On this Second Sunday of Easter we not only celebrate Divine Mercy, but we rejoice in the beatification of the one who proclaimed today our celebration of Divine Mercy, our much-loved Bl. Pope John Paul II. In His revelations to Sr. Faustina, the Lord asked numerous times not only that there be a feast day dedicated to Divine Mercy, but that it be on the Second Sunday of Easter. It seems that the reason for asking that the Feast of Divine Mercy be on the Second Sunday of Easter was that, in the liturgy prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, all the liturgical texts concerned the institution of the sacrament of penance, that is, confession. Even in the reformed liturgy after the council, we continue to give thanks on this day to "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1 Pet. 1:3)
Of course, we receive new birth in and through the waters of baptism, as we witnessed again last week at the Great Easter Vigil when, responding to God’s merciful love, our five new sisters and brothers were born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5) In addition to renewing our baptismal vows last Sunday, at the beginning of our Easter liturgy today we were sprinkled with water, giving thanks to our "God of mercy," who washes "away our sins in water" and gives "us new birth in the Spirit."
On this feast of Divine Mercy it is certainly worthwhile to point out the primary instruments of God’s mercy are the seven sacraments. It also bears reflecting on the intrinsic connection between the sacraments of baptism and penance. This relationship is depicted beautifully here in own Cathedral. Our baptism font consists of two main parts: an upper basin and a lower font. The lower font is shaped like a cross. If you follow the line of the cross-shaped font’s beams either East or West, that is, to the walls of the Cathedral these lines intersect with our confessionals. This is meant to show us that penance is an extension of baptism. When we are baptized we enter not merely into a covenant with God, but we enter into an intimate relationship, which, like all intimate relationships must grow and develop over time. Availing ourselves of the sacrament of penance is necessary if our relationship with Christ is to deepen and grow.
Because we are born again in and through baptism the very nature of our relationship with God changes from one of creature to Creator, albeit a very beloved creature, to child of God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Archbishop Celestino Migliore stated this very succinctly: "You are not really born until you are baptized." In baptism we are restored to the state of original grace. This state of original grace was not only lost through original sin, but is lost through personal sin, too. Scripture tells us that we are created in God’s image and likeness. The divine image, what we refer to as the imago Dei, is ineradicable and cannot be lost because each one of us has at the core of our being what St. Justin Martyr, writing in the second century, called "a divine spark." Unlike the divine image, our likeness to God is lost through sin. We are only like God to the extent that we imitate Christ.
It was not lost on the earliest Christians that while baptism restores us to the state of original grace we keep on sinning. In other words, we do not become perfect in the blink of an eye. If this were so, we would need only one sacrament- baptism! We have a really great, smart-sounding word, to describe our post-baptismal disposition to sin- concupiscence. While baptism imparts "the life of Christ's grace," washing away personal sins and erasing original sin and orienting us back towards God, our nature is still weak "and we remain inclined to evil." (Catechism par. 405) Because of His great mercy, our Lord does not leave us helpless, but comes to our aid by means of another sacrament, namely penance, which we also call confession and reconciliation.
As with the liturgy prior to the Council’s lovely reform, the first part of our Gospel for today, the part we frequently ignore so as not to miss yet another opportunity to engage in hand-wringing doubt, is the passage we point to when demonstrating just where in His life and ministry our Lord instituted penance as a sacrament. While we must be careful in drawing a straight line from our current practice back to Jesus, it is no exaggeration to say that penance has existed as a sacrament in one form or another throughout the Church’s entire history. Whatever shape and form this sacrament has taken over time, its basic elements have been confessing our sins, performing acts of penance and reparation, resulting in absolution. Through this sacrament we are not only mercifully reconciled to God, but also to the Church, whose communion we impair each time we sin.
You are only baptized once. You are only confirmed once. If you are married, ideally, you are only married once. Those of us who are ordained are only ordained to an order of ministry once. Rarely do we receive the sacrament of anointing of the sick, though this is a sacrament, like penance, we should make more use of because it is not only something to receive if you are in danger of death, but something to be received periodically if you suffer from a chronic disease, or are facing surgery, or any serious situation with regard to your physical health. I mention all of this only to highlight the fact that the two sacraments we receive over and over again so that, by God’s grace, we become more like Christ, are penance and Eucharist.
Just as there is a necessary connection between baptism and penance there is also an inextricable connection between baptism, penance, and Eucharist. Indeed, the sacrament of penance serves as a vital link between these two sacraments, which constitute the ground of the whole sacramental economy of grace established by Christ. Looking once again at our Cathedral, in addition to being the terminus of the beams of our font’s cross, the confessionals are also placed slightly in front of the font, making them aid stations on our journey from the font to the altar, providing indispensable relief for us on our pilgrimage from the already to the not yet.
On this Divine Mercy Sunday I want to note two things about the sacrament of penance, which is truly the Tribunal of Divine Mercy. First, we are obligated to receive the sacrament of penance at least once a year. Second, according to the teaching of the Church, which was reiterated by the U.S. bishops in 2006: "If we are no longer in the state of grace because of mortal sin, we are seriously obliged to refrain from receiving Holy Communion until we are reconciled with God and the Church." (USCCB, Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper 8) The way we are reconciled with God and the Church is through the sacrament of penance, that is, by going to confession, even if the first thing you confess is that it has been longer than a year since your last confession.
On this glorious day as we bask in the radiant light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead it is fitting that we now number Pope John Paul II, Karol Joseph Wojtyla, among the blessed, those women and men whom we venerate because they show us what it means to follow Christ in the concrete circumstances of our own lives. It was Pope John Paul II who not only redeemed the shattered reputation of his fellow Pole, Sr. Faustina Kolwolska, but who canonized her eleven years ago yesterday on 30 April 2000. A little less than a month later, on 23 May 2000, at his direction, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments decreed that "throughout the world the Second Sunday of Easter will receive the name Divine Mercy Sunday, a perennial invitation to the Christian world to face, with confidence in divine benevolence, the difficulties and trials that [hu]mankind will experience in the years to come."
In his second encyclical letter, Dives in misericordia- Rich in Mercy- calling to mind our Blessed Mother’s words from her Magnificat, "he has mercy on those who fear him in every generation" (Luke 1:50), Bl. Pope John Paul II wrote that the Church, which includes you and me, perpetually ponders "the eloquence of these inspired words," and seeks to apply "them to the sufferings of the great human family." We "must become more particularly and profoundly conscious of the need to bear witness in [our] whole mission to God's mercy, following in the footsteps of … Jesus Christ Himself and His Apostles." (Section VII) Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer described well the implications of what John Paul II is called us to: "The call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Christlike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear." (Cost of Discipleship 90)
Our Lord said, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." (Matt. 5:7) Let our response be that of St. Faustina: "Jesus, I trust in you."