Today is Divine Mercy Sunday, and also the day that Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII will be canonised. I shall not relate the pros and cons of each case here, for these have been gone over many times in various media already (with varying degrees of accuracy and insight). For a sober and fair assessment of the cases for each pope’s canonisation, and a comparison of the aspects of their pontificates that brings to light both key differences and essential congruities, I highly recommend the series of articles posted at Catholic Voices Comment throughout this week.
Instead I would like to focus on the aptness of these canonisations being held on Divine Mercy Sunday. The clearest connection in this regard is that John Paul II was a devoted disciple of his compatriot Saint Faustina Kowalska, whose writings on and devotion to the Divine Mercy inspired the solemnity that we celebrate today – a wonderful remembrance and confirmation of an attribute absolutely essential to God’s nature. John Paul also established this solemnity, having canonised Saint Faustina the year before (and this connection is the reason that today’s post will not be focusing on Pope John XXIII; that and the fact that I’m afraid to say I don’t really know as much about him!).
The second connection to today’s canonisations though, is that in celebrating the mercy of God, we celebrate what it is that inspires those who eventually reach those levels of sanctity that place in them in the hallowed list of people the Church has officially recognised as having obtained such a level of intimacy and friendship with God in this life that we can be certain of its consummation in the next. These people so trusted in the mercy and love of God that they gave themselves completely to His will, and their lives subsequently exhibited the fruits that come from that self-forgetful devotion. Saint Faustina provides an exceptionally clear description in her diary of this relationship:
‘Neither graces, nor revelations, nor raptures, nor gifts granted to a soul make it perfect, but rather the intimate union of the soul with God. These gifts are merely ornaments of the soul, but constitute neither its essence nor its perfection. My sanctity and perfection consist in the close union of my will with the will of God.’
Diary: Divine Mercy in My Soul, 1107.
It is not any particular external manifestations, either natural or supernatural, that make a saint, even though these may well and most often are shown in their lives, but that profound union with God and His will that comes from complete trust in Him. Such trust can only come from a deep confidence in His nature as inexhaustible mercy and love, a mercy beyond what our earthly imaginations could even begin to conceive of. With faith in this mercy beyond mercy, the saints were (and are) able to fulfil Jesus’ words when He said that ‘he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do’ (John 14:12).
John Paul II also wrote of the need to recognise the mercy of God as absolutely constitutive of His nature, in a homily given on the first ever Divine Mercy Sunday in April 2001. There he said that:
‘In the humiliated and suffering Christ, believers and non-believers can admire a surprising solidarity, which binds him to our human condition beyond all imaginable measure. The Cross, even after the Resurrection of the Son of God, “speaks and never ceases to speak of God the Father, who is absolutely faithful to his eternal love for man. Believing in this love means believing in mercy…
…”Jesus, I trust in you”. This prayer, dear to so many of the devout, clearly expresses the attitude with which we too would like to abandon ourselves trustfully in your hands, O Lord, our only Saviour. You are burning with the desire to be loved and those in tune with the sentiments of your heart learn how to build the new civilization of love. A simple act of abandonment is enough to overcome the barriers of darkness and sorrow, of doubt and desperation. The rays of your divine mercy restore hope, in a special way, to those who feel overwhelmed by the burden of sin.’
from Homily at Mass of the Divine Mercy, Sunday 22nd April 2001, Saint Peter’s.
In these words, one can feel John Paul’s deep personal trust in the love and mercy of God displayed on the Cross, and the desire he has to convince his audience of the joy and liberation that can be found in giving oneself over in faith to the God of Calvary. It is a marvellous translation of personal commitment into fervent communication and evangelization; something that characterised the manner of his whole career, and which enabled him to achieve all the great things he did during his life.
The hope and joy which he was able to experience despite great personal suffering was borne out of this absolute trust in the mercy of God, and the authenticity with which he lived out his life in Christ, combined with the great desire he had to share this joy with others, is testimony to what God’s grace can achieve in a human life once our hearts are opened to Him.
The canonisations today are a reminder of this, and an encouragement to all of us, as they show that if we make that first act of faith, trusting in God’s merciful nature with our whole being, that great things can be achieved, and great joys can be found in even the darkest places. ‘Jesus, I trust in you’ – a simple prayer, yet the essence of its wisdom has been able to sustain the lives of countless men and women whose lives have been coloured with faith, hope, love and joy. Today, as we celebrate two more additions to the list of such people, may we also take time to reflect on the merciful God they trusted in, and consider what He may do in our lives, should we let Him in.