Sunday, November 6, 2011

Divine Mercy: A (Non-)Revolutionary Devotion

I have sometimes heard complaints that certain devotions that have become popular as the Church has progressed through history are too revolutionary, that since they are not rooted enough in the most fundamental doctrines of the Church taught since the times of the apostles they are just new fads a saint or other spiritual writer came up with off the top of his or her head. While I cannot say that there are no absolutely no devotions like this, I think I can safely say that the majority of devotions grew and developed over time (like doctrine does) and was merely given a more normative exposition by a certain saint or spiritual writer.

One example of this is seen in the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, associated most with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. According to The Revelations of Margaret of Cortona, about a Third Order Franciscan saint from a few centuries before St. Margaret Mary, she was not the first to have this devotion:

"Long before the revelations of Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the great family of the Seraph of Assisi knew and practiced the tender devotion to the adorable Heart of Jesus. Among several Franciscan saints, St. Margaret of Cortona in particular was one of the pioneers of this devotion. In order to hear her loving protest, Our Lord asked her, as He had asked St. Peter: 'Do you love Me?' She replied fervently: 'Not only do I love You, Lord, but, if it pleases You, I wish I could be locked in Your Sacred Heart'" (XX).

The goal of this passage does not seem to be to show St. Margaret Mary's revelations and spread of this devotion to be worthless, but rather to show that it was not a creation of her imagination.

My main point of this post, though, is to discuss the devotion to the Divine Mercy spread by St. Mary Faustina Kowalska. This devotion, and its related prayers, most notably the Divine Mercy Chaplet, were also not figures of St. Faustina's imagination, but they are in truth rooted in the tradition of Christian spirituality. This is no "revolutionary" devotion, in the sense that it overthrows tradition and seems to come out of the blue, but it is rather the fruition of a theme in Christian spirituality that was more low-key before.

First there is the basis of the devotion itself: the Divine Mercy. God is merciful: this is an absolutely truthful statement rooted in Scripture itself.

"Your mercy, O LORD, extends to the heavens...How precious is Your mercy, O God!" (Ps 36:5a,7a)

Not only is God's mercy seen throughout the Old Testament, but even more so in the New Testament: for instance, Jesus has mercy on a woman about to be stoned for adultery (cf. Jn 8:1-11). God's mercy is available to anyone who repents, even at the end of his life. This can be seen clearly in the story of Didymus, the Good Thief at Jesus' Crucifixion, who, when he asks for Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom, is told:

"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Lk 23:43).

Even though Didymus (the name tradition gives to him, though he is unnamed in the Gospels) is hours from his death (if that), when he repents of his sins and transgressions and asks the Lord for mercy, He showers mercy upon him. This was not a one-time event, either: the Lord will always show mercy to one who truly repents, no matter what time in his life (one is reminded of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard in Mt 20:1-16).

An episode in the life of St. John Vianney, the Curé of Ars, shows this well. (I am telling this story from memory, so forgive me if some of the details are incorrect). As the saint was walking out of Mass one day, a woman ran up to him crying, unspeakably distraught, telling him that she thought her husband was suffering in Hell. The saint told her not to worry, though. The woman kept pouring out her sorrows to the saint until he responded, "Do not worry. He was saved between the bridge and the river." Her husband had indeed committed suicide by jumping off a bridge, and St. John Vianney learned, through a grace from God, that he had repented of his action in his last moments, thus leading to his eternal salvation (though with most likely a long time in Purgatory).

Along with the idea of Divine Mercy in general, and the truth that God's mercy extends up to our last moment on earth, the concept of our prayers helping to allow others to be more open to God's mercy is not new either. One example is in the Little Flowers of St. Francis, a collection of stories (some legendary) of St. Francis and his early followers. God revealed to St. Francis that Br. Elias, one of his early followers, was damned and that he would leave the Order and die outside of it. St. Francis was so repulsed by this that he began to distance himself from Br. Elias until the latter begged the former why he did so, and St. Francis told him what was revealed to him. Br. Elias replied thus:

"I beg you to pray your holy prayers to God for me, your sheep, so that He may, if it be possible, revoke the sentence of my damnation. For it is written that God can remit the sentence if the sinner makes amends for his fault. And I have so much faith in your prayers that if I were lying in the depths of hell and you prayed to God for me, I would feel some relief. So I beg you again to recommend me, a sinner, to God who came to save sinners, that He may not forget me at the end, but that when the end of my life comes, He may deign to have mercy on me" (I.38).

St. Francis was moved with pity and began to pray for this brother, and God revealed that the brother's soul would no longer be damned, but that it would still die outside the Order. In the end, through St. Francis' prayers and God's grace, Br. Elias was reconciled to the Church after being excommunicated and rejoined the Order in his last days, thus even dying within the Order. This story just proves that our prayers are effective in allowing the spread of God's mercy, as the devotion to Divine Mercy teaches us.

In addition to the teaching underlying the devotion to Divine Mercy, even the prayers of the Chaplet itself are rooted in the Church's tradition. Of course, the opening prayers of the Chaplet are traditional prayers: the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Apostles' Creed. The first prayer of the Chaplet (said on Our Father beads of a rosary) is "Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Thy dearly beloved Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world."

There are two sources I have found to connect to this prayer (though I am sure there are many more), both relating to the Eucharist. Jesus Christ's life, Passion, death, and Resurrection was a sacrifice to His Father to take away the sins of the world. This idea can be seen in the following quote from Ven. Pope Pius XII's encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi:

"In this act of Sacrifice through the hands of the priest, by whose word alone the Immaculate Lamb is present on the altar, the faithful themselves, united with him in prayer and desire, offer to the Eternal Father a most acceptable victim of praise and propitiation for the needs of the whole Church" (#82).

