The mercy of God, wrote Saint Pope John Paul II in his second encyclical Dives in Misericordia, can be considered, from the perspective of mankind (as opposed to God in and of Himself, who exists in perfect simplicity and so has no distinct ‘parts’), to be the greatest of His known attributes. As John Paul writes here in the thirteenth section:
‘Some theologians affirm that mercy is the greatest of the attributes and perfections of God, and the Bible, Tradition and the whole faith life of the People of God provide particular proofs of this. It is not a question here of the perfection of the inscrutable essence of God in the mystery of the divinity itself, but of the perfection and attribute whereby man, in the intimate truth of his existence, encounters the living God particularly closely and particularly often.’
Earlier in the encyclical, Saint John Paul points out that our experience of God as merciful, above all other qualities we may attribute to Him, derives from the fact that we know Him as Love, and so can say that mercy is ‘love’s second name’ precisely because this is the way in which we experience Him concretely in our lives:
‘Believing in the crucified Son means “seeing the Father,” means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-à-vis the reality of the evil that is in the world, affecting and besieging man, insinuating itself even into his heart and capable of causing him to “perish in Gehenna.”’
Saint Faustina Kowalska received many visions during her lifetime in which Our Lord re-emphasised how essential it was to see mercy as being at the heart of who God is and what He does for us, and commissioned Saint Faustina to bring the message of Divine Mercy to a world that was in the midst of great suffering, and was therefore sorely in need of hearing it. In the diary that she was urged to keep by her confessor, she wrote down the things that Jesus said to her, alongside her meditations upon the messages that she had received.
In a particularly moving passage (1507 in the diary) she considers just how vast is the mercy of God, but also the fact that though His mercy is inexhaustible, His love is not coercive, and it is still necessary for us to let God in. Having said this though, the focus of her meditation here is (as always) on the power of God’s love, and that He can work with even the smallest amount of consent on our part – if we will only open our hearts to Him just a little:
‘All grace flows from mercy, and the last hour abounds with mercy for us. Let no one doubt concerning the goodness of God; even if a person’s sins were as dark as night, God’s mercy is stronger than our misery. One thing alone is necessary: that the sinner set ajar the door of his heart, be it ever so little, to let in the ray of God’s merciful grace, and then God will do the rest. But poor is the soul who has shut the door on God’s mercy, even at the last hour. It was just such souls who plunged Jesus into deadly sorrow in the Garden of Olives; indeed, it was from His Most Merciful Heart that divine mercy flowed out.’
from Divine Mercy in My Soul: Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska (2014), pp.539-540, Marian Press.
The first thing to note here is the strong biblical resonance in Saint Faustina’s description of what God can do with our sinful natures – where she says ‘even if our sins were as dark as night, God’s mercy is stronger than our misery’, one is reminded of the passage in Isaiah, where we read ‘the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you’ (Isaiah 54:10). The message that Saint Faustina has passed down to us is not a novel one – it is not only consonant with biblical faith, but close to the heart of it – but it is one that we need to be reminded of time and time again.
In fact, the Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated as ‘steadfast love’ is in many versions of the Bible translated directly as ‘mercy’. The important thing to note though, is that this term appears again and again throughout the Old Testament – whenever God talks to His people about His ultimate aims for them, and how He ‘feels’ towards them, it is in terms of this ‘hesed’ – merciful love. As for the New Testament, I think it sufficient to point to the person of Our Lord and His Holy Cross – all that was revealed about God’s character in the Old Testament finds its fulfilment and perfection here.
However, the most important feature of what Saint Faustina writes here is that God’s mercy, though inexhaustible, is dependent on our freely willed consent. There does, terrible as this is to acknowledge, remain the possibility that some will, when the last hour comes, have closed their hearts so completely to God that His love will not be able to enter in – He may ‘stand at the door and knock’ (c.f.; Revelation 3:20), and louder than ever before, but we must open the door to Him, and the sad truth is that some may have become so resistant to His grace in this life, that they will prefer to do anything but open that door.
How it may be for each one of us in our final moments only God knows, but the one thing we can be sure of is that if we do put our trust in Him, no matter how compromised our faith or weak our love, He will do something with it. As Saint Faustina writes, if ‘the sinner set ajar the door of his heart, be it ever so little, to let in the ray of God’s merciful grace…then God will do the rest’. He is merciful love, and as long as we trust in this, and in Him, we have hope. Lest we ever despair of this, and feel we have put ourselves beyond God’s reach, in another passage (1521) in her diary Saint Faustina recounts some words Jesus spoke to her, where He expresses just how greatly it is that He desires people to turn to Him:
‘The Lord said to me, My daughter, do not tire of proclaiming My mercy. In this way you will refresh this Heart of Mine, which burns with a flame of pity for sinners. Tell My priests that hardened sinners will repent on hearing their words when the speak about My unfathomable mercy, about the compassion I have for them in My Heart. To priests who proclaim and extol My mercy, I will give wondrous power; I will anoint their words and touch the hearts of those to whom they will speak.’
Again, what Jesus says to Faustina here is perfectly in accordance with what we know from the Gospel, and which Saint Paul summed up so well in his First Letter to Timothy, where we read that God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ (2:4) – i.e.; there is nothing God wants less than for us to fall through His hands. His whole nature is Love, so He eternally wants to share His nature with us and bring us into communion with Him that we might become what He had always intended us to be. Jesus’ words to Saint Faustina here, that she should tell priests to speak of ‘My unfathomable mercy…the compassion I have for them in My Heart’ is simply a fuller exposition of what we already know by faith – that God is Love.
An important clarification to make here though, is that Jesus is urging the priests of His Church to preach true mercy, which involves telling people the truth about themselves – that they need saving from their sins – and also that the unfathomable nature of God’s mercy is not cause for presumption. What the priests are being urged to preach therefore, is absolutely contrary to what we hear so often from pulpits today – the bland assertion that we are fine as we are and everything will turn out okay in the end regardless – and the promises Jesus makes of ‘wondrous power’ that will ‘touch the hearts of those to whom they will speak’ is dependent upon the true nature of God’s mercy being delivered, not a secularised version designed to appeal to people’s sense of self-worth.
Having made this clarification though, the core message remains – God is merciful Love, and this is what we must take to heart. So often we feel that God must have run out of mercy for us; so often we feel like He must have heard us confess such and such a sin just one too many times, and despairing of ourselves, feel that He must also despair of us. What Our Lord delivered to Saint Faustina though, and what He urged her to deliver to a world in dire need of love, was that His mercy is limitless, and He never tires of forgiving – it is we that tire of asking for forgiveness. We must remember that Jesus ‘came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matthew 9:13), that He knows we are not perfect, and so out of His love for us He will be there to pick us up every time we fall, helping us to leave our sins behind, and teaching us to be merciful too.