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What is Divine Mercy?

DM 101: Week 1

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 1, 2005)
Mercy presents us with a semantic problem. After all, the word mercy in contemporary English has a very restricted meaning. It is usually used to refer to an act of pardon, as in "Let me off, judge; have mercy" or "He threw himself on the mercy of the court." In the Catholic tradition of theology, however, mercy means far more than just the cancellation of punishment. Far more then that.

In the Old Testament, there are two principle Hebrew words that we usually translate as mercy. First of all, there is the word hesed, which means "steadfast love, covenant love". According to the Catholic Biblical scholar John L. Mckenzie, the word hesed is often used in Hebrew in connection with other words which bring out its meaning, such as hesed-emet (steadfast, dependable love), hesed-sedekah (righteous, holy love) and hesed-yesua (rescuing, saving love). In a remarkable endnote to his encyclical "Dives in Misericordia" (Rich in Mercy), Pope John Paul II teaches that hesed contains the meaning of faithfulness to oneself, to ones own promises and commitments to others (note: Prof. Scott Hahn's popular book on the Bible is entitled The Father Who Keeps His Promises). The Holy Father writes (note 52):

"When in the Old Testament the word 'hesed' is used of the Lord, this always occurs in connection with the covenant that God established with Israel. This covenant was, on God's part, a gift and a grace for Israel...God had made a commitment to respect it...[this divine 'hesed'] showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as a love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin."

As we shall see, in a sense, the whole experience of Israel with God is an experience of His hesed-love (Is. 54:10): "For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love [hesed] shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord who has compassion on you. As John L. Mckenzie has written: "The entire history of the dealing of Yahweh with Israel can be summed up as hesed; it is the dominating motive which appears in his deeds, and the motive which gives unity and intelligibility to all His dealings with men" (Dictionary of the Bible).

The second most common word for God's mercy in the Old Testament is the Hebrew word "rachamim": tender, compassionate love, a love that springs from pity. Rachamim is often used in conjunction with hesed. It comes from a root word "rechem," which means a mother's womb. Thus, there is a special intimacy and responsiveness about this kind of love, and a special concern for the sufferings of others. The Holy Father sees hesed as, in a sense, a masculine form of love (steadfast, dependable, righteous, being true to oneself and true to one's promises), while rachamim is more feminine (tender, responsive, compassionate, like a mother responding in love to the sufferings of her child).

In the New Testament, the Greek word that is usually translated as "mercy" is the word "eleos." It can also be translated as loving kindness or tender compassion. The Greek word comes from a root word meaning oil that is poured out. Thus, when the church sings in her liturgy the Greek words Kyrie Eleison and Christie Eleison, she is praying that the merciful love of God will be poured out upon her children, like holy oil from above. According to the ancient Fathers of the Church, the Church herself was born from the wounded side of Christ, when out of His heart there poured out blood and water, symbolic of all the graces of the two chief sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist (Jn 19:34). In short, eleos is God's love poured out upon His people.

In the Latin tradition, the principal word for mercy is misericordia, which means, literally miserable heart. Fr. George Kosicki, CSB, the great Divine Mercy evangelist, once summed up the meaning of this Latin word as follows: misericordia means "having a pain in your heart for the pains of another, and taking pains to do something about their pain"

The most comprehensive statement by the magisterium on the meaning of Divine Mercy can be found in Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter "Dives in Misericordia" (Rich in Mercy, 1981). In that encyclical, the Holy Father made two very important statements about mercy. First, he wrote, "Mercy is love's second name." Secondly, he taught that mercy is "the greatest attribute of God."

Let us look at each of these statements in turn.

1) Mercy is Love's Second Name

Here the pope was not saying anything new. According to the Catholic theological tradition, mercy is a certain kind of love, a certain expression of love.

Love in general might be defined as a sharing and giving of oneself to another; a selfless seeking of the good of another. According to the Polish theologian Ignacy Rozycki (quoted in Pillars of Fire in my Soul: the Spirituality of St. Faustina, Marian Press, 2003, p.95):

"Traditional Catholic moral theology treats of the virtue of mercy as flowing from love of neighbor. Namely, it is that virtue which inclines us to offer assistance to a person suffering from want or misery. This being so, 'mercy' in moral theology... is not love itself but love's result and extension."

Thus, playing games with one's children, or enjoying and sharing conjugal love with one's spouse, or singing the praises of the Lord at Holy Eucharist, while each of these acts would be considered acts of "love" of various kinds, ordinarily we would not call them acts of "mercy." On the other hand, giving bread to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, and shelter to the homeless—or indeed bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the lost and the broken—these are all acts of merciful love: love stooping down to lift people out of their physical and spiritual miseries.

2) Mercy is the Greatest Attribute of God...

This series on the Divine Mercy will be continued next week.

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