Sunday, March 30, 2008

Three Ways of Exercising Mercy

Jesus appearing to Sister Faustina Kowalska

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year A): This homily was given on March 30, 2008, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Easter 2008]

Ever since 2001, the Second Sunday of the Easter season has been officially known as “Divine Mercy Sunday”.

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 this vision, and to have it signed, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Over the next 7 years, the Lord gave Sr. Faustina—now St. Faustina—numerous private revelations concerning his merciful love. These she recorded in a diary, as Jesus had instructed her to do. Many of us, I’m sure, have read at least part of it. Fr. George Kosicki—an authority on the Divine Mercy devotion—has said that through these many revelations, “Jesus taught the young nun that his mercy is unlimited and available even to the greatest sinners.”

Now we all love messages like this when we apply them to ourselves, don’t we? We’re happy to hear, for example, that our God is infinitely merciful, and that through the blood of his Son, Jesus, we personally have access to his mercy. We rejoice when we’re told that our loving God can and will forgive every single sin we commit—even the most severe, even the most embarrassing, even the most habitual—if we simply repent and go to him, especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation. As we heard in today’s Gospel text from John 20, Jesus gave his apostles the power to extend his mercy to any and to all sinners when he appeared to them on Easter Sunday and said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

That’s nice. That’s comforting. That’s great news! But, of course, it’s also only half the story! Yes, the Lord will give his mercy to each of us—as much as we need—as often as we need it—if only we repent and ask. But at the same time he expects us to be willing to show his mercy to other people! That’s an absolute requirement; it’s not an option! In one of his revelations to St. Faustina, Jesus reportedly said this: “I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it.” (Diary, 742)

Notice he didn’t say, “I ask you to be merciful”; he didn’t say, “It would be really nice if you’d be merciful every once in awhile”. Jesus said, “I demand that you be merciful.”

I mention this today because I constantly meet Catholics—some of them practicing Catholics who wouldn’t think of missing Mass on Sunday—who are also holding big-time grudges against their co-workers and their acquaintances—and even against some members of their own families!

And, worst of all, they don’t have any desire to change. None whatsoever! They don’t even have any desire to try to change!

Now if that describes you at the present moment, then all we can do for you this morning is offer you our prayers. We will pray that your heart will eventually be softened on this issue. After all, no one can force you to be merciful to another human being.

For the rest—especially for those among us who have ill feelings toward others at the present time but who want things to get better—listen to this important word from the Lord that came through St. Faustina. Jesus said to her in one of his revelations: “I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first—by deed, the second—by word, the third—by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for me.” (Diary, 742)

Loving deeds—combined with reconciling words and sincere prayers—bring God’s mercy to other people through us. That’s the practical formula to follow to fulfill Jesus’ demand to be merciful even to our enemies.

Now in this regard my personal suggestion is to start off with number 3, especially if the person in question is someone with whom you’ve had a big conflict. Yes, it would be nice to start off by performing loving, kind acts toward the person, but that may be extremely difficult at first. The wound they inflicted on you in the past may run too deep.

So it’s best to begin by prayer, number 3 on Jesus’ list. This, of course, is exactly what our Lord was getting at when he said in Matthew 5, “Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.”

But how exactly do you do this? How do you pray for someone who’s hurt you deeply—someone you might not like very much?

Simple. First of all, you pray that God’s will is accomplished in their life (that’s always the best prayer for another person, be they your best friend or your worst enemy).

Then pray that the person will become a saint! And do it sincerely.

By the way, if that prayer is eventually answered, you will directly benefit! Because if your enemy becomes a saint, he will recognize whatever sins he’s committed against you and will repent of them. He’ll probably even come and ask for your forgiveness!

But even if he never does, by sincerely praying for him you do yourself a really big favor by keeping hatred out of your heart! Remember, hatred is a serious sin that St. John compares to murder in his first letter! We read in 1 John 3: 15: “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that eternal life abides in no murderer’s heart.”

But, you see, you can’t hate somebody for whom you’re sincerely praying each and every day. It’s impossible.

So start off with prayer. Begin by extending God’s mercy in that manner. Eventually you’ll be able to move on to words—the second way of exercising mercy, according to Jesus’ revelation to Faustina. And those words can be either verbal or written. On that note, I know of a young woman who recently had a falling out with her father. It was not pretty; in fact, it was “real ugly”. At this point, she wants to reach out to him and talk with him and be reconciled to him, but she doesn’t think he’s ready to communicate face-to-face yet. So she plans on writing him a letter as a first step.

In her case, I think that’s the right approach. Hopefully, the letter will soften his heart a bit and make him more open to a face-to-face conversation.

Then the deeds will come for her—and for us in similar situations: the deeds of kindness and mercy that were first on Jesus’ list to Faustina. Good deeds, of course, can be done for an enemy at any time, but ordinarily I think that they’re most effective when they come after prayer and after conversation. In some sense they fulfill the prayers you’ve said for the person, and put into action the reconciling words you’ve already spoken to them.

Jesus said, “I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first—by deed, the second—by word, the third—by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for me.”

May the grace of Almighty God—which comes to us in a special way through the Holy Eucharist—help us to do all 3 (at least eventually).

One final word now to those among us who have absolutely no interest in showing mercy to the real troublesome souls in their lives: You all might want to stop praying the Lord’s Prayer. Just a suggestion. I say that because in the Our Father we say, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Another way to phrase that line is as follows: “Show mercy to me, O Lord—only to the extent that I’m willing to show mercy to others.”

Obviously, then, if you’re unwilling to be merciful and forgive, then every time you pray the Lord’s Prayer, you’re telling Almighty God, “O Lord, please don’t forgive me; O Lord, please, please, please don’t show me any mercy.”

And that’s really not a good prayer to say.

A much better one is, “Lord, please soften my heart—so that I will WANT to be merciful, or at least so that I will want to TRY to be merciful.”