John Paul I, John Paul II and the Divine Mercy
At his unexpected death, John Paul I was succeeded by Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, the Archbishop of Cracow, someone who seemed vastly different in personality. But they were fundamentally alike in many ways. One important way was that they had seen the worst of the bloodiest century in history: the twentieth century; the century of relativism, of secularization; and what now seems like perhaps the definitive de-Christianization of Europe that began after the last world war. The world John Paul I and his successor saw had not yet gone as far as it has now, but it was rapidly becoming numbed to moral questions, had no real belief in God as Father, or the possibility of mercy for sins. Luciani and Wojtyla were friends as cardinals, and certainly must have shared their concerns with each other about the loss of the Christian sense in the world and the need for mercy. It was undoubtedly his understanding of this need for mercy that led John Paul I to stress God’s tender and even maternal compassion as he did.
Thirty-two years ago today, on August 26, 1979, the first anniversary of John Paul I’s election, his successor traveled to his native region. He consecrated a little shrine of the Virgin on Mt. Marmolada, the highest peak in the Dolomites. In John Paul I’s native village, Canale D’Agordo, he met with his predecessor’s family in their home, and celebrated Mass in the village square, where he spoke of the themes of John Paul I’s pontificate, including one that had been much talked about:
. . . . Here we find another trait of Papa Albino Luciani and his mission: the love of God the Father. . . . John Paul I recalled with unusual vigor the love of God for us, his creatures, comparing it, in the great line of Old Testament prophecy, not only to the love of a Father but to the tenderness of a mother for her children: he did it in the September 10 Angelus, with these words, that so struck public opinion: “We are the object of an undying love on God’s part. We know: he always has his eye on us, even when it seems to us that it is night.” And in the general audience of September 13: “God has such tender love for use, even more tender than that which a mama has for her children, Isaiah says.” (cf. also General audience of September 27, 1978).
From this unshakable sense of God, we can understand how my predecessor made the principle object of his Wednesday catechesis the theological virtues, which are such because they come from God, and are his uncreated gift and infused in us in baptism. And on the teaching of charity, the theological virtue that has God as source and principle, as model and as prize, and that will never come to an end, the earthly page of John Paul I closed, or rather, opened forever, in eternity face to face with God, who he so loved and taught others to love.
It is interesting to note that in recalling the controversial remark, he did not quote the actual words that “so struck public opinion”: “God is father, even more a mother” from the September 10 Angelus. Instead he substituted the words from September 13, in which John Paul I had expressed more clearly that the greater tenderness in maternal love of God did not represent the superiority of one sex over the other, but only a change of emphasis due to the nature of maternal love (see Part IV).
At any rate, John Paul II clearly confirmed what his predecessor did, in the face of the widespread public criticism. of the year before. In fact, he not only confirmed it, he was to continue it. John Paul I had concentrated mainly on our reaction to God’s maternal love; to the trusting attitude that it should inspire in us; John Paul II spoke in much more detail about the biblical roots and nature of this love in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), which was issued in November 1980.
This is the second of John Paul II’s encyclicals; along with two others, it forms a trilogy; the first, Redeemer of Man (1979) speaks of Jesus Christ, the third Lord and Giver of Life (1986) the third person, the Holy Spirit; Rich in Mercy (1980) speaks of God the Father as a God of mercy and love. In the text, the Pope discussed several key images of God’s love, including that of Israel a the bride of God. Referring to a footnote, no. 52, the discussion continues with a look back at the language used for God’s mercy in the Old Testament.
In describing mercy, the books of the Old Testament use two expressions in particular, each having a different semantic nuance. First there is the term hesed, which indicates a profound attitude of “goodness.” When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment, and therefore also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves. Since hesed also means “grace” or “love,” this occurs precisely on the basis of this fidelity. The fact that the commitment in question has not only a moral character but almost a juridical one makes no difference. 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. Nevertheless, since, in harmony with the covenant entered into, God had made a commitment to respect it, hesed also acquired in a certain sense a legal content. The juridical commitment on God’s part ceased to oblige whenever Israel broke the covenant and did not respect its conditions. But precisely at this point, hesed, in ceasing to be a juridical obligation, revealed its deeper aspect: it showed itself as what it was at the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin.
