any good at bringing prosperity or equality, but which boasts unrivaled supremacy in the production of mass graves. And even in my own childhood, as for most of the last half of the century, it seemed quite possible that the last thing we’d all see was two suns in the sunset, the hot wind and the mushroom cloud.
If you lived at the right place and time you could actually have experienced most of the above, and Pope John Paul II was such a man. The Nazis made him a slave laborer. The Communists made it a risk of his life to attend an underground seminary. He was a world traveler and knew what military dictatorship and tribal warlords had made of the global South. He was a philosopher and knew the spiritual devastation that had quietly ripped the soul out of western Civilization, and planted the poison of the culture of death. So when he stood on the balcony looking out over the world as Pope, he did not see a world of constant progress. He did not see a world inevitably emerging out of medieval darkness into the light of reason and secularism and tolerance.
He saw the world as it really is, not a theater for the onward march of progress, but the vessel of billions of beautiful but hurting souls. He knew that science can help and is worth every effort, but he knew also that it cannot save us. He knew that politics can help and is worth every effort, but that it cannot save us. Science and politics had been the two great idols of the twentieth century, good things in themselves that proved catastrophic when they were made into gods (we have two new ones now, but that’s another sermon). Science can bring a polio vaccine or an atom bomb. Politics can bring liberation or a gulag. And the man who looks at the world from the balcony at St. Peter’s has to see the whole picture.
It could almost seem like he was waiting for the twentieth century to end to say a new word - or, rather, an old word that had been too often forgotten. He asked the whole world to please pay attention to a Polish nun named Faustina Kowalska, and her teachings about the Divine Mercy. He established the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, because she had said it was God’s will and he believed it. St. Faustina was the Apostle of Divine Mercy, and John Paul was the megaphone broadcasting the word to the corners of the earth.
There are different medicines for different times. There are times when the world needs most of all to be reminded of reason. There are times when the world needs most of all to be reminded of beauty. And there are times when the wounds are so deep, the devastation so total, that all we can say is mercy. There are no more excuses. There is no other hope. There is only mercy.
Perhaps that’s why devotion to the Divine Mercy continues to spread. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are drawn to the Divine Mercy Chaplet, repeating over and over and over, “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” You repeat that often enough and it starts to sink in that it’s the only thing that can save us. It’s the only chance we have.
Of course this isn’t just a world-history thing. You see it in your own relationships. There are times when you see very clearly that you have two choices: the way of mercy, or the way of division. Without mercy we’d all be left alone. There would be no marriage. There would be no friendship. There would not even be family.
When you look at it that way, it seems simple and obvious, so obvious that it’s hardly worth saying. And yet if we’re honest, we might have to admit we don’t choose mercy all of the time. We might have to admit that there are one or two people we keep off to the side as exceptions. “I’m easy to get along with, but that guy crossed the line.” “I know we’re supposed to forgive, but she just took it too far.” Or we apply it to certain classes of criminals: how many times have you heard it said that “someone who could do that isn’t human.”
But there’s the rub: they are human. Like or not, we’re all humans together. Some of us do more damage than others, some of us can’t be safely allowed outside of prison, some of us have more disordered temptations than others, but we’re all human together and mercy is the only chance we’ve got.
John Paul’s successor was Benedict XVI, and I quoted him a week ago about how the Resurrection is the “something new” that fundamentally changes the situation of mankind. That’s why reflecting on Divine Mercy comes on the heals of Easter. Once we’ve faced reality and understood how desperately we need mercy, once we’ve realized how totally lost we are without it, only then do we feel the full force of Easter. Only then does the “Alleluia” burst forth with full voice.
Benedict’s successor is Pope Francis, and a few weeks ago he stood on that same balcony and looked over that same world. He did not see the world like the pessimist, as a seething cauldron of despair, nor did he see the optimist’s inevitable march of Progress. He saw billions of immortal souls created in the image of God, wounded by sin and longing for love. Our last three Popes have been three very different men in style and temperament, but united by one mission and one Lord. What they have in common with each other, with a simple Polish nun, and with every one of us going about our lives in southeastern Illinois, is the hand of Christ extended to all of us with love and mercy. Like Thomas, we see the scar on that hand and know that it’s there because of us. And we hear the word, “peace be with you,” and we know it’s all going to be okay.
With all the ruin we’ve visited upon our world and upon each other, the only hope we have in the world is a mercy deeper than the deepest ocean. And that’s what Easter brings. The tomb is empty, love is alive, and even the scars are made glorious by the love behind them. For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.