One of the fastest-growing devotions in the Catholic Church is reaching the heart of downtown Chicago through the work of the Heralds of Divine Mercy. The organization is publicly displaying a large image of Christ during a nine-day campaign of 24-hour prayer and evangelism.
“The Divine Mercy Project is really about having an opportunity to witness to the culture, in environments we're normally pushed out of,” said Michael C.X. Sullivan, a 40-year-old lawyer who developed the idea earlier this year. “It's specifically for the conversion of Chicago, America, and the world.”
The prayer vigil is taking place in Daly Plaza, a crowded area that features a number of civil administrative buildings. There, the Heralds of Divine Mercy are displaying a large cross along with a ten-foot-tall image of Christ based on the visions of St. Faustina Kowalska. While some participants remain in prayer, others take their turn distributing cards that promote the message of God's mercy.
Sullivan said his five-year-old son had become an enthusiastic evangelist, along with the many other participants who have manned the image in shifts all day and night. “He shoots out across Daly Plaza,” Sullivan said, “running right up to people and giving them the card.”
“Most people receive it, and look at it, and you see their countenance shift – there's a kind of a brightening. However, you also see a real darkness in some people, a hardness in them. So we say a prayer for them, if they don't want to receive this gift.”
CNA caught up with Sullivan on April 25, the fourth day of the campaign. During the afternoon, a “Life Mob” of about 50 pro-life Catholic young people had showed up with a large “rosary” made of dozens of helium filled balloons.
The young participants held down the large chain of balloons as they recited the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, a prayer that is associated with the image and typically prayed on rosary beads.
“Then they let go of all these balloons,” Sullivan recalled, “so there was this rosary floating up in the sky in front of city hall, in front of this icon of political corruption.”
“I broke out in laughter – it was just awesome.”
The vigil has taken on a more joyous tone since Easter Sunday. During Good Friday and Holy Saturday, however, the large image of Christ was covered with a purple cloth, indicating the solemnity of those liturgical days. The gesture intrigued many passers-by, who wondered what would appear when it was unveiled.
“The vigil participants were out there praying, and people were asking them, 'Why is this covered?'” said Sullivan. “Our culture is one that doesn't want to wait in expectation. Just having it veiled, for those days, was a witness to a more sacramental worldview.”
Now that the image is visible, Sullivan says it is awakening many Chicagoans' quietly suppressed faith.
“We've had people who work in the nearby buildings, sometimes coming up and just kneeling before it,” he observed. “There is this multitude out there that is crying out in silence for God's presence – in all levels of society, whether they're cleaning ladies or at the top of the ladder in media, news, banking, or politics.”
“When they see this sign – this sign that Christ exists, that there are people of faith who are willing to be out there 24 hours a day – they identify with those people. It's feeding and nourishing that inner life of faith in them.”
“I think our culture is ready for Catholics to become more 'evangelical' – more demonstrative, taking the strength of our faith into the public square without compromise.”
He believes that the Divine Mercy image, which shows rays of blood and water flowing from Jesus' heart, is a striking means of evangelism – especially in a highly visual culture, where images can have more impact than words.
“I think our Lord knew that we were entering into this time of a highly visual culture,” Sullivan said. “We have no idea how many people are being touched just by driving by and seeing it. We're seeing police officers drive up and stop near it, and they have this look in their eyes. There's something that is happening to them.”
“We trust that the Lord will use this image as a means of touching souls – because he said he would.”
St. Faustina Kowalska, the 20th century Polish nun whose visions inspired the image, said that Jesus asked her to have it painted and displayed as a sign of God's love during the upheavals of modern history. Sullivan and his fellow vigil participants expect to pass out 20,000 cards bearing the image, along with a prayer and a passage from St. Faustina's diary.
While the Divine Mercy Project seeks to evangelize the public, it also has the goal of encouraging Catholics to perform the “corporal works of mercy” – acts such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and sheltering the homeless. These acts, Sullivan noted, are an essential part of the message given to the world through St. Faustina.
“Jesus said that the strongest faith is of no avail without works,” he said. “Christ demands deeds of mercy.”
The Heralds of Divine Mercy are already getting requests from at least five other U.S. states, where devotees want to launch similar campaigns in the public square. Sullivan believes that the project has national potential, as long as Catholics are willing to step out and take the necessary risks.
“You can say 'Jesus, I trust in you' to your heart's content,” he said, “but if there's no risk involved in that trust, then where is the proof? As Catholics, we really have to put more on the line.”
“Our fears and anxieties keep the power of our faith locked up,” said Sullivan. “But when we lead with prayer, and take risks, God shows up.”