Homilies for April 2021

For Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday, and the Third Sunday and Fourth Sunday of Easter.

A Preached Triduum Retreat

Holy Thursday – April 1,  2021

Readings:

Chrism Mass, Is 61:1–3a, 6a, 8b–9 • Ps 89:21–22, 25 and 27 • Rv 1:5–8 • Lk 4:16–21

Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Ex 12:1–8, 11–14 • Ps 116:12–13, 15–16bc, 17–18 • 1 Cor 11:23–26 • Jn 13:1–15 

bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/040121.cfm

If you are observant, you noticed when you came into church tonight that the tabernacle is empty. Why? For two reasons, really: First, to ensure that everyone receiving Holy Communion this evening does so from altar breads consecrated at this particular liturgical service, placing us at the Last Supper with Jesus and His chosen band. Second, and in some sense, even more importantly, to make us reflect on what life in the Church would be like without the Eucharistic Christ. How barren, how cold, how lifeless would our churches be if the Lord of the Eucharist were permanently absent, rather than truly present.

Perhaps this insight explains the centrality of the tabernacle in our churches. Perhaps this realization helps us understand what makes us genuflect when we enter a Catholic church, not in mockery like the soldiers during Our Lord’s Passion but in adoration and thanksgiving and love. For Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, comes into our midst in a unique and marvelous manner as the Church gathers to renew the Sacrament and Sacrifice which He bequeathed to her on this holy night. Imagine, the God in whom and through whom the universe was created comes among us and within us. My dear people, too many of us have become too accustomed to this simple fact of Catholic life; we need to be shaken out of our routine, in order to appreciate — as if for the first time — the true significance of it all.

The American convert to the Catholic Faith, Thomas Merton, at once an accomplished author and Trappist monk, describes in his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, his First Holy Communion. As I share his reflections, think back on your own first encounter with the Jesus who desires and deigns to come to us under the forms of bread and wine. Merton puts it thus:

I saw the raised Host — the silence and simplicity with which Christ once again triumphed, raised up, drawing all things to Himself — drawing me to Himself. . . . I was the only one at the altar rail. Heaven was entirely mine — that Heaven in which sharing makes no division or diminution. But this solitariness was a kind of reminder of the singleness with which this Christ, hidden in the small Host, was giving Himself for me, and to me, and, with Himself, the entire Godhead and Trinity — a great new increase of the power and grasp of their indwelling that had begun [in me] only a few minutes before at the [baptismal] font . . . . In the Temple of God that I had just become, the One Eternal and Pure Sacrifice was offered up to the God dwelling in me: The sacrifice of God to God, and me sacrificed together with God, incorporated in His incarnation. Christ born in me, a new Bethlehem, and sacrificed in me, His new Calvary, and risen in me: Offering me to the Father, in Himself, asking the Father, my Father and His, to receive me into His infinite and special love. . . .

What magnificent thoughts. Most of us could not fashion the words in so poetic and powerful a way, but hopefully most of us had a similar experience at our First Holy Communion. I still recall with devotion and emotion that momentous occasion in my life in 1957, kneeling at the altar rail of St. Rose’s Church in Newark, New Jersey. I can yet remember even the exact spot where I knelt at that rail and how the months of study and preparation seemed as nothing in the awareness that the God who had created both me and the universe was now coming to dwell within me in a new and wondrous manner. Having been baptized into Christ’s Body, the Church, which is likewise His Bride, I was now being brought into a union even more close and more intimate than that of marriage: Through the Eucharist, Jesus and I would become one.

How I trembled at the prospect for which I had waited so long, not from fear (because I was never trained to relate to God in that way) but from love and joy. The priest was only two children away from me, now one. Finally, he stood before me and, signing me with the Sacred Host, prayed, “Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam æternam.” (May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto life eternal). As I opened my mouth and pillowed Christ on my tongue, I knew I was entering upon a new mode of existence, destined for life eternal.

We all need to recapture that enthusiasm, that innocence, that faith which brings us to appreciate precisely what the mystery of the Eucharist is in itself and for us — what St. John Paul II referred to as “Eucharistic amazement.” If we did understand what we do so regularly, how different we would be — no sloppy or thoughtless genuflections; no half-hearted liturgical participation; no unworthy and unprepared for Communions; no arriving late and leaving early; no frivolous socializing in the presence of the One whom the Sacred Heart Litany calls “the King and center of all hearts.” Yes, my dear friends, we all need to ask Our Lord on this holy night to grant us the grace to have a second honeymoon with Him who, on the day of our First Holy Communion, became the Bridegroom of our souls.

Good Friday – April 2, 2021

Readings: Is 52:13–53:12 • Ps 31:2, 6, 12–13, 15–16, 17, 25 • Heb 4:14–16; 5:7–9 • Jn 18:1–19:42  bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/040221.cfm

On Good Friday, the preeminent Day of Atonement, Mother Church focuses our attention on the Cross and on Him hanging from it. Only the most hard-hearted are not moved to pity and sorrow. Our reflection on the mystery of the Cross, however, likewise causes us to glory in the Cross. We even wear the red vestments of royalty and victory to acclaim Jesus Christ as the “King of love on Calvary.”

At the same time, we must admit that this is at least, shall we say, a bit “out of sync” with modernity’s approach to suffering and death. Indeed, the late Father Pablo Straub of EWTN fame coined a word to describe the reaction of our contemporaries to the Cross; he used to say that our society suffers from “cruciphobia” — fear of the cross/crucifix!

I thank God I was spared that disease from my boyhood. Permit me to share three personal anecdotes in that regard.

