We Catholics celebrate Easter for fifty days, and we are still swimming in the bright seas of glory streaming from our resurrected Lord. I’ll bet most of us still have some Easter candy around—a chocolate bunny yet perches atop the printer in my office. Why, then, does Holy Mother Church give us readings today that sound more proper to Lent than Easter? St. Peter reminds us that we are “foreigners and pilgrims” in this world, and that the world “wages war against the soul.” Jesus tells his confused disciples that he will soon leave them, and that they will weep while the world rejoices. I think the Church gives us such sober readings on the Third Sunday of Easter to remind us that the joy of Easter streams from Our Lord’s wounds— glorious wounds—but wounds nonetheless. We must not forget the price of our redemption, nor that we are not in heaven yet.
Foreigners and pilgrims
The world, of course, does not believe in Christ or in his resurrection. It tolerates Easter for one day a year, and then only as a holiday of marshmallow bunnies and chocolate eggs. It is in this faithless world that we pass 70 or 80 years as “foreigners.” We must not forget our status as “pilgrims,” making an often difficult and dangerous journey to our true homeland. I am reminded of Bilbo Baggins, who muttered to his nephew that “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door….” And while we are on that journey, we smile, we sing, we enjoy the good gifts God gives us along the way, but we keep moving. We keep one eye always on the road ahead: we don’t know what may come at us to “wage war” against our souls, and the souls of our children.
And so how to comport ourselves as we travel? St. Peter advises us to keep ourselves clean and upright, for it is only by doing good that we might silence the ignorance of foolish people. Perhaps never more than now has godless ignorance become so widespread. The absurdity of post-Christians using Christian language, such as “human rights,” to promote precisely the violation of human rights, can discourage any pilgrim. The very concept of human rights did not exist before Christianity, and that concept is used now to kill an entire class of human beings (as in a woman’s “right to choose”). When the whole world seems to be losing its mind, stupidly following really evil men who call right wrong and wrong right, who promote manifestly irrational laws, and who blame the violent consequences on Christians—then we realize to what degree we are strangers in this world. We scarcely speak the same language as our own friends and family. We see what they cannot see, and they consider us deluded and fanatical.
We cannot convince most people of the absurdity, nor prevent much of the damage from pervasive ignorance of the Natural Laws. But we can, and we must, do good in the brief time given us this side of the grave. A Christian must never forget his dignity, and the supreme law of charity. “Give honor to all,” St. Peter counsels us. “Respect the king (for Americans, that means President Obama). Slaves should be subject to their masters, and not only to the nice ones. We are slaves, in a way, to the political powers and social trends that overwhelm us. The world is against us, but this should not unduly sadden or disturb us. We are only here in transit, after all, like changing planes at an airport. We know whence we come, and wither we go.
You will weep, Jesus assures us; you will grieve but your grief will become joy. “I am leaving you,” he told his disciples. The world will defeat him; Jesus will hand himself over to this world’s power, but only in order to defeat evil by good. “I will see you again,” he declares, “and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away.”
My dear people, we must resist the temptation to let this old world get to us. We must not become despondent, even if marriage and family life collapses, and God is mocked all around us, and even, God forbid, those dearest to us lose their faith. We must still do good, and maintain our composure, and radiate goodwill to everyone, because we have been given a joy that no one can take from us. We can only hope to overcome some evil by patient goodness, and we cannot expect much from this world anyway. We must take the long view, the Christian view, the supernatural view, and think always in light of eternity. I think God has permitted us to live in a period of decline, so we do what we can to save souls and please God’s divine majesty.
We turn, always, to Our Lady. She patiently, and calmly, accepted her Son’s crucifixion. Somehow, she knew, he would overcome evil by good, and she would do it with him. It was hard for her, no doubt, but she didn’t lose her peace, even at Calvary. Let us apply ourselves to the same: imitating her faith, and calling upon her intercession, that we may faithfully follow her Son to our true homeland.
Pope Benedict, and now even more Pope Francis, both urge us to reverence God’s gifts in nature. Some call them “Green Popes;” they actually wear white and are simply “Catholic Popes.” The Church has promoted the good stewardship of earth’s resources since Jesus asked the Apostles’ to gather up the fragments from the loaves and fishes, “that nothing be wasted.” Catholic saints and religious orders practice simplicity and frugality, eschewing the lavish materialism practiced by most cultural elites. Most Catholics, of course, have gone along with our culture’s wasteful disrespect for God’s gifts. But the Church’s teaching and ideal has ever been authentically “environmentalist.”
That the Church authentically respects nature is proven by her respect for the natural processes of the human person. She promotes natural, rather than artificial, family planning. She defends natural, rather than artificial, marriage and sexual practices. And for this consistency in respecting nature she is condemned.