This fidelity vis-a-vis the unfaithful “daughter of my people”(cf. Lam. 4:3, 6) is, in brief, on God’s part, fidelity to Himself. This becomes obvious in the frequent recurrence together of the two terms hesed we’ve met (= grace and fidelity), which could be considered a case of hendiadys (cf. e.g. Ex. 34:6; 2 Sm. 2:6; 15:20; Ps. 25:10; 40:11-12; 85:11; 138:2; Mi. 7:20). “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name” (Ez. 36:22). Therefore Israel, although burdened with guilt for having broken the covenant, cannot lay claim to God’s hesed on the basis of (legal) justice; yet it can and must go on hoping and trusting to obtain it, since the God of the covenant is really “responsible for his love.” The fruits of this love are forgiveness and restoration to grace, the reestablishment of the interior covenant.
The second word which in the terminology of the Old Testament serves to define mercy is rahamim. This has a different nuance from that of hesed. While hesed highlights the marks of fidelity to self and of “responsibility for one’s own love” (which are in a certain sense masculine characteristics), rahamim, in its very root, denotes the love of a mother (rehem = mother’s womb). From the deep and original bond-indeed the unity-that links a mother to her child there springs a particular relationship to the child, a particular love. Of this love one can say that it is completely gratuitous, not merited, and that in this aspect it constitutes an interior necessity: an exigency of the heart. It is, as it were, a “feminine” variation of the masculine fidelity to self expressed by hesed. Against this psychological background, rahamim generates a whole range of feelings, including goodness and tenderness, patience and understanding, that is, readiness to forgive.
The Old Testament attributes to the Lord precisely these characteristics when it uses the term rahamim in speaking of Him. We read in Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is. 49:15). This love, faithful and invincible thanks to the mysterious power of motherhood, is expressed in the Old Testament texts in various ways: as salvation from dangers, especially from enemies; also as forgiveness of sins-of individuals and also of the whole of Israel; and finally in readiness to fulfill the (eschatological) promise and hope, in spite of human infidelity, as we read in Hosea: “I will heal their faithlessness, I will love them freely” (Hos. 14:5).
This is the most important part for my purposes, but who whole footnote is certainly worth reading. Here is a great deal of the background (which John Paul I, an excellent theologian, would certainly have known too) for the biblical language expressing God’s mercy in a maternal way.
The centerpiece of the encyclical is a discussion of the story of the prodigal son:
The father’s fidelity to himself – a trait already known by the Old Testament term hesed – is at the same time expressed in a manner particularly charged with affection. We read, in fact, that when the father saw the prodigal son returning home “he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.”64 He certainly does this under the influence of a deep affection, and this also explains his generosity towards his son
And here is the conclusion.
Everything that I have said in the present document on mercy should therefore be continually transformed into an ardent prayer: into a cry that implores mercy according to the needs of man in the modern world. May this cry be full of that truth about mercy which has found such rich expression in Sacred Scripture and in Tradition, as also in the authentic life of faith of countless generations of the People of God. With this cry let us, like the sacred writers, call upon the God who cannot despise anything that He has made, the God who is faithful to Himself, to His fatherhood and His love. And, like the prophets, let us appeal to that love which has maternal characteristics and which, like a mother, follows each of her children, each lost sheep, even if they should number millions, even if in the world evil should prevail over goodness, even if contemporary humanity should deserve a new “flood” on account of its sins, as once the generation of Noah did. Let us have recourse to that fatherly love revealed to us by Christ in His messianic mission, a love which reached its culmination in His cross, in His death and resurrection. (emphasis mine)
The concept of God as mother after this began to move from the footnotes of John Paul II’s thought about God toward the center; it never really become central, but repeatedly the image of mother appears alongside that of father, and seems to be surer and better integrated as time goes on.
Almost twenty years after Rich in Mercy, John Paul II returned to this theme in a big way. He declared 1999, the year leading up to the great Jubilee of 2000, The Year of the Father. He carried on a catechesis about this at his Wednesday audiences that lasted throughout the year; he began by noting that the concept of God as a father also occurred in the religions of the ancient world, but the fatherhood was that conceived by the patriarchal system; the god was often capricious and willful. As Homer said: “Father Zeus, you are the most deadly of gods: you take no pity on men after begetting them and abandoning them to misfortune and oppressive sorrows” (Odyssey XX, 201-203).; even in the most benign treatments, the god would punish without obvious reason. (Audience of January 13, 1999).
