A reflection on the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter (Sunday of Divine Mercy), April 16, 2023. This homily was originally posted on Ite Missa Est, April 23, 2017

There are three million fewer people calling themselves Catholic today than in 2007. As a result, the share of the U.S. population that identifies as Catholic dropped from approximately 24 percent to 21 percent. Catholics are not the only ones experiencing this free fall. Every major Christian denomination, including non-denominational Christians, is experiencing it. The only population growing is the “Nones”—those who say they have no religious affiliation. 23% of the American population identifies itself as “Nones. This percentage is frighteningly close to the 21% of the Catholic population.

Today’s statistics are in contrast to the statistics in today’s first reading. It is an account of the success of the early Christian community. Even though they were persecuted, the Acts of the Apostles tells us that “every day the Lord added to their number those who were saved” (Acts 2:46-47).

From this small community of disciples will begin a new world order. From this group will begin a new way of being. What is the difference between then and today?

As we try to ponder this question, we should avoid simplistic answers and solutions. Blaming young people, the sexual revolution, or materialism and consumerism may not lead us anywhere. Simplistic arguments where the traditionalists blame the “ungrounded liberals” and where the liberals blame the “rigid traditionalists” may work for some people.

The historical reality is more complex. Since the Gospel was first preached numerous historical events have influenced faith and religion: the Roman Empire, the dark ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, industrialization, urbanization and the development of nuclear families, the development of Humanism, Evolutionism, the two World Wars, the Great Depression, the abolition of slavery, the growth of universal suffrage, and more recently, the priest child abuse scandal and the development and growth of information technology. Individual choices about religion, family, and society, are influenced by any and all past events.

The bottom line is that organized religion is losing its hold at an unprecedented pace.

What can we do? Three things:

Focus on Mercy

Today is Divine Mercy Sunday. The origin of the Divine Mercy devotion can be traced back to the apparition of Jesus Sr. Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s. The message of the apparition is very simple: that the Church approach and receive the mercy of God, that the Church make God’s mercy known to others, and that we do this with complete trust in Jesus. However, this message is not new. Three hundred years before that, in the late 1630s, there was the apparition of Jesus to Sr. Margaret Mary which began the Church’s devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The message of that apparition was the same: God’s flaming love for humanity.

In these recent days, Pope Francis has once again drawn attention to the mercy of God. He has asked the Church to turn her focus uncompromisingly on the Christ of the gospels. Before all this, though, the gospels passionately proclaim God’s love and mercy for the world. Is there a more powerful symbol of God’s love and mercy than the Cross of Jesus Christ? Is the Gospel not clear enough?

Here is what I believe: over the millennia, Christians sometimes have forgotten the reason the Church exists. The Church, too, gets caught up in self-preservation, in rules, rubrics, and rituals; it gets tangled in the political ideologies and securing its economic viability; it becomes more concerned about who gets to be in and who is to be out than about preaching the Gospel of mercy; it becomes its own center and follows itself in the name of Jesus Christ.

It is as if the apparitions to Margaret Mary, to Sr. Faustina, and the messages of Pope Francis, are God’s way of reminding the Church to return to its original calling to proclaim the “good news” of the love and mercy of God. I do not know what can help the Church grow today, but I am sure of one thing: if the Church will grow, it will grow because of the love and mercy of God.

Non-Mercy is a Counter-Witness

One of the messages of the Divine Mercy devotion is that we spread the mercy of God. Today’s first reading is a great example of this. The main reason for the growth of the Church was the witness of the community:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Who would not want to be part of such a community? In contrast, the Christian community today is rife with dissension. We Catholics carry some guilt in this matter. Just the negative treatment of Pope Francis, for example, is a powerful counter-witness. Sure, there is room for dissent in the Church. Sure, we can disagree with the Pope. You can disagree with Jesus Christ if you want! But that is not what we are doing. We are tearing each other apart. If we want the Church to grow, then we have to build communities founded on love and mercy. If we want the Church to grow, then we must be in the business of building up, of gathering rather than scattering. If we love the Church of Jesus Christ, we have got to build a community of love and mercy. This is the message of Divine Mercy.

Allow God’s Mercy to Transform Us!

People who practice the Divine Mercy devotion pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day at 3 pm. The opening prayer of the chaplet is this:

You expired, Jesus, but the source of life gushed forth for souls, and the ocean of mercy opened up for the whole world.

O Fount of Life, unfathomable Divine Mercy, envelop the whole world and empty Yourself out upon us.

The Divine Mercy devotion urges us to put our trust in Jesus and his mercy. Let me connect this prayer to today’s Gospel reading in which Jesus appears to the disciples. Jesus’ entire focus in this passage is on mercy. Instead of berating the disciples for their fickleness or lashing out at them for their fear, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit upon them. He then entrusts to them the ministry of reconciliation and healing: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them and whose sins you retain are retained” (John 20:23).

Even Thomas, who would not believe until he had touched the wounds of Jesus, was overcome by the mercy of God. He simply says, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). As the Divine Mercy Chaplet suggests, Jesus was opening the ocean of mercy to the disciples and through them to the whole world.

We have a God whose name is Mercy. Today, let us allow God’s mercy to overwhelm us. Then, armed with the mercy of God, let us deal with the world the way God dealt with the disciples–with mercy and love. This is the best way to bring the world to God.

Image Credit: “Agape Feast,” Public Domain

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Fr. Satish Joseph was ordained in India in 1994 and incardinated into the archdiocese of Cincinnati in 2008. He has a Masters in Communication and Doctorate in Theology from the University of Dayton. He is presently Pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton, OH. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries (www.itemissaest.org) and uses social media extensively for evangelization. He is also the founder of MercyPets (www.mercypets.org) — a charitable fund that invites pet-owners to donate a percent of their pet expenses to alleviate child hunger. MercyPets is active in four countries since its founding in December 2017. Apart from serving at the two parishes, he facilitates retreats, seminars and parish missions.

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