Church history has known many models of Christian mercy. In our time, a new model emerged, which was contributed to the life of the Church by St. Sister Faustina and Pope John Paul II. Theologians define this model as a personalistic one, since it primarily focuses on human dignity, and not on man’s needs or on the very act of mercy, as is the case in other earlier models. Pope John Paul II used his works to present it in theological terms, chiefly in the encyclical Dives in Misericordia, and, in her work entitled Diary, St. Sister Faustina presented it in a descriptive way, using the language of a mystic and a practitioner. The Diary reveals not only her understanding of mercy, but also the way in which an attitude of mercy took shape in her life and ways of practising active love towards one’s neighbour.
I the practice of Christian mercy the understanding of the concept itself is extremely important, because the quality of the practice of goodness to another person depends on it. Today there are many false notions of mercy, and according to some of them mercy is often equated with leniency, pity, or cancelling out justice, and therefore St. Sister Faustina’s concept of mercy, proper and thorough, is worth noting. For her, human mercy is very closely related to the mercy of God, the source, model and motive for human mercy. Such mercy assumes fulfilment of the requirements of justice, which is the basic measure of love, and leads to specific action. Sister Faustina wrote that “Mercy is the flower of love” (Diary 651), “God is love, and mercy is His deed”, so mercy is a deed of Love (cf. Diary 651).
In the life and writings of St. Sister Faustina, practising mercy toward one’s neighbours must first and foremost take into account the dignity of the person in need, and then man’s bodily and spiritual needs. The same dignity is shared by the person in need and by the welldoer, such dignity being an intrinsic value of every human being, already given to man by God by virtue of his creation and redemption. What makes St. Sister Faustina’s personalistic school of mercy distinctive from other models that have emerged in the history of the Church, and also makes it an essential foundation for the practice of mercy, is precisely this acknowledgement of the dignity of the one who is in need – a dignity given to him by God, and emphasized by Christ.
This understanding of mercy, whose source, model and motive is in God, and which focuses on human dignity – constitutes, according to Sister Faustina, a way of life. It does not consist only in sporadic or occasional acts of mercy towards the needy, but implies that a Christian’s attitude towards all other people should be completely guided by merciful love. Sister Faustina prayed: “I want to be completely transformed into Your mercy and to be Your living reflection, O Lord. May the greatest of all divine attributes, that of Your unfathomable mercy, pass through my heart and soul to my neighbour” (Diary 163).
A Look at the Christian Mercy
An Interview with Father Prof. Henryk Wejman
I the twentieth century, in which ideals that deny mercy (Marxism and the vegetative-biological conception of Nietzsche) spread to such a great extent, the revelations of Sister Faustina cast new light on this issue. What distinguishes her approach to human mercy?
Sister Faustina’s view of mercy requires one to pay attention to two details: the first is connected to her understanding of Divine Mercy, and the second concerns the prayers addressed to Divine Mercy.
“Everything that exists has come forth from the very depths of My most tender mercy.” (Diary 699), and “Everything is enclosed in the bowels of My mercy, more deeply than an infant in its mother’s womb.” (Diary 1076). In these words Sister Faustina expressed the depth of the bond between God and man, which greatly exceeds the bond of an unborn child with his mother. The depth of the mercy of God has implications for man in his every situation, and above all in his moral fall, that is sin. Sister Faustina raised this concern of God for man to the level of the principle of the working of God, which she described in three stages: Firstly, “the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy” (Diary 1182); secondly, “The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy” (Diary 723); and thirdly, “I am more generous toward sinners than toward the just” (Diary 1275). At first glance it seems that there is no connection between the above statements, however, a deeper analysis reveals a close connection between them. Each misery calls for help and it does so according to the principle of proportionality, i.e. the greater misery calls for greater help. And the greatest misery is sin because it separates man from God. In turn, the nature of Divine Mercy is to help, and therefore sinners have priority in anticipation of this support from God. The Lord Jesus Himself pointed to this dimension of mercy when He said to Sister Faustina: “A soul’s greatest wretchedness does not enkindle Me with wrath; but rather, My Heart is moved towards it with great mercy.” (Diary 1739). Consequently, God in His mercy does not shrink from human misery, but gives Himself to man, and His mercy increases with the giving.
