So You Think You Understand Mercy?

Christ’s Merciful Healing

From the time it was announced, Catholics welcomed the year of Jubilee, the year of Mercy, with open hearts. We recall Pope Francis saying in Misericordiae Vultus (2015) that mercy “reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity” and is the “ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us … is the bridge that connects God and man” (MV #2).1 Powerful words, and yet, as the Year of Mercy draws to a close, do we really “get it” about mercy? Are there things, perhaps on further reflection, that are not so clear?

Let us start with the statement of Saint John Paul II in Dives in Misericordia (1980, DivM #13)—that mercy has long been considered the “most stupendous” attribute of the Creator and Redeemer. One might ask at this point why is mercy the most stupendous attribute of God? Isn’t it supposed to be love? And are not all the attributes of the Creator perfections— so how can any one perfection be any greater than any other? To make matters worse, Saint John Paul II’s statement parallels that which was written in Saint Faustina’s diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul (Diary), where Jesus says to her that Mercy is His greatest attribute.

Proclaim that mercy is the greatest attribute of God. All the works of my hands are crowned with Mercy (Diary #301).2

The words rendered here are accurate—”the greatest attribute of God”. So how can we approach this “problem”? One way is to ponder what Jesus gave Saint Faustina to understand of the love/mercy “dichotomy”. For she writes elsewhere, that “mercy is the flower of love… God is love and mercy is His deed” (Diary#651), indicating a unique union of mercy and love –mercy being an undeserved love which flowers from love itself. It is easy to love those we naturally like, but how easy is it to love evildoers and those who are annoying? This truly requires mercy, and is an ongoing challenge till the day we die.

And when it comes to Saint John Paul II saying that mercy is the “most stupendous” of God’s attributes, he himself explains:

It is not a question here of the perfection of the inscrutable essence of God in the mystery of the divinity itself, but of the perfection and attribute whereby man, in the intimate truth of his existence, encounters the living God particularly closely and particularly often. (DivM #13)

Thus, it is not a question of an “evaluation” but of an “encounter” for he reminds us that the essence of God is inscrutable and, hence, the evaluations of such perfections are not possible from a human perspective. It is a question of the most perfect way in which we encounter this inscrutable essence of God, in all its perfections. This way, this door leading into the realm of the Divine life, which is revealed through Jesus—and the one which has the greatest and most constant impact on our lives in all its aspects—is God’s loving mercy. That is, we constantly see (if we have eyes to see this) His mercy enacted throughout every second of our lives, for without His loving mercy, neither the universe, nor our contemplation of all the perfections of God, would exist. We would not exist. Loving mercy permeates the enacting of our existence, our salvation, and the opening of a door to the infinite. American theologian Robert Stackpole says the following on this point:

When He created the world ex nihilo, therefore, and holds it in being at every moment, it is an act of merciful love: His merciful love overcoming the potential nothingness, the possible non-existence of all things.3

Polish theologian, Ignacy Różycki, tries to further explain in what sense we can understand mercy as God’s greatest attribute by making some distinctions:

If … mercy is understood in the Biblical sense as functional, then, even though it is called an attribute, it first of all denotes the results of the infinite and eternal love of God in world history, and especially in the history of mankind’s salvation. …So, if we understand mercy in the Biblical sense, then without any fear of error contrary to the faith, it can be said that mercy is the greatest attribute of God… [in other words] within this Biblical understanding, the results of the activity of merciful love are the greatest in the world and in this respect, mercy surpasses all other Divine attributes.4

Fr. Ignacy, like Saint John Paul II, distinguishes between the essence and function of the attributes of God. Here, he says, if we look at mercy from a “functional” point of view—not from the sense of understanding the essence of God’s attributes—but from apprehension of the functioning of God’s attributes in our lives—loving mercy is the beginning, middle, and end of all we see. We would not be thinking about mercy right now, were it not for God’s mercy. This is what the “poor in spirit” realize, that at each moment, we depend on the mercy of God.

Pope Francis once encountered an elderly Argentinian lady in Buenos Aires, who reflected on God’s mercy by saying: “If the Lord did not forgive all, the world would not exist.” The Pope said he had wanted to ask her if she had studied at Rome’s prestigious Pontifical Gregorian University, because her words reflected the “wisdom that comes from the Holy Spirit: interior wisdom regarding the mercy of God.”5

A second problem in reflecting on mercy could arise from Saint John Paul II’s explanation in his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia—namely that we tend to see mercy as a relationship of inequality between the one offering it, and the once receiving it. And this can lead to the conclusion that “mercy belittles the receiver”. (DivM #6)

We are familiar with the simile “as cold as charity” referring to a particular type of giving which emphasizes the giver being “above’ the receiver. On the contrary, Saint JPII says, true mercy lies in the giver perceiving him/herself as much a receiver of mercy as the other person –and furthermore a needer and receiver of mercy from the person to whom he/she is supposedly giving mercy. This is different. It certainly is not a typical way of looking at mercy at all. In fact, John Paul explains that it is at the heart of what true mercy is:

An act of merciful love is only really such when we are deeply convinced at the moment that we perform it that we are at the same time receiving mercy from the people who are accepting it from us. If this bilateral and reciprocal quality is absent, our actions are not yet true acts of mercy, nor has there yet been fully completed in us that conversion to which Christ has shown us the way by His words and example, even to the cross, nor are we yet sharing fully in the magnificent source of merciful love that has been revealed to us by Him. (DivM#14)

Thus, the very notion of giving is turned on its head. In enacting mercy, unless we can attain this “reciprocal” quality, and see ourselves as receivers of mercy, and show this “receiving” in our demeanour and interior dispositions—our acts are not those of true mercy. Mercy transforms and unites the giver and the receiver into one. Going further, we are invited to have mercy on Christ himself: “In a special way, God also reveals His mercy when He invites man to have ‘mercy’ on His only Son, the crucified one”.(DivM, #8). A mysterious communion of heart and soul transpires not only when we unite ourselves with human “receivers” but especially when we look on the Crucified one with mercy by which it means He draws us ever closer to Himself.

A third problem may arise in some asking why there is focus on the Divine Mercy at all—why not the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Are the Divine Mercy and the Sacred Heart different? As you recall, St Margaret Mary Alocoque (1647-1690) had a vision of Christ in 1673 and was asked to spread special devotion to His Sacred Heart. Few at first believed her story of visions, but with the support of her confessor, St. Claude de la Colombière S.J., devotion in the form of “holy hours” before the Blessed Sacrament, and consecration of families to the Sacred Heart, increased in the centuries to come. In his encyclical on the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII stated:

It is altogether impossible to enumerate the heavenly gifts which devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has poured out on the souls of the faithful, purifying them, offering them heavenly strength, rousing them to the attainment of all virtues.6

In what Pope Leo XIII called the greatest act of his Pontificate, he consecrated the whole world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1899. In Investigabiles Divitias Christi, Paul VI wrote:

This, therefore, seems to us to be the most suitable ideal: that devotion to the Sacred Heart—which, We are grieved to say, has suffered somewhat in the estimation of some persons— now reflourishes daily, more and more. Let it be esteemed by all as an excellent and acceptable form of true piety.7

So, knowing this, why not just confine oneself to devotion to the Sacred Heart? Why have a devotion to the Divine Mercy? Aren’t these two different devotions? It is clear that in our time there has been a heavenly shining of a spotlight on mercy in this new manifestation to Saint Faustina—something which we are to take note of. Jesus shifts the focus to our need. Calling St. Faustina the “secretary of My most profound mystery”, Jesus explained that her task was to write down all that He was to make known to her “…for the benefit of those who by reading these things will be comforted in their souls and will have the courage to approach Me”. (DMS # 1693). He told her:

In the Old Testament, I sent prophets wielding thunderbolts to My people. Today I am sending you with My mercy to the people of the whole world. I do not want to punish aching mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to my Merciful Heart (Diary, #1588)

He also said:

I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy … Sooner would heaven and earth turn to nothingness than would My mercy not embrace a trusting soul. (Diary # 687, 1777)

The emphasis on mercy does not do away with emphasis on the heart of Jesus. In the Sacred Heart devotion, Jesus draws us to Himself, invites us to contemplate His loving heart. In the depiction of the Divine Mercy, Jesus is walking to us, comes to us, to our wounded souls. It is a way of telling us, in a most immediate way, that we need mercy in our turbulent age like never before. In fact, the Divine Mercy picture depicts Jesus stepping forward, wearing the white robes (of a healer, a divine doctor of the soul) coming out to us, in a century tormented by war, violence and confusion. Thus, the movements of the pictures and emphases may differ, but it is one and the same Heart all along.

