Dives in Misericordia

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Pope John Paul II's second encyclical was issued November 30, 1980. Dives in misericordia (DM), "Rich in Mercy," is properly read as a continuation of the first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (RH). While RH is devoted to Jesus Christ as the one who "fully reveals man to himself," DM turns to Christ as the one who makes known the Father, who reveals to humans "the countenance of the 'Father of mercies and God of all comfort"' (DM 1). Christ is at once the New Adam and the icon of the Father, fully human and fully divine. The perspectives of "anthropocentrism" and "theocentrism" are not at all antithetical; rather, "the Church, following Christ, seeks to link them up in human history, in a deep and organic way" (DM 1). For John Paul this connection is "perhaps the most important" of the teachings of Vatican II. And because "in the present phase of the Church's history we put before ourselves as our primary task the implementation of the doctrine of the great Council" (DM 1), we readily see how RH and DM, standing together at the beginning of the pontificate, signal John Paul's intent to extend the reception of the council.

Dives in misericordia unfolds the revelation of divine mercy in salvation history through eight chapters, beginning with the biblical message of compassion and moving toward the mission of the contemporary Church to put mercy into practice. Chapter 4 is an extended reflection upon the parable of the prodigal son, and represents perhaps the symbolic heart of the text. The younger son "in a certain sense is the man of every period" (DM5), and the human father of the story of course reflects the divine Father, whose "readiness to receive the prodigal children who return to His home" is "infinite" and "inexhaustible" (DM 13). Mary the mother of Jesus represents a special biblical manifestation of divine mercy in action, as she sings in the Magnificat of God's mercy that is "from generation to generation." These words of hers "have a prophetic content that concerns not only the past of Israel but also the whole future of the People of God on earth" (DM 10). Mary and the other figures of salvation history all point to Christ, who "by becoming the incarnation of the love that is manifested with particular force with regard to the suffering, the unfortunate, and sinners, makes present and thus more fully reveals the Father, who is God 'rich in mercy"' (DM 3).

Following Christ, who taught, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy," the Church is called to show that humans not only receive and experience the mercy of God but are likewise to practice mercy toward others. It is not enough for personal and social relationships to be governed solely by the measure of justice; "mercy becomes an indispensable element for shaping mutual relationships between people" (DM 14). Only through the exchange of mercy and compassion can the essential value and dignity of the person be preserved and more deeply experienced. The very mission of the Church is to be an effective sign ("sacrament," according to Vatican II) in the world of the compassion and love of God the Father. "The Church herself must be constantly guided by the full consciousness that in this work it is not permissible for her, for any reason, to withdraw into herself. The reason for her existence is, in fact, to reveal God, that Father who allows us to 'see' Him in Christ" (DM 15).

Bibliography: For the text of Dives in misericordia, see: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 72 (1980) 11761232 (Latin); Origins 10, no. 26 (December 11, 1980): 401, 403416 (English); The Pope Speaks 26 (1981): 2058 (English). For a commentary on Dives in misericordia, see: a. dulles, The Splendor of Faith: The Theological Vision of Pope John Paul II (New York 1999).

[m. pelzel]

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Dives in Misericordia

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