My first homily, given on Divine Mercy Sunday last year

divine mercyA priest gave me some preaching advice last week. He said, “Not everyone can be eloquent and mind-blowing in preaching, but everyone can be brief.”  I said, “Then you haven’t met my pastor.” But Fr. Tom, thanks for the ambo today, and more for your support. Few pastors are as good to their seminarians as you are to me, and I am so very grateful.

My first time at this ambo, I was a first grader. It was a Friday in the early 90s, and my class was assigned to do the readings at the school Mass that day.  My shirt was tucked, my loafers were shiny, and my clip-on tie was attached, at least for the moment. I remember my classmates and I felt proud to be doing the readings, to be doing something so public  in our church. I think I was so proud because I had a strong sense even as a tiny tike that there was something special about the Church.

I was an astute young man indeed, because there is something very special about the Church.  This Easter day—we are still in the octave—we celebrate that Christ is not dead; he is alive, and he lives in and through his body the Church.  On top of that, today is Divine Mercy Sunday, and so we also remember that Christ and therefore his body the Church is, before all else, in the business of mercy.

Ours is a beautifully merciful Church indeed!  Mercy is at the heart of the Church’s every doctrine and practice.  Everything Jesus stood for and did when he was in the flesh 2000 years ago to save a despairing world gone to hell, his body the Church stands for and does now.

Today’s readings point us first to the sacraments as the source of mercy, those treasures passed down from Jesus to the present day. The first reading tells us of the early church’s Eucharistic life. The second reading is a poetic excerpt from Christianity’s first pope that was read at Baptisms in the early church. And then there’s the Gospel, wherein the Sacrament of Reconciliation is entrusted to the first priests gathered in that upper room.  The presence of these very sacramental readings on Mercy Sunday reminds us that every sacrament is an encounter with mercy. We’re blessed to have such great access to the sacraments here, thanks so much to Fr. Tom— daily adoration, Mass, confessions.  We all need mercy, which means we all need the sacraments. Our souls depend on them.

But we know the Church’s mercy continues even beyond the sacraments—or, I should say, from them.  Think for a moment of our Catholic hospitals, our universities and schools, our parish food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Consider our St. Vincent DePaul Societies, Catholic worker homes, and pro-life groups—and think about the expansive work of Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Charities, and the hundreds, the hundreds of religious orders that bring the Risen Lord where no one else dares to even go, into the dark corners and sullen slums and of the world.  Every ministry and organization of the Church exists for one reason, and that reason is mercy.

Each day, in very local and storied ways around the world, people experience the mercy of Christ through the mercy of his body the Church, from the Vatican to Indiana, the pope down to the lowliest deacon—and it is therefore little wonder—although it is a great wonder—that, as the Acts of the Apostles says it, “every day the Lord added to [the Church’s] number those who were being saved.”  The Church’s constant growth continues:  Last weekend, hundreds of thousands around the world joined the Catholic Church’s 1.3 billion members, and they have faces—we know 17 of them well, those who entered Christ’s body the Church fully a week ago right here.  CHRIST’S Risen Body the Church is growing and alive, and it’s a happy place to be. Because mercy is at its heart.

Here’s the catch: while it is true that the Church is Christ’s body, it is also true that we are a part of it, which means we, too, must be merciful.  It’s easier for us to dole out justice, or at least our  conception of justice.  You talk bad about me, I’ve got something to say about your momma.  You cut me off, I’ll give you a finger—even in the church parking lot.  Mercy is harder for us to dispense.  But it is possible.

Pope John Paul II shows us how. With John the 23rd, JP2 is being canonized today, on DMS, a feast he himself instituted in 2000 and died on in 2005. JP2 dedicated his priesthood to mercy—and I’ll do the same.  In 1981, an attempt was made on his life. He was shot four times and nearly died. But he forgave the shooter, obtained a pardon for him from the president, and then developed a friendship with him. JP2 did a lot of great things as pope: he was a master theologian and a popular pastor. But he will likely be remembered more than anything for that single act of mercy.  If JP2 can forgive the man who tried to kill him, and if Jesus can forgive the men who did kill him, can we show mercy to the one who sent an unkind email? The friend who betrayed a confidence? Or the child who keeps messing up? Mercy means forgiving.  And it also means having a sensitivity to the needs and hurts of others. A list of corporal and spiritual works of mercy is in the bulletin. Let’s try to put them into practice, at least one this week.  Pray God that we, like JP2, will be remembered not for our talents, riches or rigidity, but for our mercy. Because the Gospel is clear: mercy must be at our hearts if we are to be called Christians.

In French, “merci” means “thank you.”  The other night, I sat in that chapel and  considered the mercies I’ve received from Christ through his body the Church here in this parish.  I was reduced to tears. And filled with gratitude. I thought of Mrs. Alexander’s preschool classroom, and how it was her mercy that made me feel at home here at StC for the first time—as I still do. I remembered how merciful Mrs. Gleason was when I caused as many problems as I solved and broke as many things as I fixed working in the Summer Institute. I remembered the mercy I received in that confessional time and again, and how Fr. Don’s words made things better.  I thought of Fr. Charlie, and how he would stand at his “holy rail” and mercifully embrace all of us by name, kids and adults, and how he would drive his car on the playground.  I thought about the late nights I spent in this church, when I sat in Christ’s presence, sometimes in Thomas-like doubt, sometimes just plain broken down—and how, while staring at Christ, he would somehow put me together again and give me peace.  I thought about the faces of countless young people I know from having worked in the school and with religious ed and confirmation, who meant and still mean more to me than they’ll ever know. I thought of my friends: God put them in my life and that is mercy.  I thought a lot about my family, and how mercy was the heart of our house growing up, and how we would always sit in the organ loft at the 8am Mass. I also thought about my vocation, and how God has called me, for reasons only his mercy knows, to something that scares the heck out of me most of the time, but I took comfort in knowing that the same mercy that called me will see me through it.  On Thursday I told a good friend I was nervous about this weekend, for it meant I was definitively closing to the door to children, a wife, and the common dream. He said, no: you’re not closing a door; you’re walking through the door God meant for you to walk through. I know deep in my bones he’s right. And the mercies that await me in this life—I can’t wait to experience them.

One last memory: Just hours after JP2 died on this feast in 2005, Fr Charlie had the 8am Mass.  When homily time came, he set aside his prepared text, scribbled as it always was on yellow legal paper, and cried.  And all he could muster to say was, “sometimes there are no words.”

Mercy is like that: often there are no words.  One day we will know that for fact, when our earthly journeys near their end. We will lie beneath the florescent lights of our hospital rooms, and the Last Rites will be poured upon us, and we will remember the storied mercies, the particular and sometimes severe and unwelcome mercies graciously given to us by God. We will lie there in gratitude for those mercies, and will lie there without words—until that moment, that blessed moment, when we are given the promise of mercy, and the Blood of the Lord draws us in and we enter into GLORY, and the light of the resurrection shines upon us as we stand “saints among the saints in the halls of heaven,” beholding the face of Mercy Himself—JESUS CHRIST our GOD—who will look into our eyes, dry every tear, embrace us tightly, and say: welcome home.