The Divine Mercy in the Life and Thought of Popes John XXIII, John Paul II and Francis, Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Divine Mercy Sunday
Day of the Canonization of Saints John Paul II and John XXIII
April 27, 2014
Acts 2:42-47, Ps 118, 1 Pet 1:3-9, Jn 20:1-9

To listen to an audio recording of the homily, please click below: 


This was the text that guided the homily: 

Double Cause for Thanksgiving

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love is everlasting!” Today those words from Psalm 118 are especially resonant as we thank God for two great gifts: first, the gift of his merciful love on this feast of Divine Mercy, that his mercy — which, as we heard in today’s Gospel, Jesus Christ commissioned the apostles on Easter Sunday evening to bring to the world — endures forever; and second, the gift of the two great popes who were canonized this morning, Saints John XXIII and John Paul II, as well as the gift of the holy Pope who canonized them, Pope Francis, and the holy and humble Pope-emeritus present for the ceremony, Pope Benedict. Indeed we give thanks to the Lord for his goodness, for his everlasting love, for his eternal mercy that has shown so radiantly in all four of these vicars of Christ.

Entering into the Mystery of God’s Mercy

It was very moving for me to get up at 4 am this morning to watch the Canonization ceremony live on television. I had been asked to go to Rome to provide color commentary on EWTN’s coverage — which would have been tremendously joyful — but after much prayer, I preferred to stay here to be able to celebrate this great occasion with you so that we can focus together on the Message of Divine Mercy celebrated in the life of these Popes and so that I’d have the opportunity to offer to you this afternoon in a special Divine Mercy holy hour at 3 pm. Pope Francis finished his homily this morning praying, “May both [John XXIII and John Paul II] teach us … to enter into the mystery of the Divine Mercy [God], who always hopes and always forgives because he always loves.” So invoking the intercession of our two new saints, let us with their help enter into that mystery.

Saint John XXIII and Mercy

Saint John XXIII’s most notable papal achievement was the calling of the Second Vatican Council. In his famous October 11, 1962 speech to open the Council, he framed the entire Council in a merciful key. The whole point of the Council, he said, was to guard and teach more efficaciously the “sacred deposit of Christian doctrine.” He recognized that in the modern age of scientific discovery, technology and particularly the destruction of two world wars, the teaching of the Church needed to be transmitted differently than in the past. In previous centuries, he said, the Church “condemned with the utmost severity” the errors of various ages. We see that with previous ecumenical councils, when the Church condemned those who claimed that Jesus was fully God and fully man as had happened in the four great Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries; those who claimed that he had only one will rather than a divine will and a human will in the sixth century; those who said in the 8th century that all sacred images of God should be destroyed, even though the image of the invisible God had taken flesh in Jesus and dwelled among us; those who had claimed that there were only two Sacraments instead of seven and who were trying to create a different authority in the Church the Pope in the 16th century. In all of these Councils, the Church condemned these errors and the spiritual dead-ends to which they led. But Saint John XXIII said that today the Church must prefer “the balm of mercy to the arm of severity, … by explaining more fully the purport of her doctrines, rather than by publishing condemnations.” Truth was essential he said, but it must be communicated with merciful love, the way a mother teaches the faith to a child. Both truth and mercy were necessary, which is why it’s no surprised he called himself “a teacher of mercy and truth.” Both, he recognized, were needed.

He stressed the need for mercy in the years preceding the Second Vatican Council. He published an encyclical in 1962 entitled Paenitentiam Agere on the gift of God’s mercy and the need for us to recognize our need for it, come to receive it in the Sacrament of Penance, and to do interior and exterior penance. Recourse to God’s mercy was, he declared, the best way to prepare for the Council, so that the “good seed that the Council [would] scatter far and wide over the Church in those days [would] not be allowed to go to waste,” but rather would find “hearts that are ready and prepared, loyal and true.” For the Council to bear fruit, he implied, the Church needed not just the bishops who had assembled in the Vatican to do their job guided by the Holy Spirit, but for the entire people of God to cooperate; for that we needed a universal sense that God was calling us to more, that he was calling us to repent and believe the Gospel in a way that the world would find credible.

