On April 2nd, Holy Thursday, we remembered the tenth anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s death.
I was still working in Rome in 2005, but I was back in Kansas on the day that he died, in order to attend the episcopal consecration of Bishop Michael Jackels as the Bishop of Wichita (he is now Archbishop of Dubuque, Iowa). I returned to Rome the next day, on April 5th. I remember returning to a city that was very somber, and was, at the same time, filled with hundreds of thousands of people celebrating the life and legacy of the Holy Father. I felt as if the entire city knew already that John Paul’s life and ministry would continue, as he interceded for the Church from heaven.
John Paul died late in the evening on April 2nd. The next day was the Feast of Divine Mercy, the second Sunday of Easter, the Octave of Easter. Before he died, the Holy Father had prepared a message for those gathered for Mass at St. Peter’s Square on that Sunday. These were the final words that Pope St. John Paul II prepared for the world: “the Risen Lord offers his love that pardons, reconciles and reopens hearts to love. It is a love that converts hearts and gives peace. How much the world needs to understand and accept Divine Mercy!”
Christ offers a love that converts every repenting heart to holiness. This is the message of Divine Mercy Sunday. The Lord waits, in love, to transform our lives by setting us free to love. Sin enslaves us. Fear enslaves us. Greed, and anger, and selfishness, and pride, and vanity enslave us. Divine Mercy sets us free. Before he died, Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed the Divine Mercy of Christ to the world.
Mercy was especially important to Pope St. John Paul II. In 1980, shortly after he began his pontificate, the Holy Father devoted his second encyclical to the subject of mercy entitled, “Dives in Misericordia” (Rich in Mercy). He wrote that modern culture “tends to exclude from life and to remove from the human heart the very idea of mercy.”
Without mercy, St. John Paul II said, the culture of death advances, families crumble, nations falter, and men are left to wander with no sense of themselves, or of the meaning of their lives. John Paul II wrote that he wanted to offer the world a “heartfelt appeal by the Church to mercy, which humanity and the modern world need so much.”
The Holy Father did offer the world an appeal to mercy. He encouraged the sacrament of penance, for all Catholics, at all times. He witnessed mercy in his own life, by forgiving the man who shot him, and by asking for mercy from those whom the Church had harmed. And he instituted Divine Mercy Sunday, a feast to appeal to Christ’s mercy, and to remember the depth of mercy that Christ offered to the world, especially through his revelation to St. Faustina Kowalska, whom Pope Saint John Paul II canonized in the jubilee year 2000.
It was especially important to Pope St. John Paul II that young people experience God’s mercy. The Holy Father knew that young men and women, formed in faith through God’s mercy, would build strong Catholic families, and strong Catholic cultures. From the time he was ordained a priest, he spent time with young people—especially university students—teaching them, hiking and kayaking with them, and offering them God’s mercy through the sacrament of penance. As the pope, John Paul II enhanced the apostolate of World Youth Day—inviting young people from around the world to pray together, to worship together, and to avail themselves of God’s mercy.
John Paul II knew that the success of proclaiming the Gospel depended on generous, energetic, faithful young people. And he knew that such people could be only be formed through Christ’s merciful love.
This Sunday—Divine Mercy Sunday—I will dedicate the new church at the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The new church is stunningly beautiful. It is an incredible witness to God’s glory. It moves hearts to wonder. But my deepest hope is that it will be a source of mercy for the young people at the University of Nebraska—and from across the Diocese of Lincoln.
Make no mistake—Christian culture is under attack in our state. The Church faces real threats. Sin, and fear, and selfishness advance the culture of death around us. But young people, turning to God’s mercy, are evidence that the Gospel will triumph through Christ. They are evidence that God works in our hearts, and in the world. They are evidence that family life, and Catholic education, and generous priests and religious, still make a difference in the world. And they are hope that through their generous initiative to proclaim the Gospel, more souls will encounter Jesus Christ.
Young people, turning towards God, are evidence that mercy transforms hearts. And they are evidence that Pope St. John Paul II intercedes for us.
This Sunday, as I dedicate the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska, please pray that God’s mercy will transform young hearts for Christ. Pray that those young people, through the beauty of their faith and witness, will restore Christian culture in our state. And, after the Church has been dedicated, please visit it. Pray for St. John Paul II’s intercession. And thank God his gift of Divine Mercy.
Editor’s Note: Live streaming video of the Dedication Mass for St. Thomas Aquinas Church will be featured at huskercatholic.com April 12 at 3 p.m. CST.