The Catholic Church is good at celebrating. After the seemingly-endless forty days of Lent, there comes a parade of feasts; we pack more holidays into twenty-four hours than greeting-card companies can invent arbitrarily. There’s a lot going on this time of year. Here’s an example: all at once, it can be the Friday of the Octave of Easter and St. Anselm’s feast day and the eighth day of the Divine Mercy novena…take a breath when you can!
But it’s that last event I’d like to focus on—the Divine Mercy novena. Sunday, April 23, marks the conclusion of this annual prayer. Beginning on Easter, participants recite a Divine Mercy chaplet once a day, offering each devotion to a different group of people. The first day, for example, is dedicated “to all mankind,” while subsequent days are focused on more specific groups like priests, unbelievers, and the souls in Purgatory. These devotions (along with the chaplet prayer itself) were given by Christ to St. Faustina Kowalska in a series of visions. You can read about them in her personal diaries.
These are powerful prayers, and popular ones. They draw special attention to the truth of God’s mercy. But we’re a fickle people, and sometimes truth stops amazing us. A few months ago, the Church concluded her Jubilee Year of Mercy—so we’ve heard a lot about this recently. Without wanting to admit it, we may be a little bit “bored” with mercy (why don’t we spice things up and talk about justice?). When we get bored with truth, however, it’s not because we’ve learned all there is to learn about it—we’ve just stopped digging deeper. Truth is bottomless; our minds aren’t, and that’s where the trouble starts.
What are we really asking for when we seek God’s mercy?
I can’t purport to do justice to that question—not in the 750 words of this article, and not in the countless words I’ll write in my life. Mercy is a lot of things. But there are a lot of things that mercy isn’t, and identifying some of those things has been helpful.
Mercy, for example, is not indifference. In fact, it’s the opposite—it’s full, complete, deserved acknowledgment of one’s sins, and full, complete, undeserved forgiveness. But it’s much easier to pray for indifference from God. Apathy has no consequences, demands nothing, requires nothing; forgiveness, on the other hand, requires a response from us. If you make a grave mistake and your friend doesn’t acknowledge it, you are relieved you’ve gotten away with something. You’re thankful he hasn’t noticed. But if that friend recognizes your faults and forgives you, you’re infinitely more thankful—he’s looked your mistake in the face and said, in spite of it all, “To me, you’re worth forgiving.”
It feels cocky to ask God for this kind of mercy, but He wants us to. If He was passive-aggressive and bitter about our mistakes, Christ wouldn’t have come to suffer. The face of Christ on the Cross is the face of a beggar—He begs you to ask for this mercy, for your sake.
That’s what the Church does. In the week after Easter, the Divine Mercy novena is used as a special form of this devotion. But if you missed the novena, don’t worry—people say the five-minute chaplet every day. It’s a short, powerful way to ask for God’s forgiveness, and it gives us an opportunity to reflect on what mercy is and isn’t. In these cases, it’s often fruitful to thank God for being not what we want, but what we need.