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Bishop's Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter (Sunday of Divine Mercy)

We can have the fullness of life if we live the divine mercy he shows us.

By Bishop Larry Silva
April 19, 2020

[Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace (private; live-streamed)]

I want to tell you about the time I went to hell.

Many years ago, I was doing a thirty-day retreat according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits. Ignatius wants to make sure the retreatant experiences as much of God’s grace as possible, and so at the beginning of the retreat, he prescribes clearing away all obstacles to God’s grace, that is, clearing away sin. In order to help one focus on one’s sins, he proposes an exercise in which the retreatant imagines himself in hell for all the sins he has committed and tries to experience the horror his sins have caused, so that he can be freed from them. When I first did the exercise, I thought of hell in the traditional terms: fire and brimstone, a red devil with horns and a pointy tail, and so on. But I have to say, it did not move me one way or the other. When I reported this to my spiritual director the next day, she said, “You have to use your imagination in these prayers, because God can often speak to us in our imaginations.” So she had me go back and do the exercise again.

This is what I imagined hell to be: It was a narrow booth, in which I could only stand up for all eternity. I could not sit down or lie down. It was lonely, hot and muggy, and was filled with mosquitos. A horrible place! But the worst thing about it was that there was a window in it, and through the window I could see heaven; and what I saw in heaven were the two people I disliked the most in God’s arms. Now that was hell! Then I began to reflect upon these two people. Although I must confess that I have hurt people in my life, I can honestly say that with regard to these two people, I was completely innocent, and they were the ones who had offended me. So I said to the Lord, “Lord, you know very well that I did nothing against these two people, but that they offended me deeply. So why is it that they are in heaven and I am in hell?” And the Lord answered me, “Because you have not forgiven them!”

“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” Here I was, the innocent one, who had retained those sins, and retaining them did not do them any harm, but it harmed me spiritually. It was the hidden obstacle of pride that the Lord wanted to clear away from me so that I could go on to enjoy the fullness of his grace throughout the rest of the retreat. He wanted me not only to experience his divine mercy, but to make that possible by making my own heart more like his merciful heart. Perhaps Jesus had forgiven the sins of those two people long before, but I was holding on to that grudge. It was through this exercise that I was able to see that Jesus does not so much care who WAS right and who WAS wrong, but he wants us to be right with each other now, to live in the kind of harmony we hear about in today’s beautiful reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

We must not think, of course, that Jesus does not care whether we sin or not. He cares deeply, because he knows how much sin puts us in our own self-made hells and how much it causes divisions among us. He does demand repentance and a true desire to turn away from sin and believe in the gospel. But he is willing to run out to us when we are afraid to let go, to go two miles with us when we only have the faith to go one mile, so deep is his divine mercy.

Perhaps you have seen pictures of various priests and brothers in the newspapers recently, with the question “Do you know these men?” They are men of the cloth who have been accused of abusing minors – usually thirty or more years ago. Several lawsuits were filed against the diocese this week by those who say they were abused as children and youth by priests or religious brothers. I cannot tell you how it turns my stomach to read of the abuse these people have suffered; and not only that, but how their faith was damaged by these men whose calling it was to nurture their faith. Yet when all the lawsuits are settled, when we have done all we humanly can to reach out to those who have been so deeply hurt, it is my fervent hope that these people who were abused will be given the grace to forgive their abusers. Forgiveness does not at all mean that the offense was excusable, or that it should be taken lightly; not at all! But forgiveness is a gift that the Lord longs to give to those who were abused so that they can be set free by his divine mercy. It is only this mercy in the end that can truly heal them – and he longs to do so!

We all have situations in which we are innocent victims of the sins of others: the faithful wife, whose husband cheats on her; the many good priests who suffer because of the horrible things some of their brother priests have done; the innocent victims of war or terrorism. In these days of the coronavirus pandemic we might be angry that the world is shut down, that we cannot attend Mass or receive Holy Communion, that jobs are lost and livelihoods have dried up, and that we have done nothing to deserve all this. We can choose to retain the sins of others, because we know we were right and “they” were wrong. But if we do, we risk putting ourselves in our private hells and blocking the flow of grace. Or we can go to the One who was totally innocent and sinless, but who suffered such a cruel death on the cross – and yet who forgave those who condemned him to death, who wished “Peace” upon those who had abandoned him. This is a mercy that can only come from God, the divine mercy. But Jesus opens his wounds to bathe us with water and blood, so that just as he who was right forgave those who were wrong, we can imitate his example by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit that he breathes out upon us. Once we see that the Risen One still came back from the dead with his wounds, we can realize that even with our wounds, we can have the fullness of life if we live the divine mercy he shows us. It is not an easy thing to do, and like Thomas, we may have our doubts, but Jesus invites us to go straight up to him and even in our weakness to cry out, “My Lord and my God!” and “Jesus, I trust in you!”