Homily of His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin,
Secretary of State
Cathedral of Saints Stanislaus and Ladislaus, Vilnius, Lithuania
Solemnity of the Ascension
Sunday 8 May 2016
Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ps 46:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Eph 1:17-23; Lk 24:46-53
My Brother Bishops and Priests,
Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
It gives me great pleasure to be with you today to celebrate the Solemnity of the Ascension. After our procession from the Parliament building through the streets of your beautiful capital to invoke God’s mercy on the world, this celebration of the Eucharist brings the National Mercy Congress to a conclusion. I bring you warm greetings from His Holiness Pope Francis, who assures you of his prayers and spiritual closeness, and invokes God’s abundant blessings on you all. I thank Archbishop Gintaras Grušas for his kind welcome and warm hospitality. I extend a special greeting to His Eminence Cardinal Audrys Juozas Bačkis, who, after serving for many years in the diplomatic service of the Holy See, returned to his native land almost twenty-five years ago to undertake the challenging mission of guiding this local Church amid the difficulties of the post-Communist era. I also greet His Excellency Archbishop Pedro López Quintana, Apostolic Nuncio to Lithuania, the Bishops of Lithuania, the other Bishops present, as well as the priests, religious and lay faithful here present. I also thank the civil Authorities and representatives of other Christian Churches for their presence at this celebration.
The closing Mass of the National Congress on Mercy coincides with the Solemnity of the Ascension. This naturally prompts us to ask whether there is a connection between God’s mercy and the Ascension of his Son. At a superficial level, it could seem that the Ascension somehow contradicts the message of divine mercy. We are told that, as the disciples were looking on, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight (Acts 1:9). Naturally we are saddened when someone dear to us departs from us and we know we shall not see them again, at least for some time.
However, to our surprise, we are told that the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk 24:52). The Ascension, in reality, is not a commemoration of Jesus’ departure but a celebration of his abiding presence. Remember Jesus’ last words to his apostles in St Matthew’s Gospel: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20). While we no longer see him in the flesh, we have his assurance that he is present with us, indeed in an even more effective and intimate way, and continually accompanies us on our pilgrim journey of faith.
Jesus has taken his place at the right hand of the Father and has received the glory due to him as the conqueror of sin and death (cf. Phil 2:8-11). The work which Jesus was sent to accomplish in his physical body in earth is completed. His Ascension makes it possible for him to be close to each and every one of us. Jesus is now present in every time and space; he is with his Church and with us always and everywhere. As the Mediator between God and man, he stands before God the Father continually interceding for us.
The Ascension is therefore a feast which strengthens our hope. As St John Paul II once said: “The Church may indeed experience difficulties; the Gospel may suffer setbacks, but because Jesus is at the right-hand of the Father the Church will never know defeat. Christ’s victory is ours” (Homily on the Solemnity of the Ascension, 24 May 1979).
This feast is also a pledge of Jesus’ return in glory: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus told his disciples that not even he knew the day or the hour when the Son of Man would come (cf. Mk 13:32). It is futile and unprofitable to speculate as to when it will happen. But the certainty is there. Our Lord will return just as surely as he ascended into heaven.
The Ascension is a celebration which strengthens our hope. We too hope to share in Jesus’ glory and in the eternal life of heaven. In the second reading, St. Paul asks God to open up our eyes and hearts so that we can understand the greatness of the hope to which he has called us (cf. Eph 1:18). In the same letter, St Paul teaches that “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places” (Eph 2:4-6). God in his mercy has saved us and has given us a new life in Christ, a life which has already begun and which will reach fulfilment in the glory of heaven. He calls us to live in a manner worthy of the gift we have received; we must “put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24) and “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2). This is the path we must follow if our hope is to be fulfilled. The hope of sharing in Christ’s glory should therefore be the driving force directing our lives, our thoughts and our actions.
