Image of Divine Mercy, as desribed by St. Faustina, 1931
If only we better understood mercy, I think more people would readily embrace God’s Divine Mercy. Sadly, in recent times, the English word, mercy, has taken on a disparaging connotation. To many, mercy means leniency to an offender who doesn’t deserve it. And, only the weak, the infirmed, or the downtrodden are in need of mercy. While we may feel we don’t deserve God’s mercy, this pejorative view of mercy undermines our fully embracing mercy, most especially, Divine Mercy.
How much the world needs to understand
and accept Divine Mercy.
When Pope John Paul II canonized St. Faustina Kowalska in April 2000, he established the observance of Divine Mercy Sunday each year, on the Sunday following Easter. At the time, he described Divine Mercy as “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity.” 1 Later, on his death bed, on the Vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday 2005, one of the last things Pope John Paul II said was, ”How much the world needs to understand and accept Divine Mercy.”
It’s worth noting here that the Church’s liturgical practices around Divine Mercy are not based on St. Faustina’s private revelations. Rather, they are based on numerous Scripture passages, the faith handed down by the apostles, and on liturgical traditions rooted in the worship life of the ancient, apostolic communities. To better appreciate the gift of Divine Mercy, we need to “return” to the understanding of mercy that so imbued the lives of those ancient, apostolic communities.
The Hebrew word, chesed, which meant “hold close to the heart,” appears nearly 250 times in the Old Testament. 2 Chesed is routinely translated into English as mercy. In the ancients’ reciting the line, repeated again and again, in Psalm 136: “his mercy endures forever,” they envisioned God holding each one of them close to His heart. Even in their darkest hours, even in their worst unfaithfulness, God still held them close to His heart. His mercy truly endures forever.
God hurts in His heart for us when we hurt,
when we fail, when we sin.
In later years (382-405), when St. Jerome undertook the translation of the Bible into Latin, he chose the Latin word, misericordia, for God’s mercy. Misericordia means, “hurt in the heart.” To St. Jerome and those of his time, God hurts in His heart for us when we hurt, when we fail, when we sin. God holds us close as He hurts in His heart for us. That’s the Divine Mercy that was heralded by Pope John Paul II to be celebrated, especially on Divine Mercy Sunday.
St. Jerome in His Stiudy, by Caravaggio, 1605
The four languages derived from Latin: Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese have retained misericordia as the root for their word for mercy. But, the English word for mercy is derived from the Latin word, merces, which meant “price paid.” You can see that this was far from the meaning of misericordia and, in time, the English word, mercy, evolved into what we have today: “forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one's power” 3 Our language reflects how we think. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that the modern understanding of mercy, especially in English-speaking countries, is far from that which imbued the lives of those in ancient, apostolic communities.
How right Pope John Paul II was in saying that the world so much needs to better understand mercy, especially God’s Mercy. Divine Mercy, truly an Easter gift, arises out of Jesus dying on the Cross to give all mankind the opportunity to share in God's Mercy; His holding each of us close as He hurts because we hurt. While we can, and do, ask for God’s mercy, we don’t have to beg for God’s mercy, it’s always there; it’s part of who God is. There is no more intimate, more comforting, experience than to be held close to the heart of God as He hurts, when we hurt.
Let us embrace the ancient meaning of mercy.
Let us embrace the ancient meaning of mercy. Let us envision God holding us close to His heart. Whenever we hurt, God hurts. He is that close! He is that loving! Let this renewed understanding of Divine Mercy transform you from within and change the whole outlook on your life.
This year, Divine Mercy Sunday is April 28th.
“Till next time.
Dcn Bob Evans
April 26, 2019
1. Pope John Paul II, Homily of the Holy Father, Canonization of Sr. Mary Faustina Kowalska, April 30, 2000.
2. Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible Online, 2016.
3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2016.