Pope Francis has said that the pandemic restrictions have made him feel caged. So he is heading out for Divine Mercy Sunday, but just a short walk from St. Peter’s Square, to the Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia, the Roman headquarters for the Divine Mercy devotion.
The Vatican announced on Thursday that the reason for the Holy Father’s visit is to mark the 20th anniversary of the canonization of St. Faustina Kowalska and the establishment of Divine Mercy Sunday. That’s true enough, but those decisions by St. John Paul II only took on their true depth at his death and funeral, the 15th anniversary of which we mark this month.
Those twin anniversaries are what Pope Francis wishes to highlight with his visit for a private Mass and recitation of the Regina Caeli at Santo Spirito this Sunday.
First Saint of the Third Millennium
The papal itinerary for the Great Jubilee of 2000 was planned in painstaking detail. The only papal trips were to the biblical lands, with the sole exception of Fatima for May 13. There, John Paul beatified Jacinta and Francisco and revealed the “third secret” of Our Lady of Fatima, expressing the Holy Father’s view that his life had been spared on her feast day in 1981 so that he might lead the Church into the third millennium.
The canonizations were chosen carefully too, to highlight the witness of the martyrs. The Mexican martyrs would be canonized in May and the Chinese martyrs in October, setting off an immense row with communist Beijing. Two 20th-century women were canonized, the immensely wealthy Mother Katharine Drexel of Philadelphia, who put her family inheritance at the service of poor blacks and Native Americans, and, at the other end of the material spectrum, Sister Josephine Bakhita, the former Sudanese slave girl.
Pride of place, though, was given to St. Faustina Kowalska. John Paul firmly believed that she was a key saint for our current moment, “a gift of God for our time.”
“By divine Providence, the life of this humble daughter of Poland was completely linked with the history of the 20th century,” he noted in the canonization homily. “Through the work of this Polish religious, this message has become linked forever to the 20th century, the last of the second millennium and the bridge to the third.”
St. Faustina was chosen to be the first saint of the third millennium deliberately: “By this act I intend today to pass this message on to the new millennium. I pass it on to all people, so that they will learn to know ever better the true face of God and the true face of their brethren.”
St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy message were not of importance only to Poland or for Polish spirituality. The message was delivered between the great carnage of the two world wars. Mercy was God’s answer to suffering in history. Putting Faustina at the head of the new millennium underscored that.
A New Feast Day
In the revelations made to St. Faustina, the Lord Jesus asked the cloistered nun to do something impossible: to make the Sunday in the Octave of Easter a new feast of Divine Mercy. Cloistered sisters can’t do that. That is something only a pope can do.
Twenty years ago, St. John Paul II did it. In 1993, when Faustina was beatified, the Polish bishops asked that Sunday in the Easter Octave be known as Divine Mercy Sunday, and the permission was granted for Poland. In the Great Jubilee, it was mandated for the whole Church.
The decision was not greeted with universal acclaim. Was this a Polish pope foisting a Polish devotion on the entire Church? Liturgically, Holy Week and the Easter Octave hold preeminence. No other feast days can be celebrated then. Why, then, insert Divine Mercy Sunday?
John Paul Answers With His Death
That debate ended at 9:37pm on April 2, 2005. John Paul’s death gave divine ratification to the Divine Mercy decision.
As he lay dying that Saturday evening, John Paul’s longtime secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, offered the Holy Mass in the Holy Father’s room. The dying pope would receive Holy Communion — a drop of the Precious Blood — for the final time at that Mass.
It being Saturday night, the Mass celebrated was that of Divine Mercy Sunday, the feast having already begun with the praying of vespers earlier that evening. So John Paul died on the feast of Divine Mercy.
Even more remarkable was that John Paul did not die on the Sunday itself, but on the previous Saturday night. It was the First Saturday of the month, which is traditionally a day dedicated to the Blessed Mother. Because Divine Mercy Sunday falls in the Octave of Easter, it is not possible for any Marian feasts to fall in that period. But a First Saturday can occur, and given that John Paul was Totus Tuus (“All Yours”) dedicated to Mary, it was even more fitting that he die on a Marian day.
Consider this: To die on a First Saturday and the feast of Divine Mercy means dying within a window of about six hours. And this short window does not occur every year. Indeed, the coincidence of a First Saturday with the feast of Divine Mercy happens only eight times in the 40 years between 1994 and 2034. So John Paul’s death was providentially precise.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, at the funeral homily a few days later, quoted only one line from the immense output of the late pontiff, again emphasizing Divine Mercy.
“He interpreted for us the Paschal mystery as a mystery of Divine Mercy,” Cardinal Ratzinger preached, confirming the fittingness of Divine Mercy falling in the Easter Octave. “In his last book, he wrote: The limit imposed upon evil ‘is ultimately Divine Mercy.’”
“The Holy Father found the purest reflection of God’s mercy in the Mother of God,” Cardinal Ratzinger continued, an echo of the time of death, falling both on Divine Mercy and a First Saturday.
Later, Cardinal Ratzinger (as Pope Benedict XVI) would beatify John Paul on Divine Mercy Sunday 2011. Pope Francis would canonize him on the same feast three years later.
Thus, the Holy Father’s visit to Santo Spirito for Divine Mercy will mark both anniversaries: the 20th of the declaration of Divine Mercy Sunday and the 15th of its divine ratification.
Santo Spirito and Confessions
The Divine Mercy devotion is especially linked with the sacrament of confession, the sacrament of mercy. The Gospel for that Sunday tells of Jesus instituting the sacrament on Easter Sunday evening: “Those who sins you forgive are forgiven …” (John 20:23). The Church of Santo Spirito — “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22) — is the principal site in Rome for the Divine Mercy devotion. The chaplet is recited daily at 3pm, there are numerous pilgrims, and confessions are heard regularly.
Indeed, senior Curial figures often stop by to hear confessions there. I remember an occasion when I went to confess; and as I entered, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the man in charge of papal charities, was coming in to hear confessions — and not just him, but Archbishop Piero Marini, the former papal master of ceremonies with whom Cardinal Krajewski used to work, and other alumni of the ceremonial team of that time. It was a regular appointment for them to get together to hear confessions at Santo Spirito. Given the high priority Pope Francis has put on confession, it makes that church especially fitting for the Divine Mercy visit.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.