By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — He admitted it right off the bat. It was both a “trick question” and a rhetorical one.
“What are the Easter sacraments?” Bishop James V. Johnston, Jr. asked the overflow congregation on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 3, at Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish.
“Typically,” he answered himself quickly, “we respond to that question by listing the Sacraments of Initiation — Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. These are the sacraments that we celebrated last week (at the Easter Vigil) when so many of our catechumens and candidates entered the Catholic Church. These are the sacraments by which we are born again and given new life in the Holy Spirit, and make us sons and daughters of the Father.”
But there is another Easter sacrament, and in fact, one established by the resurrected Christ himself on that very first Easter evening when he encountered his apostles, hiding behind locked doors.
Bishop Johnston quoted the reading from the Gospel of John for Divine Mercy Sunday, a reading he called “perfect”:
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
“Here’s the trick answer. We could also say that the Sacrament of Confession and Reconciliation is an Easter sacrament because Jesus gave to the apostles the power to forgive or retain sins on the day of the Resurrection, the evening of that first Easter Sunday,” Bishop Johnston said.
But that’s not all that Jesus did.
“Listen to the Gospel today again: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you,’” Bishop Johnston said.
“What does he send them to do? To announce the Mercy of God, and to forgive sins! They are sent on a mission of Mercy,” he said.
That mission is doubly important to remember in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, proclaimed by Pope Francis.
“Pope Francis said, ‘We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace. Our salvation depends on it,’” Bishop Johnston said.
“Today stands out because it is Divine Mercy Sunday, so named by St. John Paul II who was responding to St. Faustina’s mystical encounter with Christ,” he told the congregation that filled the official diocesan Shrine of the Divine Mercy and St. Faustina to standing room and overflowing.
Pope Francis called the Sacrament of Reconciliation the “Sacrament of Divine Mercy,” the bishop said, but it is also a “second Baptism” in which all sins are washed away, and the human person is reconciled with God.
“You know what happens after Baptism,” Bishop Johnston said. “In our weakness, we return to sin.”
That is why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is necessary.
“Jesus wants to restore us to that original innocence,” he said.
But Jesus also gave the apostles — and their successors — the power to retain sins as well, Bishop Johnston said.
“I remember reading a few months ago an article by a young woman, a Catholic, who rather honestly and transparently admitted that while it was nice for Pope Francis to focus on mercy, she did not consider her lifestyle sinful,” Bishop Johnston said.
“What that highlights is a precondition for receiving the benefits of mercy and reconciliation — an acknowledgment of the sin and the realization that we need mercy,” he said.
That won’t come without the “light of Christ” to see “whenever we made a wrong turn, and come to our senses,” he said.
“Many people are not ready for mercy,” Bishop Johnston said.
“Think of the times you and I haven’t been ready to hear something. I thank God for his great patience with me and I am grateful for it,” he said. “We must allow the light of Jesus to shine upon our lives so we clearly see. Divine Mercy only benefits us when we face the truth of who we really are. Jesus gives us the light to see this.”
It is to a world that might not be ready to hear that Christians need to go on their “mission of mercy” through dialogue, and that takes courage, Bishop Johnston said.
He contrasted the apostles hiding behind locked doors in the day’s Gospel reading to the fearless apostles hitting the streets to announce the Good News of salvation in the day’s second reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
“There is a contrast between the fear we see in the apostles in the Gospel reading and the confidence and lack of fear we see in the reading from Acts. What is the difference? The Holy Spirit,” he said.
“They are sent on a mission of mercy. Guess what? So are we,” Bishop Johnston said.
“But I have to tell you, I fear we are more often like the apostles behind the locked doors than the ones who are joyfully out in the world. This is a matter of great urgency,” he said.
Pope Francis addressed the same contrast between the fearful apostles and the joyful apostles evangelizing in the streets in his homily for Divine Mercy Sunday, Bishop Johnston said.
Quoting Pope Francis: “This contrast may also be present in us, experienced as an interior struggle between a closed heart and the call of love to open doors closed by sin. It is a call that frees us to go out of ourselves. Christ, who for love entered through doors barred by sin, death and the powers of hell, wants to enter into each one of us to break open the locked doors of our hearts. Jesus, who by his resurrection has overcome the fear and dread which imprison us, wishes to throw open our closed doors and send us out. The path that the Risen Master shows us is a one-way street. It goes in only one direction. That means we must move beyond ourselves to witness to the healing power of love that has conquered us. We see before us a humanity that is often wounded and fearful, a humanity that bears the scars of pain and uncertainty. Before the anguished cry for mercy and peace, we hear Jesus’ inspiring invitation: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’”
“On this Divine Mercy Sunday, let us make sure of two things,” Bishop Johnston said.
“In this order: that the love of Christ has fully conquered us, that if there is anything we still cling to that enslaves us or we have not let go of, that we surrender to his merciful love even if this requires a process and takes time,” he said.
“And secondly, that we embrace the mission of Jesus, the mission he sends each of us on, equipped with the same Holy Spirit which we received at Baptism and Confirmation to announce the mercy that saves,” the bishop said.
“In other words,” Bishop Johnston said, “be conquered by the love of Christ, and be sent with the Spirit of Christ.”