The Divine Mercy Devotion and a Memorial to Pope John Paul II
April 3, 2005 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Divine Mercy Sunday
Reading I (Acts 2:42-47) Reading II (1 Peter 1:3-9)
Gospel (St. John 20:19-31)
Today, which is the octave day of Easter, the Church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday. When we think about an octave, it is reminiscent of creation. It is the eighth day; that is what the word octave means: “eight.” And so the eighth day was for the Jewish people the greatest day of the feast. Recall that last Sunday we celebrated Easter, and an octave means that for eight days we celebrate the feast, so we have not only a celebration of Easter on Easter Sunday, but the Church celebrates Easter for eight days, this being the greatest as it is the octave day, the first day of the new creation, the day of the Resurrection. It is the day on which the love of God is poured into our hearts in a profound way.
It is in the midst of the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that we turn once again to beg for mercy. Mercy is obtained for us through the Passion of Christ. It is a fact that God will extend His mercy to anyone who asks, and yet at the same time we have to recognize the cost. Mercy does not come without a cost – and the cost of mercy is the Cross. So as we look at the Resurrection, one might wonder why in the midst of the celebration of the Resurrection we suddenly seem to go back to where we were in Lent, asking for mercy. But there is no contradiction because you cannot celebrate the Resurrection without the Passion. The Resurrection has no meaning without the Crucifixion, and so there is nothing that is inherently contradictory about these two elements that the Church celebrates on the same day. In fact, it is the Resurrection that grants to us the hope that if the mercy of God is extended to each one of us that we too will be able to share in the glory of His Resurrection.
The celebration of this feast day is really dependent on one person, and that is Pope John Paul II. The revelations of Our Lord, of course, were given to Saint Faustina, but initially back in Poland the local bishop had squelched the Divine Mercy devotion as he was investigating the whole apparition, trying to determine the situation and what would be best. So, for the time, he had stopped any spread of that devotion. Then there was a new cardinal who was appointed in Krakow, a man by the name of Karol Wojtyla. Cardinal Wojtyla, recognizing the importance of this particular devotion to Divine Mercy, allowed it to once again be publicly spread. He, of course, was then made the Pope. And very early on in his pontificate, he spread the devotion of Divine Mercy beyond the confines of his diocese in Poland to the whole world.
The Holy Father, in his latest book, which has not yet been translated into English, explains why he did this. Some of his detractors have given him lots of grief, saying that all he has done is to take these Polish devotions and force them on the whole world. He explains that the very reason why he brought these devotions to the whole Church was because in the face of all the horrors of Word War II, and in the face of all the sinfulness in this society in which we live, that there has never been a time when mercy was more necessary. There has never been a time when people had more of a purpose and a need to call out to God for mercy. And I can tell you from personal experience that there are many, many people who have come back to the Church because of a devotion to Divine Mercy. The number of people who have come to Confession, who have converted, who have told me that the very reason why they came back to the Church was through the praying of the Divine Mercy Chaplet is great. It is a very powerful thing.
This mercy is what Pope John Paul was all about. We need to recognize the mercy of God that has been extended to us and to the whole world in the person of Pope John Paul II. For over 26 years, this astounding man shepherded the Church. For many of us, we hardly even remember any other pope. For the young people, they have never known another pope. This man is the third longest-reigning pope in history, and he is without doubt one of the most extraordinary human beings ever to have walked the face of the earth. The newscasts are telling us that he is certainly one of the most influential people of the 20th century. But if they cannot see beyond the 20th century, they have a problem.
The man was absolutely brilliant. When he was elected to the papacy, he spoke 26 languages and dialects. English was considered his eighth-best language, and he spoke it quite fluently. When he became Pope, he learned many other languages so that he could preach to people in their own language. This man was so prolific in his writing that the theologians are telling us it will take more than a century just to be able to work through all the things John Paul II has written. The tragedy for many of us is that so many have never read much of anything that he has written. But this man was so prolific in his work that it could only be the work of the Holy Spirit. With the schedule that he kept, how he was able to continue to write thousands upon thousands of pages is not explainable in human terms. How a man who was not well health-wise could continue to maintain the kind of schedule that he did is not explainable in human terms.
We have to understand that we have been in the presence of a saint. I truly believe that it is not going to be long before this man will be canonized. I also firmly believe that history is going to know him as John Paul the Great. There are only two popes in history who have the title “The Great,” and I think that we have had the privilege of living in the presence of the third. He truly is one of the most extraordinary human beings in history, and he has defined history in our day in such a profound way.
Certainly, he had his detractors. It is interesting when you listen to what it is they did not like, it was the simple truth. It was not John Paul so much whom they hated, it was the One for Whom he was the Vicar. It was Jesus Christ and His Church that they were opposed to. And no matter how much the people clamored, our Holy Father would not waffle when it came to the truth. This man, in over 26 years, went on over 100 apostolic “pilgrimages,” shall we call them. He brought Jesus Christ to the world. If you listen to his detractors, you would think that this is some old man who is completely out of touch, who does not get it – “He cannot relate to average people.” Yet, this is a man who, when he came to America, over 500,000 young people came to see; many, many times more than the hippies at Woodstock that we always hear about. The young people began a chant: “John Paul II, we love you!” Over and over and over they would sing it. If you watch the videotape of that, our Holy Father, when they finally ended, lifted his head with a huge smile and he chanted back: “John Paul II, he loves you!” The young people erupted in applause. When he went to the Philippines, 7 million people came to see him. That is more than any human being in human history in one place. Millions and millions of young people through the World Youth Days have been touched by this man, whom his detractors tell us is out of touch.
