HOMILY OF CARD. JAMES FRANCIS STAFFORD
Readings: 1 Pet 2: 20b -25; Mark 10: 22-24, 42-45
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Today the Church urges us to two actions prior to confession.
First. We are urged to pray for forgiveness. The penitent asks for mercy from Jesus who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on the cross” (Phil. 2: 8). But it is indisputable that today many find forgiveness difficult. Several yeas ago, I encountered some young Americans who argued against the possibility of forgiveness. They said, “It is impossible to forgive what has happened in the past. How can prior events be undone? No one can contend with the stubborn resistance of the past.” They further insisted that certain human acts are so evil, like violence against children or mass killings of the innocent, that they cannot be forgotten, and , when remembered, they cannot be forgiven. Those young people believed that forgiveness is impossible.
Moreover, they claimed that one question was humanly unanswerable, “Who is to forgive? Certainly not the innumerable victims. Because of the contagion of evil the victims of one sin are so numerous that it is impossible to locate all the victims. It likewise seems impossible to discover any power, divine or human, capable of offering complete forgiveness.”
Holy Week alone answer their objections to the possibility of forgiveness. God incarnate has become our sovereign victim and eternal Priest. In the Gospel today, Jesus said, “For the Son of man....came....to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. : 10: 45). In the crucified Son of man the heavenly Father laid bare the mystery of his love. Only Jesus was sent as victim to carry out the wrathful judgment upon all human sin, past, present and future. United with the twenty-four elders in the heavenly sanctuary we sing a new song to the redemptive Lamb, “Worthy are thou to take the scroll and to open its seal, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev 5: 9). Jesus’s atoning death remakes the past. Young and old alike recognize in Christ’s passion and death the whole sin of mankind and God’s forgiveness of it. The Apostle Peter recalls in graphic detail what he himself watched in tears, “Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet: 2: 24).
The Holy Spirit has gathered us about the martyrium of St. Peter in Rome. That the city is the soul written large is true of old Rome; this city is the Christian soul written large. The intellectual, moral and theological virtues of Romans are especially evident in the more distant approach to St. Peter’s martyrium across the Ponte San Angelo. Eight sculpted angels are stationed on that ancient bridge each carrying an instrument of Christ’s passion. Pilgrims to Rome contemplate the angels who mourn over those instruments. Modeling the scene on the first week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Bernini envisioned that the journey across the ancient Tiber bridge would lead pilgrims to compunction, the sting of conscience. Only then would they be ready to take the next, crucial step in the Ignatian Exercises, the General Confession.
The base of the fourth angel carries an astounding inscription: Regnavit Deus a legno . Those words, “God reigns from the wood”, appear in Ps. 95: 10 with the addition of a legno, an early gloss. The mystery of God reigning from the wood as Priest and Victim is recalled this week. Many penitents themselves are victims of unjust actions by others. Some harbor anger against them.. But even victims must rediscover that Jesus alone “is the expiation of our sins” (1 Jn 23:2). In the name of every victim, “[Jesus] by a single offering has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10: 14). The divine Sinless Man ‘changes places’ with sinners, thereby overcoming the irreversibility of time. All peoples are thus set free, ransomed, restored, released from guilt and sin. And God is faithful to his promise, “I will remember their sins and misdeeds no longer” (Heb. 19: 16b- 17).
Second. In prescribing an examination of conscience the Church suggests the Sermon on the Mount as an aid. Jesus’s words are the representative text of the New Law; the Crucified One is the sermon’s mirror image. Jesus’s broken body is the light that has not been overcome by darkness. The darkness of sin can never suppress the light of divine mercy. Penitents leave the darkness behind by a transparent confession of sins. I offer the following examination for your growth in compunction:
Gathered about the tomb of the Apostle Peter, we recall the motive prompting the repentant and weeping Peter to obey Jesus’s command: it was his love for him. So too, penitents should strive to observe the commandments because of love alone. The revelation of Jesus’s broken heart is a superabundant motive. For St. Paul nothing else was necessary. He wrote, “I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Nothing more is required than acceptance of Jesus’s love. All else follows.
The Holy Spirit hovers over the Chair of Peter. What happened to the assembled Church in the upper room on the first Easter is being repeated here today. Penitents are called by that same Spirit to observe the commandments out of love, with a forgiving heart, so that they themselves may “be set free from ....bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom 8: 21).
J. Francis Cardinal Stafford