Second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday (April 12, 2015)

In the ancient and beautiful city of Siena in Italy the family house of St. Catherine of Siena is lovingly preserved as a shrine to the great saint.

Saint Catherine of Siena lived was born in the year 1347 and lived during a tumultuous time when kings and popes vied for power and the Church was rocked by scandal. Saint Catherine, brought order and stability to the Church, becoming one of the great women of her age, not by the attainment of wealth, pleasure, power and honors, but through a commitment to the radical witness of the Gospel. She is along with Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy.

In 1999, Saint Pope John Paul II declared Saint Catherine to be the patron saint of not only Italy, but also of Europe, a model for European peoples of what genuine cultural transformation entails. To commemorate this declaration, an artist was commissioned to create a great mural, a fresco, which would decorate a large wall in the shrine of Saint Catherine in Siena.

The scene places Saint Catherine in the midst of a strange and compelling juxtaposition of sacred and secular, ancient and modern images- events from the Gospel are transposed with events from the life of Saint Catherine. One detail is worthy of note, the artist has painted a poignant scene from Christ the Lord’s Parable of the Prodigal Son. He shows the encounter of the father from the story with his son, the son filthy and clothed in pathetic rages, with the father, accepting his lost son in a merciful embrace. The artist depicts the father in the story with the very distinctive facial features of Saint Pope John Paul II.

The association of the saint with the merciful father in the parable is apt.

The mercy of God was a perennial theme of Saint Pope John Paul II’s evangelization endeavors, a message he literally proclaimed throughout the world. One of the masterworks of his papacy was an encyclical, a teaching document, that described the mercy of God called “Dives et Misericordia”, which means “rich in mercy”. God is rich in his mercy.

Saint John Paul II testifies: “It is God who is rich in mercy whom Jesus Christ has revealed as Father. In Christ, God becomes visible in his mercy- as a Father who is rich in mercy.”

This was, as I said, a persistent theme of the saint’s pontificate (his time as pope).

In 2001, Saint Pope John Paul II declared the second Sunday after Easter to be celebrated as “Divine Mercy Sunday” and an everlasting testimony to all peoples that God in Christ makes himself present to the world as a divine gift of God’s mercy.

This Saturday, Pope Francis made a formal declaration that a extraordinary year of prayer will commence on December 8th, a jubilee year, which will have as its purpose the proclamation of God’s mercy. For a year beginning on December 8th, 2015, the Church will celebrate a holy year of God’s mercy.

During a holy year, faithful Christians are invited to embark on pilgrimage to the holy city of Rome, and during the pilgrimage renew their relationship with Jesus Christ, living and present in his Church. Critical to this practice is to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is a personal encounter with the forgiveness of the Jesus Christ.

On December 8th, in a grand and solemn ceremony, Pope Francis will open great bronze doors at St. Peter’s Basilica, doors that are only opened to signify a jubilee year. Thus will the year of mercy begin.

In continuity with his predecessor, Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Francis has placed an emphasis on God’s mercy. God’s mercy is NOT described by Pope Francis simply as some kind of abstract ideal or emotional experience, but an encounter with the living Christ who gives himself to people through his Church.

Pope Francis describes in particular, his own experience of God’s mercy, as an event that happened on September 21st, 1953 in the context of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

He testifies: “The truth is someone was waiting for me. He had been waiting for me for some time. After making my confession I felt something had changed. I was not the same. I had heard a voice, a call.”

Pope Francis’ testimony helps us to understand his repeated appeals for Christians to return to the practice of sacramental confession, an experience he describes over and over as an encounter with a merciful God. This emphasis helps us to understand the Holy Father’s motto “miserando atque eligendo”- literally translated as “wretched, but chosen”- a sinner, whom God is willing to choose to love.

That God is merciful is not something that we can know about God naturally. It might seem to us from our experience that God is merciful, but given the raw facts of life, the opposite might also be surmised.

The prophets of the Old Testament testify to God’s mercy, identifying it as “hesed”- best translated as an experience of undeserved and surprising compassion. The Old Testament prophets insist that God promises such a gift to the sinner who repents. If the sinner who turns away from God, returns to him, what we can expect is not a cold rebuke or what we deserve, but inexplicably, God grants the sinner “hesed”- compassion.

The prophets testify that God will be merciful to the sinner, but will he in actual fact be merciful?

The Christians testifies “yes” as the answer to this question, because of the revelation of God in Christ. God in Christ reveals himself in mercy, not just in his acts of compassion towards the poor and the sick, but in the most extraordinary way through the revelation of the cross.

The cross of Christ is the absolute worst thing humanity could ever do. In response to God’s overture of love for us, a love expressed by making himself vulnerable to suffering and death, humanity proves itself to be so wicked that it responds to God’s love by torturing him and trying to kill him in perhaps the most cruel way that we could devise.

The ordinary expectation of justice would be that God would deal with us in the same manner that we treated him or at the very least that he would hate us.

But that isn’t what God does. In a surprising revelation, after the horror of the cross, God in Christ returns to the very people who had betrayed him and declared themselves to be his enemies and offers his forgiveness- his mercy.

This revelation of undeserved mercy is displayed radically in the Gospel for today. It is in an encounter with Christ who is merciful that dispels Thomas’ doubts and compels him to admit that he had been wrong in his refusal of Christ. The encounter with Christ’s mercy changes Thomas and it changes the Apostles. They become, by Christ’s command, agents of his forgiveness to the world, charged with the mission of imparting to others the word and works of mercy that they have themselves received from the Lord.

Christ’s mercy becomes, not just an idea or feeling, but a mission- a work. Mercy is a work of the Church manifested in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and in those activities of the Christian life called the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

The experience of mercy, if it is authentic, and truly accepted, leads to mission.

In our era, as it has been in every era of the Church’s life, the gift of God’s mercy can become distorted. For some, the faith of the Church is a kind of birthright that is supposed to afford them access to certain faith-based privileges, rather than being an encounter with the living, divine Christ, who forgives our sins and in doing so, radically changes our lives.

When the distortion of the Church’s faith sets in, when we think of it simply as a birthright or ethnic identity or as a means to our own ends, a mere matter of institutional matriculation, God’s mercy is often thought of as dispensation from responsibility, of God looking the other way, so that we can justify our sins and do whatever we please because, we surmise, God will just love me anyway.

This twisted reasoning is blasphemy.

God’s mercy is not dispensation from responsibility, but the gift of another chance. What we do (or don’t do) with that chance matters.

God’s mercy affords us the opportunity to set right what we have set wrong.

Mercy is an opportunity, not a guarantee in regards to the final outcome. We can miss the opportunity that we are given, squander that chance.

But now, right now, the opportunity is offered, the chance is before us.

Now is the time of the mercy of God in Christ.

The year of mercy will soon begin- will you take the opportunity that is offered? Will you seek an encounter with the merciful Christ in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, abandon your doubts, and like Thomas, give your life over to Jesus Christ as a missionary of his mercy?

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