Homily for May 1, II Sunday of Easter, cycle A
At this time of year ten years ago, I was still a seminarian in Rome. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was going to be leaving Italy just a few months later, to come to New York to teach philosophy to seminarians. The rector of the seminary probably knew already, and maybe that’s why he chose me as one of the seminarians who would be altar servers for the Easter Vigil Mass at St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Pope John Paul II was going to preside over the celebration.
I had first seen John Paul II almost ten years earlier, in 1993, on a visit to Rome, and a few times during my studies in Rome, I had gotten very close to him (and I have photos to prove it!). However, I had never shaken his hand or greeted him personally. That all changed at that Easter vigil on April 14, 2001. With the other altar servers, I got to meet the Pope and shake his hand before and after the Mass. And during the Mass, I even got to wash his hands; I was the altar server who carried the water and the bowl for the two or three times that John Paul II needed it during the long liturgy. The master of ceremonies warned me ahead of time to watch what I was doing, because some servers in the past had been awestruck by the Pope and ended up pouring the water on his lap instead of on his hands. I did OK.
For me – as for almost everybody else who met John Paul II in person – it was an unforgettable occasion. Even though the Pope was already ill, I was impressed by his intensity and his presence. Today, he is being beatified, and many people (myself included) are hopeful he will soon be canonized. I think that makes me a 3rd class relic. He has his critics, and he made some mistakes like anyone else, but I truly believe that he is a great saint, whose holiness and zeal more than compensate for his limitations.
One of the things he did towards the end of his life was to establish the Feast of Divine Mercy Sunday, which we celebrate today. It has its immediate origin in the private revelations of Our Lord to St Faustina Kowalska in the 1930’s, but it really has its roots in the mystery of our redemption through the Lord’s death on the cross. The focus of the devotion to the Divine Mercy is to recognize the greatness of God’s mercy, ask Him to forgive us, and to be merciful to others as God has been merciful to us. In His messages to St Faustina, He emphasized that God’s mercy is always greater than our sins. This is a wonderful gift: we have but to turn to Him in the sacrament of confession to receive the joy and peace of forgiveness. We can see this in the Gospel reading today, when Jesus says to the apostles (and, by extension, to all bishops and priests, as their successors): “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them”.
In order to emphasize the importance of this feast, Pope John Paul II also established that we can gain a plenary indulgence on this feast day. In other words, we can have the remission of all the punishment still due for our sins, if we fulfill the conditions. First, we need to go to confession and receive communion within a week before or after today. We have to pray for the intentions of the Pope, and be “completely detached from the affection for a sin, even a venial sin”. And, finally, we need to take part in prayers or devotions held in honor of Divine Mercy, or recite an Our Father and the Creed, adding an invocation to the mercy of Jesus (such as “Merciful Jesus, I trust in you!”). We will do that after Mass today.
May Blessed Pope John Paul II intercede for all of us, and help us to be well disposed to receive God’s mercy and to be merciful to each other.