Sunday, April 23, 2017

Proof For God: Divine Mercy

The Incredulity of St. Thomas
-Caravaggio (1571-1610)

(Divine Mercy Sunday-Year A; This homily was given on April 22 & 23, 2017 at St. Adalbert Church in Providence, RI and April 23 at Our Lady of Consolation Church in Pawtucket, RI; See 1 Peter 1:3-9 and John 20:19-31)

Science is very much in the spotlight these days.  The “March for Science” took place in Washington, DC on April 22, and many satellite “marches” were organized around the globe to coincide with Earth Day.  Does science present challenges to our faith?  Back in 2011, I was able to participate in an international conference on the vegetative state.  Gathering in the City of Munich with 15 other researchers across Europe, we spent a week together learning about brain injury and how society responds to this challenging issue.  Naturally, several of the participants wanted to know why a Catholic priest was interested in this subject.  I explained how I was there to present the Catholic perspective on caring for patients in the vegetative state, particularly the teachings of the late Pope John Paul II (later to be St. John Paul II).  

After several days together, we had a great opportunity to share a traditional Bavarian dinner.  In the middle of the meal, one of my colleagues asked me a question that surprised me.  Being a professed atheist, she asked, “How can you study all the things we are learning about here, and still believe in God?”  I asked her what she meant, and she explained how the findings of science can be verified by experiments; that is truth.  So how can someone believe in things that cannot be proven?  I said that belief in God, and the things He has revealed, are no less true than a scientific experiment.  She disagreed.

I suddenly remembered that she had spoken often that week about her two sons.  She absolutely adored those boys.  After a brief pause, I asked her, “Do you love your sons?”  She was somewhat taken aback by the question.  “Of course, I do,” she retorted.  “Oh,” I said, and then cautiously added, “Do you think that they love you?”  She flushed for a moment, and then added, with certainty, “Yes, I do.”  Then I said: “Prove it.”

We both began to smile when she realized the reason I asked her those questions.  I explained how my faith and love for God are true, and no less so than a scientific experiment.  “The way that God loves me, and you,” I explained, “is true, as true as your love for your children, and their love for you.”  Some things cannot be proven in a laboratory, but that does not mean they are not true.  

In our Gospel for this Divine Mercy Sunday, the disciples are gathered together in a locked room in Jerusalem, filled with fear and disbelief.  They were incredulous, and for good reason.  The man that they loved most—Jesus of Nazareth, whom they were convinced was the Messiah—was arrested before them, scourged and crucified.  They stood by in stark disbelief as Jesus’ dead body was taken down from the cross and then laid in the tomb.  Truly, they experienced a crisis of faith if there ever was one.  

Suddenly Christ walks into the room, through the locked door, and announces, “Peace be with you” (John 2:19).  He was alive!  They saw Him.  To make sure that they understood precisely what they were seeing, St. John relates how “he showed them his hands and his side” (John 20:20).  These were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This was an historical event that was witnessed by credible people, who testified to it and later wrote it down.  

But Thomas the Apostle was not with them.

Thomas would not believe what the other disciples told him.  He defiantly declared, Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).  

One week later Thomas gets his opportunity.  Once again, Jesus walks into the locked room and announces, “Peace with you.”  And then He invites Thomas to inspect the nail marks, to place his hand into His wounded side.  Astounded, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).   Thomas, along with the other disciples, believed in the resurrection because they had seen the risen Lord.  They believed in Jesus because they had proof, and there was no denying it.  They saw the wounds with their own eyes.  But they also believed, and perhaps even more so, because of what those wounds represented. 

The wounds of Jesus Christ are the marks of love and the proof that God loved us enough to die for us on the cross.  The marks in His body are a sure sign for those first disciples, and for us, that God’s love is present, that His love remains for us, and that He desires us to enter into eternal life with Him.  St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, phrases it this way:

God PROVES his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.
—Romans 5:8

The Divine Mercy is proof for the existence of God; it is all the proof we could ever need to remind us that we are loved, called, forgiven, healed, wanted, and waited for by God.  God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.

The immediate question, however, that we are confronted with in the second reading this weekend, is whether or not we can prove our love for God.  St. Peter, who was a witness to the sufferings of Jesus Christ, addresses this very challenge of suffering in the early Church.  He encourages them:

In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may PROVE to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
—1 Peter 1:6-7

The reality of the cross should not surprise any one of us as followers of Christ.  Our Lord was betrayed by the very ones He trusted and loved; when we experience betrayal, we do well to remember that.  Christ was rejected.  Often.  We need not be surprised when we are not accepted or loved by the people around us.  The experience of the cross is not a sign that something has gone wrong in our spiritual journey with Christ.  In fact, He assured us that it would be a reality for us, even as it was with Him (see Luke 9:23 and Luke 14:27).  St. Peter reminds us, as well: 

Although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith . . . may PROVE to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The image of the Divine Mercy that Jesus entrusted to St. Faustina is marked by the powerful phrase: “Jesus, I Trust in You.”  That is faith.  When we experience betrayal, rejection, suffering, sorrow, we entrust ourselves to Jesus Christ.  We make an act of faith and commit ourselves to following Him, even and especially when the road is dark and there seems like there is little hope.  We place our hope in the promises of God, and not the shaky foundations of useless promises abundant in our culture today.  Our love for God is proven in the fires of adversity, but it is a love that flows from His own generous cross and the Divine Mercy that first captivated us.  “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19), and that love is constant.

