Dives in Misericordia (Latin for "Rich in Mercy") is the name of the second encyclical written by Pope John Paul II. It is a deeply theological examination of the role of mercy — both God's mercy, and also the need for human mercy — introducing the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son as a central theme. The encyclical was promulgated on November 30, 1980.
Background for the encyclical
The idea of God's mercy is an intensely personal one for John Paul II. He had a strong love for the Divine Mercy, a devotion revealed by his fellow Pole, Sister Faustina Kowalska (b.1905 - d.1938), a devotion that he later instituted for the entire Catholic Church in 2000 as Divine Mercy Sunday during the vigil of which, in 2005, he died. He told his biographer George Weigel that he felt spiritually "very near" to Sister Faustina when he began the encyclical.
Pope John Paul II's second encyclical continues to examine the world problems brought up in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, including rising militarization, tyranny, starvation, and daily problems of personal life. He teaches that the only authentic Christian response to these rising problems is through love informed by God's mercy, especially as revealed in the love of the Father in the Trinity.
Introduction of the Encyclical
Just as in his previous encyclical, John Paul motivates his discussion by examining many problems in the world. He posits that many in today's world are made uneasy by the idea of mercy. In opposition to an impersonal, technology-driven dominion over the world that "seems to have no room for mercy," John Paul appeals to the world to turn to the mercy of God: "I wish them to be a heartfelt appeal by the Church to mercy, which humanity and the modern world need so much. And they need mercy even though they often do not realize it."
Jesus' message of mercy
The Pope places a special emphasis on Jesus' teaching mission to the poor, the sick, the sinners and the outcast: "Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live.... This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering." Tying this with Jesus' claim that "He who has seen me has seen the Father," John Paul points out that this reveals a similar merciful love for all in the world, especially those who suffer.
To discuss Jesus' teachings on mercy, John Paul puts forth the Parable of the Prodigal Son as an especially vivid illustration of God's mercy for man. John Paul stresses the interior need of the son that brings about his need for reconciliation. Above all, he enlarges on the reaction of the son's father, who welcomes him with unbounded merciful love, rather than a mere insistence on justice. John Paul points out that the father's reaction is based on more than mere sentiment, but on a deeper understanding of what his son really needs: "Notice, the father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son's humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved." The Pope makes the point that this parable illustrates that mercy is best judged not from the mere externals, but from a deeper examination of what it does to the interior of man.
Background in the Old Testament
The Pope traces the message of divine mercy back to earlier books in the Bible. He discusses the repeated instances of God returning to his people after their abandoning him.
John Paul also takes of the issue of contrasting mercy with justice: "in many cases [mercy] is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound." He writes that Scripture shows that "Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it, if we admit in the history of man ... the presence of God, who already as Creator has linked Himself to His creature with a particular love."
Mercy as revealed in the Crucifixion and Resurrection
John Paul then turns to the central message of Christianity: Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, and examines them for their implications on God's mercy. In his Passion, Christ appeals for mercy, but he himself is not spared. Pope John Paul calls this a "superabundance" of God's justice as reparation for the sins of man, yet springing from the supreme love of the Father for man. Thus, he writes, in Jesus' crucifixion, justice is simultaneously fulfilled and revealed by a deeper love: "The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks also which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness."