What went through Peter’s mind when Christ appeared in the upper room? (Jn. 20:19-31) After Jesus was arrested, he swore up and down that he never knew the man. So when the Risen Lord appeared in their midst, he must have shrunk into the back corner hiding behind the others with shame.
But Jesus said nothing about Peter’s denial or the others abandoning him. Instead he expressed mercy. Twice he said, “Peace be with you.” He reassured them that their relationship is rock solid. Peter must have been flooded with feelings of forgiveness and friendship – gratuitous unconditional forgiveness and steadfast undying friendship.
Thomas also was stunned by Jesus’ gentle and patient friendship. I imagine Jesus being firm yet patient, as he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” (Jn. 20:27) The disciples were not only convinced that Jesus was risen; they were convinced that he would always be with them. Nothing could separate them from Christ, neither denial nor doubt nor anything else. Their relationship was eternal.
The disciples had an unbreakable bond with Christ, and this transformed their relationship as disciples. His faithful love bonded them together. They became a band of brothers and sisters because Jesus was such a faithful Brother to them. That dual bond of fellowship is described in the First Letter of John who wrote, “What we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3) A more literal translation is this: “. . . so that you too may have communion with us; for our communion is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”
Through the grace of Baptism, we were granted communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. St. Paul says that we live “in Christ.” St. John tells us that our communion as Christians is like our communion with God.
This is exactly what we hear in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today. “[The disciples] devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) This is one of the first descriptions of the early Christian community. An essential aspect of it was the communal life. (This is the same Greek word translated as ‘fellowship’ in the passage above.)
The early Christians expressed their unity in a practical way, “They would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” (Acts 2:44) They generously cared for the needy; their communion reflected God’s merciful communion with them. Like Peter and Thomas, the first Christians were inspired to imitate Jesus’ mercy.
As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, we are refreshed with the Lord’s mercy, and we are sent to bring his mercy to others. As we deal with the pandemic, the Lord’s mercy must be lived in communion. As a Church we have made decisions based on this communion, that is, based on solidarity. Our communion with one another ought to reflect our communion with God and his mercy toward us.
One way of being merciful is by doing everything we can to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 to any person. That is why we are not gathering for Mass or other events. Some people continue to contact me and request that we change our directives; they feel that people are unjustly deprived of the sacraments. So I want to describe all of the people we are thinking about with solidarity.
First, the elderly and those with compromised health conditions are especially vulnerable. Second, we are thinking of healthcare workers. If we act irresponsibly and cause more people to be infected, doctors and nurses will be at greater risk. Third, almost half of our priests are either over 60 or have health conditions putting them at high risk. But we’re not just thinking of the priests. It takes up to eight years to train a new priest, so if a few priests die of COVID-19, then some parishes may not have Mass or other sacraments for many years. Thus, we are thinking of how our decisions will affect Catholics for the next ten years, or longer. We are being in solidarity with those not yet born.
Furthermore, we must act for the good of all people, not just Catholics. Canon law states that a bishop is sent to serve all people within the geographical area of the diocese, not only Catholics. Why? Because God has concern for all people. Our mission is to be God’s hands and feet in this world. Our solidarity must encompass all our neighbors. Thus, solidarity calls us to be united with civic leaders as they seek to serve the common good. Together, we are working for the good of all people.
One person wrote to me arguing that salvation of souls no longer seems to be a priority. Actually, salvation of souls is not merely spiritual. We do not merely believe that our souls will go to heaven, but that we will be raised body and soul. Jesus came to redeem the whole person. Thus, the final parable in Matthew is about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming strangers, and visiting prisoners because salvation includes caring for the entire person – physical, spiritual, psychological, etc. So my outlook keeps in mind the salvation of souls, here and hereafter.
In our policies, our team seeks to balance the salvation of souls, the grace of the sacraments, solidarity, mercy and more. For a short time, the sacraments are being offered primarily to the critically ill and the dying. Our priests are going into the nursing homes and hospitals to bring them Holy Communion, Reconciliation and the Anointing of the Sick. We all know how important it is that they would not bring COVID-19 into those institutions. This is another good reason for extra precautions regarding the interaction of priests with the public.
Finally, when the Governor makes decisions he has a purview of the entire state. He is aware of many areas of concern unknown to an individual citizen. The same is true for pastors and bishops; our purview is comprehensive. We keep in mind everyone’s needs and the greater good of the Church. On the COVID-19 Response Team, we have four pastors who have dedicated their lives to ministry, and they are grappling with the breadth of issues at stake – pastoral, medical, theological, psychological, and more. The outlook of our team is enriched by two medical doctors and five lay leaders. In contrast, most (or all?) of the people who are complaining about the current directives have a much smaller purview.
As your brother and bishop, I am seeking to do what is best for all concerned, even when it is unpopular. My actions will be far from perfect. Nevertheless, I pray daily about all of this. In other words, I keep nurturing my communion with God so that I might serve the communion of the common good.
As we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday, remember two things. First recall God’s faithful mercy. The Risen Lord is with you; he has breathed his Spirit into you. No matter what, he will always be with you. God is in communion with you.
Second, strive for communion with one another, like God is in communion with us. Imitate the Lord’s mercy. How can you show mercy and solidarity to others? Jesus sends us to bring his mercy to others. He says to us, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” (Jn. 20:21)