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Homily of Cardinal Justin Rigali

Archbishop of Philadelphia, PA

Rachel’s Vineyard International Leadership Training Conference

July 8, 2009
Malvern, PA

Dear Friends in our Lord Jesus Christ,

I extend a very cordial welcome to all assembled here this morning in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. I greet all of you who make up the Rachel’s Vineyard’s Annual International Leadership Training Conference, beginning with Theresa Burke, Founder of the Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries. It is a joy to accept the invitation to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass here at this conference where you are reflecting on the very important work of post-abortion healing.

In today’s readings, God presents a vivid example of the infinite love and mercy He has for each of us. Could there be a more appropriate theme for this gathering! You have dedicated yourselves to the supremely important mission of bringing those wounded by abortion to the healing mercy of God.

When we examine the story of Joseph and his brothers, in light of many recent statements of Pope Benedict – for example, his June 16th Letter proclaiming the Year of the Priest, his homily on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and his third encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), released just yesterday—we are reminded repeatedly of the central mission of the Church, that is, the salvation of souls. We are reminded, too, that "Apart from the mercy of God there is no other source of hope for mankind"1

Evangelization, education, and pastoral care services all play an important part in bringing people to Christ. But ultimately, salvation is not brought about by our efforts. It is through the initiative of Christ who through his priests comes to us in the sacrament of God’s mercy, Confession, and the sacrament of his love, the Eucharist.

Our Holy Father soberly cautioned us in his June 29th homily, that "without the healing of souls, without the healing of mankind from within, there can be no salvation for humanity." How essential then to the mission of his Church are the pastoral and apostolic activities that draw women and men burdened by the sin of abortion closer to God’s merciful heart. It is no exaggeration to say that the Church’s ministry of healing and reconciliation after abortion is at the heart of the Church’s mission at this time in her history.

The bishops of the United States have continued to emphasize the importance of post-abortion healing and reconciliation, especially in the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, first released in 1975 and updated numerous times. I quote now from the Pastoral Plan: "For many women and men, grief and anguish follow an abortion experience, which often last for many years…. The Church offers reconciliation as well as spiritual and psychological care for those suffering from abortion's aftermath primarily through diocesan-based programs, most often called Project Rachel. Such programs utilize specially trained priests and professional counselors who provide one-on-one care. Other post-abortion ministries that involve support groups and retreats are also available in many areas. Every church-sponsored program and identifiably Catholic organization and agency should know where to refer those in need of post-abortion healing. Special resources to assist priests in this ministry are available from the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities and from many diocesan pro-life offices."

Dear friends: each of us has a unique role to play in bringing people to reconciliation and healing. And in our Catholic Faith, that means connecting people to priests. Let us now examine what today’s readings are able to reveal to us about post abortion healing and the special role of priests.

The reading from Genesis in its context contains a beautiful lesson on God’s mercy, one that offers fresh insights on post-abortion reconciliation and healing. So let us turn now to the story of Joseph and his family.

In many respects the situation of Joseph parallels that of many unborn children today. Although Joseph was very much "wanted" by his father, the patriarch Jacob, other family members wanted him dead. To nine of his brothers, Joseph’s existence was a problem. He was a nuisance to them, and their solution was to have him killed. They failed to recognize his inherent worth as a human being beloved by our heavenly Father. The bond of blood they shared, the injustice to Joseph, and the sorrow of their father, Jacob, mattered little.

Although Joseph was innocent of wrong-doing, he was made to suffer because of his brothers’ pride, and would have been killed had the brothers not realized that Joseph was worth more to them by being sold into slavery for 20 pieces of silver than by being left for dead in a desert cistern.

The price on Joseph’s head brings to mind the betrayal of another innocent man, for 30 pieces of silver. In his innocence, obedience, love and the rejection by his brethren, Joseph is a precursor of Jesus, the great High Priest. Innocent, misunderstood, betrayed, and later in Egypt wrongfully accused and imprisoned, Joseph suffered greatly. But after years of scorn and suffering, he became the source of salvation for his brothers, the dispenser of human mercy in forgiving them, and the dispenser of life-giving grain to those struck by famine.

Today’s reading begins with the whole world in the grip of famine. Pharaoh directed everyone to go to Joseph, by now Egypt’s governor, and to do "whatever he told them." Later these words will be echoed by Our Blessed Mother during the wedding feast at Cana.

Today, more than a lack of grain, a spiritual famine grips the world. "The human being does not trust God," Pope Benedict has written. 2  Many do not trust in God’s immense but tender personal love for them. They think obedience to God restricts their freedom and so they choose to live without restraint, hurting themselves as a consequence of their disobedience.

