2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy) (Fr. Francis)
The first word uttered by the Risen Christ on Easter night conveyed His special Easter gift to His Church: “Peace!” It is significant that immediately following on the heels of that greeting is the Lord’s commission to His Apostles to forgive sins in His name: “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” What is the connection between the two statements?
Shalom, the Hebrew word Jesus would have used that first Easter, carries within itself so many meanings that it cannot be adequately translated by a single word. Shalom connotes wholeness, harmony, unity, peace and right relationships. It harks back to the Genesis accounts which depict God and man in an intimate union of friendship and love. That union was destroyed, however, by the sin of our first parents. From that day on, sin has always obstructed the movement of the human person toward God. For peace to be found, the roadblock of sin must be removed. Hence, the link between the Resurrection gift of peace and the Resurrection gift of forgiveness.
That link is maintained by the Church in the Sacrament of Penance. Not without reason did many of the Fathers of the Church refer to Penance as the “the second Baptism.” They saw in this sacrament the consoling possibility of returning to baptismal innocence, the ability to have a second chance if one is only willing to repent and begin again.
That is so important in the lives of human beings that when the great English writer and convert G. K. Chesterton was asked why he became a Catholic, he said very simply: “To get my sins forgiven!” And that remains a very powerful reason for belonging to the Catholic Church — to experience the compassion, the forgiveness, the mercy of Almighty God.
It has become popular in some quarters to speak about whether or not a person is “saved.” In truth, however, salvation is an ongoing process in a person’s life in which one attempts to grow ever closer to God. It is with the goals of growth and reconciliation in mind that the Church provides the Sacrament of Penance for her sons and daughters. As defined by the Council of Trent, the Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ for the purpose of reconciling the faithful to God as often as they fall into sin after Baptism.
According to the Church, there are three distinct facets of the Sacrament. First and foremost is the need for contrition on the part of the sinner; that is, that he feel sorrow for having sinned. Forgiveness is contingent upon a desire to be forgiven, and a resolve to avoid that sin in the future. This sacrament is intended to be a true encounter between the sinful self and the forgiving Christ. Anything less is a hypocritical charade. Nothing less than a true desire to turn from sin, to change one’s life, to go through a conversion experience is required. Frequently, non-Catholics have the impression that the Catholic approach to sin is one of: “Oh well, I’ll just go to confession on Saturday.” Such an attitude makes a mockery of divine justice and is a parody of the Church’s sacramental theology.
Secondly, the sinner must confess his sins and admit to having fallen in the eyes of God.
We are told in the Epistle of James to “declare (our) sins to one another” (Jas 5:16). In admitting that we have sinned, we also acknowledge our need for the healing power of Jesus Christ in our lives.
The final component of the Sacrament of Penance is satisfaction. In addition to seeking the removal of the guilt of sin, the penitent should attempt to make some type of reparation for the wrongs committed.
The Sacrament of Penance, while criticized by many outside the Church as unbiblical, has definite scriptural foundations. At root, it is grounded in Christ’s power to forgive sins.
In the ninth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the Evangelist relates the story of Jesus’ cure of a paralytic at Capernaum. Jesus informs the paralytic that his sins are forgiven, causing the scribes present to think that Jesus has blasphemed, for only God can forgive sins. They did not, of course, recognize Jesus as God. Jesus responds to their mental musings by ordering the paralytic: “Stand up! Roll up your mat and go home” (Mt 9:6). Jesus says that He issues this command in order “to help (them) realize that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mt 9:6). Jesus obviously possesses the divine authority to forgive sins.
The Catholic Church maintains, on the basis of scriptural and historical data, that Christ passed on His authority to forgive sins to His disciples, for it is obvious from the Gospels that Jesus did indeed confer power and authority upon His Apostles. Luke states that “Jesus now called the twelve together and gave them power and authority to overcome all demons and to cure diseases” (Luke 9:1). Clearly, the delegation of divine prerogatives to the disciples was not without precedent.
