Divine Mercy in Rome: Celebrating God’s Greatest Joy

COMMENTARY: A priest returns to his personal ‘Damascus’ to give thanks for the gift of mercy in his life and priesthood.

Divine Mercy image at the Divine Mercy vigil in St. Peter's Square April 2, 2016.
Divine Mercy image at the Divine Mercy vigil in St. Peter's Square April 2, 2016. (photo: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA)

As the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday, I am delighted that I am in Rome.

The last time I was in Rome for the Second Sunday of Easter was when I was a newly ordained priest. It was on that day I had what I describe as my “conversion” to Divine Mercy.

Previously I had an immature aversion to the Divine Mercy devotion, preferring to focus on the devotions I already loved and desiring to use my rosary beads exclusively for the Rosary.

On the morning of April 30, 2000, however, after celebrating Mass inside the Basilica of St. Peter, I headed into St. Peter’s Square soon before the crowds were let in for the canonization of St. Faustina Kowalska.

Immediately after finishing my breviary in a back corner of one of the front sections, a young man approached and asked in Italian whether I would hear his confession, and he knelt before me on the bricks of St. Peter’s Square. For the next two hours and 45 minutes — until literally 10 seconds before the organ started playing the entrance antiphon — I heard confessions in that open-air makeshift confessional in Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish and English. And I learned from the inside, as only a priest is privileged to, the extraordinary fruits of devotion to Divine Mercy in people from so many cultures and continents.

After canonizing St. Faustina, St. John Paul II declared in his homily that, from that point forward, the Second Sunday of Easter would be called Divine Mercy Sunday. I resolved that I would quickly get to know what the Lord had revealed through St. Faustina much better and to do what I could to help others come to experience some of the same faith and joy that I witnessed in those unforgettable penitents in St. Peter’s Square.

When I began to read again St. Faustina’s diary and various books about devotion to Divine Mercy, I learned more about the five practices Jesus requested to strengthen our faith and gratitude in his mercy: stopping at 3pm to remember his passion, venerating him in the Divine Mercy image, praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and offering the Eucharist to his Father in expiation for our and others’ sins, praying a novena in preparation for Divine Mercy Sunday and celebrating that Sunday in a fitting way. But I also learned that Jesus had a very clear mission for priests:

“Tell my priests that hardened sinners will repent on hearing their words when they speak about my unfathomable mercy, about the compassion I have for them in my heart. To priests who will proclaim and extol my mercy, I will give wondrous power; I will anoint their words and touch the hearts of those to whom they will speak.” 

About Divine Mercy Sunday and the image, he told her, “Priests are to tell everyone about my great and unfathomable mercy. … Tell the confessor that the image is to be on view in the church. … By means of this image I shall grant many graces to souls.” About the chaplet, he added, “Priests will recommend it to sinners as their last hope of salvation.”

I’ve discovered since that time that those words were not empty promises. They have led to what can only be described as scores of moral miracles. The general pattern is that those who haven’t been to confession or church for decades all of a sudden find themselves driving by my parish on Divine Mercy Sunday, feel drawn by an inner magnet to enter, hear words about Divine Mercy in a Mass homily or Holy Hour fervorino, decide to wait in line for the confessional, and begin their sacramental dialogue by admitting that that was the last place they ever expected to be on that day.

If it happened once, one might call it a coincidence. If it happened 10 times, one begins to wonder. But it has happened several dozen times, with people who have never heard of the Divine Mercy devotion, all coming on that one day of the year.

And that’s just the beginning of the graces. I have also witnessed many Catholics who practice every other aspect of the faith except the sacrament of confession who on that day tell me that they have come to appreciate the place that God’s mercy and the sacrament of reconciliation should have in their life and come to receive it.

Jesus described to St. Faustina about opening the gates of his mercy, and on Divine Mercy Sunday I have seen plenty of people “drenched” in the flood of “blood and water” pouring from Jesus’ side!

So I’m happy to have the chance to return to my personal “Damascus” to give God thanks for the gift of his mercy in my life and priesthood.

Pope Francis has asked those he reappointed “missionaries of mercy” after the 2015-2016 Jubilee of Mercy to come to Rome to concelebrate Divine Mercy Sunday Mass with him, to hear confessions of pilgrims around the world convening for a huge “Spirituality of Mercy Conference,” and to have three days of prayer, study and sharing of general experiences. We will concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis a second time inside St. Peter’s, where he will likely continue the reflections he shared with us on Ash Wednesday 2016, when he gave us our mandate of preaching and the exercise of his papal confessional faculties.

Pope Francis has made mercy the central theme of his pontificate because he is convinced that mercy is the central theme of Jesus’ life and mission.

In his first Angelus message as Pope, he emphasized, “Jesus has this message for us: mercy. … This is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy.”

In some of the most memorable words of his papacy, he continued, “The Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace not to tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving.”

In a homily several months later, he said:

“When Jesus healed a sick man, he was not only a healer. When he taught people … he was not only a catechist, a preacher of morals. When he remonstrated against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees, he was not a revolutionary who wanted to drive out the Romans. No, these things that Jesus did, healing, teaching and speaking out against hypocrisy, were only a sign of something greater that Jesus was doing: He was forgiving sins.”

And in an Angelus meditation on the joy of forgiveness found in the Lucan Parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son, he underlined, “The joy of God is forgiving! … The whole Gospel, all of Christianity, is here!” Then he attested, “Mercy is the true force that can save man and the world from the ‘cancer’ that is sin, moral evil, spiritual evil. Only love fills the void … and this is God’s joy!”

Heaven indeed rejoices most for the return of repentant prodigals. Correlatively heaven’s greatest sadness is when we don’t recognize we need God’s mercy, think we can’t be forgiven, or don’t come to receive it. That’s why Pope Francis always distinguishes between “sinners” who fall and know they need God’s forgiveness from the “corrupt,” who fall but proudly remain in their sins, refusing to admit they have cancer and take that spiritual chemotherapy.

Mercy is quite real for Pope Francis. He received his priestly calling in the confessional as a 16-year-old and chose his papal motto — Miserando atque Eligendo (“Having had mercy, he called him”) — to teach us how not just in his life, but in every life, God calls us in the very act of forgiving us. He defined himself in an interview as a “sinner … whom the Lord looks upon with love.”

Divine Mercy Sunday is an opportunity for us to see ourselves loved in that way by the Lord. One way is to look at the Risen Christ, pointing to his blood and water and blessing us in the image Jesus revealed to St. Faustina.

Divine Mercy, in short, is at the root of Pope Francis’ discipleship and papal apostolate. That’s why the missionaries of mercy are an important symbol for him of how all priests — and, indeed, all believers, according to their states of life — are called to be ambassadors of Christ, appealing to others to be reconciled to God. That’s also why this Sunday is an important occasion for all of us to recognize and celebrate God’s greatest joy, so that his joy may be in us and our joy be made complete.

Father Roger Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, works

for the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York.

He is the author of Plan of Life: Habits to Help You Grow Closer to God (Pauline).

This column has been reprinted with permission from CatholicPreaching.com.