Pope Benedict counsels us: "If we live in opposition to love and against the truth in opposition to God then we destroy one another and destroy the world. Then we do not find life but act in the interests of death."3 Conscience is so darkened that people use, abuse and dispose of each other as objects, rather than recognize others as persons of immeasurable dignity, persons whom God has created and loves as His own unique and irreplaceable children. In opposing love and the truth of the human person, man risks losing eternal life.

Joseph’s half-brothers journey to Egypt to buy grain so that they and their families may live. In doing so, they had to overcome their pride; they had to admit their powerlessness to save themselves, and they had to prostrate themselves before the one who held the key to their survival.

How does Joseph respond? With love. He freely intends to satisfy their need for food, but he also seems to recognize in them an even greater need - for self-knowledge and repentance.

At a given moment Joseph puts his brothers in confinement for three days. When you come to think of it, this time of confinement was very much like a retreat, a time for the brothers to reflect on their sin, their need for forgiveness, and to be moved to repentance. When Joseph - whom they fail to recognize - announces his plan that one brother remain in custody in Egypt while the others take food back home, commanding them to return with Joseph’s beloved brother Benjamin, they come to recognize their sin in having sold Joseph into slavery. They interpret "the governor’s" command as punishment for what they had done.

Reuben cries out: "Alas, we are being punished because of our brother. We saw the anguish of his heart when he pleaded with us, yet we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has now come upon us" (Gn 42:21).

At the time they sold Joseph to passing merchants, Reuben was the voice of conscience: "Did I not tell you," broke in Reuben, "not to do wrong to the boy? But you would not listen! Now comes the reckoning for his blood" (Gn 42:22).

Like so many parents today of aborted children, the brothers stifled the voice of conscience and acted out of selfishness. Often such parents later ascribe whatever evil that befalls them infertility, miscarriage, divorce and so on as the just punishment of God. One thing we know: God does not exact petty revenge from sinners. Ours is a God who suffers with us, weeps for us and is always ready to forgive us.

The suffering and guilt of Joseph’s brothers, like the suffering and guilt of parents who have lost a child through abortion, are in reality expressions of divine mercy. They help us remember that we have needs we cannot satisfy on our own, that only a compassionate and merciful God can provide for us. Suffering and guilt are the first signs of mercy because they lead us to Christ who acts "only out of infinite love and unfathomable mercy towards us."4

Joseph has Simeon taken to prison as a surety for his brothers’ return. He sends off the other brothers with grain for their families and the command that they return with Benjamin, to prove their honesty. Perhaps Joseph is concerned that they would betray Benjamin as they betrayed him years earlier.

When the brothers reach Jacob, both Reuben and Judah are willing to offer up their own lives and even their sons’ lives should they fail in rescuing Simeon and returning Benjamin safely home. Although they cannot reverse their betrayal of Joseph, they are willing to make amends for their sin against him. This shows that their repentance is sincere and that they intend to amend their lives.

After being forgiven by God for their part in abortion, some men and women also feel that they have to make amends to God as a way of "making up" for their sin. In particular, they may want to become active in the ministry of post-abortion counseling. Such a desire is laudable but can also include an incomplete understanding of God’s mercy. We cannot undo the effects of an abortion by any amount of good works. The only action great enough to make up for our sins is Jesus’ death on the Cross. In gratitude for His mercy, we should glorify God with our lives, learning to love as He loves, and striving daily to be obedient to His will in all things.

The brothers’ return to Egypt is postponed only because Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go with them. Jacob’s heart is still not at peace. Jacob’s favoritism of Joseph had inflamed the brothers’ jealousy, leading to their betrayal of Joseph, and now the whole family could again face starvation because Jacob favors Benjamin over the imprisoned Simeon. Jacob’s continued attachment to his two sons by Rachel prevents his compliance with the command of Joseph who, in a Christ-like way, wants only to be a source of love and mercy to his family.

It is only when the grain received from Joseph runs out, only when the family faces certain death, that Jacob is able to acknowledge his helplessness although even then he deflects his own blame onto his sons for allegedly being too honest with Egypt’s governor. At last he allows them to obey Joseph’s command to return with Benjamin.

It is important to note that the return to Egypt does not mean that Jacob’s family understood the nature of God’s love, in the person of Joseph, any more than the Prodigal Son had come to understand the extent of his father’s merciful love as he was heading home. The Prodigal Son returned to his father out of self-interest, so that he would not starve, after recognizing only that his father was a good man who had given better food to his hired hands than the son received as a swineherd. The young man was satisfied only to work as a hired hand and expected no more. His was a paltry estimate of the Father’s love. The father had been on the lookout and ran out to greet him, rejoicing, when he was yet a long way off. The father embraced his wayward son warmly. He threw a party to celebrate his son’s return and giving him a ring and new attire, restored him fully to his rightly place as son.

