Thomas’s words to Jesus “My Lord and my God, “ come toward the very end of John’s gospel (John20), and this particular passage is read every year on this Sunday after Easter. In the 2000-year history of the Church, this unique Sunday celebration has been given various names, and perhaps each has a particular point of reference. For example, Pope John Paul II named this “Divine Mercy” Sunday in order to better acknowledge the devotion to Saint Faustina and her novena to assist us in making our Easter Duty. There was a time when this day was called “Low Sunday,” to distinguish it from “High Sunday,” namely Easter. Additionally, today is Orthodox Easter, another confusion for the Christian calendar, and one that may be repaired in the era of Pope Francis and the Orthodox Churches. But today, I want to deal with the ways this day has been understood over time.
In France, around 1830, Victor Hugo, the famous writer, completed The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The story of the deformed man who rang the bells at Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral, only to cause his own difficulty with hearing is a saga of love, romance and loyalty. It’s also a setting for a vast cathedral space, with rooftops and gargoyles. Most recently, research shows that Hugo himself had befriended a cathedral worker, a stonecutter by trade and a hunchback, who may have given Victor Hugo the idea for his central character.
The novel opens with the archdeacon of the Notre Dame cathedral rescuing a young boy from an orphanage and bringing him to live and work in the confines of the cathedral. The archdeacon named him “Quasimodo.” One of the most famous names in world literature – and the subject of movies with Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton, and more recently an animated Disney film.
In the novel the event of the boy’s rescue occurs on the Sunday after Easter. His name is Quasimodo since the opening antiphon for today’s Mass begins (in Latin) with the words “Quasi Modo.” The antiphon reads: “Like newborn infants, you must long for the pure spiritual milk, that in him you may grow to salvation. Alleluia.” (1Pt 2:2) In Latin, there is a comparison by using “quasi modo” which is in English is translated: “just like.” A short cut name for this Sunday was once “Quasi Modo Sunday;” having nothing to do with the novel and everything to do with the opening verse of the Mass.
For Victor Hugo, however, Notre Dame Cathedral with its vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, an flying buttresses and vast space housed the hurt, the bruised, the needy, and those orphans like Quasimodo, the bell ringer. In a way, we are all like Quasimodo – in need of mercy, refuge, serenity and healing as we come here into this tiny cathedral — no matter how we present ourselves, these doors are open to you and all.
This brings me to Divine Mercy Sunday, and Pope Francis’s formal announcement yesterday in Rome of a Holy Year of Mercy. In the preface to his 9,500 words document entitled “The Face of Mercy” Pope Francis states: “The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more…. The very credibility of the Church is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love.”
On December 8th of 2015 the Holy Year will be marked with the opening of the “holy door” to Saint Peter’s Basilica, now renamed the “Door of Mercy.” The pope adds: “Through this door, everyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons and instills hope.” The pope goes on to say that for Lent 2016, priests will serve as special “Missionaries of Mercy.”
In this capacity, priests will hear confessions, and are delegated with “the authority to pardon sins, even to those sins reserved to the Holy See.” Frankly, I don’t ever recall this kind of formal delegation for confessors. The Holy Year ‘s motto, taken from St. Luke’s gospel, is: “Merciful like the Father.”
In his two years as pope, Francis has consistently placed a strong emphasis on mercy in his words and works. Last year in an interview, he stated: “The Church is like a field hospital after battle. [In a MASH unit,] it is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol, and about the level of his blood sugars. [Instead] you have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. To heal the wounds, you have to start from the ground up.”
Here are some final thoughts of mine. What touches us most about today’s gospel passage the encounter of Jesus and Thomas? We read this same passage each year with Thomas’ faith statement: “My Lord and my God.” So what’s the connection between Thomas’ doubts about Jesus and the Resurrection, and this Divine Mercy Sunday?
Well, maybe this. You may recall those days of the Baltimore Catechism, and our memorization of questions and answers for the bishop at confirmation. One of those questions and answers may provide a clue. Namely Question # 192 asks: “Which are the chief spiritual works of mercy?”
Among the seven spiritual works of mercy is: “To counsel the doubtful.” We are to give our concern and love, and to work with those who need help with their faith, to support those who have misgivings about religion, and the overall unsettled state or lack of trust today. Here’s the possible connection of Saint Thomas with Divine Mercy Sunday.
Let’s return to Pope Francis, who writes: “Dear Brothers and Sisters, I have often thought about how the Church might make clear a witness to mercy. It’s a journey that begins with a spiritual conversion. Be merciful, just like your Father is merciful.”
On this Divine Mercy Sunday, we renew our willingness to go outward to those in need, to help others to see the face of God in Jesus Christ, the human face of God among us.