2nd Sunday of Easter
Divine Mercy Sunday
April 11, 2021
Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Homeland/Divine Mercy Parish
Mercy in the Dock
In the first half of the 20th century, as the horrors of the First World War unfolded and the stage was set for the atrocities of the Second World War, a Polish nun, Sister Faustina Kowalska, experienced visions and revelations. All of them centered on one immense theme: Divine Mercy. Those visions and revelations, however, were not merely for her benefit. Rather, the Crucified and Risen Lord made her a messenger of mercy to a century which, up to that point, was history’s most violent century. As devotion to this herald of divine mercy spread throughout the world, the Church ratified the authenticity of Sister Faustina’s visions and her message. Eventually, Pope John Paul II would canonize her and would designate the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.
As we read about the violent wars and concentration camps of the last century, we readily understand the relevance and urgency of Sister Faustina’s message of mercy. We should also ask, however, if her message is any less urgent in the 21st century, for sadly, human cruelty of all sorts continues to run rampant. Yet, these days, there is something else afoot in our culture, namely, the rejection of the very idea of forgiveness and mercy. Years ago, the late Cardinal George of Chicago identified this trend when he wrote that contemporary society “permits everything and forgives nothing.” Without putting too fine a point on it, we live in a culture that practices reputational capital punishment for both the living and the dead. Once a person has run afoul of the culture and/or the media, there is no forgiveness. Our self-righteous culture forever consigns all such persons to its very own Sheol, ‘the abode of the defamed’ . . . where there is no exit and no rehabilitation.
This is not to suggest that society should ignore or cover up wrongdoing, nor still less that public figures, past and present, should be immune from criticism. I do want to ask, however, how much influence all this is having on us as Catholics. Are we uncritically absorbing the harsh and unforgiving culture that is all around us? Do we any longer believe in mercy, first for ourselves, and then for others? Is it possible to be forgiven and to forgive, living as we do in a culture that ‘permits everything and forgives nothing’? In search of answers to these questions, let us turn to today’s Scriptures which make it clear that Divine Mercy is the very core and center of our faith. We begin with today’s proclamation from the Gospel of St. John.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation
In this Gospel scene, the Risen Lord appears to his disciples locked in the Upper Room. They are ridden with doubt and fear, and even shame, for, with one exception, they had all abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Yet, the Risen Lord stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you!” The Lord does not rebuke them or condemn them, but gets right to the point – and the point is this: the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus’ whole mission is all about mercy. This was the reason God’s Son came into the world and gave his life for us. So, the top priority of the Risen Lord was to continue his mission of mercy and healing. For that reason, he breathed on the Apostles with the breath of the Holy Spirit, and empowered them to forgive sins in his Name and in his Person – and to retain sins in cases where true repentance would be lacking. This puts us at the origin of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of Mercy, in which the Trinity, through the agency of the priest, forgives our sins.
Let me speak to you here both as a penitent and as a priest. I receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation frequently and with great gratitude. As I confess my sins, I am always struck by God’s unfailing mercy, by the love of Christ crucified and risen who won for me the forgiveness of my sins, and by the breath of the Holy Spirit that conveys Christ’s reconciling love. Nothing brings me more freedom, joy, and confidence than God’s forgiveness. As I hear confessions, I am humbled and joyful, that despite my unworthiness, the Lord has seen fit to make me an instrument of his merciful love. What a joy to lift the burden of sin from a penitent’s shoulders!
Sadly, many Catholics no longer frequent the Sacrament of Penance. This is not the result of COVID, but is rather a decades-old trend. When it comes to God’s mercy, too many of us are ‘Doubting Thomas’s’. Perhaps that is why, in our own times, God has spoken to us through Sister Faustina – in order to bolster our lagging faith in God’s mercy – both our need for it and its ready availability in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We must learn again how to trust in the Lord’s mercy, and as we are forgiven, let us gratefully repeat Thomas’ confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!”
The Effects of Receiving God’s Mercy
What, then, are the effects of our receiving God’s mercy? How does it change us? How does it change the world around us? Our second and first readings (I will take them in that order) respond to these questions. B. Our 2nd reading from the First Letter of St. John urges us to keep the Commandments. Right away, we may associate the Commandments with rules, guilt, and harshness. We may ask, what is merciful about the Ten Commandments? St. John teaches us that the Commandments are really the way of love. By keeping them, we show, as a practical matter, that we truly do love God & neighbor. If we love God, we will reject idols; we will not use his name in vain; and, we will be sure to keep the Sabbath holy, i.e., to take part in Sunday Mass. If we love our neighbor, we will respect our parents; treat others with respect; refuse to lie, cheat, or steal; and put every form of envy behind us. In other words, we will love the great God, who has forgiven us so generously, and we will extend to others the merciful love God has first shown to us. If we all lived like this, we could indeed create a culture of life, love, and mercy!
Today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles takes us a step further. It reminds us that living virtuously and mercifully is not just an individual matter. Rather, we are to form communities united in their faith in the Risen Lord; communities that are united in mercy, charity, and generosity, especially for those who are most in need. Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles gives us a snapshot of an early Christian community. It was “united in mind and heart” [Luke says], that is to say, united in belief and action. It was marked by the powerful testimony of the Apostles to the Lord’s Resurrection. The community pooled its resources so that no one was in need. In other words, it was a community shaped by faith, mercy, and charity.
A Light Brightly Visible
And perhaps this brings us full circle on this Divine Mercy Sunday to the question of how we Catholics should respond to the lack of mercy we see all around us. The early Christian communities were formed in a culture that was anything but virtuous and merciful, yet they stood out in that culture as a brightly visible sign, as a sacrament of God’s love and mercy . . . So too with us. It is tempting to plunge ourselves headlong into the so-called culture wars, to fight fire with fire, and angry rhetoric with angry rhetoric. But in the end, our real responsibility is first to open our own hearts to God’s mercy, then to allow God’s mercy to shape our lives, especially our relationships with others, and then to go about the work of forming parish communities that are united both in proclaiming God’s mercy and in doing the works of mercy.
This is how our parishes will stand out in this culture as a light brightly visible, as a living sign of that mercy which our polarized world needs so badly. This is also how we will transform our culture “from within” – by attracting more and more people to a culture of mercy, whose origins are traced, not to our wisdom and love, but to the matchless wisdom of the Triune God and the measureless love of our Crucified and Risen Savior. May God bless us and keep us always in his love and his mercy!