The Man Called Papa: A Reflection Of God’s Mercy
Published: April 28, 2011
Every saint is a window through which we see Christ reflected. With Therese of Lisieux, we see the value of small gestures made with great love. With Thomas More, we see the importance of standing up for Christ, no matter what.
And soon we will gain another glimpse of the Lord, when the man once called “Papa” by millions around the world—Pope John Paul II—is beatified, the first step toward sainthood.
The pope’s life is a big window, indeed, but when I reflect on it, what deeply impresses me is his connection with mercy.
That word falls easily from the lips, but how hard it is to practice! Can we be merciful to a supposed friend who helped destroy our marriage; the doctor who made the wrong diagnosis, leading to a child’s suffering; or the boss who made an unjust decision?
Part of us cries out for revenge, clinging to the Old Testament notion of an “eye for an eye,” and forgetting that Christ told us, “Love your enemies.” We know that he put these words into practice when he forgave the men who pinned him to the cross.
Still, like many people, I struggle with this example of radical forgiveness—and at times I’m more inclined to carry a grudge.
I still recall bitterly how a boyfriend jilted me while I was attending my father’s funeral. I remember vividly the years with an abusive manager, who brought members of her staff to tears. And if I ran into these two on the street today, could I honestly say, “I forgive you”?
And then I think about Papa, and how devoted he was to Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun born in 1905. She wrote in her diary, “Divine Mercy in My Soul,” about Jesus appearing to her, requesting that she tell the world about the ocean of mercy flowing from his heart.
It is no coincidence that the pope will be beatified May 1, the second Sunday of Easter, known as Divine Mercy Sunday. In 2000 he declared Sister Faustina a saint, and also added that special feast day to the church calendar.
Pope John Paul II’s commitment to radical forgiveness was stunningly revealed after a brutal attempt on his life in 1981. On that fateful day, as he was being driven around St. Peter’s Square, greeting people, there was a sudden burst of gunfire. Grievously wounded, the pope collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent a series of operations.
And then, two years later, the world had an amazing glimpse of mercy in action when Pope John Paul II went to visit his assailant in jail. They sat and talked together, and the pope assured the man that all was forgiven.
A photo of the twosome shaking hands made the cover of Time magazine with these words emblazoned across the top: “Why Forgive?”
Although the secular world might find it difficult to grasp, for Christians there is one clear answer to that question. We are called to heed the words of the prayer Jesus left us, the prayer we say at every Mass, in which we promise the Lord to forgive those who harm us.
Ah, but there seem to be so many reasons to withhold forgiveness, especially when people betray us. There’s the man who two-timed his wife, leaving her with a baby to care for. There’s the woman who stole her sister’s inheritance. How shall the wronged person ever look at their betrayer with merciful eyes?
It helps to realize that Christ’s radical forgiveness didn’t end on the cross. As we know, after Christ was arrested, Peter denied knowing him—and all the apostles, except John, ran away from him.
Still, after the resurrection, Jesus appeared in their midst with the words, “Peace be with you.” In other words: “Despite what you did—disappointing me and abandoning me when I most needed you—I forgive you.”
He could have chastised them for their cowardice and terrible betrayals, but he didn’t.
There is more to the pope’s story too. You see, it didn’t take him two years to reach the point of forgiving his assailant.
In fact, in “Memory and Identity,” the pope talks about the journey to the hospital with his Polish secretary, Father Stanislaw Dziwisz, on the day he was wounded.
“I was in pain, and this was reason to be afraid,” he writes, “but I had a strange trust. I said to Father Stanislaw that I had forgiven my assailant.”
It may be hard to envision ourselves achieving this depth of radical forgiveness in the midst of such a traumatic situation, but we can pray for the grace to get there. Perhaps the first step is praying for those who have wronged us.
On Divine Mercy Sunday especially, we can thank God for sending us a beautiful reflection of forgiveness in the man called Papa. And we can say a simple prayer he loved, which came from St. Faustina: “Jesus, I trust in you.”
Lorraine Murray’s latest book is “Death of a Liturgist,” a mystery featuring love, laughs and liturgical lunacy at a fictional parish in Decatur. Artwork is by Jef Murray (www.jefmurray.com). Readers may e-mail the Murrays at firstname.lastname@example.org.