Sunday, April 18, 2004

Mercy needed; Mercy provided; Mercy received!

St. Faustina Kowalska

(Second Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on April 18, 2004 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Easter 2004]

Today is “Divine Mercy Sunday.” It was instituted by Pope John Paul II on May 5th four years ago.

Most of us are familiar with the origin of the Divine Mercy devotion, but for the few who might not be: Back in 1931, a young Polish nun, Sr. Faustina Kowalska, saw a vision of Jesus with two rays of light coming out of his heart. Jesus told her to have a painting produced replicating the vision, and to have it signed, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Over the next 7 years, the Lord gave Faustina numerous private revelations concerning his merciful love. These she recorded in a diary, as Jesus had instructed her to do. Fr. George Kosicki—an authority on the Divine Mercy devotion—has said that through these revelations, “Jesus taught the young nun that his mercy is unlimited and available even to the greatest sinners. He revealed special ways for people to respond to his mercy in their lives, and he gave her several promises for those who would trust his mercy and show mercy to others.”

On April 30th four years ago, Faustina was canonized a saint by Pope John Paul II in Rome.

Mercy provided. That, according to Fr. Kosicki, was what Jesus taught St. Faustina in the revelations he gave her from 1931 to 1938. Mercy has been provided! And that’s also what Jesus teaches us in the Gospel text we just heard from John, chapter 20. In this scene, which takes place on Easter Sunday, we’re told that Jesus appeared in his risen body to his apostles and poured out his Spirit upon them.

“But, Fr. Ray, I thought the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost?”

He did. But the first outpouring of the Spirit occurred right at Easter—in the initial encounter the risen Christ had with his newly ordained priests.

Why? Remember, whatever Jesus did, he did for a reason. So, why did he choose to send the Holy Spirit on two separate occasions?

Well here’s my theory: The Spirit was sent at Pentecost (50 days after Easter) to give the disciples the strength they needed to witness to their faith and remain strong in their commitment to Jesus. (Incidentally, teenagers, this is why the Holy Spirit comes to you at Confirmation. It’s not so that you can have a big party with your family and friends! It’s so that you can go out and be strong in your faith and live as Jesus Christ calls you to live!)

We all need this power in our lives—the power to be good witnesses for Christ—because by nature we are weak. We carry the residual effects of original sin within us. The apostles, of course, were no exception to this rule. As we all know, when crunch time came on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, instead of standing firm in their commitment to Christ, they ran away in fear. All of them abandoned our Lord. (Only John came back before Jesus died.) Obviously they desperately needed the grace of Pentecost—the grace they’d receive 50 days after Easter—so that they wouldn’t buckle under that kind of pressure in the future.

But—because of their sins—they needed forgiveness and mercy first!

So Jesus provided those gifts right away—on Easter Sunday—by pouring out his Spirit upon them this first time so that they could forgive sins in his name—including each other’s sins! As St. John tells us in this text, “[Jesus] breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’”

By the way, have you ever thought of that? The apostles—by the power of Christ and in his name—had the ability to forgive not only the sins of ordinary lay people; they also could forgive each other’s sins!

And I’m sure they did!

I can imagine Peter saying to John something along these lines: “Bless me, John, for I have sinned. I denied our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ three times on Holy Thursday night. I cursed and I swore; I gave in to fear. And I lied to Jesus when I said I’d be willing to die for him. For these and all the sins of my life, I am sorry.”

Obviously, this is why we have the sacrament of Confession. It was Jesus’ idea to give human beings the power to forgive sins in his name, and he bestowed that awesome power on his first priests as soon as he had risen from the dead!

Through Confession—and, even prior to that, through Baptism—Jesus has provided mercy for the world and for everyone in it. (This is the mercy he won for us by his sacrifice on the Cross.)

Thus only one question remains: Will we receive it? Will we receive this beautiful gift of mercy which Jesus has provided for us by the shedding of his blood?

The answer is: It all depends on how humble we are.

Mercy was provided by the humility of Jesus. As St. Paul tells us in Philippians 2, “He [Jesus] was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a Cross.”

Mercy was provided through humility, and mercy is received only through humility. We receive mercy when we humbly admit our sins and then reach out to Jesus in Baptism (if we haven’t been baptized yet) or in Confession (if we’ve already been baptized).

Humility is the key; it’s the key that unlocks the door to God’s mercy.

Now do you understand why pride has always been considered the worst of the 7 deadly sins?

The prideful person mistakenly convinces himself that he doesn’t need mercy, so he unwittingly cuts himself off from the gift. He rationalizes his sins, by saying, “I’m not so bad”; “I’m better than most people”; “Everybody does what I do”; “I don’t need Confession”; “I can confess to God on my own.”

People, you know, will give a priest 1,001 excuses as to why they don’t go to Confession, but at the root of all these excuses is one reality: pride.

It’s always great, of course, when God’s grace finally breaks through the wall of pride inside a person and brings that individual to repentance. No doubt some of us have had this experience; perhaps others among us still need it.

On that note, I read an interesting article this past week in the National Catholic Register about 4 men. The first was Dan Leach of Rosenberg, Texas, who murdered his ex-girlfriend in January; the second was James Anderson, who robbed a bank in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida two years ago; the third was Turner Lee Bingham, who robbed several stores and homes in Mesa, Arizona; the fourth was Johnny Olsen of Norway, a Neo-Nazi who had bombed two buildings in Oslo in the mid-1990s.

All 4 had a common experience during this past Lent: they went to see Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” and then confessed to their crimes. Amazingly, they turned themselves in to the legal authorities!

In the article I read, psychologist Paul Vitz commented on this phenomenon by saying, “Jesus’ death without guilt enhances a feeling of guilt in others who may feel guilty for what they might have done. It makes their guilt that much larger and therefore they need to confront it and relieve it by confession.”

In humility, these 4 criminals finally admitted that they needed mercy, and by seeing the movie they realized that Jesus’ sacrifice had provided mercy for them and for the world. And so, by turning themselves in, they’ve begun to reach out for that mercy in order that they might receive it.

Mercy needed; mercy provided; mercy received.

And that’s the way it should be for everyone—not just hardened criminals! Let me make that clear by giving the last word today to St. Faustina. The short paragraph I’m about to read to you is taken from her diary. As you listen to it, please keep in mind how holy this woman was! And yet, she still had a deep awareness of her need for mercy. She is speaking here of her response to a vision she saw of Jesus:

“Today the Lord’s gaze shot through me suddenly, like lightening. At once, I came to know the tiniest specks in my soul, and knowing the depths of my misery, I fell to my knees and begged the Lord’s pardon, and with great trust I immersed myself in His infinite mercy. Such knowledge does not depress me nor keep me away from the Lord, but rather it arouses in my soul greater love and boundless trust. The repentance of my heart is linked to love. These extraordinary flashes from the Lord educate my soul. O sweet rays of God, enlighten me to the most secret depth, for I want to arrive at the greatest possible purity of heart and soul.”

For Sister Faustina, it was mercy needed, mercy provided, mercy received! And that’s why she became a saint! May God give us the grace to follow her humble example—and become saints ourselves.