As the apostles gazed upon Jesus as he was departing from them, two men in white robes stood by them and said: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” (Acts 1:11). This words are not only an invitation to understand the true meaning of the event they had witnessed but also a gentle reminder to undertake the task which Jesus had given to them: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
From that moment onwards, strengthened and guided by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s disciples have undertaken the missionary task which he entrusted to them. This mission consists in proclaiming God’s mercy and witnessing to it. It involves a call to repentance and discipleship, addressed to all nations. Jesus is the Lord of all, and his message is directed to all. His offer of forgiveness, which manifests God’s mercy and compassion, is truly good news for all humanity. As we await Jesus’ return, we must attend to this great task of making God’s mercy and love known to all. In this way, we shall be ready to receive him with joy when he comes in glory at the end of time.
The message of God’s mercy has particular associations with this city, because of the presence of the venerable 17th century icon of the Mother of Mercy and because it was here, in 1934, that the first image of the Divine Mercy was painted by the artist Eugeniusz Kazimirowski at the behest of St Faustina Kowalska and her spiritual director Fr Michał Sopoćko. During these days you have had an opportunity to reflect on this message, to experience its strength and regenerating force, and to become witnesses and apostles of mercy. However, this National Congress should not be seen as an isolated one-off event but as an encouragement for all local Church communities to embrace the message of divine mercy and undertake initiatives that will continue into the future and thus become a concrete and lasting result of this special Jubilee Year.
How are we to carry out this task? First of all, we must perceive our own need of God’s mercy and experience it in our lives. Jesus continually exhorts us to trust in God’s mercy and ask his forgiveness, approaching him in the sacrament of Penance, which is the great sacrament of mercy. In his words to St Faustina, Jesus says: “I desire that priests proclaim this great mercy of mine towards souls of sinners. Let the sinner not be afraid to approach me. The flames of mercy are burning me – clamouring to be spent; I want to pour them out upon these souls” (Divine Mercy in My Soul, 50). Pope Francis encourages us to avail of the opportunities which this Jubilee Year makes available to us: “This Extraordinary Year is itself a gift of grace … Let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things … Wherever there are people, the Church is called to reach out to them and to bring the joy of the Gospel, and the mercy and forgiveness of God” (Homily at the Mass for the Opening of the Holy Door, 8 December 2015).
The gift of God’s mercy is also a gift to be shared with others. We have received God’s forgiveness; we too must forgive. Every day we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We must become agents of forgiveness and reconciliation. In this regard, I am reminded of what Pope John Paul II said to the Lithuanian clergy when he met them here in the Cathedral in 1993. After acknowledging the sufferings of the Catholic community during the previous decades, he urged the priests, in particular, to be good Samaritans towards their brothers and sisters who continued to bear the burden of a past dominated by suspicion and delation, the weight of the long years of the silence of God and even of deceitful action against God (cf. Address to clergy, religious and seminarians, 4 September 1993).
Pope Francis also evokes the example of the Good Samaritan, urging us to practise the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which are the hallmarks of the Christian life. He addresses this call not only to individuals, but also to communities, including the international community. We are all called to overcome the culture of indifference which closes our eyes, ears and hearts to the needs of our neighbour. We should instead embrace a spirit of mercy, compassion and solidarity, which cannot content itself with good intentions but must find practical ways of expressing itself through various works which touch and sooth the wounds that today afflict the bodies and souls of many of our brothers and sisters (cf. Pope Francis, Homily on Divine Mercy Sunday, 3 April 2016).
Let us not allow this Extraordinary Jubilee Year go by without taking its central message to heart and putting it into practice. Let us open our hearts to God’s mercy and seek his pardon. Let us become promoters of forgiveness and reconciliation in our homes, schools, places of work and communities. Like the Good Samaritan, let us become more sensitive to the corporal and spiritual needs of others, giving concrete expression to our faith in good works. May St Faustina, the great apostle of mercy, and St John Paul II intercede for us and obtain for us “the grace of living and walking always according to the mercy of God and with an unwavering trust in his love” (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, n. 24). May Our Lady, the Mother of Mercy, so lovingly venerated by the people of Vilnius, and indeed of the whole of Lithuania, in the Chapel of the Gate of Dawn, intercede for us and help us in our resolve to be apostles of mercy to the people of our time.