Unfortunately, we now know retrospectively that’s not what happened as a result of the Council. While the bishops assembled in the Vatican did well the task assigned to them and produced some incredible documents and a healthy direction to the explanation of the doctrine of the Church in a compelling way to today’s world, the vast majority of the Church didn’t follow suit. The vast majority of the Church didn’t heed Saint John XXIII’s summons to conversion, penance and mercy. Instead of an enormous harvest of fruits of faith, the Church reaped wild grapes. Rather than pondering and putting into practice the beautiful documents the Spirit-led bishops gave us, most ignored the documents all together and behaved as if Vatican II was a general permission just to change whatever one didn’t like about what God and his Church were asking us. Tens of thousands of priests and religious abandoned their sacred vocations. Millions of Catholic married couples though that Vatican II meant that they, rather than the Pope, had a greater grasp on faith and morals as they ignored Pope Paul VI’s teaching on the immorality of the birth control pill and began sinfully to contracept the future of the Church out of existence. Catholic faithful, who attended Sunday Mass at more than an 80 percent rate prior to the Council, now started to think that work or going to the beach on Sunday was more important than worshipping God. Pastors, rather than caring for the sacred spaces previous generations had sacrificed so much to build with love for God, had jackhammers and other “wreck-o-vators” come in to destroy sanctuaries, eliminate altar rails and statues, and treat what was considered sacred yesterday as somehow evil today. And without question worst of all was the late 60s and 70s was the statistically worst time in the United States of the abominable sins of the sexual abuse of minors by those who were supposed to be acting in the person of Christ.

In short, rather than repenting and believing in the Gospel, rather than receiving the Council on good soil and bearing good fruit, the majority of the Catholic world behaved as if the Council had said that sin wasn’t sin any more, that there was no reason for repentance and the Sacrament of Penance, and that rather than being the salt, light and leaven of the world, we should all just start behaving like those in the world. Saint John said that he hoped in the Council to open up the windows of the Church. But by 1972, his successor, heir and great collaborator Pope Paul VI had said that what entered through those open windows after the Council was the “smoke of Satan.” Saint John wanted to bring the balm of mercy but instead what came, unintended, was a blitzkrieg of unrepented sin. If we’re ever going to experience the real fruits of the Holy Spirit’s work in the Council, we need to make up for lost time and do exactly what Saint XXIII was calling for in Paenitentiam Agere: recognize our need for God’s mercy, come to receive it and do interior and exterior penance.

With regard to the Feast of Divine Mercy, Saint John has a very important, but for the most part, unknown connection. According to the testimony of his former secretary, now 98 year old Cardinal Loris Capovilla, early in his Pontificate a decree had been drafted for him by the Holy Office to sign formally forbidding Catholics to read Sr. Maria Faustina Kowalska’s Diary or to venerate the image of Divine Mercy. The reason was because in the Italian and French translations of the Polish original, it seemed that in these private revelations Jesus would have been saying that forgiveness of sins could happen through devotional practices alone rather than through the Sacrament of Mercy Jesus instituted, as we see in today’s Gospel, by breathing the Holy Spirit on the apostles and sending them out to forgive and retain sins in his name. But John XXIII didn’t sign the decree as written, which probably could have killed the growth of the Divine Mercy devotion. Instead, he said he first needed to hear from the Polish bishops. So he signed a provisional decree saying the devotion shouldn’t be promoted publicly until the Church had further time to study it. That study happened when Saint John Paul II became Archbishop of Krakow at the age of 45 in 1965. He had his former teacher and second doctoral dissertation adviser, Fr. Ignacy Rozycki, examine St. Faustina’s writings dogmatically in order to show their consistency with Church teaching. That led to her total rehabilitation in 1978, a few months before John Paul would be elected Pope. Saint John XXIII opened the way for Saint John Paul II to disprove the critics and save the Divine Mercy devotion.

Saint John Paul II’s Special Task of Bringing the Message of Divine Mercy to the World

When he was elected the successor of St. Peter, Saint John Paul framed his entire Pontificate within the scope of God’s mercy. In 1981, he said, “Right from the beginning of my ministry in St. Peter’s See in Rome, I consider this message [of Divine Mercy] my special task.” In 1997, he added, “The Message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me. … This was also my personal experience, which I took with me to the See of Peter and which in a sense forms the image of this Pontificate.”

What was that personal experience? During the Nazi occupation of Krakow, when he was a secret seminarian, he needed to work at a chemical plant, which was right across the street from the monastery where St. Faustina lived and died just a few years before. Without knowing the graces God had previously given to St. Faustina, he nevertheless used to cross the street to pray there. When he returned to Poland in 1997 to consecrate the Basilica of Divine Mercy on that spot, he said, “I desire to say that many of my personal memories are tied to this place. During the Nazi occupation, when I was working in the Solvay factory near here, I used to come here. Even now I recall the street that goes from Borek Falecki to Debniki that I took every day going to work on the different turns with the wooden shoes on my feet. They’re the shoes that we used to wear then. How was it possible to imagine that one day the man with the wooden shoes would consecrate the Basilica of the Divine Mercy at Lagiewniki in Kraków!”

