John Paul II will be canonized Sunday on the Feast of Divine Mercy. While the date chosen is of little surprise, the fullness of how fitting it really is can be easily overlooked. A survey of his biography reveals that Divine Mercy was something of a spiritual touchstone to which he returned again and again throughout his life.
During the dark days of German occupation of the Second World War, Karol Wojtyla was a laborer at the Zakrzowek Quarry and then at the Solvay Chemical Factory. Both of these work sites are in the Krakow suburb of Lagiewniki near the convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, the home of St. Faustina Kowalska. The young Wojtyla would walk to the convent chapel in his wooden shoes after a day of hard labor. It was here that he first encountered the now-famous diary of Sister Faustina.
Later, as pope, John Paul reflected on what Divine Mercy had meant to him and all of Poland as they faced the daily terror of the Nazis. “The Message of Divine Mercy,” the late pope explained, “has always been near and dear to me. It was as if history had inscribed it in the tragic experience of the Second World War.”
“In those difficult years,” he continued, “it was a particular support and an inexhaustible source of hope, not only for the people of Krakow, but for the entire nation. This was also my personal experience, which I took with me to the See of Peter and which in a sense forms the image of this Pontificate.”
After he was made archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla was active in setting the record straight about Sister Faustina and the Divine Mercy devotion. For close to 20 years, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith banned the mystic nun’s diary, based largely upon faulty translations of her work. The ban was eventually lifted in 1978. In 1965, however, Archbishop Wojtyla was given permission to investigate the authenticity of Sister Faustina’s life and virtues. Shortly thereafter, convinced of her sanctity, Cardinal Wojtyla initiated the cause for her beatification.
In 1968, then-Cardinal Wojtyla designated the convent church of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy as a shrine, the Shrine of Divine Mercy. Later, as pope, John Paul II beatified Sister Faustina on April 18, 1993. During a pilgrimage to Krakow, on June 17, 1997, John Paul visited the Divine Mercy Shrine again to pray at the tomb of Blessed Faustina, where he called her “the great apostle of Divine Mercy in our day.” On April 30, 2000, John Paul II extended the feast of Divine Mercy Sunday to the whole Church while also elevating Faustina to sainthood.
During what was to be his last visit to Poland, on August 17, 2002 John Paul consecrated the newly constructed Basilica of Divine Mercy, adjacent to the Shrine of Divine Mercy. At that time, the Holy Father also entrusted the world to Divine Mercy.
Near the end of the consecration Mass, John Paul II broke from his prepared remarks, saying, “At the end of this solemn liturgy, I desire to say that many of my personal memories are tied to this place.”
“During the Nazi occupation,” the pope explained, “when I was working in the Solvay factory near here, I used to come here. Even now I recall the street…that I took every day going to work on the different turns with the wooden shoes on my feet. They’re the shoes that we used to wear then.”
“How was it possible” the Polish pope mused, “to imagine that one day the man with the wooden shoes would consecrate the Basilica of the Divine Mercy at Lagiewniki of Krakow.”
Pope Francis, when asked about the date he selected for the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, said it signifies that a new “age of mercy” is needed in the Church and the world. Who better to help promote it than Saint John Paul II, the pope of Divine Mercy?