STOCKBRIDGE, Mass.— For a growing number of Catholics worldwide, and more than 725 U.S. parishes, April 11 is Divine Mercy Sunday. For Dr. Bryan Thatcher, of Valrico, Fla., who built his own apostolate around the relatively new devotion, it is also a day of thanks for the mercy he experienced firsthand.

A few years ago, Thatcher was a prominent gastroenterologist who appeared to outsiders a happy family man. But he was destroying his marriage, he admitted, and inside he was falling apart. “I was a mess, but nobody knew what was going on,” he said.

At a low point, a friend sent him literature about Divine Mercy. The message of forgiveness gave him hope, and the devotion helped him repair his marriage and himself. Thankful, in February 1996 he started a lay ministry, Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy. He has given up practicing medicine to spread the devotion through corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

His devotion is shared by a multitude. About 13,000 people are expected to attend Divine Mercy services and Masses the weekend of Divine Mercy Sunday hosted by the Marians of the Immaculate Conception in Stockbridge, Mass., where Bishop Thomas Dupré of Springfield was scheduled to celebrate the main Mass. That's up from about 500 people in the mid-1980s, according to Father George Kosicki, a priest of the Congregation of St. Basil and former director of Divine Mercy International.

“I believe it's God providing for his people today,” said Sister Isabel Bettwy, director of the Marians' National Shrine of the Divine Mercy. “It's a way of bringing his people back to him.”

Blessed Faustina

The Divine Mercy devotion stems from the reported apparitions of Jesus to a Polish nun, Blessed Faustina Kowalska, who died in 1938. In her diary, Sister Maria Faustina of the Most Blessed Sacrament recorded messages from Christ instructing people how to receive and reflect the mercy of God. Best known is the chap-let of Divine Mercy, a series of prayers that follows the structure of the rosary while emphasizing God's willingness to forgive through the sufferings of Jesus and his holy Eucharist.

According to Sister Faustina, Jesus asks people to pray the chaplet daily, and especially on the days leading up to the Sunday after Easter. He also promises “a whole ocean of graces” to those who go to confession that day, the diary states, and “complete forgiveness of sins and punishment” for those who confess and receive Communion.

Getting mercy requires giving mercy, though, and the diary quotes Jesus demanding deeds of mercy “always and everywhere.” It also requires trust in God's ability and willingness to forgive: “The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive,” the diary states.

“The message of mercy is really that of God's infinite love,” said Peter Sonski, communications director at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., which has hosted Divine Mercy Sunday services for more than 10 years. “John's Gospel says that it was because of his great love that the Father sent his only Son to suffer and die for us. No matter the depth and breadth of our sins, God's merciful love is far greater. Once we understand this, the challenge is to emulate and share that mercy with all we meet.”

No better time, say supporters, then the second Sunday of Easter. Every year, the Gospel reading is John 20:19-31, when Christ breathes on the apostles and tells them, “Those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.”

A Devotion for the Dying

Devotees of Divine Mercy see timeliness in the liturgical calendar, but also for the current era. Robert Stackpole, academic director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, in Stockbridge, Mass., finds mercy an alluring image for an age that has tuned out fire and brimstone.

“As the world kind of wanders farther and farther from the light of Christ — the culture of death and its rejection of Christ's principles — what's going to call it back? It's not going to be retribution and justice,” Stackpole said. “I think the message of mercy touches so much. ... When you've wandered a long way, the first thing you need is mercy.”

Among the prime candidates for grace from the devotion are the dying, according to Sister Faustina's diary. It quotes Jesus as saying that if the chap-let is prayed in the presence of someone dying, “I will stand between my Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge but as the Merciful Savior.”

Nancy Lavoie, of North Attleboro, Mass., saw the effect on her husband. Racked with cancer, he refused drugs to deaden the pain, because he was afraid it would reignite his alcoholism. Instead, he offered his sufferings to Jesus for the conversion of sinners, while his wife and friends said the chaplet daily. He died March 2, 1989, a day after his 55th birthday.

“He had an extremely peaceful exiting from this earth ... and returning home,” Lavoie said. “That really stuck in my heart.”

In 1996, Lavoie and Brother Ronald Taylor organized a Divine Mercy Sunday celebration at the LaSalette congregation in Attleboro, Mass., a spinoff from the larger gathering in Stockbridge. Each year it has grown, attracting about 800 people in 1998. Father John Randall, a diocesan priest from Rhode Island, will celebrate this year's 12:10 p.m. Mass.

Pope John Paul II and the Devotion

Lavoie noted that Pope John Paul II has a special connection with the Divine Mercy devotion. In 1978, as archbishop of Krakow, Poland, he was instrumental in getting the Vatican to lift its late 1950s ban on Sister Faustina's devotion formulas. According to a Marian devotion booklet, the ban derived from “erroneous and confusing translations” of her diary, which could not be corrected because of the political situation in Poland.

Then in 1993, as Pope, he beatified the nun. The Vatican is investigating a reported miracle that would enable her canonization. In 1995, the Pope approved a request from the Polish bishops to establish a national feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter. Notably, the Pope's second encyclical was Dives in Misericordia, “On the Mercy of God.”

A Day for Divine Mercy

About five years ago, about 70 churches in the United States celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday, Father Kosicki said. This year, the Marian Web site lists more than 10 times that many.

In St. Louis, Archbishop Justin Rigali has arranged for a special service and Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, to be celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Michael Sheridan. The service will start at 2 p.m. to be followed by Mass at 5 p.m., according to the cathedral rector, Msgr. James Telthorst.

In Washington, D.C., the Immaculate Conception basilica usually draws about 3,000 people for its Divine Mercy celebration, according to Sonski. This year's services will begin at 1 p.m. with multilingual confessions, followed by the Divine Mercy chaplet and Mass at 2 p.m. celebrated by Father Michael Scanlan, president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

And in Rome, this year's Divine Mercy celebration will be the first in St. Peter's Square.

—Matt McDonald writes from Mashpee, Massachusetts.

Status of the Feast

The second Sunday of Easter is recognized by many as a feast of Divine Mercy, but that feast is not universal, and is not formally recognized in the United States.

Dennis McManus, associate director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for the Liturgy, said the U.S. bishops are not now considering applying to Rome to make Divine Mercy Sunday a feast day.

“Nobody's raised it,” he said. “It's not on the agenda.” Indeed, there are arguments against it. One supporter of the devotion, Father Peter Stravinskas, editor of the bimonthly The Catholic Answer published in Huntington, Ind., sees no need for a formal feast.

About 1988, he said, he began the first Divine Mercy novena in New Jersey, when he was pastor of Holy Trinity Church in Newark. But he noted that generally private devotions are not formally institutionalized by the Church, even when the Church recognizes their validity.

Private revelations accepted by the Church — even well-known apparitions of Mary such as those in Lourdes and Fatima — do not have to be accepted by Catholics as essential to the faith. They do not define doctrine or offer new beliefs.

Father Stravinskas does not expect the Vatican to approve a universal feast of Divine Mercy. “I can't imagine that happening,” he said. “Again, because this is a private devotion. It's not a matter of faith and morals. And we ought not to dogmatize devotion.”

Supporters of a feast day make an analogy with the feast of the Sacred Heart, which they note came from private revelations to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690). National churches asked Rome to celebrate the day as a feast, and eventually it became part of the universal church calendar.

—Matt McDonald