Baffled by Divine Mercy Sunday

Baffled by Divine Mercy Sunday April 30, 2011

I am totally confused by Divine Mercy Sunday tomorrow.  According to my googling (which began, but did not end on Wikipedia) this Catholic feast was established on the basis of visions by St. Faustina.  On this Sunday, Catholics are asked to attend confession that day, before they go to Mass, parishes are asked to display the image above (or a similar design) during services, and, as a result of these practices, those Catholics who go to confession and receive the Eucharist that day will receive a plenary indulgence.

The whole thing leaves me much more puzzled than most of the ritual and theology I’ve been exposed to.  First of all, I apparently have completely misunderstood what indulgences are.  As far as I can tell by googling, when a priest forgives sin in confession, he saves that person from Hell, but, in addition to the assigned penance, more penance must be done after death in Purgatory.  A plenary indulgence wipes out penances someone has racked up to serve in Purgatory to date.  Can someone confirm in the comments if this is correct?

Thus, I take it that, while someone who died after being confessed on an ordinary day could be assumed to not be in Hell, someone who died on Divine Mercy Sunday after receiving confession and communion could be assumed to be in heaven?  Again, this technical kind of rule strikes me as extremely weird.  If the point of Purgatory is to continue to burn off the dross of humanity to become fully Christ-like, it doesn’t seem like Divine Mercy Sunday would actually accomplish this, or, if it did, you’d see a lot more saints walking out of Mass that day.  Surely so profound a transformation would have some noticeable effect!

I’d love to hear explanations of the theology underlying the feast or some details about how the Church decided the visions were licit (St. Faustina’s writings were on the banned books index for a while).

My read (as someone outside the Church) is that this (and a lot of theology of the afterlife) sounds like scriptural fanfiction.  It sounds like the embroideries and encyclopedic extensions of a canon that I’m most accustomed to seeing in Harry Potter forums.  It’s not that the new story can’t be harmonized with the established facts, but the whole thing seems superfluous and speculative.

Obviously, I’m working on limited data, so I’m open for correction in the comments.

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  • The "extra penance in purgatory" might be either the penance given in the confessional and not done, or penance that OUGHT to have been assigned in the confessional and wasn't. For example, if you receive the Blessed Sacrament with only venial sins on your soul, your sins are forgiven, but nobody assigns you penance. That hardly means you need not do any. The nifty thing about indulgences is that they can still be obtained for the benefit of another. I know that's what I'd be doing.The level of sinfulness in an ordinary life is really pretty astounding. It's unusual to get from home to Mass on Sunday without some annoyance pushing you at least into venial sin.This all falls into private revelation. All private revelation is acceptable, but none of it is mandatory. That said, I expect that one reason God loves a cheerful giver is because He is one. All of existence counts as a wildly extravagant gift to us. Why NOT forgive us not only our sins, but also our penance?As for Sister Faustina, I think I have been told that she was at best VERY poorly educated, and at worst pretty darned stupid. Polish is a completely phonetic language, without any of the bizarre spelling rules and exceptions that afflict modern English. And she STILL managed to spell some of it wrong. Her abysmal writing skills apparently impeded proper understanding of what she had to relate.

