Big Weekend Expected Again at Divine Mercy Shrine in Massachusetts
The first large crowds since coronavirus shutdowns are welcomed back for Divine Mercy Sunday.
STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — For the first time since the coronavirus shutdowns, the Marian Fathers who run the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy in western Massachusetts are expecting huge crowds for Divine Mercy weekend.
It’s the first weekend since 2019 with no restrictions on attendance. As of a week ahead of the occasion, shrine officials were expecting 31 coach buses on Saturday, April 15, and 87 coach buses on Sunday, April 16. They expected as many as 15,000 pilgrims during the weekend.
“It’s down from the years pre-pandemic, but fortunately God is blessing the event and a lot of people are wanting to come to Mercy Sunday this year,” said Arthur Dutil, a local resident who has been volunteering at the shrine since 1986.
Divine Mercy Devotion
The Divine Mercy devotion is based on the diary of Sister Faustina Kowalska (1905-1938), a Polish nun who reported numerous appearances to her by Jesus during the 1930s. She kept a diary of her experiences, including what she said were instructions from Jesus to promote a devotion to his Divine Mercy.
According to St. Faustina Kowalska, who was canonized in 2000, Jesus promised an “ocean of mercy” to those who said a then-new series of prayers called the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, venerated an image of Jesus as Divine Mercy, and extended mercy to others, among other things. He also called for a feast of Divine Mercy to be celebrated on the Sunday after Easter.
Among the extraordinary promises that St. Faustina said Jesus made was a complete remission of punishment for sin for those who went to confession and received communion on the Sunday after Easter. The Church has subsequently confirmed that plenary indulgence, with the Church’s usual conditions, including a lack of attachment to sin.
In 1941, three years after Sister Faustina died, a Polish religious order called the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary became the custodians of the devotion. In 1943, the Marian Fathers purchased a 350-acre property called Eden Hill in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, eventually building a stone shrine on the property during the 1950s. (It was dedicated in 1960.)
Reversing a Vatican Ban
Devotion to Divine Mercy spread quickly during the 1940s and into the 1950s, said Father Kazimierz Chwalek, a Marian Father originally from Poland.
But in 1959, the Vatican’s Holy Office banned the Divine Mercy devotion, based in part on a faulty translation into Italian and the inability to get the original documents from Poland, which might have been subject to search and confiscation by the Communist government in Poland if they had been sent to Rome.
That led to a quandary for an archbishop in Poland who got requests to open a canonization process for Sister Faustina. In 1965, Father Chwalek told the Register, this local archbishop went to see Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the head of the Holy Office (which is now known as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith).
Ottaviani was evidently sympathetic. He told the archbishop to open the investigation for Sister Faustina’s cause of canonization so that witnesses could be interviewed while they were still living, even though Sister Faustina’s devotion was still officially banned. The archbishop did so. He also chose a well-regarded Thomistic theologian, Father Ignatius Rozycki, to write a theological analysis of Sister Faustina’s diary, and he led Divine Mercy symposia in his archdiocese.
That theological analysis was helpful in getting the ban lifted on April 15, 1978 — 45 years ago this month.
Also helpful, said Father Chwalek, were another analysis written by an Italian theologian and the collective support of the bishops of Poland, including the local archbishop, who had become a cardinal in 1967 — Karol Wojtyla. Six months after the ban was lifted, Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II.
The Marian Fathers in Stockbridge wanted to start spreading the devotion again through pamphlets. Bishop Joseph Maguire of Springfield told them to get clarification from the Vatican, which arrived in 1979. In April 1982 they celebrated Divine Mercy Sunday in Stockbridge. The stone chapel, which seats about 200 people, could accommodate everyone who came that year, said Father Chwalek.
By 1985, though, the chapel was no longer big enough. That year the Marian Fathers started celebrating Mass outside, in a spot called St. Francis Grove.
In 1989, the Marian Fathers built an A-frame altar on a slope behind the shrine, which is where Divine Mercy Sunday Masses have been celebrated ever since.
Also in 1989, EWTN came to Stockbridge on Divine Mercy Sunday and filmed the Mass, broadcasting it later that night. In 1990, EWTN broadcast Divine Mercy Sunday liturgies live from Stockbridge, as the network has been doing ever since. (EWTN owns The National Catholic Register.)
Numbers surged after that; one year, the estimated throng was as high as 25,000. The shrine began using parking lots of three area schools and certain businesses as satellite parking, with shuttle buses running up and down Eden Hill.
“And we noticed a large number of those pilgrims were Latinos, Filipinos, and Haitians. So it became a more international event,” said Dutil, one of the coordinators who help organize, in aggregate, about 600 volunteers.
Divine Mercy Sunday Proclaimed
Pope John Paul II canonized Sister Faustina April 30, 2000, which was the Sunday after Easter that year. The Pope also proclaimed that day the Feast of the Divine Mercy.
At that point, Divine Mercy Sunday became part of the universal Church’s calendar, which means that every Catholic church celebrates it liturgically. Many also mark the day with the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and confessions.
“But I have to say, we were hoping that once the feast day was established, we wouldn’t have to worry about it, because every parish could celebrate it,” said Father Chwalek. “But it didn’t turn out that way. People kept coming.”
Father Chwalek said he has spent as long as eight to nine hours at a time hearing confessions during Divine Mercy weekend. He estimates about 10% of the people who go to confession that weekend have been away from the sacraments for a long time — some as long as 30, 40, or 50 years.
“So it’s a really powerful experience for them. I know God works extraordinary graces,” Father Chwalek said. “I’ve spoken with many people who say they have received healings. And they know that this is the day the Lord gives extraordinary grace — forgiveness of sins, and even punishment for sin. People really appreciate that.”
Most of the pilgrims come from the Northeast, between Maryland and Maine, Dutil said. Some come from the Montreal area. In past years, several parishes from Florida sent buses, which stopped at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., during the two-day journey.
Long lines for confessions and uncertain (and occasionally nasty) weather don’t dent the spirit.
“I think I’d describe it as joyful, for one, but also in the sense that something big is happening,” said Father Matthew Tomeny, the new rector of the shrine, who was ordained a priest only last year but has spent more than a half-dozen years at the shrine on Divine Mercy weekend. “It’s a good reminder that the Lord is promising extraordinary graces that day.”
A Remarkable Commitment
Before the coronavirus, Father Tomeny said, a group of pilgrims came to the shrine from the Philippines. They flew from Manila to New York City and then drove directly to Stockbridge, which is about three hours north.
When asked what else they planned to see while in America, they said nothing — they were planning to fly back to Manila the next day.