It is not surprising that mainstream and liberal journalist have taken Pope Francis’ comments in a recent wide-ranging interview and predictably twisted them according to their own hopeful agenda. This should, in fact, never surprise us when it comes to the media today.
Amid the constant headlines, talk shows, editorials, spin and sputtering, Pope Francis’ comments have been misinterpreted and overblown. However, when one takes the time to read and reflect on what Pope Francis actually said, we can see that he in no way contradicts Church teachings when it comes to same sex marriage, abortion, or contraception methods.
In fact, he has said, “the teachings of the Church, for that matter is clear, and I am a son of the Church.” While the interviews have created a back and forth between more liberal and conservative thought – I submit to you instead the close association of Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy and the strong ties therein to the Divine Mercy devotion.
The Divine Mercy devotion, which began spreading throughout the world in the 1930’s, stems from a poor and uneducated Polish nun, Sister Maria Faustina, (1905-1938) from Kraków, Poland. Sister Faustina was considered to have been a mystic and visionary who recorded visions of Jesus and her conversations with him, which she wrote about in her diary, which has since been widely published. Blessed John Paul II, then Archbishop of Krakow, steered the devotion to Rome for approval in 1978, becoming Pope a few months later. On the first Sunday after Easter in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized Faustina as the first saint of the new millennium and declared that each Sunday following Easter, henceforth, be celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday. The pope commented that it was the happiest day of his life. As he dedicated the Shrine of Divine Mercy, Blessed John Paul said, “Apart from the mercy of God there is no other source of hope for mankind”. As we know, Pope John Paul died on the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, April 2005.
If you’ve been following Pope Francis, you no doubt are aware of his strong emphasis on mercy since becoming pope six months ago –not only in his words, but also in his deeds. I’ve been struck at how closely related his accent on mercy aligns directly with the messages of Divine Mercy given to St. Faustina by Christ himself. During one of his recent homilies, Pope Francis said, “it is not easy to entrust oneself to God’s mercy, because it is an abyss beyond our comprehension. But we must!” This reflects directly on the words of Christ regarding his abyss of mercy which he gave to Faustina saying, “The greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to my mercy; [urge] all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of my mercy, because I want to save them all. On the cross, the fountain of My mercy was wide opened by the lance for all souls – no one have I excluded!” (Notebook III item 1182). As Pope Francis says God’s mercy is indeed an abyss beyond our understanding and it is God’s unfathomable mercy that Pope Francis is trying to reach souls through. Pope Francis recently said, “I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.” Mercy is, after all, about meeting a person where they are at – wounds and all, just as Christ meets us where we are at.
In a church where weekly Mass attendance is at an all-time low in Western Europe and in America, where only four-in-ten attend weekly Mass, it appears Pope Francis has recognized that a merciful hand must instead be extended if there is any hope of reaching fallen away Catholics and beyond. Does this mean to change our moral teachings on issues such as protecting the unborn or opposing same-sex marriage? Absolutely not, but it does certainly point out the need for a new approach.
Christ calls all of us to be merciful as his Father in heaven is merciful. In the Diary of St. Maria Faustina, Christ noted, “Let the greatest sinners place their trust in my mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My mercy.” (Notebook III, item 1146). Once when St. Faustina asked Jesus, “Tell me, who is the cause of Your sadness? And Jesus answered, “Chosen souls who do not have My spirit, who live according to the letter [cf. 2 Cor. 3:6] and have placed the letter above My spirit, above the spirit of love. I have founded my whole law on love, and yet I do not see love, even in religious orders. This is why sadness fills my heart” (Notebook IV, item 1478).
The Pope knows that when others are drawn close to Christ through love and mercy, it leads to conversion. This is the “context” Pope Francis is talking about. Once we know God’s saving and merciful love in our lives, then we are more willing and able to grasp the Church’s moral teachings since, as Pope Francis said, “ministers of the Church must, above all, be ministers of mercy.”
The primary focus of the Divine Mercy devotion is the merciful love of God and the desire to let that love and mercy flow through one’s own heart towards those who need it most. For as Christ told Faustina, “Write that I am more generous toward sinners than the just. It was for their sake that I came down from heaven; it was for their sake that my Blood was spilled. Let them not fear to approach Me; they are in most need of my mercy” (Notebook IV, item 1275). Pope Francis clearly recognizes this and is reaching out those of us who are in need of such mercy, for Christ came for souls such as ours.
Therefore, if you wish to have a greater understanding of Pope Francis, take some time to read the Diary of Saint Faustina. In it, you will find the boundless merciful words of Christ that act as a healing balm for our weary and wounded hearts, minds and souls, that of our family members, and the world. A greater understanding of the Divine Mercy devotion flows into a greater understanding of Pope Francis who is calling all of us to accompany him on the way of mercy.
By no means does this mean we scale back efforts to protect life from conception to natural death, defend our religious freedoms, or endorse same-sex marriage. What it does mean is that we recognize, as Pope Francis recently said, that “it is a time of mercy” for as Christ asked St. Faustina to record in her diary in 1934, “Before I come as a Just Judge, I am coming first as the King of Mercy” (Notebook 1, item 83). Therefore, through the Mercy of God, let us live our own lives with similar merciful hearts so that we too may reach others where they are at.