  • Iota

    @ Arkanabar Polish is a completely phonetic language, without any of the bizarre spelling rules […]Do you know Polish?@ LeahA plenary indulgence wipes out penances […]Roughly correct – "temporal punishment" can happen here, as well as in purgatory. But other than that, you're right.Someone who died on Divine Mercy Sunday after receiving confession and communion could be assumed to be in heaven? No…1) A plenary indulgence requires:* Being in a state of grace – it’s not necessary to go to confession on the exact day you want to obtain a plenary indulgence but relatively close to that day,* Receiving the Eucharist,* Praying for the Pope’s intentions,* No attachment to sin whatsoever (even venial),The fourth condition petty much explains why you don’t have to be in Purgatory. If this condition isn't met, the indulgence is partial, not plenary. So someone who received a "plenary-looking" indulgence could not automatically be assumed to be in heaven, because you don’t know if they met requirement #4.2) An indulgence can either be "applied" to yourself or "given away" to a soul in purgatory.That said, plenary indulgences are not granted just on Divine Mercy Sunday. Some other times include: feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, feast of the Holy Apostles, Peter and Paul, 1-8 November, feast of our Lord Jesus Christ King (in all cases there are additional conditions). There are also indulgences that can be obtained, under certain circumstances, at any time (e.g. for reading the Bible, saying a Rosary, Eucharistic Adoration). A list (click). Additional indulgences may be granted specifically in a certain country, in relation to a monastic order, during some special time, etc. One indulgence may even be specifically granted at the time of death (if requirement #4 above is met).In principle, AFAIK, someone who went pretty frequently to (good) confession, went to normal Sunday mass and received the Eucharist could try to obtain a plenary indulgence many times per year. If they, for example, went to daily mass, they’d have even more chances. The limit is one plenary indulgence per day (plus one at the moment of death). Although for someone to actually get that many (i.e. be and remain in a state of non-attachment to all sin) I assume they’d have to be a living saint.St. Faustina's writings were on the banned books indexThat’s not that surprising – the devotion was banned for some time so it’s logical the books landed on the index. Admittedly, I know noting about the ban other than some comments about inadequate translations. "scriptural fanfiction"AFAIK, a private revelation is not binding on the faithful. All that the Church establishes is that a devotion doesn’t contradict Church teaching. Certain feasts, prayers and customs have spread because of private revelations but when the Church really wants to incorporate them, it sort of "institutionalises" them in its own way (e.g. by assigning an obligatory feast day). You could of course ask about the basis for the teaching about purgatory and indulgences in general, rather than Divine Mercy Sunday in particular, but that's a different story. Won't fit into a single comment.Reading:List of indulgencesMyths About Indulgences – Catholic AnswersThis site mentions the history of the ban on the Divine Mercy Devotion (at the bottom)

  • Iota

    Sorry for double posting but here's some more background of the ban: I think I may have accidentally double-posted (I suspect browser/captcha/brain malfunction) – I'd be grateful for exterminating the extra comment, if it did land in the spam filter.

  • There is a difference between Divine Mercy Sunday and the Divine Mercy devotions. The DM Sunday is a feast of the universal Church. All Catholic Churches observe it. The DM devotions are private revelation, so one is free to use them or not. A parish church does not have to observe the devotions, but they do have to keep the feast. So at Mass, the feast of Divine Mercy should be observed even if the church doesn't offer any special devotions to Divine Mercy.

  • … more penance must be done after death in Purgatory.This always confuses me. Time as we know it exists as a dimension of space-time in our universe, are they saying that there are other dimensions in the afterlife? Does a separate space-time exist in Heaven or is it simply time that exists?Once we shed this mortal shell is there any reason to think that our minds/soul would be bound by human-scale thinking? Would our free mind not race at an infinitely faster pace not being bound by the electro-chemical constraints of synapses firing? Would that not make time seem somewhat different?Just thinking out loud.

  • Thanks a lot for the data, Iota and Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin. Does the fact that the Vatican instructs priests to make this feast known put the visions above private revelation? Are priests free to keep mum about all this at Mass if they don't believe? The campus church certainly hasn't advertised this feast or publicized any confession hours today. I'm about to leave for Mass, so we'll see if they mention it.

  • @March Hare: You've actually hit on a very common misunderstanding, both among Christians and non-Christians. Christianity does not preach a disembodied eternal future. We preach "a New Heaven and a New Earth." The Scriptures, the Fathers, and the creeds are pretty unanimous on this point: Christianity believes that humans are indissolubly body and soul, and when we speak of eternal life we mean the final resurrection of the body. That means we will still exist in this same material universe, albeit restored and glorified) and still inhabit bodies bound by (presumably) electro-chemical constraints.The denial of this doctrine arose under the gnostics and more emphatically under the Manichees, a 4th century quasi-gnostic heresy that held the material universe to be essentially evil. It persisted during the Middle Ages and rose to special prominence in Europe during the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.Hope this helps.