In August 1992, St. John Paul II solemnly entrusted the world to Divine Mercy “with the burning desire that the message of God’s merciful love … be made known to all peoples of the earth.” He would declare in 1997, “There is nothing that man needs more than Divine mercy,” — nothing that you, I, or anyone we know needs more than Divine Mercy. In his second encyclical, “God is Rich in Mercy,” he would write, “The Church must bear witness to the mercy of God revealed in Christ … seeking to introduce it and to make it incarnate in the lives both of her faithful and as far as possible in the lives of all people of good will … [and] to call upon the mercy of God, imploring it in the face of all the manifestations of physical and moral evil.”

In 1993 he beatified Sister Faustina and seven years later he canonized her. I had the great joy to be present on that day he canonized St. Faustina and declared that from that point forward the Second Sunday of Easter would be called Divine Mercy Sunday. Little did I — or anyone else for that matter — foresee that he would die on the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy five years later, or be beatified at that feast 11 years later, or canonized on it 14 years later. But God sees what we don’t and we give thanks to him for he is good!

The day of St. Faustina’s canonization truly changed my life and my priesthood. Prior to that day, I didn’t think I needed another devotion and preferred to use my Rosary beads for the Rosary. I had attempted to read St. Faustina’s Diary, but frankly it gave me vertigo because it was so repetitive. Everything changed, however, on April 30, 2000, the day Sr. Faustina was canonized by Pope John Paul II. That morning I celebrated Mass in a closed and almost totally empty basilica of St. Peter and headed to the Blessed Sacrament chapel to make my thanksgiving. When the Pope celebrated outdoor public Masses, I normally would stay there praying the breviary until the masters of ceremony arrived to pass out surplices and stoles for those who were going to be distributing Holy Communion during the Mass, a privilege that always came with a great seat. That day, however, as I was finishing my thanksgiving, the unbidden thought came to me that Sr. Faustina’s canonization might be my last chance to see a papal Mass from the perspective of the piazza before returning back home to take up a pastoral assignment. So I walked through the Jubilee door about 7:30 and out into the square. Some of those who were responsible for seating must have erroneously thought that since I was leaving the closed basilica, I had to be someone important. I was able to proceed unimpeded to the back left corner of the front-right section before the altar. I wondered what I’d do for the three hours before the canonization Mass. As it turns out, I didn’t have to worry about how to occupy my time. After I had finished morning prayer, a young man, one of the first people to enter the square after the gates were opened at 7:30, approached and asked me in Italian whether I would be able to hear his confession. “Certo,” I replied, as he knelt down on the hard stone of St. Peter’s square in front of me. After I had given him absolution, a young girl came and queried whether I spoke Spanish. I told her that I did, and she asked whether I would be willing to hear her confession, too. I said that I would be happy to do so. For the next two hours and 45 minutes, until literally the opening antiphon of the Mass, I heard confessions non-stop in the back-left corner of the front-right section. Italians, Spaniards, Brazilians, French- or English-speaking Poles and Germans, as well as a few from Britain and the United States, all humbly knelt down and poured themselves out. I was blown away by the depth and tearful beauty of the penitents’ contrition and appreciation for the gift of God’s mercy. As only a priest could see from the “inside” of people’s souls, I witnessed the profound fruits that the devotion to Divine Mercy had produced in Catholics from various countries, cultures and languages. As Mass began, I thanked the Lord for having moved me to go out to the square that morning and for having used me as his instrument to share his Divine Mercy with so many.

During John Paul’s canonization Mass homily, I was surprised and thrilled when he said, “It is important then that we accept the whole message [of God’s merciful love] that comes to us from the word of God on this Second Sunday of Easter, which from now on throughout the Church will be called ‘Divine Mercy Sunday.… By this act I intend today to pass this message on to the new millennium.’” I knew that from that point forward, I was being summoned, as all priests were, to be a particular herald of that message. I felt that the experiences of that morning were a gift from God to help me to see the greatness of the interior miracles that the devotion could effect in people. I remember rejoicing that I would have the opportunity, returning to parishes in the Diocese, to bring this message and celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday each year as the culmination of the Easter octave.

That’s what I’m doing today. The reason why I preferred to stay here to celebrate this Feast with you rather than in Rome doing television coverage was because I hope that today, as we prepare for the special Divine Mercy Holy Hour this afternoon with the opportunity for Confession, I will witness the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to priests through St. Faustina, that if we preach on Divine Mercy on this day, there will be great miracles in the confessional.