This is a traditional part of the Church's doctrine on the Eucharist. The next source is a defining document of Church doctrine on the Eucharist (rather than just a restating of it). St. Faustina's phrase "Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity" was not created by her, but rather, it comes from the Council of Trent in the 1500s. Here is a relevant quote from the Council which originates this phrase (or, as far as I know, originates it):

"This faith has ever been in the Church of God, that, immediately after the consecration, the veritable Body of our Lord, and His veritable Blood, together with His soul and divinity, are under the species of bread and wine; but the Body indeed under the species of bread, and the Blood under the species of wine, by the force of the words; but the body itself under the species of wine, and the blood under the species of bread, and the soul under both, by the force of that natural connexion and concomitancy whereby the parts of Christ our Lord, who hath now risen from the dead, to die no more, are united together; and the divinity, furthermore, on account of the admirable hypostatical union thereof with His body and soul" (Session XIII, Decree Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, Ch. III).

This is so central a part of Church doctrine that one is anathematized if one does not believe it:

"If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema" (Session XIII, Canon I On the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist).

Thus the first main prayer of the Chaplet is seen to be deeply entrenched in the Church's doctrine of the Eucharist. The next prayer is this: "For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world." Besides connecting to the basic doctrine of the atonement of sins found through Christ's Passion, a prayer very similar to this can be found in the writings of an earlier female mystic of the Church. In the Revelations of St. Birgitta (Bridget) of Sweden, this passage is found:

"Lord, I know that I have sinned gravely and I freely want to improve my life through Your grace. Have mercy on me for the sake of Your bitter Passion!" (I.57.6).

The second line of this passage is very reminiscent of the prayer in the Chaplet (although the Chaplet extends the prayer to the whole world). This tradition of praying for the Lord's mercy can also be seen in Jesus Prayer, which is incredibly popular in the Eastern Church: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!"

After these prayers have been said 10 and 50 times respectively, the Trisagion (a slightly modified form) is recited thrice: "Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy and Immortal One, have mercy on us and on the whole world." This prayer (without the "and on the whole world") is found in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the liturgy used by Byzantine Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. (As a side note, the Divine Liturgy is overflowing with prayers for mercy, including multiple litanies with the response "Lord, have mercy.") The story of this prayer is that it was given via a young boy during the "Great Earthquake" of Constantinople. During this earthquake, a young boy was taken up to heaven, and when he returned, he said he heard the angels praying this prayer (the Trisagion), and it has been part of the Divine Liturgy ever since.

The final prayer of the Chaplet is a simple phrase: "Jesus, I trust in You!" (In Polish, this prayer is "Jezu ufam tobie.") There are some optional ending prayers, though, including the following:

"O blood and water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in you!"

This imagery is found in St. Margaret of Cortona's Revelations. St. Margaret was on fire with love for the Lord's mercy and for His Mother's prayer's for His mercy: she found the Hospital of Our Lady of Mercy as well as the Confraternity of Our Lady of Mercy, both under the patronage of the Queen of Mercy (cf. Revelations XXXVI-XXXVII). Her love for God's mercy was so strong that the Lord told her, "I have chosen you as a new trumpet in the service of My mercy" (XXXVIII). Two passages from the Revelations echo the optional closing prayer from the Chaplet (which relates to the image of Divine Mercy seen at the top of this post, with the white and red rays from the Heart of Christ symbolizing the Blood and water):

"My daughter, from this sacred wound a torrent of grace and light will pour forth for you. But the time has not come for the clergy to set this truth and these wonders before the popular mind" (XX).

"What a blow for your enemy, my daughter: I now place in your hand a standard bearing two crosses, one white and the other red. They symbolize the water and the Blood that issued from Our Lord's side. With this you will protect yourself and always defeat your enemy" (LXII).

The latter revelation, spoken by an angel, seems like a precursor to the image of Divine Mercy, with crosses instead of rays. The former revelation, spoken by our Lord Himself, seems to almost be a prophecy of the coming of the devotion to the Divine Mercy: "The time has not come for the clergy to set this truth and these wonders before the popular mind."

It seems that now the time has come for the wonders of the Divine Mercy to be revealed. St. Faustina's Diary, telling her revelations, is widely published and widely read, and she herself is now canonized. Pope Bl. John Paul II helped spread this devotion far and wide, and thanks to him, the first Sunday after Easter is now Divine Mercy Sunday. The recitation of the Chaplet is commonplace now, especially at 3 PM, the Hour of Mercy (the traditional hour of Christ's death on the Cross on Good Friday). Thus this devotion, which has lain somewhat hidden throughout Christian doctrine and spirituality, is now out in full view, not as a revolutionary devotion, but as a fruition of a previously covert devotion. Let us all, then, pray to God for us and for the whole world, that His Divine Mercy may shower upon us.

I hope this post was helpful. God Bless!

St. Faustina, pray for us!

Nota Bene: The quotes relating to St. Margaret of Cortona are taken from The Revelations of Margaret of Cortona: The Franciscan Magdalene by Most Rev. Ange-Marie Hiral, O.F.M., translated by Raphael Brown. Scripture quotations are from the RSV-CE. The quote from The Little Flowers of St. Francis comes from the translation by Raphael Brown. Ven. Pope Pius XII's Mystici Corporis Christi can be found at the Vatican website. The thirteenth session of the Council of Trent can be found here. Finally, the quotations relating to St. Birgitta of Sweden come from The Revelations of St. Birgitta of Sweden, Volume I, translated by Denis Searby.

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