ROME — Because Pope Benedict XVI was seen as a man of tradition, it was often easy to miss the innovative aspects of his papacy. In equal-and-opposite fashion, because Pope Francis is seen as a maverick, it’s tempting to overlook the various ways he stands in continuity with his predecessors.
Yet Francis’ signature initiative — probably the thing he would tell you he’s been building toward from the beginning, his Holy Year of Mercy — has at its core a figure straight out of the St. John Paul II playbook.
In fact, there’s a woman behind the pontiff’s jubilee: St. Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun who launched the worldwide Divine Mercy devotion.
Faustina was an early 20th century mystic who belonged to an order called The Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She reported a series of visions, captured in her 700-page diary, in which she said Jesus told her to spread devotion to his mercy under the motto, “Jesus, I trust in you.”
Growing up in Krakow, the young Karol Wojtyla was fascinated that this message of mercy arose in Poland between the two World Wars. Later, as John Paul II, the Polish pope would beatify and canonize Faustina, and he also established a feast of Divine Mercy for the first Sunday after Easter — another request that Faustina said came straight from Jesus.
It’s true that Francis has not talked much about Faustina out loud in connection with his Year of Mercy, leading some devotees to wonder if she’s in danger of becoming the “forgotten woman” of the jubilee.
Yet upon closer examination, it seems clear that her fingerprints are all over it. Consider the following seven indications of her influence on Francis and his thinking about mercy.
1. Papal bull
When Francis issued a formal papal bull decreeing his holy year, titled Misericordiae Vultus, he chose to do so on April 11, 2015 — the vigil of the feast of Divine Mercy, the observance directly associated with Faustina.
In the bull, Francis wrote, “I think especially of the great apostle of mercy, Saint Faustina Kowalska.”
“May she, who was called to enter the depths of divine mercy, intercede for us and obtain for us the grace of living and walking always according to the mercy of God and with an unwavering trust in his love,” he wrote.
2. Programmatic line
Looking back, it seems clear that the programmatic line for Francis’ jubilee came during his first airborne news conference returning from a trip to Brazil in July 2013.
Although he was asked specifically about Communion for the divorced and remarried, he gave a broad reply about the importance of mercy. He said he believes the present era is a “kairos” of mercy, using an evocative Greek New Testament term that means a privileged moment in God’s plan of salvation.
In the next breath, Francis cited John Paul II and Faustina.
“But John Paul II had the first intuition of this,” he said, “when he began with Faustina Kowalska, the Divine Mercy …. He had intuited that this was a need in our time.”
3. “Ocean of Mercy”
In his homily for this year’s New Year’s Day Mass, marking his first public utterance of 2016, Francis argued that alongside a “torrent of misery” in the contemporary world, there is also an oft-overlooked “ocean of mercy.”
Though he didn’t explicitly cite Faustina, he easily could have. “Ocean of mercy” is one of her signature phrases, appearing in her diary a robust 16 times.
Here’s a classic for-instance, in this case from one of her visions of Jesus: “I have revealed to you the whole ocean of my mercy,” she reports Jesus saying. “I seek and desire souls like yours, but they are few.”
In another place, Faustina writes that “during Holy Mass, I was given knowledge of the heart of Jesus and of the nature of the fire of love with which he burns for us … he is an ocean of mercy.”
4. Poland trip
At least in terms of crowd size and the magnitude of the event, the highlight of Pope Francis’ jubilee year isn’t likely to come in Rome. Instead it’s likely to be in Krakow in late July, when Francis travels there to lead the Church’s World Youth Day.
Obviously, the legacy of John Paul II and Faustina will be front-and-center throughout that trip.
To make sure no one misses the point, Francis signed off on making John Paul II and Faustina the co-patrons of World Youth Day, referring to them both as “apostles of divine mercy.” The outing shapes as an homage by Francis to Faustina and the pope who canonized her, and one can expect him to reflect on the Divine Mercy devotion at length.
5. The “misericordina”
On Nov. 17, 2013, Francis used his typical Sunday Angelus address to do something more customary in TV infomercials: He hawked a prescription drug, even having people hand out samples in St. Peter’s Square.
Only the “drug,” in this case, wasn’t actually from a pharmacy, even though it was made up to look that way. Instead it was a small packet containing a rosary, the Divine Mercy image with the motto “Jesus, I trust in you,” and instructions for use. Italians call it the misericordina, a play on the word for mercy.
“It’s a spiritual medicine,” the pope told the crowd that day. “Don’t forget to take it, because it’s good for you, it’s good for your heart, your soul, and your whole life.”
6. Roman priests
In March 2014, Francis held a session with priests of Rome in the Vatican’s Paul VI audience hall, saying he wanted to devote it to the theme of mercy. He spoke at length about John Paul II and Faustina.
“In his homily for the canonization, which took place in 2000, John Paul II emphasized that the message of Jesus Christ to Sister Faustina is located, in time, between the two World Wars and is intimately tied to the history of the 20th century,” Francis said, going on to quote several passages from the homily.
In a key line, Francis said, “Today we forget everything far too quickly … but we cannot forget the great content, the great intuitions and gifts that have been left to the People of God. And Divine Mercy is one of these.”
In retrospect, it seems a clear hint that Francis understands his jubilee of mercy as an extension of that “intuition and gift.”
7. Francis in Cuba
When Pope Francis traveled to Cuba just before heading to the United States last September, he chose “messenger of mercy” as the motto for the outing, making it something of a preview of his jubilee.
He said Mass in Havana’s Revolution Square on Sept. 20, and commentators noted the irony that alongside the towering images of Che Guevara and José Martí that dominate the space, there was also a large image of Jesus that was put up for the day.
What was less commented upon, however, was the nature of that depiction: It was the Divine Mercy image, with the motto “Jesus, I trust in you” in Spanish.
An earthier brand of mercy
Granted, the approach Francis takes to the theme of mercy is not simply a photocopy of Faustina’s.
Hers was a highly spiritual version of mercy, focused on compassion for lost souls and people suffering under the weight of sin. Francis’ brand of mercy is earthier, insisting on finding expression in concrete acts of solidarity with the poor, with migrants and refugees, with prisoners, and other victims of what he calls a “throwaway culture.”
That’s why one could make a strong case that the other woman behind the pope’s jubilee is Mother Teresa, and it’s probably no accident that her canonization also seems likely to take place during the year, perhaps in early September.
Yet these are questions of emphasis, not contradiction. Francis certainly would acknowledge that one does not have to be poor to need mercy, and it’s not as if Faustina was blind to the social gospel; the order she joined in Poland, after all, was devoted to helping troubled women, including unwed mothers and prostitutes.
Make no mistake: Francis is a change agent in many respects. But when it comes to his jubilee of mercy, he’s not reinventing the wheel; he’s giving a new push to a wheel that started rolling with a Polish nun and was sped up by a Polish pope.
As a final note, Francis would no doubt also say that Faustina offers a classic illustration of his oft-stated argument that women in Catholicism don’t have to be ordained priests in order to exercise influence.
It’s entirely possible that by the end of the jubilee, it’ll be like a hockey game with three stars of the game acknowledged: Francis, who called it; Faustina, who inspired it, and Mother Teresa, who provided its model for mercy-in-action.
In other words, the female contribution may actually trump that of the male. If so, that’s something in which a pope who’s repeatedly vowed to seek greater roles for women in the Church may find food for thought.