God’s mercy, the Apostle Thomas, and two pope saints

God’s mercy, the Apostle Thomas, and two pope saints

dsc_0459Bishop Dennis Sullivan holds a relic of St. John Paul II at St. Joseph Church, Camden, on April 27, the day of the canonization.

Photo by James A. McBride

Last Sunday, April 27, I preached the homily at St. Joseph’s Church in Camden at a Mass marking three occasions: Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, and the canonizations that day in Rome of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. I would like to share with the wider diocesan community that homily:

The two Popes whose canonizations we celebrate today were not born saints. They became saints. Canonization recognized that these men lived their lives with heroic virtues and that they are among the Holy Ones, the Saints of God. The church does not make saints; rather, the head of the church, the Pope, after an investigation, declares that because of the Godly manner in which they lived, and because of favors that have been received through their intercession, these men are Saints.
The stories of their lives provide us with examples, human examples, of virtuous living. Reflecting on their virtuous lives encourages us to imitate them with the goal to become holy as did these holy men. They show us by how they lived how to become Holy.
The faith of the church also professes the Communion of Saints, that is to say, there is a connection between us here in the world and those in glory with God. There is a relationship, a communion, a union with them and them with us. We pray to them and ask for their intercession before God on our behalf. They can assist us. They can help us. We call on them, Pope Saint John XXIII, pray for us. Pope Saint John Paul II, pray for us. Doesn’t that gladden your heart to say Pope Saint John XXIII, Pope Saint John Paul II?
This historic canonization of two Popes takes place on the second Sunday of Easter, the eighth day of our 50 days of Easter during which we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christ is Risen. Christ lives. “Blessed by 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,” proclaims our second reading from the first letter of Peter. Yes. Praise to God who shares with us the new life of the Risen Christ.
Sharing in that Risen life was not at first understood by the Apostle Thomas. We heard his story in today’s Gospel. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” The apostle doubted the testimony of the others, “We have seen the Lord.” But they were not too convincing. Were they? Thomas refers to the wounds of Jesus. The hands nailed to the Cross. The right side cut open by the spear of the Roman soldier. I want to see, to touch those wounds. Then I will believe that He is Risen.
Thomas’ doubt is broken by the Lord who appears in that closed room and greets them with, “Peace,” His Easter Greeting. His invitation to Thomas to touch his wounds. And, then, the prayer of Thomas, “My Lord and my God,” by which he recognized that Christ is Risen. Thomas confesses that Christ who died on the Cross lives. Followed by Jesus’s words, “Happy, blessed, are those who have not seen but believe.” That’s us, sisters and brothers. You and me. Jesus calls us the blessed because we believe but have not seen.
Thomas the Apostle is reconciled with the Risen Lord who shows him his wounds, the signs of divine mercy. Touch me, says Jesus to Thomas, then He commissions His disciples, His Church, to continue His work of transforming the world. He gives them the Holy Spirit to continue His work, His mission to reconcile the world to God, to remove the barriers between God and humanity through the forgiveness of sin, barriers that are the result of sin.
Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II were filled with the same Holy Spirit. They brought women and men to God through their teaching, preaching and example. Both proclaimed the mercy of God. Both showed that there are no closed doors. There are no barriers to God. Each did it in a way that was needed in his generation and their examples are valid for every generation after.
Pope Saint John XXIII, less than three months after his election as Bishop of Rome, called for an ecumenical council so that fresh air could come into the church. “We are not here on earth to guard a museum but to tend a garden full of life,” he said.
Saint John XXIII created an opportunity for a new Pentecost; an updating. He even dreamed of a United Christian Church, inviting Protestant and Orthodox Christians to attend the Second Vatican Council which he convened under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He encouraged the renewal of the prayer of the church, its liturgical life, all of which was needed for the Church coming out of the nineteenth century yet still somewhat frozen in the sixteenth century and still reacting to the Protestant Reformation.
And this from the man who was elected Pope at 77 years of age and who was expected to be a transitional pope, a caretaker. However, the Holy Spirit had other ideas and Angelo Roncalli was the Spirit’s instrument to move the ship of Peter into new waters.
