During the canonization of the Polish visionary, Sister Faustina Kowalska, on April 30, 2000, St. John Paul II announced that the Second Sunday of Easter would be celebrated as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” This decision was prompted by St. Faustina’s spiritual experiences.

What does “mercy” mean? St. Thomas Aquinas affirms that “Mercy is especially to be attributed to God” (1a. 21, 3). According to Thomas, the Latin word, misericors, “being merciful,” is based on the two words miserum (sorrowful) and cor (heart), understood not as sorrowful for ourselves but for another. Misericors, “merciful,” is, Thomas tells us “being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were our own.”

The “effect of mercy” is that the person “endeavors to dispel the misery of this other as if it were his” (1a. 21, 3). God does not have bodily emotions and so does not have sad feelings as we do when we see sad things. Rather He knows our difficulties and wills to do something about them. Thomas points outs that God, rather than having emotional feelings, brings about the “effect of mercy”: “It does most properly belong to Him to dispel that misery whatever the defect” (1a. 21, 3).

Thomas explains: “Defects are not removed, except by the perfection of some kind of goodness: and the primary source is God” (1a. 21, 3).

God’s mercy is wondrously manifested in forgiveness of our sins, still, His mercy is not limited to our sins. God’s mercy is present in every aspect of God’s relations to us, and is related to His goodness, His justice and His liberality.

Because of His goodness, God gives particular “perfections” by which Thomas means the goods that we receive related to our nature as human persons. These come from “from His goodness absolutely.”

We usually think of “justice” as rewards and punishments for behavior. By “justice,” Thomas means giving to each one what is due to him or her. God’s justice to us is first of all equipping us for human life. These “perfections” are given “in proportion” according to His justice. We just assume that our bodies and minds are outfitted for life,  but Thomas reminds us that every part of us is a gift.

Justice is necessarily present throughout creation, in the sense that God gives what we need: “Whatever is done by God in created things is done according to proper order and proportion in which consists the idea of justice. Thus justice must exist in all God’s works” (1a. 21, 4).

God’s gifts to us are “not for His own use but only on account of His goodness.” In other words, God gives generously not for Himself but for us. Thomas speaks of this as God’s “liberality.”

Mercy is applied to our “defects,” or deficiencies.  The “perfections,” or good things that are given by God “expel defects” and “belong to His mercy” (1a. 21, 3).

On some occasions, we expect a sterner justice rather than mercy. Yet, God is merciful, as Thomas observes: “God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against His justice, but by doing something more than His justice.”

Thomas proposes the example of a man who pays another person two hundred pieces of money when he owes one hundred. The man “does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully. The case is the same with one who pardons an offence committed against him, for in remitting it he may be said to bestow a gift” (1a. 21, 3).

Thomas recalls the words of the Letter to the Ephesians: “Forgive one another, as Christ has forgiven you” (Eph 4:32). Thomas asserts: “Mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fullness of it, as the Letter of James declares, ‘mercy triumphs over judgement’ (Ja 2:13)” (1a. 21, 3).

None of us can claim that because we exist we are entitled to have all that humans have. In fact, everything we have is given mercifully: “The work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded upon it. For nothing is due to creatures … we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will – which is the ultimate end” (1a. 21, 4).

God gives us what relates to our nature. Thus hands are given to a human because of the rational soul and the rational soul is given that a person may be human. Each step is a gift.

Thomas explains: “His being human is on account of the divine goodness. So in every work viewed at its primary source there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains and works with greater force; as the influence of the first cause {God} is more intense than that of the second causes {ourselves}. For this reason, does God out of the abundance of His goodness bestow upon creatures what was due them more bountifully than is proportionate to their deserts: since less would suffice for preserving the order of justice than what divine goodness confers; because between creatures and God’s goodness there can be no proportion” (1a. 21, 4).

Jesus reveals the mercy of the Father, as Saint John Paul asserts: “Not only does Jesus speak of it [mercy] and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all He Himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He Himself, in a certain sense, is mercy” (Dives in Misericordia, 2).

Pope Francis, likewise, asserts that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s mercy: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in Him” (Misericordiae Vultus, 1).

Thomas attests that mercy is proper to God: “In itself, mercy takes precedence of other virtues, for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and what is more, to succor others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy belongs properly to God: and in that His omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested” (2a2ae. 30, 4). Pope Francis calls attention to this final sentence of Thomas (see Misericordiae Vultus, 6).

