A good friend of mine called me from her vacation spot in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. She asked me if there had been anything special happening on this past Sunday. She had been stuck in traffic as a huge caravan of tour buses made their way to the National Shrine of Divine Mercy, which is apparently in western Massachusetts. So she asked me, "What IS Divine Mercy?"
"Uh, um. Well, I don't really know, but I should." I've never gotten a good definition of Divine Mercy from anyone. I didn't really know that the Sunday after Easter has been designated Divine Mercy Sunday, either.
So I turned to the internet and a seminarian friend to find the definition and some details. The term Divine Mercy was the tip of a big, theological iceberg that led me to explore the concepts of grace, repentance, prayer, and the general role or non-role of God in this world.
Of course, some smart-ass could easily give me the circular definition of Divine Mercy as mercy from God.
Fine, so what is mercy? One applicable definition from Merriam-Webster says that mercy is "a blessing that is an act of divine favor or compassion."
For clarification's sake, compassion is "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it."
Furthermore, the dictionary lists grace as a synonym for mercy. Grace is "unmerited divine assistance given humans for their regeneration or sanctification."
Synthesizing these definitions, I think we can say that Divine Mercy is an undeserved favor from God in sympathy for our distress and with a desire to alleviate that distress.
Divine Mercy Sunday
In exploring the feast day and the concepts behind it, I read this article on Divine Mercy Sunday. Back in the day, 1931 in Poland, Sr. Mary Faustina Kowalska kept a diary to document her visions of Jesus. Jesus appeared to Sr. Faustina and detailed the specifics of the feast of Divine Mercy:
[From Diary 965] Souls perish in spite of My bitter Passion. I am giving them ... the Feast of My mercy. If they will not adore My mercy, they will perish for all eternity. Secretary of My mercy, write, tell souls about this great mercy of Mine, because the awful day, the day of My justice is near.
[From Diary 699] 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. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet. My mercy is so great that no mind, be it of man or of angel, will be able to fathom it throughout all eternity. Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy. Every soul in its relation to Me will contemplate My love and mercy throughout eternity. The Feast of Mercy emerged from My very depths of tenderness. It is My desire that it be solemnly celebrated on the First Sunday after Easter. Mankind will not have peace until it turns to the Fount of My Mercy.
OK, let's take these diary excerpts apart.
1. Existence itself is a mercy, so divine mercy is available to everyone.
Everything that exists comes from God. That makes sense; all the matter in the universe comes from the Big Bang and subsequent condensation of stars, with fusion of hydrogen creating heavier elements and then spewing those elements out after going supernova. Fast forward billions of years to the condensation of Earth and the primordial soup giving rise to the evolution of all manner of flora and fauna, including primates capable of contemplating their own existence. Hi, Mom!
So without God, we'd have no Big Bang and no universe and no us. I guess that means that our very existence counts as a divine favor, as a mercy.
Everyone, everyone in existence, can get in on that divine mercy goodness. But at what price?
2. Repentance is necessary for divine mercy and grace. In other words, if you do bad stuff, learn from it and move on to do good stuff instead.
I understand repentance as recognizing the wrong, regretting the wrong, admitting the wrong, and correcting the wrong. I think that repentance is a type of openness to the Holy Spirit. Any subsequent change of heart to make amends and to live a better life could be considered manifestations of divine mercy and grace in that the improvements would be a relief from the suffering of being in a state of sin.
Allow me to explain this openness to the Holy Spirit thing. Some years ago I went to mass with my parents at a Catholic church in Nice, France, the Eglise Notre-Dame, on avenue Jean Médecin. The priest's homily has stuck with me since then. He explained the threefold purpose of prayer: praise, thanksgiving, and openness to the Holy Spirit. This comes from the Jewish concept of prayer as praise, thanksgiving, and petition. The priest modified the petition portion, saying that because God already knows what we need, we don't need to pray to God to ask for stuff. For example, when one prays over a sick person, it shouldn't be a prayer for God to heal the person. God won't heal the person; science and medicine and doctors might. We should pray, then, for openness to the Holy Spirit, so people will be inspired to study science and medicine and develop cures for diseases.
This priest's homily reinforced my usual thinking that, more often than not, God does nothing except be. Just as God doesn't make bad things happen to good people, I don't think God necessarily lifts people out of their own suffering, either. He's just there, all omnipresent like that. All we have to do is be open to God. Openness to the Holy Spirit (repentance), by Trinitarian extension, is openness to God (and to his divine mercy).
As an undeserved favor from God in sympathy for our distress and with a desire to alleviate that distress, divine mercy manifests itself in the change of heart and subsequent relief that we might experience after realizing that we--accidental creatures of God's work in the Big Bang--have done something wrong.
Current Events Applications
From the BBC, Pope Benedict says Catholics must 'do penance':
Speaking during a homily at a private mass at the Vatican on Thursday, Pope Benedict appeared to make his first reference to the issue since 20 March, when he sent a letter to the Irish people about the abuse scandal in their country [link].
"I must say, we Christians, even in recent times, have often avoided the word 'repent', which seemed too tough," he said.
"But now, under attack from the world which talks to us of our sins, we can see that being able to do penance is a grace and we see how necessary it is to do penance and thus recognise what is wrong in our lives."
The Pope said this involved "opening oneself up to forgiveness, preparing oneself for forgiveness, allowing oneself to be transformed".
The BBC's David Willey in Rome says the words were generic, but his meaning was clear - the gravity of the scandal harms all Christians.
Pope Benedict also used the opportunity to hit back at critics of the Church, portraying them as in the thrall of a conformist dictatorship.
"Conformism which makes it obligatory to think and act like everyone else, and the subtle - or not so subtle - aggression towards the Church, demonstrate how this conformism can really be a true dictatorship," he said.
What? I had high hopes for a second there.
I'll leave the question of who's actually a conformist dictatorship for some other post.