Bottom line: Our salvation does not depend on what the pope has or has not done. No, our salvation has already been accomplished by what Jesus did on the cross - and confirmed by his resurrection: the forgiveness of our sins.
A happy and blessed Easter to you! In this homily I will address what Easter means for us. In doing so, I will speak about what Easter meant for St. Peter - and what it means for his successor, Pope Benedict XVI. That's a tall order. This Sunday I will only scratch the surface, but fortunately we have the fifty days of Easter (until Pentecost Sunday) to reflect together on these mysteries.
To illustrate the meaning of Easter, I begin with a story. The story is not mine. A university professor named Dr. Phillip Cary told it in order to explain what Christians mean by justification - how the resurrection bring forgiveness of sins.* The story begins with a tragedy: a girl pushes her brother down a stairs. To her horror, the fall causes him to break his neck, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. She did not intend to paralyze him, but that was the result of her malicious action. All day and all night she is thinking about what she has done.
The next day she must face her father. As she approaches her dad's room, she is afraid. What she fears is not so much that her dad will punish her. In some ways she would welcome any punishment. No, what she fears is that her dad will say that she is no longer his child, that he will banish her from the family. But when she enters the room, she sees a glorious sight. Her brother is sitting on his father's lap - completely restored. He says to her, "sister." And she hears her father say, "my daughter."
Now, she will have to face some punishment for what she did. But she bears it gladly because of the great joy she has. In a similar way the Resurrection of Jesus restores us. We hear Jesus say, "It is I. I live." Then, in spite of our sin, the Father says, "you are my son."
The resurrection of Jesus means that our sins are forgiven. That's what Peter tells us in the first reading. After proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus, he says, "Everyone who believes in him will receive forgiveness of sins though his name."
Regarding forgiveness, Peter knew what he was talking about. In a true sense, no one ever committed such a sin as he did. Think about it. He walked with Jesus, listened to his teachings, saw his miracles, experienced Jesus' transfiguration and then received from Jesus the keys of the kingdom of heaven. After all that - and after all his own bragging that he would never let Jesus down - when the crunch came, out of cowardice, Peter denied that he even knew Jesus. When we sin, we turn our back on God. No one did it in a more extreme way than Peter.
Yet when Jesus rose from the dead, he did not say, "Well, Peter, you blew it. Where's all your big talk now? I am getting someone more reliable to lead my Church." Not at all. As we shall hear in a few weeks, for every time Peter denied Jesus, the Lord asked him, "Peter, do you love me?"
What a beautiful way to extend forgiveness. Peter experienced the divine mercy more powerfully than any other Christian. Jesus chose Peter precisely so he would be a great witness to the forgiveness won by his suffering, death and resurrection.
Since St. Peter's day there have been 265 popes. Some of them - we must admit - disgraced the chair of Peter. They lived shameful lives. But none committed a worse sin than Peter. Bishop Sheen said that Christ selected Peter precisely because of his weakness. A chain is only as strong as its weakeness link. St. Peter is the weakest link in the chain of 265 popes. For that reason, we know the Church does not depend on the human strength of any individual pope.
Recently, a newspaper - considered the most powerful newspaper in the United States - made some accusations about our current pope: basically that when was he was cardinal, he stood by and allowed terrible things to happen. The newspaper didn't do it directly, but by insinuations that others picked up and magnified. The newspaper report itself was hastily done, didn't check relevant sources (see statement below from presiding judge in Milwaukee case) and mixed up different time frames and events.** Much of the information came from a lawyer who has made millions by suing the church - and hopes to make more. All this been compounded by widespread resentment of the Church for some of her teachings, especially in the area of sexual morality.
Now, there is no "party line" on this. Any Catholic is free to study the matter and draw their own conclusions.*** Still, suppose that all the insinations were true? It would be very sad, yet it would not touch the heart of our faith.
The pope himself has called for Christians to examine their consciences and face their own sins. My impression of Pope Benedict is that he would be the first to do so. What God wants you and me to is not to examine the pope's conscience, but to examine our own.
Brothers and sisters: At the end of the day, our salvation does not depend on what the pope has or has not done. No, our salvation has already been accomplished by what Jesus did on the cross - and confirmed by his resurrection. He is alive - and we are forgiven. Like Peter we have to accept that forgiveness, to hear Jesus say, "Do you love me?"
On Easter Sunday we accept Jesus' forgiveness in a beautiful way: By renewing our baptism. In a few moments, I will invite you to renounce Satan, all his evil works and all his false promises, then profess your faith in God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After making that profession of faith I will sprinkle you with holy water as sign the waters of baptism - that wash away our sins and give us a new beginning in Christ.
*The story comes from Dr. Cary's course Luther: Gospel, Law, and Reformation. The story has power because it touches something that Luther knew dramatically and that Peter's audience took for granted: we are guilty and, for that reason, the resurrection is the best news. It offers the one way out of guilt. You cannot, by the way, escape guilt by blaming the Catholic Church. Anyone who has read ancient literature knows that guilt pre-existed the Catholic Church. Likewise modern literature and drama testifies that guilt continues to exist even in a secularized culture.
**One of the reasons I encourage people to stop subscribing to newspapers: The lack of real investigative reporting, but rather the use of what interest groups package for them. I saw that here in the Northwest, where what they reported on the priest abuse scandal was basically what the lawyers fed them. Very frustrating for anyone who wanted to get out a different angle. I have basically resigned myself that it will one day be sorted out when "things spoken in secret will be announced from housetops."
***Before making a judgment on Pope Benedict's handling of clergy abuse cases, I encourage anyone to read:
From Archives (Easter homilies):
Easter Vigil Homily 1998: "At the entrance was something like a small swimming pool with three steps leading down one side and three steps leading up the other. At the Easter vigil they were led into the pool. The priest asked..."
The Meaning of the Resurrection: "Forgiveness is the one new thing that has entered the world. Without forgiveness human history is bleak. Frederick Nietzsche the philosopher who stated 'God is dead,' thought the driving force of history is resentment..."
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Are these homilies a help to you? Please consider making a donation to St. Mary of the Valley Parish
Reasons Young People Leave Their Faith - Presentation for Monroe Christian Pastor. (For pdf format click here)
Background for presentation on "Reasons Young People Leave Their Faith": High School Course – World Civilization - Section on origins of Christianity. (For pdf format click here)