Make the first move

We should say no to soundbites, but hypocrite that I am, I propose here a four-word distillation of Catholic faith: "Make the first move."

The cliche came to mind during a recent evening family prayer time. "For the sake of His sorrowful Passion," my 10-year-old son said as he took a turn leading a decade of the Divine Mercy chaplet. Then my 3-year-old son, always competing with his older brothers, nearly shouted, "Have mercy on us and on the whole world."

What is divine mercy, I thought, if not an astounding manifestation of Our Lord's decision to break the stalemate of sin and make the first move in our lives?

Along with many blessings, I can look back on some sorrowful, petty battles I have waged. In deep trenches I dug behind my fortifications of unforgiveness and pride, I squandered precious time holding out against God's mercy and, in turn, waiting for others to make the first move of forgiveness.

St. Faustina (1905-38) - the "secretary of mercy" - has given us an elegantly simple roadmap out of our self-imposed labyrinths. On good evenings, the cadence of her simple chaplet now punctuates our family's litany of homework, fights, chores, laughs, dinner, whining, music practice and bedtime rituals.

And for good reason. After all, I met the woman who would become my wife at a Catholic conference in, of all places, Krakow, Poland, in the Jubilee Year of 2000. There we were, visiting St. Faustina's shrine together, just months after St. John Paul II canonized her and put Divine Mercy Sunday on the calendar. Our first dates unfolded just footsteps from where Jesus conveyed His message of trust and mercy to a 25-year-old Polish nun.

Since then, my wife and I have read Faustina's diary, and ever-so-slowly, the devotion has taken hold in our home.

But this little chaplet is no walk in the park. If you are searching for a good Hallmark-card prayer, look elsewhere. This thing is a wrecking ball. It lowers the boom over and over again. And just as quickly, it brings a feet-on-the-ground rootedness. If you work with it, it will work on you.

Pope Francis provides us with an unlikely window on this dynamic (and humbling) movement of mercy. An avid soccer fan, he routinely deploys soccer slang - according to Austen Ivereigh in his biography of Francis, The Great Reformer - including the Spanish primerear: "to first" somebody, as in darting ahead of one's opponent.

"That is the religious experience," said the then-cardinal in 2010, "the astonishment of meeting someone who has been waiting for you all along. Dios te primerea. God beats you to it." When we finally "make our move" to receive God's mercy, we find that He has already made the first move.

"While he was still a long way off," we read in the parable of the prodigal son, "his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him" (Lk 15:20). True, the prodigal son made his decision to return home; but his father "firsted" him by forgiving him in his heart long before.

"He didn't just wait for him," Pope Francis said in a 2013 interview, "he went out to meet him. That's mercy."

This devotion has a life of its own. The chaplet's quiet strength has upended - in a good way - many an otherwise "grumpy exhausted dad" evening for me. One friend with a decades-long love for this devotion now reports waking up in the middle of the night from time to time with the words "have mercy on us and on the whole world" vividly fresh in his thoughts.

Another friend discovered this prayer in the weeks leading up to his mother's death.

"Just after completing the prayers of the chaplet at the bedside of my mother," he told me, "she took her final breath and died." She died on a Friday. Only later did my friend realize that his mother had died at 3 p.m. Since then, the devotion has become a mainstay for him.

"I am sending you with my mercy to the people of the whole world," St. Faustina reports hearing Jesus say to her. "I do not want to punish mankind, but I desire to heal it, pressing it to my merciful heart."

Like an onramp, the secretary of mercy's chaplet invites each of us to accelerate toward the heart of Christ. "While there is still time," she records Jesus' words, "let them have recourse to the fountain of my mercy." While there is still time, we can make the move. And we won't be first. Dios nos primerea.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015