Saint John Paul II, born Karol Wojtyła on 18 May 1920, was the longest serving pope of the 20th century. Born in Wadowice, a small city not far from Krakow, the widely-travelled pope is well known for his teachings on Divine Mercy since his election to the papacy in 1978. Throughout his pontificate, the pope constantly centred himself on the mercies of God.
St John Paul II focused much of his efforts on bringing Christ into culture, through the Divine Mercy of God. Divine Mercy Sunday, which falls on the second Sunday of Easter, reminds us that mercy is the ultimate answer to the problems of the world today. Incidentally, John Paul II died on the vigil of the feast five years after he officially granted the feast to the Universal Church, and was both beatified (2011) and canonised (2014) on Divine Mercy Sundays.
Drawing reflections from Dives in Misericordia (DM), St John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical on the mercy of God, we see several theological foundations essential to having a true understanding and expression of God’s mercy.
Firstly, John Paul points to the revelation of mercy in the paschal mystery — the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. For “absolute justice” to take place, he says, “Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a ‘superabundance’ of justice, for the sins of man are ‘compensated for’ by the sacrifice of the Man-God” (DM, 7). True mercy is revealed because “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Tit 3:5).
A third important point on the mercy of God is found in the parable of the prodigal son. In analysing this parable, John Paul highlighted that in the act of forgiveness, “he who forgives and he who is forgiven encounter one another at an essential point, namely the dignity or essential value of the person” (DM, 14). The son, who squandered his possessions, lost all dignity. He had nothing to eat. He craved what his father’s servants had, and resolved to return to the father, who in turn restores his son’s dignity:
“Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:22-24).
Mercy restores dignity and values all man for who they are, in the image of God, not merely what they deserve. To this end, it is worthwhile quoting the pope at length:
“Mercy in itself, as a perfection of the infinite God, is also infinite. Also infinite therefore and inexhaustible is the Father’s readiness to receive the prodigal children who return to His home. Infinite are the readiness and power of forgiveness which flow continually from the marvelous value of the sacrifice of the Son. No human sin can prevail over this power or even limit it. On the part of man only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words persistence in obstinacy, opposing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the cross and resurrection of Christ.”
St John Paul II, in his ministry, exemplified mercy. He embraced all who were suffering through his many papal visits, and stood against the innocent killing of mankind, most evident in abortion and euthanasia. Most astonishingly, after being shot at several times, he visited his would-be assassinator in prison, forgave him and begged the courts to pardon the man from life imprisonment.
Where does this lead us? Do we bear the crosses for the sake of others? “Merciful love is supremely indispensable between those who are closest to one another: between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between friends,” wrote the pope. “And it is indispensable in education and in pastoral work” (DM, 14). In the cross of Christ, we are given an example God’s mercy, and are challenged to extend His Divine Mercy to others.
What about us? What need do we have, as a child of God, of God’s mercy? What areas in our lives and in our profession do we struggle to find mercy and forgiveness from God? It is true that as educators, we are called to mirror God’s mercy to the students that we interact with (some of whom do not ‘deserve’ mercy!). But how can we practice mercy without first receiving it, since our Lord Himself reminded us that “he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Lk 7:47)? Let us be brave and ask the Lord for his Divine Mercy, since He never tires of offering it to us.