Is it not curious that many “greens,” who advocate strict respect for nature, also advocate decidedly unnatural sexual practices? What true environmentalist would chemically interfere with nature’s fertility cycles? Artificial contraceptives not only throw the human endocrine system into chaos, leading to higher rates of cancer, but they also poison our water systems and kill entire populations of marine life. What real Green would violently interrupt natural reproduction through forced abortion? What person respectful of the natural order would promote homosexual unions, which is found in nature only in aberration? But the most outrageous hypocrisy, perhaps, is the support of “naturalists” for so-called “sex reassignment surgery” (SRS). One cannot change one’s sex just by sewing on fake genitalia and taking artificial hormones. A man cannot become a woman, but only the appearance and artificial illusion of a woman. George Burou, a Casablancan physician who has operated on over seven hundred American men, explained, “I don’t change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s mind.” This is not to discount the real pain men and women suffer from sexual trauma. In a sexually-dysfunctional society, an increasing number of people grow up with sexual identity crises. But so-called SRS, while it may grant the appearance of a solution, only worsens their condition. It is a surgical response to a psychological condition, rather like cutting someone’s head open who suffers from depression. (Linked to this blog is a good article on SRS from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.)
How is it that we imagine we can change our very nature? Man will always wonder about his identity, which is mysterious. But if we deny the fact that we did not make ourselves, then the mystery of our identity takes on terrifying dimensions. If we doubt God’s existence, we are cast into terrible doubt of our own nature. Without Nature and Nature’s God, we don’t know where we came from and where we are going. This is particularly so in the question of sexual identity.
I got on a bus one night in San Francisco. At the following stop a lesbian got on, dressed in tough clothing with a butch haircut. But she was tired, and her feminine nature was impossible to hide. Also at that stop a transvestite man got on. His long hair, false breasts, and flamboyant clothing did not mask his masculine nature either. The lesbian seemed so feminine compared to him, and he so masculine compared to her—I suppose they were both too tired to maintain their respective illusions. I chuckled at their attempted disguises, and rejoiced in spirit that their natural beauty could not be hidden. Certainly they needed help to accept their nature, but a sex-change operation they did not need. They needed real compassion, not a city-funded mutilation of their natural and healthy organs.
At conception nature makes us male or female. Our sex is written on every cell of our bodies, and determines the development of our brains from our mother’s womb. If it seems that confused people, angry at nature (just as I wrote these words the Superior of the convent here in Peru brought me a newspaper with the news of the bombing of a Boston metro station), are destroying the natural order, let us not be too disturbed. Yes, many will suffer from the chaos gripping our society. All of us will suffer when man disrespects the natural order. But God’s harmony, expressed in this beautiful world, will always recover. We cannot destroy nature, nor even the nature of our own bodies. Nature’s beauty and order, guided by Nature’s God, will always right itself eventually. We are not so mighty as we think: nature will always have the last word.Additional Study:
I write from Lima where I am giving an 8-day retreat to the Missionaries of Charity sisters. Peru has been peaceful for many years. It has not suffered from the drug wars like Mexico and Colombia; neither has it suffered from socialist dictatorships like Cuba, Bolivia and Venezuela. Nevertheless, it suffers the poverty of most post-colonial nations, struggling to establish just trade networks with big western corporations that have siphoned off her human and material resources for years.
The Missionaries of Charity have been given a large school compound in one of Lima’s worst areas, called La Parada. They care for 80 handicapped children, most who had been abandoned at city hospitals. They also care for 30 homeless men. Sr. Sahana, the regional superior, told me yesterday that the Mayor of Lima is always trying to convince the MC’s to relocate to a better part of town. “We will give you a building—just get out of La Parada. We cannot protect you there.” Indeed, last fall the area exploded with riots when the city tried to turn a gigantic open market, overflowing with drugs, garbage, and violence, with a city park. Five people died in the riots, which poisoned the air with din and smoke for a week. The handicapped children cried all night from the violence just outside our walls, and coughed up black phlegm from the acrid smoke of burning tires. The national guard still watches the intersections, riot shields leaning up against their parked armored vehicles. In the midst of this wasteland, the MC Sisters have established an oasis of peace, as they do in all the world’s slums. They lovingly care for the “human garbage” of contemporary society, which simply cannot care for its most vulnerable. I went up to visit the severely disfigured children this morning and saw a glowing joy on their faces, at least those who had even the merest capacity to reason. The homeless men all reach out to clasp my hands with big smiles: “Buenos Dias, Padrecito!” Somebody has given these men a reason to smile again. At all times of the day, between their work, the sisters quietly slip in and out of the chapel to offer their work to Jesus.
