John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Divine Mercy Sunday this year is April 28, the Sunday after Easter (the Second Sunday of Easter). If your pastor is like most, he’s now working on his schedule for Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, March 6. It’s time also to think about Divine Mercy Sunday.
Well, it depends on how your parish will celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy. To the extent that most American parishes observe the Feast (and there are still, unfortunately, too many parishes that don’t), they generally do so in a minimalistic way. The image of Divine Mercy is usually displayed in the sanctuary; priests say something about it in their homilies or write about it in the bulletin; and recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy takes place at 3 p.m. In some parishes, this last event is left to lay initiative; happily, most pastors recognize they should be with their people for that service.
Now, all this is fine but, as I said, minimalistic. It’s better than nothing, but it could be so much richer. Isn’t God’s Mercy worth that? But to make that celebration richer, advance planning is appropriate because the celebration is very much tied up with the Paschal Feasts, and should not just be an afterthought to them.
What do I mean by an afterthought?
The last two weeks before Easter, from the Fifth Sunday of Lent through Easter, are generally very active in most parishes. Priests generally tend to schedule penitential services and Confession times in this period. The Paschal Triduum itself involves liturgies that are intense, profound... and long. By the time most parish priests reach Easter Sunday evening, there is a palpable feeling: “We made it. It’s over.”
But it can’t be “over” if we are celebrating the Feast of Divine Mercy well.
One of the devotions associated with the Feast of Divine Mercy is a preparatory novena, starting on Good Friday. Reintroducing Catholics to the popular devotion of novenas is a worthwhile recovery of their spiritual heritage, and the Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday rites can all fit in the Novena prayer at the end, allowing parishioners as a whole to be introduced to the Feast (and theology) of Divine Mercy.
Continuing the Novena also becomes tricky in typical parish circumstances. Using the Novena as a good preparation for the Feast would mean including the Novena Prayers (and, ideally, Mass) during the Octave Days of Easter, i.e., from Easter Monday through Easter Saturday. Since most parishes now have daily Mass schedules largely unaccommodating to people who work, priests might consider evening Novena (and, again, Mass) times during that week. See now why planning for Divine Mercy Sunday is also connected to planning for Lent and Easter: if you don’t plan it now, you’re not likely to do it then.
Some might criticize my suggestions, saying that such effort seems disproportionate to a “private revelation,” especially in connection with the greatest celebrations of the Church’s year. That’s where I would take issue.
The Paschal Triduum is the heart of the Church’s year, but the heart of God’s message to man is mercy: “for us and for our salvation, He came down from heaven.” Jesus’ whole Life, Death, and Resurrection was about freeing man from sin, bringing him God’s mercy and forgiveness. That theme is the motif that bridges Lent, the Paschal Triduum and Eastertide: this whole period is about God’s forgiveness and pardon, so that man may “have life, and have it to the full.” Far from being alien or intrusive to these great celebrations, the theme of “Divine Mercy” pulls them all together, maintains a continuity from conversion to deepening our relationship with God.
What else involves planning? Well, part of St. Faustina Kowalska’s private revelations about the Feast of Divine Mercy was that it was a special feast of richness of God’s Mercy, open to full and complete remission of sins if accompanied by Confession before and Communion on the Feast.
That means planning for Confessions. Many priests will give this element short shrift, because their focus has been on Confessions toward the end of Lent. Ideally, however, priests would consider time before the 3 p.m. Divine Mercy service on that Sunday – or at least an extended period of time the day before – to provide opportunities for people who want to go to Confession. This means more than the typical 30 minutes wedged in before Saturday Evening Mass.
In the ancient Church, the Octave Days of Easter were a time of catechesis. The newly baptized now received their full instruction in the faith. Reading the Fathers of the Church, we often find their “mystagogical catecheses” precisely for these days.
Preparing to celebrate the Feast of Divine Mercy during these Octave Days is also a bridge from the Church’s ultimate Solemnity of Easter through those Octave Days to their closure on Divine Mercy Sunday. Here’s a chance to catechize your people – hopefully “washed clean from the stain of sin” (Easter Vigil prayer) during the Lenten preparation – to deepen and sustain their spiritual lives. If Lent is a time of conversion, then the Octave is a time to “confirm your brothers” in the faith by helping them to sustain their spiritual resolutions, relying on God’s Mercy, in the days, weeks and months ahead.
Finally, if we are really, really serious about Divine Mercy, then that Sunday Feast is also a point around which our parishes can organize themselves to take seriously how they carry out the corporeal and spiritual works of mercy all year long. Faith and works – they go together. Divine Mercy finds expression in merciful service of my brothers and sisters.
There is, unfortunately, a tendency in some quarters of separate “religion” and “social justice.” The theology of the Feast should correct that. The first place we need mercy is within ourselves, and that process begins with recognizing we are sinners in need of that mercy. That is why the generous service of the sacraments is particularly important in conjunction with the Feast.
But Divine Mercy ought not to be put away at 4 p.m. on Divine Mercy Sunday, like Christmas ornaments get stored in the weeks after Dec. 25. Divine Mercy is also honored when the service of mercy becomes part of a parish’s DNA – and that, too, does not happen spontaneously. It is a work of grace, but it is a work of planning. And the time for planning – the time for that decision to transform a parish into a spiritually alive locus of mercy – is now.
So lay folks – talk to your priests. And priests, think about what you’re going to do. Because Divine Mercy Sunday is on its way.
[For more resources on Divine Mercy Sunday, see https://www.thedivinemercy.org/divine-mercy-matters/]
All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.