“Blessed are those who have not seen, but believe!” That’s you and me! We have not been able to put our finger into the nail marks and our hand in the wound in the side of the Risen Jesus, but we believe. So, this particular Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter, is a time to celebrate our faith, to be grateful for our faith, and to beg the Lord for the grace to grow in our faith.
This is also “Divine Mercy Sunday.” This is the Sunday when we hear in the Gospel the words of Jesus when He gives to the Church the Sacrament of Penance, the way to experience the forgiveness of sins we commit after Baptism. It is the sacrament of mercy.
And this is also the Sunday when Pope John Paul II is beatified so that he will now be referred to as Blessed John Paul II - until another miracle is confirmed and he will then be canonized as St. John Paul II.
Let me put the beatification of Blessed John Paul II into the context of history.
For 2,000 years our Church has meandered through history always buffeted by the vices of each particular epoch of history; but also giving superb witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ who founded the Church. We heard in today’s epistle reading, from the First Letter of St. Peter:
Although you have not seen him you love him;
even though you do not see him now[,] yet [you] believe in him, [and]
you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,
as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
In every age in the history of the Church, the Lord raises up truly extraordinary people who are graced by God to help others come to a deep and profound faith. They make believing possible. They are sent by God to address particular needs at particular times in history. Yet God so graces them that what they teach is true for all ages, not just for the time period in which they live.
Every epoch in history has such witnesses to the faith, whether they are martyrs who die for the truth of who Jesus Christ is, or they are canonized saints who bore such effective witness to Christ that they left an immeasurable impact on their contemporaries, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta or St. Faustina whose mystical experiences gave us the image of Jesus as the Divine Mercy.
But on rare occasions there are absolutely extraordinary witnesses to Christ, persons who live in such a way as to authenticate what they believe and teach, and who are intellectual geniuses who actually turn the course of history.
Pope John Paul II was such a person. It is no wonder that he is being beatified only 6 years after his death. When he became pope, there was a general state of alarm about the conflict between the socialist Soviet empire and the world’s democracies of the West, particularly the United States. The Cold War was still raging causing a pervasive sense of fear throughout the world: fear of nuclear extinction, fear of atheism conquering the world, and fear of the meaningless of human life.
The age of doubt of the Enlightenment had morphed into an age of rejecting belief in God: the blatant atheisms of Communism and Nazism, and the more subtle form of atheism: a materialistic view of life that says that only what we can see and touch is worthy of us. Those invisible realities like character of soul, virtue, holiness and selflessness gave way to selfishness, meaninglessness, and what we might call a lack of soul. When Karol Wojtyla was elected pope the Age of Fear had seemingly rendered religion to be irrelevant and meaningless.
When Karol Wojtyla stepped out on that balcony after his election he began his ministry as pope by proclaiming, “Be not afraid.” Thus began a globetrotting ministry of a pope who went to all corners of the world to put their faith in Jesus Christ, so that people everywhere might:
“come to believe
that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,
and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”
During his years as pope, Communism collapsed as a result of his direct challenge to the atheism that had held millions of people captive even within their own souls. During his years as pope, he brought his philosophical mind to bear on all the intellectual battles of modernism and post-modernism. Like St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200’s, Blessed John Paul II formulated a systematic way of understanding what we believe as Catholics, and what we have to say to a world that had lost hope in the future. His intellectual and pastoral achievements were God’s gift to our age, an age of fear that has become an age of terror.
“Be not afraid!” is as valid a message today as it was back in 1978.