The Sacrament of Divine Mercy

April 7, 2013

The following homily was delivered by Archbishop J. Augustine DiNoia, OP, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC, on the Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday). Pope FrancisDear brothers and sisters in Christ. At the very first Sunday Angelus of this pontificate, Pope Francis spoke of the divine mercy: “God’s face is the face of a merciful Father who is always patient,” he said. “God never ever tires of forgiving us! ….The problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness. Let us never tire, let us never tire! He is the loving Father who always pardons, who has that heart of mercy for us all” (Angelus, 17 March 2013). The Holy Father’s description of the divine mercy is very concrete. God is merciful and patient, waiting for us to approach Him and ask for pardon. This waiting on His part is tireless, but our approach can be delayed, hesitant, or even reluctant. We weary of asking but, fortunately for us, God never tires of waiting. Now, to be sure, we can turn to God at any moment of our lives to ask for His pardon with the assurance that He will hear us. Still, with respect to His mercy, God has not left the burden solely on us. He has taken the initiative here in a striking manner to give a sacramental form to His mercy, putting it at our disposal in a tangible way. This point is of the greatest importance. As the Holy Father implies, God patiently waits for us in a concrete way in the Sacrament of Penance, a sacrament that might well and truly be called the “Sacrament of Divine Mercy.” In faith, we can affirm with all seriousness that He patiently waits for us in the confessional where we can outwardly express our need for His forgiveness and, what is more, where He can address His words of mercy directly to us through the priest who speaks in the power of His only begotten Son. To understand better why this is so important, consider the encounter between Christ and Thomas in today’s gospel. Having been absent when Jesus first appeared to the apostles, Thomas refused to believe their report of this visit. But the following week, when “Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you,’” he immediately turned to Thomas and said, “‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  Our Lord confronted Thomas’s reluctance to believe very directly. He presented himself, indeed his very body—the nail marks in his hands and the wound in his side—so that Thomas could actually touch them. IMG_4931We might well compare Thomas’s unbelief with our reluctance and hesitation to ask for God’s mercy when we need it. Christ meets Thomas’s unbelief head-on by presenting himself in person. In the Sacrament of Penance Christ presents himself sacramentally to us in the person of the priest confessor who speaks and acts, as the Church declares, in persona Christi. It is to Christ that we confess our sins, and it is from Christ that we receive mercy and pardon. Just as the gift of faith is imparted to Thomas in the context of a direct personal encounter with Christ, so is the gift of divine mercy granted to us in a sacramental encounter with Christ who, hearing our sins, our sorrow for them, and our firm purpose of amendment, forgives and fortifies us in his grace. In what is itself an act of mercy, accommodated to our human nature, God has given a sacramental and thus tangible form to the bestowal of His mercy. Not only can we express our need for divine mercy in private prayer—hoping that it will be heard—but God has instituted a sacramental form through which to impart His mercy so that, by a sacred ritual comprised of words and gestures, we may speak to Him with unqualified assurance and, very importantly, He can speak to us. There are thus two sides to the encounter of the Sacrament of Mercy. As Blessed John Paul II wrote: “In faithfully observing the centuries-old practice of the Sacrament of Penance—the practice of individual confession, with a personal act of sorrow and the intention to amend and make satisfaction—the Church is…defending the human soul’s individual right: man’s right to a more personal encounter with the crucified forgiving Christ, with Christ saying, through the minister of the sacrament of Reconciliation: ‘Your sins are forgiven’; ‘Go, and do not sin again’” (Redemptor Hominis, 20). Not only has the penitent the right to encounter Christ and receive the divine mercy directly from him. But, Blessed John Paul continued, “this is also a right on Christ’s part with regard to every human being redeemed by him: his right to meet each one of us in that key moment in the soul’s life constituted by the moment of conversion and forgiveness” (ibid.). The penitent’s right to this personal encounter with Christ in the Sacrament of Divine Mercy cannot be compromised by reducing the reception of this sacrament to the occasions of communal penance services twice a year at Advent and Lent when there is little time for a proper examination of conscience or for anything more than a hasty confession of a few sins. As Blessed John Paul wrote: “Although participation by the fraternal community of the faithful in the penitential celebration is a great help for the act of personal conversion, nevertheless, in the final analysis, it is necessary that in this act there should be a pronouncement by the individual himself with the whole depth of his conscience and with the whole of his sense of guilt and of trust in God…”(ibid.). The full experience of the divine mercy in its sacramental form demands a discipline of frequent and regular confession in which one can reflect with a recollected heart on one’s failings and the need for true conversion. How can one fully relish the richness of the divine mercy on the run? But the Sacrament of Divine Mercy is a two-sided encounter. We tend to think of this sacrament mostly from our point of view. Mary Gauthier’s wonderful song “Mercy Now” expresses this well: “We could all use a little mercy now / I know we don’t deserve it / But we need it anyhow / We hang in the balance / Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground / Every single one of us could use a little mercy now.” We all do need some mercy now, but—and don’t ever forget this—God   wants to give us some mercy now, if only we would ask. In a real sense, as Blessed John Paul suggests, God “needs” us to ask. Our experience tells us why this must be so. If someone insults you, or offends you in some way, you may want to forgive the person in question, but that’s very hard to do if they don’t apologize and ask for your forgiveness. The situation in the Sacrament of Divine Mercy is not so different. As Pope Francis put it so aptly, “God’s face is the face of a merciful Father who is always patient…. The problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness.” God is patiently waiting in the confessional to make us a gift of His mercy. We must not keep Him waiting any longer. The Sacrament of Divine Mercy—won for us by Christ in the events of the passion, death and resurrection that we have celebrated in this Easter Season—is the concrete expression in space and time of the condescension and forbearance by which God looks with merciful forgiveness on our sins and the sins of the whole world. On this Divine Mercy Sunday, we must resolve to take advantage of this great sacrament, giving thanks “to the Lord for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.” Amen.    

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