A pilgrim holds a banner showing St. John Paul II during an April 28 Mass of thanksgiving for the canonizations of new Sts. John Paul and John XXIII in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Divine Mercy was the key to the late pope’s teaching. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Merciful Father is always present

By 
  • November 27, 2014

One of the highlights of the year just ending was the canonization of the greatest pope and dominant religious figure of our times, John Paul II. Over the years I had attended many such events as a reporter or broadcaster in the media section, but I thought that this time I would take it in as a pilgrim. That meant arriving in St. Peter’s Square some four hours or so before the Mass began. How to spend those hours in a suitably pious and productive way? After all, the breviary and rosary don’t take that long, even at a leisurely pace. 

So I took along a copy of John Paul’s 1980 encyclical, Dives in Misericordia — Rich in Mercy. It was dated Nov. 30, the First Sunday of Advent that year, just as it is this year. St. John Paul is the pope of mercy. He instituted Divine Mercy Sunday in 2000 and died on that liturgical feast in 2005. At his funeral Mass, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger highlighted — amidst the vast achievements of an epic pontificate — Divine Mercy as the key to John Paul’s teaching. He was beatified on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2011 and canonized on the same feast this year. 

Mercy itself can be difficult to define; perhaps it is easier to recognize than define. At the heart of mercy seems to be the use of one’s strength or one’s power not to suppress or exploit the weak, but for the benefit of the weaker one. It lies at the heart of the mystery of fatherhood, where the power of the fully grown man is not used against the helpless infant, but rather he sacrifices himself for the baby’s benefit. Thus, the revelation of God as a Father by Jesus is the radical good news of the Gospel. God is not to be feared as a tyrant, but rather loved as a father. The heart of the Christian faith is a profession that at the heart of reality — the very identity of the eternal God — is mercy. 

“It is ‘God, who is rich in mercy’ whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father: it is His very Son who, in Himself, has manifested Him and made Him known to us,” Dives in Misericordia begins. 

It is not hard to imagine why a pope who had spent his entire adult life under tyrants — Nazi first, communist second — would want to draw attention to the merciful power of God in contrast to the exploitative power of sinful man. 

As fallen men, we are inclined to think of mercy as something to rely upon when justice fails; mercy corrects the imperfections of justice in this world. In God though, mercy and justice are not opposed, but complementary, with the former including and perfecting the latter. 

The season of Advent is dominated by two figures, St. John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord Jesus, and the Blessed Mother, who carried Him in her womb. It is the season of preparation for the Lord’s coming. One of the great biblical scenes of Advent is the Visitation, where John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb upon Elizabeth encountering Mary, carrying her Divine Son. Mary’s response is the Magnificat, wherein she praises God who has shown “His mercy from generation to generation.” The whole of the history of salvation is summed up in those words, the unfolding of Divine Mercy in every generation. 

“We have every right to believe that our generation too was included in the words of the Mother of God when she glorified that mercy shared in ‘from generation to generation’ by those who allow themselves to be guided by the fear of God,” writes John Paul. “The words of Mary’s Magnificat have a prophetic content that concerns not only the past of Israel but also the whole future of the People of God on Earth. In fact, all of us now living on Earth are the generation that is aware of the approach of the third millennium and that profoundly feels the change that is occurring in history.” 

Dives in Misericordia is not easy reading, but it repays the effort, even after more than 30 years and more than a decade into the third millennium. Advent is about a woman carrying a baby, which is always an act of mercy, for the mother puts her body at the service of her child. Similarly, God carries all of history in His hands, a similar act of mercy. In the order of nature, it is the parents who tell us that the child is on his way. In the order of grace, it is the coming of the Child that reveals to us that the merciful Father is always present. A blessed Advent! 

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life: www.conviviummagazine.ca.) 

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