Divine Mercy Sunday is April 8, 2018, the Octave Day of Easter. Devotion to Divine Mercy has been growing worldwide for many years and was added to the calendar of the universal Church in 2000, the year St. John Paul II canonized St. Faustina Kowalska.
St. Faustina Kowalska was a nun who, in the 1930s, received a series of private revelations centered on God’s mercy as his greatest attribute. She recorded those experiences in her Diary. In addition to a theology and spirituality of Divine Mercy, the revelations also contain five concrete forms of devotion requested by the Lord, one of which was the institution of the Feast of Divine Mercy. (The others include a chaplet prayer, similar to the rosary; a daily 3:00 p.m. reflection on Christ’s passion and divine mercy; an image of Jesus as the Divine Mercy; and a request to spread mercy, both in terms of the devotions themselves, as well as through concrete spiritual and corporeal acts of mercy). The devotions themselves also have promises attached to them for those who pray them sincerely.
In the case of the Feast of Divine Mercy, our Lord promises that “… [W]however approaches the Fount of Life on this day will be granted complete remission of sins and punishment” (Diary, # 300). “On this day, the very depths of my tender mercy are open. I pour a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of my mercy. The soul that will go to confession, and receive Holy Communion, shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. … Let no soul fear to draw near to me, even though its sins be as scarlet” (Diary, # 699).
Most parishes seem to observe Divine Mercy Sunday in a relatively minimal way. Priests mention something about the feast in the homily and perhaps put the Image of Divine Mercy on the parish bulletin. Parishes should consider handing out holy cards or other images of the Divine Mercy for people to display in their homes. This not only addresses Our Lord’s promise to bless those who venerate the image, but also helps restore some Christian imagery and iconography to our peoples’ homes whose religious décor is often more Zwinglian than Catholic. Some may even arrange for recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, the zealous perhaps at 3:00 pm (the hour of Divine Mercy), though I have seen such afternoon devotions also left to the devices of lay people.
All things considered, the routine described above (which does not seem atypical in many American parishes) is better than nothing. But if we want to make the Feast a truly rich experience, we need to plan ahead of time … even at the beginning of Lent.
I say at the beginning of Lent because that is when many parishes already set their schedules for Holy Week and Easter. Because the Feast of Divine Mercy is the Octave of Easter, it is very much tied up with the Paschal Feasts … and, unfortunately, sometimes prone to be overshadowed, or at least an afterthought, to them.
What do I mean by overshadowed or an afterthought? The Paschal Triduum is the high point of the Church year, marked by involved, beautiful, and long liturgies that reflect on the mysteries of salvation. In preparation for the Paschal Triduum, many parishes begin to step up their penitential services (availability of individual confessions and/or a communal penance service with individual confessions), especially during the fifth week of Lent and/or the first days of Holy Week. The truth is that, for many parishes and parish priests, the closure of the Paschal Triduum with evening prayer of Easter Sunday represents something of a denouement from an intense one or two weeks.
But celebrating the Feast of Divine Mercy in more than a minimal way, limited to the actual day, requires consciously recasting how priests approach the windup of Easter. One of the devotions associated with the Feast is its nine day preparatory novena, beginning on Good Friday. In theory, every parish could launch its parishioners into the Feast by incorporating the prayers for days one, two, and three of the Novena into Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday services. The remaining six days can be celebrated in conjunction with daily Mass. Since, however, increasing numbers of parishes have daily Mass at times of limited availability to most working people in the parish, the more ambitious clergy might consider adding evening novena devotions (ideally including Mass) for the Octave Week of Easter. See why this requires planning before Lent begins?
Likewise, a special grace of complete remission of sins is promised in connection with Confession and Communion on the Feast of Divine Mercy. Most commentators agree that the requirements are met by going to confession in the days prior to the Feast and receiving Communion at a regular Sunday Mass.
Obviously, parishes that schedule the Divine Mercy Novena can use the time as an occasion for making available the sacrament of Penance. Otherwise, in the normal American parish, it is likely that confessions will be scheduled sometime during Holy Week (growing numbers of parishes are happily pushing back against a misguided trend, popular in the 1980s and 1990s, that excluded scheduled confessions from the Paschal Triduum) and on the Saturday before Divine Mercy Sunday. At the very least, confessions on that Saturday should be scheduled for more than the typical 30 minutes in the usual parish program, and be promoted. If some kind of service is scheduled at 3:00 pm on Divine Mercy Sunday (my preference is for Mass with recitation of the Chaplet, which allows for reception of the Eucharist), priests should also consider making confessions available some time before it.
I can hear, at this point, the objection that I am wedging an optional private devotion into the premier liturgies of the church year. I suggest that the objection is based on a misunderstanding. What the Church has been celebrating throughout Lent, the Paschal Triduum, and Eastertide is … Divine Mercy. Divine Mercy is nothing less than God’s Will to save us, which is what the central events of the Paschal Mystery are all about … and what we prepare for throughout Lent, celebrate intensively in the Triduum, and celebrate superabundantly in 50 days of Easter. Far from being an intrusion, the celebration of Divine Mercy stands at the core of what these 93 days—more than a quarter of the Church year—are explicitly about.
Finally, if we are really serious about Divine Mercy—not just as a devotion but as a core pillar of our spirituality—then we should consider how a parish or community can incorporate expressions (and not just devotions) of Divine Mercy into its life. Concretely, that means that a parish (or a group within the community) needs to examine how their religious devotion to the Divine Mercy (which beautifully reaches its apex concurrently with the holiest days of the Church year) can find expression and extension throughout the year in spiritual and corporal works of mercy. That, however, is not something that can be planned even at the beginning of Lent: it is something that requires a conscious, long-term parish commitment.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is the Church of the Holy Spirit in Vilnius (Lithuania) that houses the original painting of Divine Mercy as revealed to Blessed Sister Faustina by Jesus.