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The readings for this Sunday — Divine Mercy Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B — should hit a nerve with Catholics in America in the 21st century.
The Apostles, afraid, locked in the upper room, are just like us too often — stuck in our own ideological bubbles, too angry or afraid to interact with the world. Meanwhile, the Christians in the First Reading from Acts look very unlike us: “The community of believers was of one heart and one mind,” says the reading. But the Catholic world today is marked by division and antagonism. The readings this Sunday can help us get from where we are to where they were.
First, the Gospel shows us the encounter with Christ the Apostles experienced.
They were cowering in the upper room, filled with disillusionment, shame and guilt.
They were disillusioned, because they thought the folly of their commitment to Jesus Christ had been exposed. They had thought he was something special, a great conqueror, and had left everything for him — but then he was put to death in a humiliating way and did nothing to defend himself. They were ashamed because of the disgraceful way they had acted, abandoning their friend in his hour of need. Their guilt came from a lingering thread of faith that told them: “Maybe his plan to overcome the Romans and the Jewish leaders was dependent on us, and it’s our failure to act that caused this disaster.”
Together, these emotions meant fear, and when Jesus appeared in their midst, the fear must have magnified. “Wow. Here he is. Now we’re really going to get punished.”
Instead, Jesus says, twice, “Peace be with you.” He probably had to say it twice because they were in so much shock the words hardly registered at first.
Then, he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” and breathes on them the Holy Spirit and gives them the power to forgive sins.
The Fathers of the Church saw the full importance of that phrase, “As the Father sent me so I send you.” Remember how the Father sent Jesus: He sent him to love, suffer and die, to glorify the Father on the cross.
And so now, St. Gregory the Great says, Jesus is telling the Apostles: “I send you to persecution, with the same love with which My Father loved Me, when He sent Me to My sufferings.
He also sends them with the Holy Spirit, such that they will live their Christian mission in the Trinity: Doing the Father’s will for the Son with the Holy Spirit.
This is the first of two comings of the Holy Spirit. The second will be at Pentecost.
“But why is the Holy Spirit first given to the disciples on earth, and afterwards sent from heaven?” asks St. Gregory.
“Because there are two commandments of love, to love God, and to love our neighbor,” he answers. “The spirit to love our neighbor is given on earth, the spirit to love God is given from heaven.”
The highest love, the love of God, is connected closely with faith. After all, this is the Gospel where Jesus says the immortal words to Thomas, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
The Second Reading, the Letter of John, explains even more how faith in God and love of God go together.
“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God, and everyone who loves the Father loves also the one begotten by him,” he says. “For the love of God is this, that we keep his commandments.” Then he adds, “The victory that conquers the world is our faith.”
You can’t love God if you don’t follow his commandments, and you can’t follow his commandments if you don’t love God. This is the encounter that Jesus is looking for with us at Easter: An encounter of faith in which he says “Do not be unbelieving, but believe,” and we say, “My Lord and my God,” as Thomas did, with love.
But intimately connected to love of God is love of neighbor. This is the love we see in the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, in which the life of the Church was marked by mutual respect and generosity. “They had everything in common,” and “there was no needy person among them.”
So, what is wrong with Catholics today that we are acting more like the scared Apostles than like the loving Christians?
At the National Catholic Register, I am writing a series that tries to understand exactly that. How can Catholics break out of angry or fearful isolation, where we distrust the Church and each other and think of our relationship with the world as adversarial rather than loving?
It’s called the “Love Thy Neighbor” series.
Part 1 — “Love Your Neighbor: Everything Depends on It” — is the introduction, that compares the situation faithful Catholics find themselves in, after decades of failures by the institutional Church, to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, then suggests the way out:
“Let’s stop being embarrassed about the Church and stop thinking of our neighbors as bad guys who we need to hide from, defeat, or ignore,” it says. “Not only does the Church still have the truth, but the world has gotten it so disastrously wrong that — just like you — your neighbor can’t help but notice.” And, in the end: “Jesus Christ in his wisdom made you the answer to the needs of your neighbors.”
Part 2 — “Laity Will Determine the Church’s Future After the Pandemic” — is about the counter-intuitive lessons the last year has taught us: We have seen the weaknesses of Church leaders, the benefits and shortcomings of communications technology, and the strength of younger generations. “The great takeaway of the pandemic isn’t, ‘The Church is led by sinners.’ We already knew that. The lesson is: ‘It’s up to the laity to spread the faith.’”
Part 3 — “In a World Gone Mad, What Would St. John Paul Do?” — is the most hopeful of the three, showing how “St. John Paul II, when he was just Father Karol Wojtyla in Poland, faced harder times than ours, and he did more than worry about them at conferences. He answered them by building an ‘extraordinary network of friendship’ that helped transform not just Poland but the worldwide Church.”
The early Christians in the Acts of the Apostles did the same thing. They looked at each other and united, then they looked at their world of wounded humanity and decided “Here’s how we can together reach these terribly wrong people with Jesus Christ’s healing touch.”
The Word of God invites us to do the same thing on Divine Mercy Sunday 2021: To seek forgiveness, care, and love for the Church, for ourselves, and for our neighbors. In the end, St. John is right: “The victory that conquers the world is our faith.”