My slight but real difficulty over the years with the Divine Mercy Novena — and how I finally made peace with it
Just over 7 years ago I made a confession in a blog post (“When Devotions Aren’t Helpful,” April 13, 2012) regarding a certain tension I felt each year praying the Divine Mercy Novena that begins on Good Friday and ends on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday.
This post is a follow-up of sorts to report that I’ve struck upon a kind of solution — one that works for my family and me, anyway.
First, the issue: As much as I love the Divine Mercy devotion, including the Divine Mercy image, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, and Divine Mercy Sunday, there was and is something about the timing that bothers me. Here’s what I wrote in 2012:
Here we’ve made it through 40 days of Lenten penance, through the rigors of Holy Week and Triduum, with the abjection of Good Friday, finally arriving at the glory of Easter and the Easter Octave — and here we are, day in and day out throughout the Easter Octave, focusing with laserlike intensity on the sake of His sorrowful Passion, the sake of His sorrowful Passion, the sake of His sorrowful Passion, fifty times a day all Easter Week long. Isn’t that a little, you know, Good Friday for a season in which we ought to be joyously celebrating the resurrection of Christ, not His sorrowful Passion?
After writing this, I was interested to learn that these sentiments are shared — in spades — by some traditionalist Catholics who are no fans of the Divine Mercy Novena, Divine Mercy Sunday, or indeed the whole Divine Mercy devotion of St. Faustina Kowalska and Pope St. John Paul II, who canonized St. Faustina and instituted Divine Mercy Sunday. In the words of one such traditionalist:
[A]fter feasting through 95 percent of Lent, when Easter arrived there would be a week of intense prayer “for the sake of His sorrowful Passion.” It’s like a Vatican II bizarro world … There is a time for fasting for the sake of His sorrowful Passion, and a time for feasting in celebration of the risen Lord. Easter and all Sundays are times for feasting.
To find myself, if not entirely agreeing with this traditionalist critique, at least having convergent concerns, struck me as simultaneously awkward and oddly gratifying.
On the one hand, I am not, and never will be, a traditionalist of this sort. Neither John Paul II nor Vatican II are immune from critique, but both are fixtures in my Catholic worldview; I see the hand of God at work in both, and I will never reject or denounce either.
Yet I get where the traditionalist critique is coming from. (I have also long thought that Lenten fasting and abstinence ought to be more rigorous than is currently prescribed or typical for Latin Catholics.)
As for the Divine Mercy Chaplet and Novena, as a personal devotion given by private revelation, no one is obliged to embrace it. If anyone finds it unhelpful for the reasons mentioned above or for any other reasons, they are more than free to spend the Easter Octave praying some other devotion they find more edifying.
Yet I never even considered abandoning the Divine Mercy Novena. My misgivings were enough to keep me thinking about the issue, but not enough to trump the benefits of the Novena for me.
At the same time, it was oddly gratifying to know that my misgivings weren’t simply my own idiosyncratic scruples — the hang-ups of a convert to Catholicism, on some level perhaps wanting everything to suit my personal tastes and prepared to jettison whatever posed any kind of difficulty or obstacle.
I’ve long believed that part of the promise of becoming Catholic in the first place was to be liberated from the tyranny of my own personal tastes, to be free to approach the riches of the Church’s traditions of prayer and devotion with docility and openness, as opposed to simply looking only for whatever is naturally appeals to us and omitting or avoiding everything else.
At the same time, the riches of Catholicism have encouraged me to recognize that it’s okay to acknowledge that some forms of devotion are more helpful some people than they are to others. (That’s part of what my whole 2012 post was about.)
Our own tastes and sensibilities shouldn’t dictate everything, but it’s okay to have tastes and sensibilities, and to generally prefer what we find more meaningful or edifying to what poses more obstacles or difficulties for us.
Sometimes, indeed, obstacles and difficulties are simply signs of areas in which we have opportunity to grow. But not always. Forms of popular piety are optional for a reason. God did not create us all to be exactly the same.
My family’s prayer life isn’t exactly like anyone else’s. (Going back 9 years, I blogged about the Jesus Prayer chaplet I created for our family, which we pray on weekends. On Fridays we pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The remaining four days, Monday through Thursday, we pray the Rosary, with the three traditional sets of mysteries plus the Luminous Mysteries following the chronological order of the Lord’s life.)
While I’m open to careful experimentation in private and family devotions, when it comes to the Divine Mercy Chaplet I wouldn’t presume, even in my private devotions, to change or omit a word.
In commending the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary to the Church, Pope St. John Paul II called the Rosary a venerable method of contemplation that nevertheless was capable of being improved. In principle I’m sure he would have said the same applies to the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
Yet, unlike the Rosary, which has changed and evolved over the centuries in many ways, the Divine Mercy Chaplet has been unchanged since its introduction by St. Faustina. Again, I don’t think this makes it unchangeable, but at any rate I’m not going to be the one to change a word.
And yet, a couple of years ago I came up with a personal approach to the Divine Mercy Chaplet that addresses my Easter Week concerns.
It came to me while I was meditating on the unity between Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, which together form the Paschal Mystery celebrated and re-presented in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The mercy of God comes to us through the totality of Christ’s Paschal Mystery, through the Passion and Resurrection together; as St. Paul says, Christ was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
I had thought more than once that, had the Divine Mercy Chaplet invoked the Paschal Mystery instead of the “sorrowful Passion,” it would never have been a problem for me. But, again, I’m not going to change the wording of the prayer.
Then I realized that I didn’t have to change or omit anything. I could simply gloss the prayer with an added interjection or interpolation, like so:
For the sake of His sorrowful Passion and glorious Resurrection, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
Thus, for the past couple of years — it will be three this year — my family and I pray the Chaplet normally on Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Then, beginning on Easter Sunday, we pray it for the remaining seven days with invoking the sorrowful Passion and glorious Resurrection together each time.
As the italics suggest, the interjection has a kind of natural emphatic force from the fact that we only pray the Chaplet this way seven days out of the year.
I don’t propose this for everyone, or for anyone outside my family, unless someone finds it helpful. At any rate, I have no illusions that my approach would be helpful to everyone, even to everyone who feels the same tension that I did.
Doubtless to traditionalist critics of St. Faustina and John Paul II, my gloss would be like putting lipstick on a pig. After all, we’re still invoking the sorrowful Passion and the Divine Mercy in a season in which, according to them, this is inappropriate. (I don’t agree with this at all. Easter is a season of celebration, but also a season of grace and mercy.)
I’m sure there are also Divine Mercy devotees who see no problem at all, whom my gloss would strike as gilding the lily at best, if not somehow damaging to the purity of the devotion. (I don’t agree with this either, obviously.)
People feel strongly about devotions to which they are attached — and sometimes about devotions to which they are very much unattached. I don’t write this to pick a quarrel with anyone, or to tell anyone else what to do.
Rather, I simply share it for readers who many find my journey and the way I’ve tried to approach these matters interesting and possibly (even, perhaps, in ways I wouldn’t expect or anticipate) helpful.
Jesus, I trust in you!
EDIT: To my astonishment, I’m now hearing from a number of people who have not only had the same misgivings that I have praying the Divine Mercy Novena during Easter Week, but who have dealt with it in very similar ways. (See the comments below for one.)
That seems to me pretty striking confirmation that I’m onto something.