“Translating God’s Mercy into Compassionate Love to Civilize, Heal and Save”
Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday), Year “C”
It was this Second Sunday of Easter twenty-two years ago that Pope St. John Paul II declared this Sunday to be “Divine Mercy Sunday”: “this Second Sunday of Easter … from now on throughout the Church will be called ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’.” The occasion was the canonization of the bearer of the message of Divine Mercy, Sr. Faustina Kowalska, and these words come from the homily he delivered at the Canonization Mass that day. In God’s inscrutable providence, five years later, on the eve of this very Sunday he named “Divine Mercy,” he would pass from this world to the home of his Father.
The Message of Mercy in Its Historical Context
The year of St. Faustina’s canonization was an eventful one: it was the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium. I was living in Rome at the time, and it was very clear to me that John Paul wanted to start out this new Christian millennium on a note of reconciliation and peace, a fresh start for humanity. Indeed, it was very clear that his vision for his entire pontificate was to usher the Church into the third Christian millennium.
This was his vision literally from the very first moment he became Pope, as the world heard in the first speech he gave as Pope on the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica the night he was elected. And he made it clear once again in that homily for the canonization of St. Faustina: “Sr. Faustina’s canonization has a particular eloquence: by this act I intend today to pass this message on to the new millennium. I pass it on to all people, so that they will learn to know ever better the true face of God and the true face of their brethren.”
He also spoke there about how St. Faustina’s life was linked with the 20th century (just as, truth be told, his was as well), which he saw as providential for the message of Divine Mercy:
… it was between the First and Second World Wars that Christ entrusted His message of mercy to her. Those who remember, who were witnesses and participants in the events of those years and the horrible sufferings they caused for millions of people, know well how necessary was the message of mercy…
What will the years ahead bring us? What will man’s future on earth be like? We are not given to know. However, it is certain that in addition to new progress there will unfortunately be no lack of painful experiences. But the light of divine mercy, which the Lord in a way wished to return to the world through Sr. Faustina’s charism, will illuminate the way for the men and women of the third millennium.
We now know what those years were to bring us, and, as he foresaw, they certainly have not been lacking in painful experiences: armed conflict abroad, and especially the destruction of human life and very civilization of the people of Ukraine; and the destruction of human life in our own homeland beginning with human life in the womb, coupled with the redefining of the human person that is at odds with the very nature with which God has created us, and even the corrupting of little children with these destructive ideas.
All of this spells disaster for the human race, and it is the disaster we are experiencing in our own time. But we also have the answer, as St. John Paul articulated in the canonization homily: “It is [compassionate] love which must inspire humanity today, if it is to face the crisis of the meaning of life, the challenges of the most diverse needs and, especially, the duty to defend the dignity of every human person. Thus the message of divine mercy is also implicitly a message about the value of every human being” (emphasis added).
The Response of Compassionate Love
In the midst of all of this, it is more important than ever to be aware of the many acts of compassionate love in our midst that defend the dignity of every human person and teach us how to face the crises of our time. St. John Paul II’s native Poland is certainly a leading example, with the gracious and generous welcome they are giving to refugees from neighboring Ukraine. But we also have shining examples here in church with us today: the young students who are the contestants in the annual Archdiocesan Respect Life Essay contest.
My dear young people: you are an inspiring witness to your peers, and to us, of the compassionate love so needed in the world today, love which affirms the value of every human being but often comes at the cost of being disparaged by some in the elite sectors of society. By this witness of yours, you are setting out on the path of living the authentic Christian life, as it is presented to us in our readings for this Divine Mercy Sunday. That is, today’s readings give us a helpful insight into the two-fold aspect of the situation of the early Christian community, which characterized the life of that first generation of our ancestors in the Christian faith.
First of all, the Acts of the Apostles makes clear that those first disciples enjoyed great success in spreading the Good News: “more than ever, believers in the Lord, great numbers of men and women, were added to them.” Notice, too, that this was not just by street-corner preaching, but above all through good works: “A large number of people from the towns in the vicinity of Jerusalem also gathered, bringing the sick and those disturbed by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.” It was the witness of a holy life, of Christians conformed to the likeness of Christ himself, by which “great numbers … were added to them,” as it would continue for centuries.
The Christians in the ancient city of Rome, for example, were renowned for their self-sacrificing love and care for the sick there: when a plague would break out the people of means would flee to the hills until it subsided and it was safe to return; the Christians were the ones who stayed behind to take care of the sick, and not only their own, but all the sick – at great risk to their health and very lives. It was this kind of witness that converted the pagan Romans to Christ.
The Continuing Mission of the Church
However, it was not all a rose garden! While the poor were more easily attracted to following Christ through the witness of Christians, their single-hearted loyalty to their Lord got them into trouble with the high and mighty, who saw them as subversive. They refused to acknowledge Caesar as God and Lord – the creedal formula Romans were required to recite in offering incense to him. Instead, the Christians knew, and would not waver from the conviction, that it is not Caesar, but Jesus Christ, who is God and Lord – a profession of faith which became incorporated into the Eucharistic Prayer they used in consecrating the bread and wine into his Body and Blood (which we now call the Roman Canon, or First Eucharistic Prayer).
We hear about the success of the Christians in the passage from the Acts of the Apostles prescribed for today’s Mass. But if we read a little farther on, we learn that the religious authorities took umbrage at these first followers of Jesus Christ, and threw them in jail. So, for their good works, the Christians were rewarded not with praise by the governing authorities but with punishment, even persecution. We hear about this all through the Acts of the Apostles, as we do in the Book of Revelation. We heard St. John tell us that he, too, was so punished. He tells his fellow Christians that he shares their distress, and that he was banished to a remote island because he “proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus.”
That was long ago and far away, but this basic reality remains unchanged! Unchanged, because the mission of Church remains unchanged, and, in some way or another, the faithful Christian life will always involve both of these aspects. Unswerving loyalty to Christ in the profession of faith and in living it out with heroic virtue is what civilized, and Christianized, an often unruly pagan world. And the formula doesn’t change: it will also re-civilize a world reverting to pagan-like practices in our own time, such as ethnic cleansing, child sacrifice, slavery, and in so many other ways trampling upon others as a means to one’s self-centered ends – all of which serves only to dehumanize and, eventually, destroy us.
The answer, now and always, is Divine Mercy: God’s mercy to us, which we then translate into compassionate love for others. It’s the timeless solution, as John Paul pointed out in that canonization homily for St. Faustina:
… as the Apostles once did, today too humanity must welcome into the upper room of history the risen Christ, who shows the wounds of his Crucifixion and repeats: Peace be with you! Humanity must let itself be touched and pervaded by the Spirit given to it by the risen Christ. It is the Spirit who heals the wounds of the heart, pulls down the barriers that separate us from God and divide us from one another, and at the same time, restores the joy of the Father’s love and of fraternal unity.
Let us, then, always be thankful for God’s mercy, and express that thanks through sharing the compassionate love of Jesus Christ with others.