Following is an excerpt of the homily delivered by Archbishop Seán P. O’Malley on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 3 at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. The Mass was celebrated for the soul of Pope John Paul II.]
On this Sunday after Easter, we are joined to Catholics throughout the world to celebrate the Divine Mercy Sunday; one of the gifts Pope John Paul II gave to the Church.
The first lesson from today’s Mass is from the Acts of the Apostles. It describes those early Christians in the first communities and how they were united by their devotion to the teachings of the apostles, to their communal life, and to the Eucharist, the breaking of the bread, which was the center of their life, as it is still the center of our life. They held all things in common and divided their possessions according to each one’s needs.
The Church of Poland, persecuted like the first Christian community, produced Karol Wojtyla. Persecution and adversity forged the Polish Church in a very united community, united into their devotions to the teaching of the apostles, their ideals and their catholic culture.
Dorothy Day writes about an experience she had as a child in California after a terrible earthquake. She was amazed how kind people were to one another, how people who never had spoken to each other before rushed to help their neighbor and to see how they could be of use to one another. She spent the rest of her life trying to recapture that experience of community. We know that where there are crisis situations they bring out the very best and the very worst in people.
Karol Wojtyla saw how noble people could be and he also saw how debased they could be. He knew that we human beings need to discover our identity in God, our creator, our identity that has been revealed in Christ who comes as his incarnation to show us who God is and who we are.
As Jesus said to those first apostles, “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you.” For God nothing is improvised, nothing is a coincidence. Karol Wojtyla was called by God for a special vocation. He was sent to the Church. His whole life was an intense preparation for the mission that God had in store for him — the faith of his parents, the history of Poland the horrors of Nazism, the oppression of communism.
Karol Wojtyla experienced life as a laborer, as a partisan in the Polish resistance; he was a student at an underground seminary. He was a poet, a philosopher, an athlete, a linguist, a mystic, a man with deep loyalties and lasting friendships, a priest, who laid down his life for his flock. He was a man of deep faith.
On many occasions it was my privilege to be with him in prayer. He was able always to enter into a space, a zone of silence and spirituality in the midst of the greatest pandemonium and confusion imaginable. He was a man whose life was always centered in God.
I first met the Holy Father in 1979, in the very first journey that he made as pope. He traveled to Puebla in Mexico for the meeting of CELAM. When the pope landed, all the church’s bells in the country rang. The crowd extended for 60 miles from Mexico City to the town of Puebla. The night before, people came and slept on the highway so they would be there when the pope passed by. And when the Holy Father left Mexico, thousands and thousands of Mexicans took to the streets with mirrors, to be able to flash a goodbye in the reflection of the mirror to his plane as it took off. Mexico from the air looked like a glimmering jewel, in a time when it was a crime for a priest or a nun to dress in religious garb in public in Mexico.
I was also with the Holy Father when he prayed at the tomb of my friend Monsignor [Archbishop] Oscar Romero. The Holy Father had a great appreciation for the role of martyrs in the life of the Church. He was quick to canonize Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, victims of the Nazis.
In the 20 seminaries throughout Latin America that I visited for the Holy See, whenever I would ask a young seminarian “What brought you to your vocation, what helped you to discover that God was calling you to the priesthood?” Invariably the answer would be, “When the Holy Father visited our country I felt called.”
I remember being in Miami for the pope’s visit. I was walking across the street and a police car turned on its siren and its lights and pulled me over. I thought I was arrested for jay walking. The cop said “Get in the car, Father.” I said, “Yes officer, what is it?” He said. “The pope is coming to Miami. I need to go to confession.” So much for Miami Vice!
This Holy Father has been seen by more people than any other individual in the history of humanity. He gave up Poland, his people that he loved so much to be a pilgrim. In the middle ages, in Ireland, there was a vow people took to be a perpetual pilgrim, to live in perpetual exile, going from place to place, never sleeping two nights in the same place to be able to tell people about the Good News of the Gospel. That is the kind of pilgrim that John Paul II was. And his message was always one of hope, as he told the people of Poland, the people of the world, “Do not be afraid.”
But his message was also a challenge to inspire to a freedom based on truth and our dignity as human beings, made in the image and likeness of God.
Paul John Paul went to countries where people suffered under oppressive governments such as Haiti and Chile, The Philippines, Cuba, Poland. He never failed to address questions of human rights and peoples’ longing for freedom. He contributed mightily to the fall of communism in the world.
Likewise addressing those of us who live in prosperous first world countries, the Holy Father spoke frankly about our materialism, hedonism, and individualism which have been a dehumanizing force in our consumer’s society.
The pope is called the pontifex, the bridge builder. He has reached out tirelessly to so many people. We heard this morning the beautiful testimony of Rabbi [Allan] Lehmann speaking about the Holy Father’s relationship with the Jewish community in a spirit of reconciliation and solidarity. John Paul II longed for unity among Christians, especially with the Easter Orthodox Church. He made the mercy of the Good Shepherd present in our day through his ministry and a message of peace and solidarity that he announced to the four corners of the earth.
Part of the spiritual legacy of our Holy Father is today’s observance of Mercy Sunday. In his beautiful encyclical letter, ‘‘Dives in Misericordia’’ — ‘‘Rich in Mercy’’ — the Holy Father writes in his commentary on the prodigal son: “Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and the presence of mercy in the world. The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking compassionately at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all forms of evil in the world,” and in the human heart.
The genuine face of mercy is ever to be renewed. In spite of many prejudices, mercy seems particularly necessary in our times.
John Paul was a man of mercy, who went to prison to pardon the man who tried to kill him. John Paul was also a man who asked forgiveness for the wrongs perpetrated by Christians over the centuries. He went to those forts on the coast of Africa where slaves had been held before being shipped off to Europe or America, and there he asked for forgiveness.
Some people found his moral teachings too strict. For John Paul, he was simply announcing the Good News of God’s mercy. He knew that we are all sinners, but through God’s mercy and grace we can become a new creation. John Paul knew that our modern society has been left without a moral compass, then he would lovingly remind us of the roadmap of the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Young people were delighted that the Holy Father had faith in their capacity for idealism, for love and for generosity. Instead of writing them off as hopelessly promiscuous or self-indulgent moderns, the Holy Father would say “Be the best person that you can.” Human fulfillment is achieved only by making a gift of ourselves to God and to others. A young person reacted to that challenge saying to me, “At last someone loves us and believes in us, and challenges us to be the very best we can.”
John Paul II’s life of sacrifice, of service, of fidelity is a call to all of us to follow Jesus Christ not from a safe distance but up close. Today, we come together to celebrate the life of a great pope, a man with a shepherd’s heart. We are surrounded by the symbols of Easter and the resurrection that betoken our faith, that life is changed, not ended.
We bid farewell to Pope John Paul II, an apostle of God’s mercy. His life and ministry are a sign of God’s loving care for the Church. Because of him we have the courage to say: For all that has been, thank you Lord, and for all that will be, yes, Lord, yes.
Oh Mary, mother of the divine Shepherd,
Accompany John Paul to the presence of your Son.
He was Totus Tuus — all yours — Holy Mother.
Present him to his Risen Lord.
Lord, we trust in You, we trust in Your mercy.