On Divine Mercy Sunday faithful urged to trust in Christ’s mercy, pass it on

Maronite church’s event offers sacramental graces, highlights plight of persecuted Christians

On April 23, Divine Mercy Sunday, hundreds of people turned out at St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church for a celebration that offered the chance to earn a plenary indulgence and to be inspired by religious leaders to share Christ’s mercy with others.

The day included the opening and closing of a Holy Door at the Lakewood church, and a Divine Liturgy (Mass) celebrated by Maronite Bishop Elias Zaidan and concelebrated by St. Rafka pastor Maronite Father Andre Mahanna, who founded and heads an apostolate to aid persecuted Christians. Archbishop Samuel Aquila delivered a message on Divine Mercy.

Maronite Father Andre Mahanna addresses the congregation during Eucharistic benediction on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 23 at St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood. CREDIT: Roxanne King

To help people earn the indulgence (remission of punishment due for sin), the sacrament of reconciliation, Eucharistic adoration, and veneration of the Divine Mercy image were available. The iconic image with the words “Jesus, I trust in you,” shows the risen Christ giving a blessing while rays of light (red for Eucharist, white for baptism and reconciliation) stream from his breast.

Other events included a brunch with ecumenical leaders that featured multicultural entertainment, including Jewish, Indian and Samoan dancing and music, and an inter-Christian dialogue that focused on helping persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

“The 2016 Open Doors report on persecution found that 215 million Christians experienced hostilities of some form over the past year,” Archbishop Aquila told the congregation. “Sadly, one only needs to look to the recent Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt that were claimed by ISIS to see the flesh and blood reality of the suffering Church: 49 dead and 78 injured.

“In the face of our afflictions, how should we respond as Christians?” he asked. “By immersing ourselves in Divine Mercy and carrying it to others.”

Christ’s passion, death and resurrection show that submission to and trust in God’s will and goodness yields eternal victory, the archbishop said.

“Divine Mercy,” he added, “… can transform our country and the world.”

In the year 2000 St. John Paul II designated the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday and canonized Sister Faustina Kowalska. The Polish nun had died in 1938 and is called the Apostle of God’s Mercy as it was through her writings the message and devotion to Jesus as “The Divine Mercy” came to be known.

“At the heart of Jesus’ message to St. Faustina is the necessity of complete trust in Jesus’ mercy for all who seek it,” Archbishop Aquila said, adding that Christ told Faustina: “’The graces of my mercy are drawn by means of one vessel only, and that is—trust. The more a soul trusts, the more it will receive.’”

St. John Paul II, the archbishop said, noted that Jesus’ message of mercy isn’t new, “’but can be considered a gift of special enlightenment that helps us to relive the Gospel of Easter more intensely, to offer it as a ray of light to the men and women of our time.’

“The work of building a culture of mercy, of building the Kingdom of God, is needed everywhere,” the archbishop said. “It must be done on the streets of Denver, in the highways and byways of every corner of our country; it must be done in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. And most importantly, it must be done in your homes and in your families.”

The inter-Christian dialogue, which in addition to the bishops and Father Mahanna, included representatives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Syriac Orthodox deacon, and evangelical laymen who work to educate and empower inner-city youths and families, discussed past and current collaborative works of charity and mercy to help victimized Christians in the Middle East and urban needy in the United States.

Inter-Christian dialogue participants: from left, Syriac Orthodox Deacon Elias Naoum, Maronite Bishop Elias Zaidan, Archbishop Samuel Aquila, Latter-Day Saint lay leader J. Craig McIlroy, Maronite Father Andre Mahanna CREDIT: Roxanne King

The Maronite Church is Eastern Catholic and in communion with the pope. It traces its roots to the Apostles’ visits to Antioch where followers of Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). The Maronite patriarch (senior religious leader under the pope) is in Lebanon.

“As you know, the Middle East is where Christianity started. Unfortunately, waves and waves and waves of persecution over the centuries has pushed Christians out,” Bishop Zaidan told the group. “I hope the little tiny remnant still there will be respected. We hope their voice will become your voices … to make sure this country will do whatever it can to preserve Christianity in the Middle East.”

Father Mahanna wrapped up the discussion with a call to action.

“What are we trying to achieve?” he asked. “A network of common causes to enable (us all) to defend life from conception to natural death.”

Echoing Archbishop Aquila’s comments on building a culture of mercy, he added, “It will be a new movement—the new wind to flow all over.”

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.