Friends in Christ, the question of God’s existence and whether or not He loves us has already been answered definitively by Jesus Christ.  God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  But the question that remains for us to answer in this coming week is whether or not we will love Him, whether or not we will place our trust in His mercy.  Are you and I willing to answer, “Yes,” to that question?  Prove it.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Passion for Communion

(Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord-Year A; This homily was given on April 9, 2017 at St. John's Chapel in Meriden, CT.; See Matthew 26:14-27:66)

“Jesus, may your Divine Blood enter my veins, to make me live the generosity of the cross at every moment.”
—St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Forge, #780

Those beautiful words, from St. Josemaría Escrivá, are not intended to be received metaphorically; they are no mere figure of speech.  Those words are the literal reality of the sacramental life and the power of God in our daily lives.  The cross is intimidating, exhausting, overwhelming.  Each of us bears some cross as true disciples of the Lord.  I know that some people here this morning bear several of them.  Yet it is the Blood of Jesus Christ, poured out for us here in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, that allows us to live out the “generosity of the cross at every moment.”  

Yet in the Gospel we just listened to, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, we hear about the first disciples who received that Divine Gift, and hours later they failed our Lord utterly and completely.  The Blood of Jesus Christ was coursing through their veins, and they did not remain faithful to Him.

St. Peter, we know, will deny Jesus three times.  All of them will abandon Him and flee.  But in the Garden of Gethsemane they were not even able to do that much!  St. Matthew relates how they were drowsy and eventually fell asleep.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, indicates how this call for vigilance “also points ahead to the later history of Christianity.”  He explains how the drowsiness of the disciples is what allows the power of the Evil One to cause so much harm down through the centuries.  He writes:

“Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the Evil One at work in the world and by all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth.  In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad, so as to continue in the self-satisfaction of its own comfortable existence.”
—Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI 
Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, pp. 153

One of the most violent and dangerous places in the world today is Syria.  The images of the atrocities committed in that place, and across the Middle East, reveal to the entire world the gravity of this desperate situation.  Is it any wonder, then, that the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has struggled internally to find unity and fruitfulness in these days?  A strong and vital Church in that region of the world would have the power to stave off the evil that threatens so many.  Is it any wonder, then, that the Evil One would work so very hard to divide the Church in that place?  Is it any surprise to us, however, that Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa should suffer so much to bring unity and stability to that historic diocese?  Or think about the great evil of abortion in our own part of the world.  Are we not also lulled into complacency, preferring “not to see all this,” and “persuaded that things cannot be so bad”?

You have heard the expression before: “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”  Those words are often attributed to the Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke.  But if you read the works of Edmund Burke, you will not find those words anywhere.  What Burke actually wrote was:

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” 

We cannot defeat evil simply by “doing something.”  We associate.  We gather together.  We are brought together in communion, or we perish.  We associate in communion with Jesus Christ and each other, or we die.  There is no other path for human flourishing and the victory of God.

What a tremendous inspiration then, to read the words of Archbishop Pizzaballa in his letter to his diocese at the beginning of the Lenten Season: “I decided to convene a gathering of all the diocesan priests of the Latin Patriarchate.”  He chose, at that time, to offer insights and to listen to their own suggestions and opinions.  He shared the great joy in seeing “that those gathered were committed to working through these problems, willing to face honestly the reality and ready to engage whole heartedly in the necessary steps to set us back on the right path.”  This is the association and communion that allows “the divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4).  

This association and communion, of course, goes back to the very foundations of the Church.  The disciples, in the Passion narrative this morning, have totally failed our Lord and flagged in the generosity God called them to.  Yet show me these men in fifty days plus three, gathered together in the Upper Room with Our Lady, when the fire of the Holy Spirit falls upon them and sends them out as witnesses to the ends of the earth!  These are the same men that will gather together, day by day, united in the breaking of the bread “with glad and generous hearts” (see Acts 2:43-47).  Daily did our Lord add to the number and the vitality of those who gathered in His name!  They were united together in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, and that is what enabled them to transform the world as they knew it.  

As we enter into this, the most holy of all weeks of the Liturgical Year, we are invited to share in that same source of strength, power and love.  Our Lord comes to us here, to this altar, and pours out His Body and His Blood for us, to bring us together and allow us to accomplish His great work in whatever corner of His Kingdom He sends us to.  This morning, we pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, may your Divine Blood course through our veins, and flow deeply into every dimension of our lives, so that we may live the generosity of the cross at every moment of this Holy Week.