His humility, gentleness, sense of humor, welcoming people of every faith, personal warmth, fatherly kindness are just some of the virtues he showed during his life. The nickname he earned, “The Good Pope John,” that title says so much. His example of his goodness, his Godliness. He had experienced a wounded church, especially during his years as papal nuncio in Turkey and his contact with the variety of Orthodox Christian communities in Asia. He saw the many world religions and in the early fifties even established dialogue with the Muslim Community. Saint John XXIII brought needed change to the church, saying her windows needed to be opened to let in fresh air.
Saint John Paul II honored his predecessor by choosing his name and by seeking to have the church faithfully interpret the great modern council Vatican II that Saint John XXIII called. Who could forget the announcement to the world of the election of Karol Wojtyla, a Polish Cardinal, as the bishop of Rome, the first non-Italian in 456 years?
The papacy of John Paul II began with the words, “Fear Not.” Be not afraid, the very words of Jesus to His followers, the Galilee fisherman, Fear Not, Cast out into the Deep. For 26 years Karol Wojtyla took the bark of Peter, the Church, into the Deep.
He did this through his visitations to more than 129 countries. He spoke truth to power, particularly to the power of the former Communist bloc in Eastern Europe, including his native Poland. John Paul’s words and fearlessness before them was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War.
His deep love for the Mother of God was expressed again and again in nation after nation where he honored Mary under her local title and above all, the devotion of this son of Poland to the Madonna of Czestochowa, the Black Madonna of Poland.
We remember his ability to forgive his would-be assassin who he visited in prison. On the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima he was shot in St. Peter’s Square. After a long convalescence, he took the bullet to the shrine in Fatima where it was placed in the crown of Our Lady. He even added a new set of mysteries of the Rosary, the Luminous Mysteries.
Pope Benedict XVI said of Pope Wojtyla in the homily on the occasion of his beatification in May 2011: “Society, culture, political and economic systems he opened up to Christ, turning back with the strength of a titan – a strength which came to him from God – a tide which appeared irreversible. By the witness of faith, love and apostolic courage, accompanied by great human charisma, this exemplary son of Poland helped believers throughout the world not to be afraid to be called Christian, to belong to the church, to speak the Gospel. In a word, he helped us not to fear the truth, because truth is the guarantor of liberty.”
As he aged and suffered the devastation that his Parkinson’s disease caused his body, he did not retreat from public view. The world saw an old, sick man who faced pain and dying with dignity and fidelity to the world to which the Lord called him. Just a week before his death he blessed the crowds in the Square and stood at the window of the Papal apartment unable to speak words but perhaps speaking to the world as he had never done before.
Santo Subito. Make him a saint now, the crowd cried, the four million pilgrims who came to his funeral. On this Divine Mercy Sunday, a devotion to the Heart of Jesus which John Paul introduced to the Church, the Church declares that Karol Wojtyla is now counted among the Saints of God.
Love of neighbor, defense of human life, dialoguing with people of every faith, in the Great Jubilee Year 2000 begging for forgiveness for the sins of the church over the millennia. These are some examples of the virtues which Pope Sant John Paul II showed in his life.
The Second Vatican Council reminded us that we are called to holiness. That is our goal as Christians – holiness – the stuff of Saints. Holiness achieved by these two Popes during their lives through their practice of heroic virtues. Holiness that can be achieved by you and me.
It was the same for Thomas the Apostle. After his experience of the risen Jesus, tradition tells us that he set out to preach the Gospel in India. Jesus broke through the closed door of Thomas’ doubt and filled him with virtues he needed to evangelize, to spread the Gospel and eventually to give his life for Christ. See what the merciful love of Christ can do for us. Transform us if we are willing to trust Him. Transform us through merciful love. Transform us through His Sacred wounds.
On this Divine Mercy Sunday we celebrate the revelation given to Saint Faustina, that the mercy of Christ is greater than our sins and that Christ’s mercy is available to us and can flow to us and through us. Our goal is to do the work of mercy, to be an agent of God’s mercy, to practice mercy, to live mercy, as did Saint John Paul II and Saint John XXIII.
“Peace be with you,” greets the Risen Saviour to the Apostles gathered in the Upper Room. From His wounded heart flows out a great wave of mercy poured on humanity. Thomas was its first recipient.
As were our two Saints in their lifetimes. Pray for us, Saint John XXIII. Pray for us, Saint John Paul II. May we imitate your heroic virtues and thus become better followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. May your examples show us how to live the mercy of God; how to share the mercy of God with others; how to break down the barriers that sin has erected in our world. Christ is Risen. He lives and shares His new life with us as he shared it with Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II.

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