A fourth possible problem arises in the request that Jesus made when appearing as the Divine Mercy, asking us to say repeatedly “Jesus I trust in You”. But don’t we already know that? Why is there this renewed divine spotlight on what it means to trust? Theologian Fr Ignacy Różycki says that most people think they know what “trust” means but surprisingly they are usually mistaken. He says of this virtue:

You may be surprised, but it is not faith, not even love of God and one’s neighbour, but Christian trust that is the most difficult virtue8

Why this is so, Różycki explains, is that trust is not “hope” on its own, but a whole set of virtues (faith, hope, humility, contrition) which are the conditions for a boundless trust in God. Such trust arises from the dual process of “seeing” the vastness of God’s mercy and our smallness.

Advancement in self-knowledge for Saint Faustina was—not as New-agers might claim in uncovering hidden, godlike powers within oneself—but rather seeing more clearly one’s littleness before God.

Trust and humility are inseparable because the proud person counts on himself; the humble person knows that he can only count on God. So trusting the Divine Mercy means a certain way of “seeing”. In addition, during the past century, there has been an ongoing, understandable loss of trust in many authority figures through the failure of leadership in various organisations—whether secular or religious groups—because of betrayed trust in marriages, financial scandals, political indifference, or sexual and physical abuse. Not only did deficient leaders attain to power, but at an organizational level, the trust of young children was abused in scouting groups, schools, and sadly in some religious groups. Christ’s emphasis on trust in an era of damaged trust, was a refocusing on the trust that never fails. Christ’s words encourage trust at a psychological and spiritual level and become the bridge of healing. On the spiritual level, so important was the focus on trust that Jesus told Sr. Faustina that “The graces of My mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only and that is trust”.

Beneath the surface understanding of mercy lies many different aspects of this divine mystery to contemplate. And an urgent call to “go out” to others as Jesus has gone out to us in the Divine Mercy depiction which he asked to be painted so we would see it, saying to Saint Faustina – and to us all:

I demand from you deeds of mercy, you must not shrink from this, or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it. I give you three ways of exercising mercy—the first by deed, the second by word, and the third by prayer. In these three degrees are contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By these means a soul glorifies and pays reverence to My mercy. (Diary #742).

Pope Emeritus Benedict says of mercy:

Mercy is in reality the core of the Gospel message; it is the name of God Himself, the face with which He reveals Himself.9

And as Pope Francis says:

Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life. Mercy: the bridge that connects God and man, opening our hearts. (MV #2)

Within mercy is an extraordinary power that can change the age-old law of retribution and justice pervading the world. Mercy defuses revenge, creates bridges, seeks out the lost in the field hospital, and goes beyond the edges of our known universe. It is the mysterious key which opens up the door to this “the most stupendous” attribute of God.

  1. Misericordiae Vultus, Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, 11 April, 2015. w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco_bolla_20150411_misericordiae-vultus.html (Accessed 12/6/2016).
  2. Divine Mercy in My Soul (Diary) (Marian Helpers Stockbridge MA 1987), #301.
  3. R. Stackpole, ‘The Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy’. In. Divine Mercy in the Heart of the Gospel. Ed. Stackpole, (USA: Marians of the Immaculate Conception, 1999), 66. Also found on the following site: ‘Mercy is God’s Greatest Attribute’, thedivinemercy.org/library/article.php?NID=70 (Accessed 15/8/2016).
  4. Quoted in Stackpole DMGB, 24-25.
  5. At first Angelus, Pope Francis says God never tires of forgiving ‘, Catholic News Service, 17/3/2013. catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2013/at-first-angelus-pope-francis-says-god-never-tires-of-forgiving.cfm (Accessed 19/3/2016).
  6. Pope Pius XII, Haurietis Aquas, par 2. Available on: vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_15051956_haurietis-aquas_en.html (Accessed 14/8/2016).
  7. Quoted in: R. Stackpole, ‘The Sacred Heart and the Divine Mercy’. In Divine Mercy in the Heart of the Gospel. Ed. Stackpole, (USA: Marians of the Immaculate Conception, 1999), 59.
  8. Fr. Ignacy Różycki, Fundamental Characteristics of the Devotion to the Divine Mercy (Kraków 1982), 195.
  9. Pope Benedict XVI, “John Paul II was an apostle of Divine Mercy”, Catholic News Agency, Mar 30, 2008. catholicnewsagency.com/news/john_paul_ii_was_an_apostle_of_divine_mercy_says_pope/ (Accessed 12/9/2016).
Dr. Wanda Skowronska, PhD About Dr. Wanda Skowronska, PhD

Wanda Skowronska is an educational psychologist, living and working in Sydney, Australia. She has done pro-life counselling for Family Life International, and regularly writes for the Catholic journal, Annals. She completed a PhD at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011, and is currently working on a book on Catholic involvement in early modern psychology.

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