(NOVEMBER 30, 1980)
VATICAN CITY, OCT 23, 1997 (VIS) - The encyclical letter "Dives in Misericordia" (Rich in Mercy) was written by John Paul II during the third year of his pontificate. The Pope signed it in Rome on November 30, 1980, and it was published on December 2 of that same year.
In this encyclical, the Holy Father addresses the theme of divine mercy, with the hope that this document may be "a heartfelt appeal by the Church to mercy, which humanity and the modern world need so much." He also underlines that God's merciful love is his "most stupendous attribute", stronger than all the evil there is in the world.
Likewise, he recalls that mercy does not humiliate man, but on the contrary, gives him new value. John Paul II explains God's love and mercy for us through a long commentary on the parable of the prodigal son.
The encyclical is divided into eight chapters: "He Who Sees Me Sees the Father," "The Messianic Message," "The Old Testament," "The Parable of the Prodigal Son," "The Paschal Mystery," "'Mercy ... From Generation to Generation'," "The Mercy of God in the Mission of the Church" and "The Prayer of the Church in Our Times."
Through Christ's revelation, "we know God especially in his relationship of love towards man" and, particularly, in his mercy, which Christ himself personifies: "He himself, in a certain sense, is mercy."
"The truth, revealed in Christ, about God the 'Father of mercies', enables us to 'see' him as particularly close to man, especially when man is suffering, when he is under threat at the very heart of his existence and dignity." The mystery of divine mercy is a unique appeal to the Church: revelation and faith teach us "not only to meditate in the abstract upon the mystery of God as 'Father of mercies', but also to have recourse to that mercy in the name of Christ and in union with him."
Through his actions and words, "Christ makes the Father present among men." In fact, with his life-style, Jesus Christ shows the presence, in the world in which we live, of the love that addresses itself to man and embraces all his humanity.
"The mode and sphere in which love manifests itself in Biblical language is called 'mercy'." Christ, "by becoming the incarnation of the love that is manifested with particular force with regard to the suffering, the unfortunate and sinners, makes present and thus more fully reveals the Father."
It must be noted that Jesus Christ, "in revealing the love-mercy of God, at the same time demanded from people that they also should be guided in their lives by love and mercy."
Christ addressed himself to men and women who belonged to the People of the Old Covenant, which, "in the course of its history, ... continually entrusted itself, both when stricken with misfortune and when it became aware of its sin, to the God of mercies."
"The Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection, nevertheless love is 'greater' than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. ... The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice ... are revealed precisely through mercy." The foundation of this relationship between justice and mercy in God dates back to "the very mystery of creation": God, as Creator, "has linked himself to his creature with a particular love."
"Connected with the mystery of creation is the mystery of the election which, in a special way, shaped the history of the people" of Israel. "Nevertheless, through this people which journeys forward through the history both of the Old Covenant and of the New, that mystery of election refers to every man and woman, to the whole great human family. 'I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you'."
The essence of divine mercy is expressed in a special way in the parable of the prodigal son. "That son, who receives from the father the portion of his inheritance that is due to him ... and squanders it," is "the man of every period, beginning with the one who was the first to lose the inheritance of grace and original justice. ... The parable indirectly touches upon every breach of the covenant of love, every loss of grace, every sin."
The prodigal son squanders and loses something more important than his material goods: "his dignity as a son in his father's house." When he becomes aware of this loss, he decides to return to his father's house and ask him to treat him like one of his day workers.
The behavior of the parent in the parable reveals to us God as a Father who is "faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son." This fidelity is expressed in the readiness, joy and affection with which he welcomes his son when he returns. "The father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son's humanity," his dignity, which "has been, in a way, found again."
In this parable, Christ shows us mercy as a love that is "able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and 'restored to value'." Thus, divine mercy "promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man."
The divine dimension of the Redemption "uncovers the depth of (God's) love which does not recoil before the extraordinary sacrifice of the Son, in order to satisfy the fidelity of the Creator and Father towards human beings."
The mystery of the Redemption "is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love. ... In the Passion and death of Christ ... absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the Passion and Cross because of the sins of humanity. ... The sins of man are 'compensated for' by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Nevertheless, this justice ... springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love, ... producing fruits of salvation" and "restoring to love that creative power in man."
"Believing in the crucified Son means ... believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy." In effect, "the Cross is the most profound condescension of God to man, ... like a touch of eternal love upon the most painful wounds of man's earthly existence."
Furthermore, Christ, "in his resurrection, experienced in a radical way mercy shown to himself, that is to say the love of the Father which is more powerful than death."
In the Magnificat, Mary "glorified that mercy shared in 'from generation to generation' by those who allow themselves be guided by the fear of God."
The present generation lives in a world "in which there is so much evil both physical and moral, so as to make of it a world entangled in contradictions and tensions, and at the same time full of threats to human freedom, conscience and religion." This situation produces in man great uncertainty about the future, and "demands decisive solutions, which now seem to be forcing themselves upon the human race."
One might ask whether justice can be an effective remedy for the evil and the threats which populate the planet. "In the modern world, the sense of justice has been reawakening on a vast scale. ... And yet it would be difficult not to notice that very often programmes which start from the idea of justice ... in practice suffer from distortions. ... It is obvious, in fact, that in the name of an alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights."
"The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions."
The Church "professes and proclaims mercy - the most stupendous attribute of the Creator and of the Redeemer - when she brings people close to the sources of the Saviour's mercy." Particularly important in this area is "conscious and mature participation in the Eucharist and in the sacrament of penance or reconciliation. The Eucharist brings us ever nearer to that love which is more powerful than death." Penance "prepares the way for each individual, even those weighed down with great faults. In this sacrament each person can experience mercy in a unique way, ... the love which is more powerful than sin."
The Church also tries to practice mercy by following the teachings of Jesus Christ. It must be noted that "in reciprocal relationships between persons merciful love is never a unilateral act or process," since "the one who gives is always also a beneficiary."
The forgetting of this bilateral quality of mercy is the reason that attempts are made to remove it from human relations, in order to base them solely on justice. Thus there is a failure to see that "true mercy is, so to speak, the most profound source of justice. ... The equality brought by justice is limited to the realm of objective and extrinsic goods, while love and mercy bring it about that people meet one another in that value which is man himself, with the dignity that is proper to him."
The world will only become more human if, along with justice, we introduce into relations among men merciful love and forgiveness, the fundamental condition for reconciliation.
The more today's world loses the sense of mercy, "the more the Church has the right and duty to appeal to the God of mercy ... in an ardent prayer: in a cry that implores mercy according to the needs of man in the modern world." With this cry, we address "the God who cannot despise anything that he has made, the God who is faithful to himself, to his fatherhood," so that his love "may be shown to be present in our modern world and to be more powerful than evil."