The second detail relates to the Divine Mercy prayer: “Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins and those of the whole world; for the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world” (Diary 475-476). The words of this prayer are pretty startling. What do they mean? Namely, that man enters into God’s internal Triune life to place before God’s eyes the sight of His crucified Son and to say: ‘God – look at us through Him’. Only a mystic can have the courage to offer such a prayer to people.
The teaching of Pope John Paul II corresponds with such a concept of mercy, which has its source, motive and model in God (the conception of St. Sister Faustina). Can we identify some specific elements, which earlier concepts of mercy lack?
John Paul II presents mercy in a personalistic way. He perceives it as a personal encounter between the donor and the recipient of good. According to him this meeting becomes real when three criteria are met: loyalty of man to himself, common experience of personal dignity and axiological equating of persons. These determine a man’s genuine attitude of mercy towards another man.
In the thought of John Paul II, God is the source of man’s existence, as a consequence both of his creation and his redemption (cf. DM 4 and 7). Thus, faithfulness to oneself, i.e. to one’s personal dignity received from God, constitutes the first element of John Paul II’s conception of the attitude of mercy. The degree to which every person remains faithful to his dignity, the source of which is in God the Creator, will be the measure of his sensitivity to the saving another person’s dignity, even someone who has betrayed this dignity: and he will be sensitive to building unity among people.
In the view of John Paul II, the second condition for the authenticity of mercy put into practice, is “the common experience of that good which is man”. The Pope explains that “the relationship of mercy is based on the common experience of that good which is man, on the common experience of the dignity that is proper to him” (DM 6). The essence of the attribute expressed above is revealed fully in the meeting between the father and the son in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-32). The Pope says that the basis of the father’s mercy is “the good of his son’s humanity,” – although the son squandered his inheritance, he saved his own humanity, and indeed discovered his own humanity (cf. DM 6). The fact is, when the person who practices good sees above all the dignity of the person in need, and not its lack, then the help given becomes subjective support. The receiver of the help feels appreciated rather than humiliated. However, when the person who helps fails in this approach, then instead of helping the needy person, he humiliates him.
And finally, according to the thinking of John Paul II the third condition of the personalistic way of showing mercy consists in making people equal. The person who does good is to adapt the attitude of the one who receives it (cf. DM 14). A genuine attitude of mercy is found only when the one who does good and the one who receives it meet together in the same good, which is human dignity. This equating does not mean obliterating the differences. The Pope says that “the person who gives becomes more generous when he feels at the same time benefitted by the person accepting his gift; and vice versa, the person who accepts the gift with the awareness that, in accepting it, he too is doing good, is in his own way serving the great cause of the dignity of the human person; and this contributes to uniting people in a more profound manner” (DM 14). Therefore in essence the attitude of mercy is expressed in the ability to give and the ability to accept the gift.
Therefore being merciful, in the teaching of John Paul II, means providing help to another person with the same disposition with which one would want to accept help. And that is the novelty of John Paul II’s approach to mercy.
There is a great wealth of historical views on mercy. What should be most important for us today if we want to be good witnesses of mercy?
To be a witness of mercy in contemporary reality, one must first trust the God who has endowed man with existence and restored him the dignity of being a child of God, and then in the spirit of this trust one must notice everyone in need, be open towards them and remedy their needs in a gentle manner, that is, with deference to human dignity.
Sister M. Koleta Fronckowiak OLM records her thanks for the conversation.
“Orędzie Miłosierdzia” (Message of Mercy), 65 (2008), pp. 8-9.
Translated by Orest Pawlak