My goal is to write a short article on each of the fourteen encyclical letters and try to offer three or four main lessons that we can use in our teaching. I plan to discuss these lessons with our Confirmation candidates in our home parish. I would like to continue this reflection with John Paul II’s second encyclical letter Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) which was promulgated in November 1980.
George Weigel, in his wonderful biography of St. John Paul II Witness to Hope, states that this encyclical is the clearest expression of the pastoral soul of John Paul II (WTH 388).
1. The Call to Constant Conversion
In examining the parable of the prodigal son, John Paul states that this parable expresses “in a simple and profound way the reality of conversion” (DM 6). The Pope illustrates that conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and the presence of mercy in the human world (DM 6). We need to explain to our youth that mercy must be met with continual daily conversion in our own lives.
We should encourage our young people to take a few brief moments at the end of each day, to not only recollect failures, sins and missed opportunities to respond to grace, but also to pray for an ever-deepening sense of conversion; conversion that orients the heart toward Jesus Christ and mirrors him in all ways.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of conversion as firstly a work of the grace of God who makes our hearts return to him. It is in discovering the greatness of God’s love that our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin. The human heart is converted by looking upon him whom our sins have pierced (CCC 1432).
John Paul writes later in the encyclical that conversion to God always consists in discovering His mercy – love which is patient and kind as only the Creator and Father can be. Our Father is faithful to the “uttermost consequences in the history of His covenant with man; even to the cross and to the death and resurrection of his Son” (DM 13).
John Paul calls conversion to God the fruit of the rediscovery of this Father, who is rich in mercy. This is a great moment to remind our young people that there is nothing we do or can do that is outside the domain of God’s reach or embrace. We approach our Heavenly Father as sons and daughters filled with awe and wonder at the mystery of a God that so loved each and every one of us that he sent his only Son to die the ignominious death of the cross.
Our call to conversion is not the pop pseudo-psychology the world offers. No, it is a radical call to be the people that God has intended us to be through our creation in his image and likeness and our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our daily conversion is a constant reminder of the promises we have made in baptism to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ and loyal sons and daughters of his Holy Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that Baptism is the principal place for the first and fundamental conversion. By faith in the Gospel and by Baptism we renounce evil and gain salvation. In Baptism, one receives the forgiveness of all sin and the gift of new life (CCC 1427).
2. Mercy Revealed in the Cross of Christ
John Paul shares some of his most beautiful theological vocabulary when he discusses the cross of Christ and its relationship to God’s unfailing mercy. When we live our lives with the mystery of the cross in front of us, we are able to show mercy to others and Christ “accepts it as if it were shown to Himself” (DM 14).
Christ has suffered in a terrible way in the Garden of Olives and on Calvary. The Father does not spare Christ the terrible suffering of death on the cross (DM 7). We must teach our young people that the mercy we show to others stems from a recognition that He who knew not sin was crucified and died for all of humanity. Showing mercy is not an option! It goes to the core of who we are as Catholic Christians. It allows us to help lift the crosses that people have in their daily lives and in our own way participate once again in the redemption Christ won for us on the wood of his cross.
“The cross of Christ on Calvary is also a witness to the strength of evil against the very Son of God, against the one who, alone among all the sons of men, was by His nature absolutely innocent and free from sin, and whose coming into the world was untainted by the disobedience of Adam and the inheritance of original sin” (DM 8).
In our very sophisticated age and highly technological society we sometimes can forget the strength and power of evil. Yes, Christ conquered sin by his death on the cross, but this does not deny that evil exists and the powerful grip it holds on humanity. We need to teach our youth that evil is at its root only lies and illusions. Evil seeks to unlink freedom from truth and tells our youth that whatever they wish or want should and can be good for them.
We need to encourage our children to speak truth to evil and that in standing up for truth we may often be portrayed as outcasts and shunned by popular culture. Speaking truth about the goodness of God and the dignity of man will not be without suffering. At these moments, we need to turn toward the cross of Christ and recognize that in the cross of Christ we have a “radical revelation of mercy, or rather of the love that goes against what constitutes the very root of evil in the history of man: against sin and death” (DM 8).
3. The Parable of the Prodigal Son and Lost Sonship
John Paul II’s reflection on the parable of the prodigal son is deeply theological and highly personal. George Weigel, reflecting on John Paul’s analysis in Rich in Mercy, states that “the forgiving father, by being faithful to his paternity and going beyond the strict norm of justice, restores to the wayward son the truth about himself, which is the lost dignity of his sonship. True mercy does not weaken or humiliate its recipient. It confirms the recipient in his or her human dignity” (WTH 388). We need to teach our youth that at the heart of every broken relationship is sin.
Only when we eradicate sin from our lives and recognize that we are indeed sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father can we attempt to heal the brokenness that is found in our relationships. This love of the Father is able to “reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery and above all to every form of moral misery to sin” (DM 6). There is no relationship, not even the most broken, that the love of Christ cannot repair.
The world at times can seem like such an unhappy place. This unhappiness and misery stems from our failing to recognize just how high a calling we have. To live as true sons of such a loving father demands a break with the ways of sin and living once again within the intimate embrace of our Heavenly Father. The prodigal son returns home only after first recognizing his sins. He then attempts to renew his relationship with his father, not as a son, but rather as a servant. The father accepts the son back into full sonship.
The father’s radical mercy is expressed in running to greet his son. This is a teaching moment about the Sacrament of Penance and how once having confessed our sins, we are reminded that we have always been sons and never servants. We leave our old ways behind and begin life renewed in the depth and fervor of our faith. “In converting to Christ through penance and faith, the sinner passes from death to life and does not come into judgment” (CCC 1470).
Within the body of the encyclical letter John Paul has some beautiful words about our Blessed Mother and here too we find lessons to teach our youth. Even after being assumed into heaven, Mary continues to obtain for us the graces of eternal salvation. “By her maternal charity, she takes care of the brethren of her Son who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties, until they are led into their blessed home” (DM 9).
What a wonderful lesson to teach our youth that when we place all of our troubles, cares and worries at the feet of our Blessed Mother she will not abandon us and, so to speak, implores our case to her Divine Son. Making the rosary and other Marian hymns and prayers a daily habit reminds our young people that as she stood at the foot of the cross of her son, Mary will stand by us as we take up our daily crosses and will never abandon us.
Mary Mother of Mercy watch over and protect us always!
The Second in a Series of Lessons for Youth From St. John Paul II’s Encyclicals
See the rest of my series as they are released from my author page.