His Excellency William E. Lori, Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., an honorary member of the U.S. Congress’s national committee, was the celebrant of the International Holy Mass on Day 3 of the World Apostolic Congress on Mercy, at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.
The following is his homily, based on the liturgical readings of the day, Acts 5:34-42 and Jn 6:1-15:
In life’s journey, we sometimes encounter individuals who are considered astute. They appear to be endowed with the rare gift of common sense and seem to know how to render fair and practical judgments. These are people we would regard as well suited to serve as arbitrators, judges, and the officers of our courts.
In the Acts of the Apostles, we meet such a man named Gamaliel, a Pharisee in the Sanhedrin, a part of the Jewish court system. The author of Acts tells us Gamaliel was well regarded. People readily accepted the pragmatic brand of justice he dispensed. His abilities were on display when the high-profile case of the apostles was being tried by the Sanhedrin. Politically shrewd and savvy, he warned his fellow judges to proceed carefully before convicting and sentencing the apostles. “Why pick a no-win battle with these followers of Jesus the Nazareen who are creating such a sensation among the people?” An expert in the law, Gamaliel cited precedence to prove his point: Theudas, and Judas the Galilean. He noted that their enthusiast followers dispersed when they perished and faded from memory. So Gamaliel advised, “Let’s wait awhile. Let’s wait and see if this movement is from man or really from God.” And just to be sure that no one thought him weak or partial to the New Way, he had the apostles beaten and forbade them to teach. Thus, Gamaliel and his colleagues skillfully covered all their bases.
Aside from the flogging the apostles had to undergo, we might reckon Gamaliel’s down-to-earth form of justice to be reasonable. After all, we expect our courts to judge cases carefully, to be aware of all relevant precedence, to take into account the attitudes and feelings of the people, and not to overstep in rendering judgment. In these ways, Gamaliel seems to be in step with the judicial pragmatism of our times. The shrewd justice meted out by Gamaliel and his colleagues in the first reading stands in sharp contrast to the lavish mercy in John’s Gospel wherein Jesus miraculously feeds 5,000 people. Jesus and His followers are confronted with a serious public emergency, a large disorganized and hungry crowd of worshipers, congregates on a remote mountainside. We gather from the gospel accounts that the hour is late and the options limited. How will the Judge of the living and the dead handle the situation? Jesus does not immediately reveal what He is going to do. Instead, He asks His apostles how they would handle this situation. Philip starts down the path of pragmatism. He surveys the size of the crowd and estimates how much it would cost to feed them. Andrew takes stock of the resources already on hand: five barley loaves and two fish. Then he pronounces these inadequate. In St. Mark’s account, Jesus’ disciples suggest sending the crowd away. Truth to tell, Jesus does not need his apostles to tell Him that they lack sufficient time and money to buy food for 5,000 people. Nor does the Lord need to be advised that five loaves and two fish are inadequate to feed so many. Jesus has already judged the situation correctly. But the Lord also knows of the abundance of His Father’s garden, and like a good steward, he has prepared to bring forth an abundance that amazes His closest followers, as well as those who would be fed by the multiplied loaves and fish. Jesus accurately judged the situation of the 5,000, and without minimalizing or trivializing their needs, He chose to respond with great generosity. Jesus fed them without exacting price or labor. He fed them in love.
Dear Friends, we are well acquainted with the contrast between Gamaliel and Jesus. Almost daily, we experience Gamaliel’s pragmatic justice in our democratic cultures that follow the law of restitution and the principles of free enterprise with varying degrees of justice and injustice, restraint and abandon. Most of us willingly live under the rule of law that prevails in places like the United States and Europe and other places around the world. The rule of law contributes to the good order of society and provides the necessary ground rules for everyday activities. But don’t we recognize how limited such pragmatic justice can be? Often it is blind to authentic human worth and the dignity of the vulnerable. Almost always, pragmatic justice fails to address the deeper needs of the human spirit. One of the reasons we recognize the inadequacies of human justice and the laws of the marketplace is that we constantly experience the super-abundant goodness and mercy of Christ in the sacramental life of the Church.
We are gathered together on this Friday, here in Rome, on a congress on Divine Mercy, from dioceses all over the world where we are lavishly cleansed of our sins through baptism and penance and then fed, no longer the multiplied bread and fish, but the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the Risen Lord. The Eucharistic Sacrifice reveals to us the Heart of Christ, who knows the depth of the Father’s love. This is the principle way that Jesus left us to share in His hour, the hour of His Passion and death, the hour in which the Just Judge wants great mercy for poor sinners. Truly in the Mass, Pope John Paul II wrote, Jesus “shows us a love which goes to the end, a love which knows no measure.”
The mercy of Christ, which we experience in the Church’s sacraments, is utterly generous, but not destructively indulgent. Just as the Lord correctly apprised the crowd on the mountainside, so too He judges our situation 20 centuries later with penetrating accuracy. He knows that many in consumerist society are often inwardly starving because of their indifference to starvation and want around the world. The Lord knows how many are lost and estranged, like sheep without shepherd. … For all of our prowess in technology and productivity, none of us can buy the price of our salvation. So through the light of the Holy Spirit, Jesus leads us to confront the situation we find ourselves in as individuals and as a community. Because He respects our dignity, the Redeemer does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice, does not trivialize evil, and requires us to address the harm our sins cause.
Yet, in the economy of salvation, justice alone is not enough. Through the sacraments, it is linked to mercy and diffused with love. Yes, justice is necessary for order in society and order in our lives. Yet, it is only the love and mercy of God that finally makes it possible that people meet one another in that value, which is man himself, in the dignity that is proper to him. Pope Benedict teaches that love will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. It is in welcoming the depth of God’s love and mercy for us that we are finally able to discover the deepest roots of our human dignity and lofty calling we have received. So we gladly examine our consciouses, confess our sins, and seek absolution so as to share in the super-abundant mercy of Jesus in the Mass, a love stronger than sin and more powerful than death. By giving Himself to us, Jesus … enables us to break disordered attachments to creatures, to root ourselves in Him, and by the same charity that the Eucharist enkindles in us, it preserves us from future mortal sins, deepens our community, our community with the Trinity and with one another. Isn’t this how you and I are disposed to become men and women of mercy, to receive mercy and practice mercy: to build a civilization of love, especially through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy?
As it turns out Gamaliel was not only a judge, but also a prophet. In fact, the message and work of the apostles did not have its origin in man, but in the Heart of Christ, who has revealed to us the strength and the depth of the Father’s love. Pope Benedict continues the work of the apostles by proclaiming the passionate, forgiving love of God for His people and teaching us to stake our hope … in God’s mercy. United with our Holy Father, we recognize in our midst, in the breaking of bread, the true Presence of Jesus, who is Divine Mercy in Person, because encountering Christ means encountering the mercy of God. Gathered no longer on the mountainside, but rather in the venerable Basilica of St. John Lateran, may we respond to the True Presence of Christ, the Bread of Life, with the simple and profound words of St. Faustina: “Jesus, I trust in You.”