A former Dominican classmate first exposed me to the Divine Mercy devotion back when I first entered the Order in 1990. Two things about my classmate’s devotion made me resist it. My first obstacle is the image associated with it. It does not appeal to me at all: its portrayal of Jesus strikes me as insipid. I was delighted to learn, just a few years ago, that St. Faustina Kowalska (the originator of the devotion) herself wept when she first saw the image because she said it did not approach the beauty she saw in her visions. My second obstacle was that my classmate and other devotees seemed to place this devotion on the same level as the nature of the Trinity or the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: necessary for salvation. “While sacramental actions are necessary to life in Christ, the various forms of popular piety are properly optional. Such is clearly proven by the Church’s precept which obliges attendance at Sunday Mass. No such obligation, however, has obtained with regard to pious exercises, notwithstanding their worthiness or their widespread diffusion.” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy #11)
Authentic devotions flow from and lead back to the Mass and the sacraments, which lie at the heart of the Church’s life. Indeed, the Divine Mercy devotion is exemplary because it encourages the faithful to experience Christ’s infinite mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist and then to share the gift of mercy with others. And like any good devotion, it calls us to pray with others and to intimate, personal communion with God. As Vatican II taught, “The spiritual life, however, is not limited solely to participation in the liturgy [and the sacraments]. The Christian is indeed called to pray with his brethren, but he must also enter into his chamber to pray to the Father, in secret…” (Sacrosanctum Concilium #12)
I think it is no accident that St. Faustina had her revelations and developed this devotion in the 1930’s, living under atheistic Communism in Poland, where, as in other absolutist ideologies, there is no room for mercy. We see this “conform or die” mentality still active in the world, from mild forms in our nation’s political rankling to the extreme forms in the Middle East. I see another example in Pope Pius XII’s solemn definition of the dogma of Mary’s Assumption body and soul into heaven in 1950, after the horrors of the World Wars and the great devaluing of human life, to say that life is sacred and that redemption has a very real physical component that cannot be ignored.
We, like every generation of Christians, need God’s mercy. We need it no less than St. Thomas or St. Peter. Indeed, encountering and abiding in Christ’s mercy can transform us just like it transformed Mary Magdalene, the woman at the well, the Apostles and countless others. It makes us what we are meant to be: saints.