When Judah and Benjamin set out for Egypt, they hope and expect only that Joseph will grant them more grain and release Simeon to them as promised. Instead, the entire family is reunited and invited to share in Joseph’s great fortune. Father, family, flocks all move to Egypt, with the kind assistance of Pharaoh, and are given choice lands for their flocks and herds. All this expresses the limitless love of God!

When we approach the confessional, the throne of mercy, our hearts may only be seeking relief from the burden of our guilt. We may be motivated only by the fear of hell. But God does not require perfect contrition or a heart over-brimming with love for him. A simple sign that we recognize our need for forgiveness is enough to open the floodgates of His mercy so that, through the ministry of his priests, he can immerse us in his grace.
Jesus gave this message to Saint Faustina: "Write, speak of My mercy. Tell souls where they are to look for solace, that is, in the Tribunal of Mercy [the sacrament of Reconciliation]. There the greatest miracles take place and are incessantly repeated. To avail oneself of this miracle … it suffices to come with faith to the feet of My representative and to reveal to him one’s misery, and the miracle of Divine Mercy will be fully demonstrated. Were a soul like a decaying corpse so that from a human standpoint, there would be no hope of restoration and everything would already be lost, it is not so with God. The miracle of Divine Mercy restores the soul in full. Oh, how miserable are those who do not take advantage of the miracle of God’s mercy!"5

Let us all join humbly in the plea of the Psalmist: "Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you." That is all that is required to unleash God’s mercy – trust in the Lord.

Again, to Saint Faustina, Jesus said: "I want to pour out my divine life into human souls and to sanctify them, if only they were willing to accept My grace. The greatest sinners would achieve great sanctity, if only they would trust My mercy" (no. 1784). "I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those souls who trust in My mercy" (no. 687). "The greater the misery of a soul, the greater the right to My mercy; (urge) all souls to trust in the unfathomable abyss of My mercy, because I want to save them all" (no. 1182).

Many great saints marveled at the mercy of God. The Curé of Ars, Saint John Vianney, the patron of parish priests in whose memory this Year of the Priest is being observed, understood well this great treasure of God. In his Letter proclaiming the Year of the Priest, Pope Benedict writes: "In his time the Curé of Ars was able to transform the hearts and the lives of so many people because he enabled them to experience the Lord’s merciful love. Our own time urgently needs a similar proclamation and witness to the truth of Love: Deus caritas est." Saint John Vianney knew, and Pope Benedict affirms, that "the priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus" and that, "Without the priest, the passion and death of our Lord would be of no avail. It is the priest who continues the work of redemption on earth…. What use would be a house filled with gold, were there no one to open its door? The priest holds the key to the treasures of heaven: it is he who opens the door: he is the steward of the good Lord; the administrator of his goods …"6

In today’s Gospel, Jesus commissions his twelve Apostles and gives them "authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness" (Mt 10:1). He instructs them to go "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" and to "make this proclamation: The Kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Mt 10:6, 7).

Concerning lost sheep, Pope Benedict once said: "For the Fathers of the Church, the parable of the lost sheep, which the shepherd seeks in the desert, was an image of the mystery of Christ and the Church. The human race every one of us is the sheep lost in the desert which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition. He leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursue it, all the way to the Cross."7

Saint John Vianney exclaimed that, in imitation of Christ: "A good shepherd, a pastor after God’s heart, is the greatest treasure which the good Lord can grant to a parish, and one of the most precious gifts of divine mercy."8

Through the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist, priests allow the King of heaven to enter our souls and establish a home within us. What greater treasure could we possess on earth?

But you too, dear friends, are all invited to participate intimately and effectively in the Church’s ministry of reconciliation. You are called to be witnesses to forgiveness and heralds of hope. The Church prays for you to be strong in your important mission, faithful forever to the Gospel of life, strong intercessors in the community, invoking divine mercy on those in special need. The words of today’s Psalm express the deepest aspirations of your hearts, as you reach out to a world in need: "Lord, let your mercy be on us, as we place our trust in you."

How exhilarating, dear friends, to be called by the Church to assist our Lord Jesus Christ, the great healer of humanity, as He offers to all unlimited mercy and love. Be grateful, be resolute, be generous, be merciful, always. Amen.

 

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