The people of Israel, under the guidance of divine revelation, also saw God as father, often a severe and demanding father, but one who intervened time and time again to save Israel, and offered a unique covenant to his people. “And [God] expresses it,” the Pope says, “in terms of deep tenderness, even when he is forced to lament his children’s lack of response: ‘It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led thm with cords of compassion, with the bands of love; I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks, and I bent down to them and fed them…. How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over O Israel? … My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender’ (Hos 11:3f., 8; Jer 31:20).”
And the refrain of a mother’s love from Isaiah comes back again.
Such a divine fatherhood, which at the same time is so “human” in its forms of expression, includes all the features which are usually attributed to a mother’s love. Although rare, the Old Testament images in which God is compared to a mother are extremely significant. We read, for example, in the Book of Isaiah: “Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me”. “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?”. Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (Is 49:14-15). And again: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you” (Is 66:13).
Thus, God’s attitude to Israel also appears with maternal features, which express tenderness and understanding.
(Audience of January 20, 1999)
John Paul II’s famous Abba Pater CD was released in March 1999, very shortly after these audiences; in it we find the following (with the helpful translation below).
You are My son, today I have begotten you.
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me.
These are prophetic words. They speak of God, who is the Father
in the highest and most authentic sense of the word.
Isaiah says: “Lord, You are our Father
we are the clay, and You are our potter;
we are all the work of Your hands.”
Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forsake you
It is significant that in the passages from the prophet Isaiah…
the paternity of God is filled with images inspired by maternity.
Jesus refers again and again to the paternity of God in regard to mankind
by alluding to numerous passages contained in the Old Testament.
For Jesus, God is not only the Father of Israel and the Father of mankind,
but also his Father and my Father.
Our Father who art in Heaven . . .
John Paul II returned more than once during this year to the parable of the Prodigal Son and his return to the Father who is “Rich in Mercy” (Audience of February 17, 1999). He gave it a warmer and more emotional color and a more definite emphasis on the maternal aspect of God’s love.
The father who embraces his lost son is the definitive icon of God revealed by Christ. He is first and above all a father. It is God the Father who extends his blessing and merciful arms, always waiting, never forcing any of his children. His hands hold, embrace, give vigor, and at the same time comfort, console and caress. They are the hands of a father and a mother at the same time.
The merciful father of the parable has in himself, while transcending them, all of the characteristics of fatherhood and motherhood. In embracing the son he shows the profile of a mother.” When he throws his arms around his son’s neck, he resembles a mother who caresses her child and surrounds him with her warmth. We can understand, in the light of this revelation of the face and the heart of God the Father, the Word of Jesus, which disconcerts human logic: “There will be greater joy in heaven over one sinner who converts, than for the ninety-nine just ones who have no need of conversion…” (Audience of September 8, 1999)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published during John Paul II’s pontificate, sums up his teaching:
239 By calling God “Father”, the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood (Is 66:13; Ps 131:2),which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. the language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard (Cf. Ps 27:10; Eph 3:14; Is 49:15); no one is father as God is Father.
The climax of John Paul II’s teaching on God’s tender mercy came when he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska and proclaimed the Sunday after Easter Divine Mercy Sunday on April 30, 2000, during the celebration of the Jubilee. He also brought to a climax his predecessor’s hope that the people of the 20th and 21st centuries, perhaps more in need of forgiveness than any before them, would have this mercy from a God who has the tenderness of both a father and a mother. The result is the joyous affirmation of salvation and the renewal of the world:
And you, Faustina, a gift of God to our time, a gift from the land of Poland to the whole Church, obtain for us an awareness of the depth of divine mercy; help us to have a living experience of it and to bear witness to it among our brothers and sisters. May your message of light and hope spread throughout the world, spurring sinners to conversion, calming rivalries and hatred and opening individuals and nations to the practice of brotherhood. Today, fixing our gaze with you on the face of the risen Christ, let us make our own your prayer of trusting abandonment and say with firm hope: Christ Jesus, I trust in you! Jezu, ufam tobie! (Homily of April 30, 2000).
John Paul II also explored the God as Father and Mother theme in other ways, but that will be for next time.