  • @Publius: Huh. I hadn't really hard it that way before. A few questions:- "same material universe" = on this earth? Elsewhere? Are you saying that eternal life takes place in some physical time/space?- Assuming that all buried bodies are staying put, what happens between one's death, after purgatory, but before the second coming? What body does one inhabit? Or the real question that came to mind — what bodies are people seeing when the Saints appear?- Could you cite anything along the electro-chemical constraints tidbit? I'd never ever heard that. I always thought we inherited (as Paul says) a spiritual body, not another [glorified] version of our flesh-bodies. Then again, burial and cremation with ashes kept in the same place is required due to belief that the pieces need to rise one day. So… electro-chemical as in eat food, excrete, and so on?I learn something new every day!

  • "Same material universe" in the sense of a restored cosmos. The Fall isn't just about 'original sin' — it marks the point at which Creation was torn away from the Creator, a separation from God that brought death, sin, suffering, etc. The idea of a "New Earth" is one in which Creation is reconciled to its Creator and those issues are no more. There's also a bit about "o blessed fault" — the future state will be somehow *more* than the original — but that's the gist of the theology. But yes, it will be physical time and space.As for your second question, I'm honestly not sure what Catholics teach on the subject. Randy Alcorn's book "Heaven" is a stellar resource, though it may only apply for Protestants. Basically he states that what we call heaven is really an 'intermediate' heaven, and we are given bodies that don't belong to this material universe. This may be what Paul was referring to in 1 Corinthians 15:44-49 — he was speaking of the 'interim' resurrection, not the final resurrection of the body. Our physical bodies remain here, and we are given 'replacements' while we wait for the restoration. You might compare it to going to the shop and getting a rental car while waiting for your own car to be fixed.As for "electro-chemical" — yeah, in the sense of eating, excreting, etc. Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are the clearest indicator of a 'glorified' body: he was able to eat food, and be seen, and be touched, and speak, so he wasn't a ghost. Yet he was also able to travel into a locked room and "appear in their midst" without any standard locomotion. So the physical constraints on our bodies will be lessened, though not entirely abolished…. It's an interesting thought, and an interesting discussion.

  • @Publius: thanks for the clarification. You probably know I don't buy it, but it's still interesting to learn about it. Even as a devout and reasonably knowledgeable Catholic, I hadn't heard much on this topic! It's not that it's not possible… I guess I hear all of this and mostly wonder, "How could anyone possibly know this?"

  • Elizabeth K.

    great discussion. My best resource for trying to understand these issues of heaven, hell, time, etc., is C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce." And Publius, Catholics do still believe in a bodily resurrection much like you describe. It was more commonly talked about in the middle ages, but as far as I know, it's still in the catechism (but as soon as I said it I felt like I need to check it. so don't take my word on it).

  • @Elizabeth: agreed! "The Great Divorce" (really, anything by C.S. Lewis) is a fantastic resource. I definitely knew that Catholicism teaches the resurrection of the body: it's in the creeds, after all. Actually,that's what drove me to the Catholic Church in the first place: the realization that the answer to most of my questions/problems/paradoxes were already found within the Catholic tradition, and that most of my theology was Catholic even while I remained a Protestant.My uncertainty mostly concerns Catholic teachings on the current afterlife, what Alcorn called "intermediate heaven." I wouldn't be surprised if the Church has the same answer; I just haven't read anything on the subject.@Hendy, I figured you wouldn't buy it, but rehabilitating heaven as a nice place to be is one of my pet causes. The heaven imagined by most Christians and by popular culture (clouds, harps, eternal boredom) doesn't interest me in the slightest. I can't accept that the same God who created humanity and called it very good would forcibly remove from our eternal future all that defines us as human.

  • This isn't post is only incidentally about Divine Mercy; this is about indulgences.