In the Gospel reading today, Our Lord told His apostles that as He had been sent so now He was sending them. Pope John Paul II understood what it meant to be an apostle. The word apostle means “to be sent” or “one who is sent.” He went out and he preached Jesus Christ. We have been so blessed by God to have lived in the presence of a saint, and we need to understand the mercy that God has extended to us in this way. He was truly a man for our time. When we look at what he has accomplished, God always raises saints to be able to defend the areas that Satan is attacking. As I have told you many, many times, the area of attack today is on marriage and the family. In the official teaching of the Church, there are approximately 6,000 pages written about marriage in over 2,000 years. Three thousand of those pages were written by Pope John Paul II, the saint that God raised up to be able to defend the area Satan was attacking. His teachings on marriage are only beginning now to be understood and to be promulgated. They are among the most beautiful things that I have ever in my life read, extraordinary teachings.
When we think about our Holy Father and the effect that he has had, I think we can truly say that perhaps the only person that has had more effect than him is Our Lord Himself. Living in a world that is more populated than ever before, he has been able to touch the hearts of the people, with a charismatic personality that when one was in his presence they could not help but to be changed. When people look back over his pontificate over history, one of the things they will undoubtedly say about him negatively is that he should have been more strong as far as discipline goes. But we have to remember that this was a man who was raised up under Communism, and he learned that the way he had to work was to try to keep the flock together. What he tried desperately to do was to make sure he did not ostracize anyone for fear that they would take others away with them. He tried to keep everyone together, and, through love, to bring them to the truth. Love is truly what this man was about. That is what the young people saw.
What we have seen over these last few years of his pontificate is the example of what it is to carry the cross, to follow Jesus to Calvary. We have seen that the man who brought mercy to the world through this devotion to Divine Mercy has also shown us how to live it. As I mentioned earlier, mercy does not come without a cost. It is freely given to anyone who asks, yet for those who are going to pray for mercy for others, they need to share in the work that brought mercy to the world. For those who have prayed the Novena of Divine Mercy over the last nine days, you know the people for whom you were praying, not only the lukewarm or those who do not know the Lord, but even for those who are part of the Mystical Body already. We pray for mercy for each of them. If we are going to pray that people will come to Christ, if we are going to pray that people will be converted and that their lives will be touched, then we have to share in the work of mercy, and mercy was obtained for us on the Cross. Recall the words of our Holy Father back several years ago when some of his detractors were trying to tell us that he was too sick to carry on, that his health was so bad that he needed to resign, he said simply, “Jesus Christ did not come down from His Cross, and I will not come down from mine.” Right to the very last minute, he refused to come down from his cross and he refused to stop working. In the last day of his life, he appointed new cardinals and new bishops throughout the world, 29 new cardinals who will be part of the new election of the next pope.
At the very end, with thousands of pilgrims gathered outside his window, he was able to say to them, “I have gone out to you; now you have come to me. And I thank you.” Truly the heart of a shepherd. He has gone out to his sheep and he has called them, and they came to him. As soon as the word went out in Rome that he was dying, the people took to the streets, hundreds of thousands of people, so much that they had to block the streets and start turning people away because they could not handle the crowds who came to a man who was supposedly out of touch, to an old man from Poland who did not understand what life was really all about. I tell you, this man understood far better than any of us – and all of us combined – what it was all about. Our Holy Father was completely devoted to Our Lord, to His Mother, and to the people entrusted to his care.
We have had the privilege to live in the presence of a saint, and we have to thank God for that. He has gone forth now to his reward, a well-deserved reward, I might say. He has broken through the veil of death. Refusing to get off the cross, he has now entered into death with Christ. And he has now gone forth to see the two people whom he loved more than anyone, and that is Our Lord and His Blessed Mother. We must pray for him, but we can be guaranteed that as the good shepherd of his flock he continues to pray for us. So we pray that the Church will very soon recognize the sanctity of this man and elevate him to be a saint. In the meantime, as we pray for him and remember the chant of the young people to this incredible man, to one of the most extraordinary human beings to ever walk the face of the earth, our love pours out for him, and yet at the same time our heart calls out to our shepherd: “Holy Father, pray for us to God.”
Editor’s note: Our Holy Father’s death at 9:37 p.m. (Roman time) on Saturday, April 2, occurred on two important liturgical occasions: First Saturday, in fulfillment of his extraordinary devotion to Our Lady; and the Feast of Divine Mercy, in fulfillment of his role in promulgating the devotion to Our Lord’s Divine Mercy. Just before his death, the Vigil Mass of Divine Mercy was celebrated in his room. Let us thank God for His wonderful Providence in providing such a fitting end to a most beautiful and holy life.