To grasp the full symbolism of the Vatican rites in which a million or more Catholics celebrated the beatification of Pope John Paul II, it helps to understand the visions recorded decades earlier in the diary of Sister Mary Faustina Kowalksa.
Popes come and popes go. But the lives of this Polish nun and this Polish pope may be helping to reshape a crucial piece of the Catholic year — the celebrations that follow Easter, the high point of the Christian year.
It was in 1937 that Sister Faustina wrote: “As I was praying for Poland I heard the words: I bear a special love for Poland, and if she will be obedient to My will, I will exalt her in might and holiness. From her will come forth the spark that will prepare the world for My final coming.”
After her earlier visions, which church leaders initially discounted, the young nun had written down a cycle of prayers appealing for God’s forgiveness and mercy, a set of devotions that became known as the “Divine Mercy Chaplet.” In the years after her death in 1938, a seminarian in nearby Krakow named Karol Wojtyla became devoted to these prayers and to the legacy of Sister Faustina.
Wojtyla, of course, soon became a priest and a popular professor, before beginning his ascent as a bishop, archbishop and cardinal. Then, in 1978, he became Pope John Paul II.
No one was surprised when this loyal son of Poland beatified Sister Faustina on April 18, 1993, and canonized her on April 30, 2000. “The message of Divine Mercy has always been near and dear to me,” noted John Paul II, during a 1997 pilgrimage to the nun’s tomb. It could be said, he added, that her message “forms the image of this pontificate.”
The next crucial date in this time line came shortly after Sister Faustina became St. Faustina, when Pope John Paul II established that the first Sunday after Easter would also be celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday.The elevation of this humble “daughter of my land, is not only a gift for Poland but for all humanity,” declared John Paul II, in his 2001 sermon on the first Divine Mercy Sunday. “Indeed the message she brought is the appropriate and incisive answer that God wanted to offer to the questions and expectations of human beings in our time, marked by terrible tragedies. Jesus said to Sr. Faustina one day: ‘Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to My mercy.’ Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity.”
Only four years later, the timing of the pope’s death added another connection between Easter and Divine Mercy Sunday, as well as between his life and that of St. Faustina. John Paul died after sundown on the Saturday after Easter, literally at the end of a Divine Mercy vigil and Mass that was celebrated at his bedside.
As this rite ended, witnesses said the pope managed one last benediction before he died — a simple “amen.”
Thus, the beatification rites for John Paul II were held on the anniversary of his death, as it would fall on the liturgical calendar — Divine Mercy Sunday.
If he is later canonized as a saint — crowds have been chanting the title “John Paul the Great” since the day of his death — it is logical to ask how this could impact the liturgical calendar for the 1.1 billion Catholics living and worshiping around the world.
The week begins with Easter, the highest moment of celebration in the Christian year. Then comes the “octave” of days dedicated to the Divine Mercy prayers, a period in which priests can offer special confession opportunities for those seeking to return to the sacramental life of the church.
At the end of the week there is Divine Mercy Sunday, which the Catholic Church now teaches is the day when, according to the vision of St. Faustina, forgiveness is uniquely available for all who repent and turn to God. The gates of heaven are wide open.
Could celebrations of the life of St. John Paul the Great — the charismatic pope whose words will live on in every conceivable form of mass media — somehow become linked to this great week of celebration?
Follow the time line. Do the math.