Father Rene Robert, 71, was murdered in 2016 in Florida. His murderer was a man he had been trying to help for several months. Father Robert was, for many years, involved in ministry to the most troubled people in society including convicts and the mentally afflicted.
At his funeral Mass, Archbishop Wilton Gregory noted: “He was well aware of the potential violence that might involve his ministry, but he cared for those people nonetheless.”
Love was an obvious part of Father Robert’s ministry. Many of those to whom Father Robert ministered were guilty of crimes, rejected by society and in many ways abandoned. Father Robert reached out in love to serve these human beings so that they would know God’s love and mercy.
Perhaps this mercy was manifest most profoundly after his death when, during the trial of his murderer, a document from Father Robert came to light. Twenty years before his murder, Father Robert, aware of the dangers of his ministry, signed a “Declaration of Life.” In that document he wrote: “I request that the person found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstance.”
The story reminds us of Jesus’ plea for mercy as he died on the cross: “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Forgiveness is freely given with no expectation of repayment. It is a genuine outpouring of mercy and an opportunity for life.
This Sunday the church celebrates Divine Mercy Sunday. We have the opportunity to reflect on God’s mercy in our lives. The designation for the second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday was given by Pope John Paul II, a man well known for the mercies he had shown over his own life (especially dealing with the Nazis during World War II and the communist authorities in Poland for most of his adult life). Many of us are familiar with the image associated with this feast from St. Faustina. In prayer she was directed by the Lord to paint an image of himself with two rays of red and white flowing from his heart. The rays are described as follows:
“The two rays denote blood and water. The pale ray stands for the water which makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the blood which is the life of souls. These two rays issued forth from the depths of my tender mercy when my agonized heart was opened by a lance on the cross. Happy is the one who will dwell in their shelter, for the just hand of God shall not lay hold of him (299). By means of this image I shall grant many graces to souls. It is to be a reminder of the demands of my mercy, because even the strongest faith is of no avail without works.”
We remember God’s mercy today. The Gospel passage recounts two of Jesus’ encounters with the apostles after the resurrection. The second contains the meeting with Thomas who doubts no more. In both cases Jesus greets them with “Peace be with you.” He says it several times in the passage.
“Peace” is the state of communion or solidarity in the fundamental relationships — with God and each other. The “peace” has been established by Jesus through his passion, death and resurrection. He now shares that “peace” with his disciples. Peace is established in love and mercy. The blood flowing from Jesus’ side is a visible reminder of that mercy.
The evangelist reminds us at the end of this passage of the purpose of Jesus’ mission, which is life. The evangelist writes: “But these (signs) are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” Hence we say his death is our life. The mercy of God is life-giving.
The First Letter of St. Peter, the second reading, praises God saying: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you….” The gift of life comes through the mercy of God.
As we thank God for his mercy we also are called to be merciful. Jesus emphasized this over and over again in the public ministry. He said at the washing of the feet: “… as I have done for you, so you must also do” (John 13:15). He has shown us mercy through the laying down of his life. He calls us to do the same.
When he taught us to pray in the Our Father, he and we, say: “… forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” “How many times must we forgive?” the disciples asked Jesus. “Seventy times seven,” came the reply. Another time he said: “When you stand to pray, forgive anyone against whom you have a grievance, so that your heavenly Father may in turn forgive you your transgressions.” And again: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mathew 5:7). The gift we have been given, in this case mercy, is a gift to be given.
God has poured out his mercy on us. Today we celebrate that mercy and the life that flows from it. Father Robert had a deep awareness of the mercy shown him by God which motivated him to serve some of the most needy people in his community. His death, tragic as it was, reminds us of that great gift which even in death he was willing to share. Today we praise God for his mercy and ask for the grace to be merciful.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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