But the senseless chaos from outside the walls thumps into this oasis, disturbing at least my peace. Almost every night, from 6pm to 2am, the local drug dealers stage concerts in the streets to cover their business. The noise thuds through the housing blocks while people drink, sell, and take drugs. In the morning, there is usually a terrible mess, sometimes a dead body, in the street. “Sister,” I asked, “how can they get away with that loud music? No one can sleep for blocks around! I was thinking of going out to ask them to turn it down.” The sister’s eyes grew wide, and then she laughed: “Oh no, Father, they would kill you. Nobody can talk to them.”
“But how do you sleep?” I asked (the sisters go to bed around 10pm, and get up at 5am). “Oh,” Sister Catherine Jos smiled, “we are used to it.” I’ve asked this question in many of the MC convents throughout the world. The answer is always the same: “We are missionaries. We are used to it.” Truly missionaries of charity! I marvel at how they maintain tranquility through this infernal din. They bring love, and order, and joy into our self-imposed chaos of rock music, drugs, and violence. They accept crude arrogance as just part of the human condition, and they love everyone despite it all. An absurd self-gratification rocks the peace of our neighborhood every night, but it does not rock the peace in our dear sisters’ heart, or cause the least frown to darken their radiant smiles. I suppose (sigh) I can get used to it as well, at least for a week, and practice a little charity myself.
Divine Mercy Sunday
Blessed John Paul II declared today Divine Mercy Sunday when he canonized St. Faustina Kowalska in the Jubilee year 2000: Dominica Secunda Paschae seu de divina misericordia. Jesus told Sr. Faustina (from her diary): “I want the image [of my divine mercy] solemnly blessed on the first Sunday after Easter, and I want it to be venerated publicly.” At the end of Mass, we will venerate the image and pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, in obedience to Christ’s words. “Every soul believing and trusting in My mercy will obtain it.”
Just a note on the Second Reading before we reflect on the Gospel. “I, John, your brother, who share with you the distress and the kingdom, … found myself on the island called Patmos because I proclaimed God’s word.” I detect a self-deprecating irony in John’s tone—how did I get here? No matter, God’s will is perfect. At George Washington University this week, a kind, hard-working Catholic Chaplain named Fr. Greg Schaffer finds himself the center of acrimonious contention because … he gently told a Catholic student who came to him for counsel that that he should not live the “gay lifestyle.” This student and his male consort are mounting a media campaign to banish him from the University for “proclaiming God’s word.” But like St. John, Fr. Schaffer does not seem to be upset about it. The Risen Christ stood before John and assured him: “Be not afraid. I am the first and the last; once dead, now I am alive forever. I hold the keys to death” and life. Be not afraid.
The apostles were afraid. They were afraid of Jesus, whom they betrayed, and they were afraid of the temple officials, who sought to wipe out any remaining disciples of Jesus. The apostles thought that Jesus would be angry with them—wouldn’t anyone think that? We think that God gets angry at us when we betray him. But Jesus shows, again, that his thoughts are not our thoughts. God does not seek vengeance; he brings peace, and bestows mercy. His first words to his friends—for they are still his friends—are “Peace be with you.” He comes through the locked doors of their fear and regret to assure them: You have nothing to fear, either from me, or from the world outside this Upper Room. I am here. We forget, as those Apostles forgot, that his mercy endures forever. His love is an infinite abyss. Oceans of mercy and rivers of grace flood the world after his Resurrection. Jesus wants us to venerate the image of Infinite Mercy today, one week after Easter, so that we grasp the full effects of his Resurrection. “Pax vobiscum” Jesus says, and then shows them the wounds of his love for them.
Thomas had not been with the others on Easter night, and he refused to let go of his disappointment at how things turned out on Good Friday. And so, a week later, that is, today, Divine Mercy Sunday, Jesus appeared again to give his Peace a third time. Then, to Thomas directly, he says: Come here, my son. Do you need another proof of my mercy? Put your hand into my side. I am not angry with you—but I do want you to surrender to my love. And Thomas did surrender: “My Lord and My God.” It is said he traveled as far as India, repeating those words to the ends of the earth, and was martyred in Madras. 2000 years later, Indian Christians name their children Thomas, and many of the Indians I have known radiate the faith given them by the once-doubting Thomas so long ago.
Forgiveness of Sins
Notice one last point: Jesus consecrates and sends his apostles out that Easter evening specifically to forgive sins. “As the father has sent me, so I send you. Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them…” He ordains them so that they can administer his mercy through the forgiveness of sins. Before we can receive the Eucharist, before we can even believe in the Gospel, we need to be forgiven. Even the most hardened atheist, the most insouciant secularist, knows he has sinned. Only God can pass through the locked doors of our post-Christian fear—that of having to live in our own depravity, with no one to forgive us. The Church must persist, as did Jesus, in bringing mercy to those who do not believe.
Blessed John Paul II said on this feast day in 2001: “Jesus said to Sr Faustina: "Humanity will never find peace until it turns with trust to Divine Mercy". Divine Mercy! This is the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity.” With Our Lady, the Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope, let us be apostles of mercy to the world.