On a February night in 1931, a simple nun in Poland received a mystical vision of Jesus in a white robe with red-and-white rays radiating from his heart. Sister Faustina Kowalska remembered the words Jesus said to her: “Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: ‘Jesus, I trust in You.’ I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and then throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish.” In obedience to her vision, three years later she managed to get an artist to produce the now-famous Divine Mercy image.
Sister Faustina was like the Cinderella of the convent. Simply educated and from a poor family, she was the cleaner and gardener—working hard to grow vegetables for the kitchen. Jesus had also instructed her that the image was to be venerated publicly on the first Sunday after Easter and that this was to be for the whole Church; even the pope would venerate the image. How could the lowly Polish nun ever hope to accomplish such a task? She had no contacts with people in power, and many doubted her supposed visions and conversations with Jesus.
She found support with one priest, Father Sopocko, and over the next few decades the Divine Mercy devotion began to spread and gain approval. Then, in 1958 Church theologians detected potential errors in Sister Faustina’s writings and both the devotion and her writings were suppressed. The ban on the Divine Mercy devotion lasted for 20 years.
Polish sister, Polish pope
Meanwhile, in 1965 the Archbishop of Krakow—a certain Karol Wotyla—got permission for a more extensive investigation into Sister Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion. In 1978 Wotyla was elected Pope John Paul II, and the Church lifted the ban on Sister Faustina’s teachings and the Divine Mercy devotion. Pope John Paul II beatified Sister Faustina in 1993 and declared her a saint in the jubilee year 2000. At that time John Paul II also declared the Sunday after Easter to be Divine Mercy Sunday for the universal Church. Thus, through divine providence, a Polish pope fulfilled the seemingly impossible prophecies given to the simple Polish nun.
Pope John Paul II was not simply honoring a fellow Polish Catholic. Divine Mercy is the hallmark and main message of St. John Paul II’s spirituality, life, and ministry. After devoting an encyclical to Jesus the Redeemer, John Paul’s next teaching was titled Rich in Mercy. In his encyclical John Paul explains and expounds the teachings of his Polish little sister.
John Paul II explains that God’s mercy is not simply letting someone off the hook after they’ve sinned. God does not just dismiss the need for justice, but he fulfills justice through his mercy. Through his mercy he gathers up the sin and violence and takes it on himself through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus, therefore, does not simply show God’s mercy to the world; in a sense, Jesus is God’s mercy to the world.
St. John Paul II explains how every action and word of Jesus fulfills and unfolds God’s mercy to the world. God’s mercy is a constant theme in the Old Testament, and in the Gospels we see that mercy completed in the God-man, Jesus Christ. In his words and his teachings, especially the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus shows us God’s everlasting mercy.
This mission of mercy in the world is completed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the paschal mystery God’s mercy toward the world is fulfilled and finished. The mission of every Catholic is to spread that good news and take the mission of mercy to the whole world.
The mission of mercy
In October 1978 St. John Paul II stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s and into the hearts of the world. At 58, he was the youngest pope for centuries, and he would go on to be one of the longest reigning popes of all time. His mission to the modern world can be understood as the mission of mercy. Crisscrossing the globe, he became history’s most widely traveled world leader, and all of it was to proclaim the everlasting mercy of God for mankind.
To understand St. John Paul II’s spirituality, we must understand his personality. Although he was a profound philosopher, poet, and man of prayer, he was essentially a man of action. Known for his love of the outdoors, he received notice of his appointment as an archbishop when he was on a kayaking holiday. Physically fit and able-bodied, John Paul had a pool installed at the papal summer residence, went skiing and hiking, and survived a nearly fatal assassination attempt.
He brought this same physical action to his mission of mercy. For St. John Paul II, mercy was not simply a theological theory or a pious prayer. It was the guideline for the game of life. The Divine Mercy not only illuminates all that he said and did, but also gives the game plan for the whole Church.
Just as Jesus Christ made God’s mercy alive in the world, so the Church must make God’s mercy alive in the world. St. John Paul II saw all the Church’s works of mercy as the way to do this. When Mother Teresa and her nuns ministered to the poorest of the poor, they were making the Divine Mercy real in the world. When preachers proclaimed the love and mercy of Christ, they were making the Divine Mercy real in the world. When activists stood up for life, worked for peace, healed the sick, fought for justice, taught the young, and ministered to the dying, they were all making the Divine Mercy real in the world.
Contemplating the Divine Mercy
The St. John Paul II’s mission of mercy is not simply a matter of doing good deeds. For the works of mercy to reveal Christ’s mercy, the individual Christian must first meet Jesus who is the Divine Mercy. Once Christians meet him and are transformed by him, they will be able to unlock the mystery of mercy for the world.
In his pastoral letter Into the New Millennium, St. John Paul II teaches that true evangelization springs from contemplation. First we contemplate the face of Christ, primarily through Eucharistic Adoration but also through images like the Divine Mercy. As we spend time with Jesus, his glory begins to be reflected in our lives. We are transformed from glory into glory. In that supernatural transformation, the Divine Mercy infuses our hearts and then radiates from us to the world.
The red-and-white beams represent the sacraments of baptism and Communion. Therefore, in addition to spending time in contemplative prayer, we must participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. Through regular confession and Communion we plug into the powerhouse of Divine Mercy. Through the discipline of prayer, study, and obedience, our lives are transformed into the image of Christ. As Jesus was the Divine Mercy incarnate, our ordinary lives can become the Divine Mercy incarnate. This is our duty and our destiny.
It is no coincidence that Divine Mercy Sunday is the Sunday after Easter. This is because the Divine Mercy is essentially a Resurrection image. Jesus steps out of the darkness of death, bringing new life and power to the world. As we contemplate this image and yield ourselves to Christ, the rays that emanate from his heart touch us and make the Resurrection life real in our lives.
St. John Paul II and the power of mercy
If you simply excuse a person’s evil and let him or her get away with the wrongdoing, you have not shown mercy—you have shown weakness. Mercy is an attribute of power, not weakness, for mercy is strong, outgoing, and active. Mercy reaches out and gathers up the evil and makes sacrifices to turn the evil into good.
St. John Paul II exhibited this mercy throughout his life, but the most memorable example was the mercy his showed to his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali AÄca. The pope did not simply let the man get away the attempt on his life or excuse it with a wave of his hand. Instead he went to prison to meet his attacker. He extended mercy with a deep concern for his enemy and a love for his soul.
That incident illustrates the mission of mercy St. John Paul II had for the world, which he calls all of us to share. Because we have experienced the richness of God’s mercy, we cannot help but reach out to others with mercy.
As a sign of divine blessing on St. John Paul II’s mission of mercy, he died on the vigil of the Divine Mercy in April 2005. On Divine Mercy Sunday 2011, he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, and on Divine Mercy Sunday 2014, Karol Wotyla joined his little sister Faustina in the roll of saints, thus continuing in heaven together their mission of mercy to the world.