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Divine mercy pope’s mantra in Poland visit

Kraków, Poland

The official theme of John Paul’s Aug. 16-19 trip to Poland was “God rich in mercy,” and to borrow the language of corporate PR, the pope stayed relentlessly on message. Repeating the word “mercy” in almost mantra-like fashion every time he spoke, he insisted that there can be no human mercy without divine mercy, that “the cause of man” cannot be decoupled from “the love of God.”

Among other things, this means that any attempt to build a merciful society while ignoring God -- the way the new European Union charter, for example, contains no reference to the continent’s Christian heritage -- cannot, in the pope’s view, succeed.

Most fundamentally, John Paul came home to “entrust the world” to God’s mercy through a devotion associated with early 20th-century Polish nun and mystic St. Faustina Kowalska. Her 600-page diary, published after her death at 33 from tuberculosis in 1938, records a series of revelations from Jesus, Mary and several saints that ask for devotion to a sacred image, special prayers, and a feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter.

Despite the fact that Faustina’s diary and devotion were under a Vatican ban from 1959 to 1978, John Paul has long been convinced of the urgency of her message. As a young man, he prayed at her tomb while working at the nearby Solvay chemical plant during the Nazi occupation. He began beatification procedures for Faustina in 1965 as archbishop of Kraków. As pope he has aggressively promoted Divine Mercy, beatifying Faustina in 1993 and canonizing her in 2000.

To many, it doubtless seems improbable that the writings of an obscure Polish nun with only three years of schooling hold the key to humanity’s future. Yet in the pope’s reading of history, it is no accident that the message of mercy was entrusted to a daughter of Poland, the “Christ of nations” on account of its suffering, or that the revelations took place from 1931 to 1938, between two wars that produced an apogee of mercilessness.

At Kraków’s Blonia Commons Aug. 18, the pope said that by “using the testimony of a lowly sister,” Jesus had “entered our time in order to indicate clearly the source of relief and hope found in the eternal mercy of God.”

That Mass drew 2.2 million people, the largest crowd for any of John Paul’s nine trips to his home country. There were an additional 500,000 people gathered on surrounding streets, according to police estimates.

While it formed the core of the papal message, the call for mercy was by and large not the story told by the world’s media. To watch TV or read the papers, John Paul’s four-day sojourn in and around Kraków, where he served as archbishop before being elected pope on Oct. 16, 1978, was more a trip down memory lane.

The event certainly had biographical elements, from a brief stop at the tomb of the pope’s parents and elder brother at Kraków’s Rakowice cemetery, to an emotional Mass at the Kalwaria Zebryzdowska sanctuary in the hills outside town where he came to pray after the loss of his mother. To some extent, the pope himself fed this perception, recalling out loud the wooden shoes he once wore to trek through the mud on his way to Faustina’s shrine, and stopping by his old Kraków parish to tick off the names of some priest friends.

There was also the feeling of a farewell, as many Poles turned out to cheer the pope for one last time on what was perhaps his final trip home. (Anyone who remembers the way his 1997 and 1999 trips to Poland were also covered as his last, however, wouldn’t bet on it.)

As is his custom in Kraków, the pope appeared each night at the window of the archbishop’s residence overlooking Franciszkanska Street to swap songs and jokes with the crowd. He did the same at each Mass and after his Sunday Angelus remarks. At one point the Poles implored him to “Stay with us!” and he quipped: “Nice … you want me to desert the Vatican!”

In the end, however, it was neither nostalgia nor goodbyes that brought John Paul to Poland, but the gleaming new Shrine of Divine Mercy in the Kraków suburb of Legiewniki. He came to offer the message of Faustina as the answer to the problems of humanity.

The pope used strong, in some cases almost apocalyptic, language.

“When the noisy propaganda of liberalism, of freedom without truth or responsibility, grows stronger in our country too, the shepherds of the church cannot fail to proclaim the one fool-proof philosophy of freedom,” the pope said.

Pointing to genetic engineering, attacks on the family, euthanasia and other social policies opposed by the church, John Paul warned of a “mystery of evil” in the world seeking to silence the voice of God, to make God a “great absence in the culture and conscience of peoples.”

The pope urged humanity to turn to Divine Mercy.

“May this message radiate from this place to our beloved homeland and throughout the world,” he said. “In the mercy of God the world will find peace, and mankind will find happiness.”

Privately, some observers grumble that John Paul has abused his office to impose his personal spirituality on the Catholic world. “The church is not the pope’s private sandbox,” one Roman professor told NCR. Some liturgists also complain that the Feast of Divine Mercy has no business in the Easter season, which is supposed to be about the joy of resurrection, not a sinful humanity’s need for mercy.

The Divine Mercy devotion consists of five elements: prayer before the Divine Mercy image, showing Jesus with two rays of red and white light pouring from his heart with the slogan “Jesus, I trust in you”; a special prayer known as the “chaplet of divine mercy”; an annual feast of Divine Mercy on the Sunday after Easter; a prayer recalling Christ’s suffering on the cross, to be said every day at 3 p.m.; and the propagation of the Divine Mercy movement throughout the world.

John Paul added a new component: a pastoral plan of mercy for the church, what he called “creativity in charity.”

“This is needed to provide material and spiritual assistance to neglected children; to refrain from turning one’s back on the boy or girl who has gotten lost in the world of addiction or crime; to give advice, consolation, spiritual support to those engaged in an internal struggle with evil,” he said.

As a practical application of this idea, the pope referred to a current initiative from the Polish Catholic church along with governmental and nongovernmental organizations to buy up surplus Polish grain and send it to the hungry in Africa, expressing his hope that the initiative would “come to fruition.”

This was the pope’s ninth trip to Poland, the 98th foreign journey of his pontificate, and it was not without political subtext.

John Paul addressed the economic and social problems still plaguing the country. Poland is a classic case of post-communist maladjustment, in which a thin entre-preneurial strata of society has done quite well while large sectors of the population, especially in rural areas, remain impoverished.

“The church has always reminded society that a positive future cannot be built on the impoverishment of man, on injustice, on the suffering of our brothers and sisters,” the pope said. “Those who work within the spirit of Catholic social ethics cannot remain indifferent to the fate of those who are without work, live in a state of increasing poverty, with no prospect of improvement for themselves or for their children’s future.”

As the pope left for Rome Aug. 19, many Poles wondered if they would see their father-in-exile again. They were of two minds.

“This may be the last time the pope comes,” said Marie Sadowska, 14, explaining why she wanted to be at the Aug. 18 papal Mass.

Jadwiga Tombarkiewicz had different ideas. “You cannot say this is the last time,” she said. “We don’t want to hear about it. We want him to live 100 years.”

Even Joaquín Navarro-Valls got in on the act, saying during the Aug. 19 Mass that he is “personally convinced” the pope will come back.

What does John Paul think?

At his airport parting ceremony Aug. 19, the pope apologized to those he wasn’t able to see on this trip. Then he added: “Maybe next time.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002