Daniel 9:4b-10; Luke 6:36-38
The readings today evoke two images of Pope St. John Paul II in my mind.
The first is of a trip the pope made on April 13th, 1986. Although very short – less than two miles from the Vatican – its impact was as great as any pastoral visit he would ever make. For on that day the Holy Father bridged a gap that was centuries wide, doing what no pope since St. Peter had ever done: entering a Jewish synagogue. In fact, he entered Rome’s Great Synagogue and, while 1000 Jews watched and wept, warmly embraced the Rabbi, then publicly and sincerely apologized to all Jews on behalf of the Church for whatever part she played in the centuries of discrimination and persecution the Jewish people had suffered.
We naturally tend to focus guilt on ourselves as individuals but the pope reminded us that, as the reading from Daniel implies, sin is sometimes a matter of “we,” and not just “I.” In his Apostolic Exhortation “Reconciliation and Penance” John Paul II referred to this as social sin – sins committed by groups as small as a few people or as large as many nations. His point was that each member bears some share of responsibility for what the group does or fails to do. As he wrote, social sins are the “very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it… who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference… who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world and… sidestep the effort and sacrifice required….”1
Therefore, it is our moral duty as Catholics to examine ourselves in light of the behavior of the groups in which we participate in our parish, Church, community, nation, and world, and to speak and act against these behaviors when necessary.
The second image of St. John Paul is in the prison cell of his would-be assassin, the man who shot him several times on May 13th, 1981. Although the pope publicly forgave him four days later, in 1983 he visited the prison and personally did so again. Later, John Paul appealed to the Italian government to release him, which they did. Eventually the man converted to Catholicism, citing the pope’s influence.
In the gospel, Luke does not put on our Lord’s lips the words Matthew used: Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Instead, the Jesus of Luke says, Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36). Here, “merciful” could also be translated “compassionate,” and there are few examples of mercy or compassion better than the Holy Father’s actions. And look at the effect! The transformation of a man from one who would kill the Vicar of Christ into one who would rather die for love of Christ.
The power to look within and see the personal and social sin as well as the capacity to show mercy comes as the free gift of our Lord to all who are willing to ask forgiveness of those we have wounded and offer it to those who have wounded us. This is the transformative power of the heart of Christ, as St. John Paul reminded us when he said, “I invite you all to join me in turning to Christ’s heart, the eloquent sign of the divine mercy, the “propitiation for our sins,” “our peace and reconciliation,” that we may draw from it an interior encouragement to hate sin and to be converted to God, and find in it the divine kindness which lovingly responds to human repentance.”
Sacred Heart of Christ, have mercy on us.
St. John Paul II, pray for us.