A year ago, our eyes " and those of the world " were riveted on Pope John Paul II as he lay dying. He had long been teaching us the value of all human life, the dignity of old age, the meaning of suffering, the salvific power of infirmity and the cross. During Lent and Holy Week in 2005, the Pope's final illness made real for us the Paschal Mystery of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection and our union with him in the mystery of our salvation.
Pope John Paul II died in the late evening of Saturday, April 2, already the octave day of Easter which heralds the lavish outpouring of the Divine Mercy on all the ills of humanity. The timing could not have been more fitting. The Pope began his papacy directing our attention to God's Mercy, manifested in Christ. It was a constant theme throughout his 26-and-a-half years, but no more so than in his first two encyclicals: The Redeemer of Man and Rich in Mercy.
Perhaps recalling these matters can help us enter more deeply into Christ's Paschal Mystery as Lent 2006 climaxes once again in Holy Week and Easter. There is special significance in this for me, I suppose. When the Pope issued Rich in Mercy on November 30, 1980, it had only been a couple of weeks since I had been ordained a bishop. On the thirteenth anniversary of this second encyclical, Pope John Paul II appointed me Bishop of Sacramento. Not only this pope " but this encyclical " helped mold my ministry as Bishop. The encyclical's teaching is timely.
"The Church proclaims the truth of God's mercy revealed in the crucified and Risen Christ. She seeks to practice mercy towards people, through people. The more the human conscience succumbs to secularization, loses its sense of the very meaning of the word 'mercy,' moves away from God and distances itself from the mystery of mercy, the more the Church has the right and the very duty to appeal to the God of Mercy 'with loud cries'…uttered to God to obtain mercy, the certain manifestation of which she professes and proclaims as having already come in Jesus crucified and risen, that is, in the Paschal Mystery.
"It is this Mystery which bears within itself the most complete revelation of mercy, that is, of that love which is more powerful than death, more powerful than sin and every evil; the love that lifts man up when he falls into the abyss and frees him from the greatest threats" (No. 15).
This truth got played out in my own life a year ago. As Pope John Paul II got weaker and was dying, my own health was deteriorating and I prepared for liver transplant surgery, scheduled for Friday of Easter Week, April 1. I experienced Lent, Holy Week, and Easter 2005 in a new and deeper way. I prayed that God might accept the final sufferings of Pope John Paul II, in union with Christ's, for the good of humanity, for our own Diocese, and for successful surgery and a rapid recovery for Dan Haverty, my living donor, and myself. Tens of thousands of people were joined with us in prayer and an "appeal to the God of Mercy with 'loud cries.'"
You know the rest. The Holy Father died the day after our successful surgery and the God of Mercy seemed to hear and answer the "loud cries" in marvelous ways: in my health restored; in God's infinite love imaged and made concrete in Dan Haverty's selfless gift; in the attention of the world riveted on God's primacy, presence, and mercy through the events, and witness of Pope John Paul II's death and funeral; in renewed attention to the Church's vitality and teachings; in the dramatic election and installation of Pope Benedict XVI; in a growing positive view of the Pope and the Church in public opinion; in the vitality of our ongoing Synod process; in the spectacular results of the restored Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament " and more.
In the encyclical, Pope John Paul II reminds us that God's love for us "becomes visible in Christ and through Christ. God becomes especially visible in his mercy…Christ confers on the whole of the Old Testament tradition about God's mercy a definitive meaning. He himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He himself, in a certain sense, is mercy" (No. 2).
Returning directly to the Paschal Mystery: "Christ, whom the Father 'did not spare' for the sake of man and who in his Passion and in the torment on the cross did not obtain human mercy, has revealed in his Resurrection the fullness of love that the Father has for him and, in him, for all people…Christ has revealed the God of merciful love, precisely because he accepted the Cross as the way to the Resurrection. The Paschal Christ is the definitive incarnation of mercy, its living sign."
As Lent climaxes and we redouble our efforts to open our lives to the outpouring of God's mercy, we do so with the whole Church and in union with Mary "who does not cease to proclaim 'mercy…from generation to generation'" and with the Saints "for whom there have been completely fulfilled the words of the Sermon on the Mount: 'Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy'" (No. 15). Let us pray for one another that we may have a most fruitful experience of the Divine Mercy in the days ahead.