St. John Paul II would say that the day he canonized St. Faustina and instituted the feast of Divine Mercy was the happiest day of his life. He said,“My joy is truly great in presenting the life and witness of Sr. Faustina Kowalska to the whole Church as a gift of God for our time. …  Jesus told Sr Faustina:  “Humanity will not find peace until it turns trustfully to divine mercy” (Diary, p. 132). …It is not a new message but can be considered a gift of special enlightenment that helps us to relive the Gospel of Easter more intensely, to offer it as a ray of light to the men and women of our time. Sr. Faustina’s canonization has a particular eloquence:  by this act I intend today to pass this message on to the new millennium. I pass it on to all people, so that they will learn to know ever better the true face of God and the true face of their brethren.”  Divine Mercy was the “special task” Saint John Paul brought to the papacy, the “image” of his pontificate. Through it he was able to implement the dream of Saint John XXIII in convening the council to bring the “balm of mercy” to the modern world. “How greatly today’s words needs God’s mercy!,” John Paul II declared when he canonized St. Faustina, and those words are as present today as ever!

Pope Francis and Divine Mercy

That brings us to Pope Francis. Mercy has been his fundamental theme in the first 13 months of his papacy. When he was asked if he would accept the papacy, he showed his own personal trust in God’s mercy, responding, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the mercy and infinite patience of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and in a spirit of penance, I accept.” Mercy is the fundamental story of his vocation, receiving his priestly calling totally as a surprise while he was going to confession as a 16 year-old. His papal motto, Miserando atque Eligendo, emphasizes that in his life and in every life, God calls us in the very same act with which he embraces us in his mercy.

He’s praised Saint John Paul for grasping, with the help of St. Faustina, that our time is a “kairos” or propitious occasion of mercy. He said last September that the “whole Gospel, all of Christianity,” is contained in the joy God has in forgiving us, and that “mercy is the true force that can save man and the world.” During his first Sunday Mass and then Angelus Message on March 17 last year, he proclaimed the beauty of God’s undying mercy as not only Jesus’ most powerful message but the Church’s most powerful continued message to the world: “Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think – and I say it with humility – that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy. … The Lord never tires of forgiving: never! It is we who tire of asking his forgiveness. Let us ask for the grace not to tire of asking forgiveness, because he never tires of forgiving.”

As Pope Francis canonizes Saints John and John Paul today, the real story is frankly not the personality and achievements of the four holy Popes that were in some way the central figures in today’s media coverage. The real story is, rather, the mercy of God that they received, rejoiced in and never ceased to offer and proclaim to the Church and the world. Today we give thanks to the Lord for this mercy that endures forever and we ask him, through the intercession of Saints Faustina, John Paul and John XXIII for the double grace never to tire of asking for it because he never tires of giving it and never to tire of sharing it with others because God never tires of sharing it with us.

Tactile Communion with Holy Mercy

If you’d permit me, before I finish I want to give one last public thanks to God on this day. As you’ll be able to read in the bulletin this week, I had the privilege to know Saint John Paul II. I met him personally and had a chance to talk with him 11 different times. John Paul II was always very kind to the American seminarians studying in Rome. One of the things he would do for us whenever we would ask him would be to consecrate the patens and chalices that our parents or others would purchase for us in anticipation of our priestly ordination. It moves me very much to say that 15 years ago yesterday, on April 26, 1999, Saint John Paul II consecrated to the honor and glory of God the chalice and paten I will use today to offer to the Eternal Father His dearly beloved Son’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in expiation for our sins and the sins of the whole world. I hope that you will feel the closeness of our new Saint though this tactile communion with him in these sacred vessels as we ask him, with St. John XXIII, St. Faustina, St. Bernadette, and all the saints, to continue to pray for us that one day we may share their prefix and be numbered among the saints who will forever sing God’s eternal goodness around the throne of his merciful love!


The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
ACTS 2:42-47

They devoted themselves
to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,
to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone,
and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles.
All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.
They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart,
praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.
And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24

R/ (1) Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R/ Alleluia.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let the house of Aaron say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
Let those who fear the LORD say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
R/ Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R/ Alleluia.
I was hard pressed and was falling,
but the LORD helped me.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
The joyful shout of victory
in the tents of the just:
R/ Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R/ Alleluia.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
By the LORD has this been done;
it is wonderful in our eyes.
This is the day the LORD has made;
let us be glad and rejoice in it.
R/ Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, his love is everlasting.
R/ Alleluia.

Reading 2
1 PT 1:3-9

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope
through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,
kept in heaven for you
who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith,
to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time.
In this you rejoice, although now for a little while
you may have to suffer through various trials,
so that the genuineness of your faith,
more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire,
may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor
at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now yet believe in him,
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

JN 20:19-31

On the evening of that first day of the week,
when the doors were locked, where the disciples were,
for fear of the Jews,
Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.
The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit.
Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve,
was not with them when Jesus came.
So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”
But he said to them,
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands
and put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

Now a week later his disciples were again inside
and Thomas was with them.
Jesus came, although the doors were locked,
and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Now, Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples
that are not written in this book.
But these are written that you may come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.