Most Catholics have heard of St. Faustina. It was to her that Jesus entrusted the revelation of Divine Mercy, a form of piety that has done nothing but grow in popularity over the past few decades, especially since it was clearly beloved by her fellow Pole Karol Wojtyla, who went on to become Pope John Paul II and establish Divine Mercy Sunday as a special feast of the Church.
What’s not to like about mercy — especially if you are an adult living in the early years of the third Christian millennium? In a world crawling with evil and at a time when we are all made to be more and more aware of our own participation in it, mercy sounds mighty attractive. As Chesterton observed, “Children are innocent and love justice, while most of us are wicked and naturally prefer mercy.” So fairy tales are naturally full of gruesome punishment meted out to villains, while contemporary adult fiction is filled with moral ambiguity over criminals’ rich tapestry of motivations.
The hunger for mercy is more often seen among adults, who know their guilt, rather than children, who often only know their powerlessness. I, for one, appreciate the Church’s teaching on mercy and have had recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation more times than I can count. I have a lively appreciation for the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, who regarded the forgiveness of sin as a greater miracle than the creation of the universe.
Just how great may be seen in another prominent figure in Polish history who is not so well remembered these days: Hans Frank. Frank was the Nazi gauleiter (territorial governor) of Poland during the German occupation in World War II. In addition to overseeing the slaughter of 2 million Jews in camps under his administration, he also supervised the slaughter of an additional 2 million Poles. His brutal reign also saw to it that millions of Poles were enslaved and the whole population suffered terrible deprivations as the Nazi regime labored toward its eventual goal of either exterminating or enslaving all the untermenschen so that the “Master Race” could expand in the “living space” to the east.
After the war, Frank was captured by the Allies and, along with the rest of the major criminals of the Nazi regime who survived the war, was tried at Nuremberg. During the course of his imprisonment, he underwent a reversion to his childhood faith, repented of his monstrous crimes, and sought the sacrament of reconciliation. He received it and went to the hangman’s noose declaring, “My conscience does not allow me to throw the responsibility solely on these minor people. ... A thousand years will pass and still Germany’s guilt will not have been erased.” As he mounted the scaffold and was asked for any last statement, he replied, “I am thankful for the kind treatment during my captivity, and I ask God to accept me with mercy.”
A few seconds later, this man — a man responsible for the murder of 4 million innocent men, women and children — came face-to-face with the everlasting love, mercy and peace of Almighty God. How we respond to this proposition is the measure of how much we really believe in what the Church actually proclaims about Divine Mercy.
It is not the mercy we accept for ourselves that shows our trust in God’s mercy. Much more telling is the mercy we grant others and, especially, the mercy we grant to those disgusting, loathsome creeps we are quite certain not even God will forgive. The good news is: If God can and does forgive even a man like Hans Frank, there is abundant hope for the rest of us.
For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
Mark Shea is senior content editor