God desires that we also give mercy to others: “Mercy, in which we supply others’ defects is a sacrifice more acceptable to Him, in conducing more directly to our neighbor’s well-being, according to Hebrews: ‘Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God’” (Heb 13:16).

Saint John Paul states the necessity to believe in mercy:

“Believing in the crucified Son means ‘seeing the Father,’ means believing that love is present in the world and that this love is more powerful than any kind of evil in which individuals, humanity, or the world are involved. Believing in this love means believing in mercy. For mercy is an indispensable dimension of love; it is as it were love’s second name and, at the same time, the specific manner in which love is revealed and effected vis-a-vis the reality of the evil that is in the world, affecting and besieging man, insinuating itself even into his heart…” (Dives in Misericordia, 13).

Since every day is a day of mercy, why do we celebrate Divine Mercy particularly on this Sunday? Every Gospel is a Gospel of mercy but, today’s Gospel, (Jn 20:19-31), especially demonstrates Jesus’ mercy. St. Thomas writes about this passage: “Here we have the strongest signs of God’s profound pity” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2547).

On Easter evening, the disciples were in a locked room, when the Risen Jesus appeared. Because of their fear that H was a ghost, He showed them His hands and His side. One of the apostles, Thomas was not with the others. When they told Thomas that they had seen the Lord, he said: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25),

The following Sunday evening, Jesus appeared again. As He entered the room, he announced: “Peace be with you.” Thomas reflects: “That is the peace coming from reconciliation, reconciliation with God, which Jesus said had now been accomplished: ‘We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son’ (Rom 5:10); making peace by the blood of His cross (Col 1:20) … and also the peace of charity and unity, which He commanded them to maintain: ‘Be at peace with one another’ (Mk 9:49)” (Commentary on John, 2555).

Aquinas makes reference to St. Gregory that it was not by accident that Thomas was missing on the first Sunday but by God’s will: “It was in the plans of divine pity that by feeling the wounds in the flesh of his Teacher, the doubting disciple should heal in us the wounds of disbelief … the disbelief of Thomas was of more benefit to our faith that the faith of the disciples who did believe” (Commentary on John, 2547).

Aquinas compares Thomas’ state with Jesus disposition: “An abyss has both depth and darkness. And Thomas was an abyss on account of the darkness of his disbelief, of which he was the cause. Again, there is an abyss – the depths of Christ’s compassion – which He had for Thomas. We read: ‘Deep calls to deep’ (Psalm 42:7). That is the depths of Christ’s compassion calls to the depths of darkness [of disbelief] in Thomas, and Thomas’ abyss of unwillingness [to believe] calls out, when he professes the faith, to the depths of Christ” (Commentary on John, 2545).

Why did Jesus retain His wounds in His risen body? For one thing, the wounds confirmed to the disciples, especially Thomas, that the one who appeared was really Jesus. Aquinas observes: “Although Thomas said these things because of his own doubts, this was arranged by God for our benefit and progress. It is certain that Christ, who arose as a complete person, could have healed the marks of the wounds; but He kept them for our benefit” (Commentary on John, 2550).

Aquinas recalls the words of Augustine in his work On the Creed: “Christ could have removed all traces of His wounds from His risen and glorified body, but He had reasons for retaining them” (Commentary on John, 2557). Augustine thinks that unbelievers and sinners will be shown the wounds: “Look at the side you have pierced. It was opened for your sake, and you refused to enter” (Commentary on John, 2557).

Aquinas affirms: “The scars that remained in Christ’s body belong … to the greater increase of glory inasmuch as they are the trophies of His power; and a special beauty will appear in the places scarred by the wounds” (3a. 54, 4, ad1).

St. Catherine of Siena, also a Dominican, affirmed, “I see that there is no comparison between the divine mercy and my sins. Furthermore, if all the sins which are able to be committed were gathered together in one creature, they are less than one little drop of vinegar in the midst of the sea” (Letter 314).

Catherine exclaimed, “Everywhere I look, I see mercy” (Prayer, XIX).

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

References to the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas give the part of the Summa, the question and the article. If the passage is found in a response to an objection that Thomas has introduced in the first part of the article, the Latin word “ad,” meaning “to,” is added with the number of the objection.

References to Thomas Commentary on the Gospel of John may be found in the translation by Fr. James A. Weisheipl, O.P. and Fabian R. Larcher, O.P., published by St. Bede’s Publications.