Just as Christ conferred upon His disciples the power and authority to overcome demons and to cure diseases, so too did He grant them the power and authority to forgive sins. In Matthew 18:18, Jesus says to His disciples, “I assure you, whatever you declare bound on earth shall be held bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The power to bind and loose, in rabbinic terms, constitutes the authority to declare what is allowed and forbidden under the law. It also possesses the alternate meaning of imparting the authority to excommunicate persons from the community or to include them in it.
St. John’s Gospel leaves little doubt regarding Christ’s intention to empower His Apostles to forgive sins. In today’s Gospel passage, as already noted, the Risen Christ says to the Apostles: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” There is obviously a specific and deliberate delegation taking place, particularly since Christ equates His commission to the Apostles with that which He Himself had received from His Father. It is at this point that Christ grants the Apostles definitive power and authority to forgive sins as He says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” This is not a parable or analogy but a direct delegation of power and authority from the Lord to His Apostles. And as Christ chose followers to carry on His ministry, so too did the Apostles choose successors to carry on their work (cf. 2 Tim 1:6; 2:2).
Now let’s take our time-machine forward from Christ and backward a century from ourselves.
In 1905, a girl was born to a poor but devout Polish couple. As a teenager, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw. Because she was uneducated, Sister Faustina was assigned the most menial tasks; in the midst of the tasks of a cook, baker, gardener and housekeeper, the young nun underwent many mystical experiences, during which Our Lord asked her to become both His apostle and His secretary — to announce anew to mankind the Gospel of God’s mercy. In one of the Lord’s messages to her, He said: “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to my mercy . . . My daughter, be diligent in writing down every sentence I tell you concerning my mercy, because this is meant for a great number of souls who will profit from it.”
Sister Faustina was also told that the Church should celebrate a feast in honor of the Divine Mercy — on the Sunday after Easter. Not by accident does the Church on that day read the Gospel text which recounts Christ’s institution of the Sacrament of Penance, which is the surest and clearest sign of the Divine Mercy. The young mystic likewise wrote down two prayers dictated to her by the Font of Mercy Himself. The first goes like this: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for my sins and those of the whole world.” The second is like it: “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on me and on the whole world.”
Our Lord promised Sister Faustina that great things would happen if people prayed this chaplet of prayers with the proper attitude:
Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death. Priests will recommend it to sinners as their last hope of salvation. Even if there were a sinner most hardened, if he recited this chaplet only once, he will receive grace from my infinite mercy. I desire that the whole world know my infinite mercy. I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those who trust in my mercy.
Indeed, the Risen Christ’s first gift to His Church was His peace, which flows from His abiding mercy. We need to reflect on that and believe it with all our hearts, thanking God for this gift, which so many people desire and hope for but never realize is so readily available to them.
For a variety of reasons, this devotion to the Divine Mercy did not receive a very positive response from the hierarchy. That is, until a young Polish bishop named Karol Woytyla re-opened the discussion and then, as Pope John Paul II, gave definitive approval to the devotion, even making Sister Faustina the first saint of the third millennium.
We know that faith, so much the focus of today’s Gospel passage, consists in far more than just believing in the existence of God. Faith requires that we act upon and live our belief by keeping God’s laws and seeking to grow ever closer to Him. Being saved is not a stagnant, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but an ongoing response to the love and will of God. Despite our best efforts, however, we all fall short of this ideal and fall into sin. By giving us the Sacrament of Penance, Christ allows us to reconcile ourselves to Him continually and to grow steadily in our faith. The Church and her priests, in the name of Jesus Christ, carry out their divine commission by calling all members of the Body of Christ to repentance, reconciliation and a more perfect union with their Savior, Jesus Christ.
If Jesus inaugurated His Resurrection appearances to His Apostles with the greeting of “Peace,” we also know that He began His public ministry with the invitation, or better, the command: “Repent” (Mk 1:15). The Sacrament of Penance is the means by which Catholics go through the process of repentance, so as to experience Christ’s peace. Or, as the confessor assures the penitent: “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.”
Fr. A. Francis HGN