I had convulsions at birth, keeping me hospitalized for the first four months of my life. Everything went into remission until I was eight years old when I was hit in the head by an iron gate; that very night, the seizures returned, calling for daily medication and constant vigilance on the part of my parents, the Sisters at school, and the priests at church. An additional aspect of the monitoring was a quarterly electroencephalogram (EEG, for short), administered at St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark, the same place where I had been born. As some of you may know, in those early days of treating epilepsy, the EEG required that a kind of cap be secured to the patient’s head with medical thumb-tacks to penetrate the skull to obtain the brain waves. Believe me when I say I knew first-hand the meaning of excruciating pain, quite literally. I dreaded those quarterly but necessary hospital visits.

On one such occasion, my mother took advantage of the fact that the technician on duty that day was a Sister, whom she pulled aside to inform about me a bit and to ask if she could comfort me in any way. When Sister came back, she said: “Peter, your mother tells me you want to be a priest. A priest is a man of sacrifice — like Jesus the Priest. I know that when I place this cap on your head, it’s going to hurt a great deal, and I’m very sorry about that. But I want you to do a couple of things. I want you to look very intently on the crucifix on my habit as I press those pins into your scalp. See how Jesus suffered for you out of His great love. Tell Him you love Him in return, that you want to unite your sufferings to His, and that you wish to offer up your sufferings for your priestly vocation.”

I did as that gentle, loving and holy nun urged me. It didn’t eliminate the pain, but it did make it more bearable because it was placed in a bigger context — one that involved divine love, the salvation of the world, and my future life as a priest. Thanks to that nun, whose name I never knew, I have never experienced “cruciphobia” for a single day since.

My second anecdote. In August of 1998, I went to Lithuania to offer a workshop for the administrators of the newly-reopened Catholic schools of the nation. I considered it a great joy and privilege to be able to assist in the re-building of the Church after decades of oppression. My host was a young Jesuit Father, who had studied for the priesthood in the underground and then ended up becoming the individual charged with re-establishing the Catholic school system of the country and is today the provincial superior of the Jesuits in Lithuania. Although time for sight-seeing was extremely limited, Father Vitkus asked if I had any “must-sees.” Without batting an eyelash, I responded, “The Hill of Crosses.” For me, that place was — and is — the perfect symbol of the Church in every age. Each cross planted there is a reminder of suffering endured by Christ’s followers; all those crosses together stand forth as testaments to the indomitable human spirit, emboldened and strengthened by the Cross of the Savior. Which is why, of course, Pope John Paul II also included “The Hill of Crosses” in the itinerary of his pastoral visit to Lithuania in 1993. On that same visit, I spent an evening with a group of elderly Jesuits. During the course of the evening’s conversation, I realized that those five men, collectively, had endured more than 125 years in Nazi and Soviet concentration camps, causing me to exclaim: “Fathers, I stand in awe in the presence of confessors of the Faith!” One of the old gentlemen, a bit embarrassed by the accolade, stammered: “Father, it was the greatest joy and privilege of my life to have suffered with Christ for His Body, the Church!”

My third story. Over several years, a world-renowned rabbi and I collaborated on many projects, including co-authoring a book, which investigated various theological concerns from our respective traditions. One of those topics was that of suffering. I should note that the rabbi had lost a daughter years earlier in a tragic car accident, in which he was the driver. He had never gotten over that tragedy. The day we considered the mystery of suffering, particularly of the innocent, we spoke about the less-than-happy solution to the problem found in the Book of Job. I noted that, by a happy coincidence, that particular day in the Catholic liturgical calendar was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. I went on to indicate that in the Cross of Christ, we Christians find meaning for all human suffering and death and that such pain can actually be redemptive when viewed from the perspective of Jesus’ suffering and death. At that point, the rabbi, with tears welling up in his eyes, turned off our recording device and sobbed, “How I wish I could believe that!”

All this might lead us to ask: “Just what is this mysterious fascination of Christians with the Cross and with carrying crosses personally?”

To be sure, most people shrink from suffering, yet the Jesus we meet in the Passion Narratives of the New Testament marches boldly and resolutely toward the Cross with all its suffering. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus learned obedience from what He suffered. What does the sacred author mean by that? The word “obedience” comes from the Latin word for “listening intently.” Jesus listened intently to His Father’s will and plan, and acted accordingly. The Son of God, having learned from His suffering now teaches us — if we are willing to be educated in the School of the Cross. The founder of the Passionists, St. Paul of the Cross, once remarked that we should go before the Crucified One more to listen than to speak. Why? Because wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus. What are some lessons we can learn here today?

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we see powerful proof that God in Christ, literally loved us to death. Entering into a relationship of love always involves risks, most especially the risk of rejection. Throughout salvation history, God made overtures of love toward His people and was rather consistently rejected, yet He tried again in Christ His Son and then received the ultimate rejection — death. But we do not focus our attention so much on the rejection of the people as we do on the greatness of the love, so great that death itself had no power over it.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we realize that the Wounded One is at one and the same time our Healer. The jeering crowd at Calvary urged Him who had saved others to save Himself. Little did they know that the blood and water which flowed from His wounded side would become the source of life-giving birth to the Church, which has continued Christ’s work of healing the wounds of sin and division ever since.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we discover that to reign best requires one to serve most. It is for this very reason that Jesus was never more a king than from the throne of His Cross. It had to be more than Pilate’s stubbornness that kept that mocking plaque proclaiming Jesus a king over His head; it had to be a part of God’s eternal plan — in a sense giving God the last laugh on people who still could not see how a servant could be a king.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we learn how to love completely and remain true to oneself and one’s mission unto death. In one of Our Lord’s many parables, He observed that a good shepherd would be willing to lay down his life for his sheep. The Cross proves how good our Shepherd is. During His life on earth, Jesus once told His listeners that those who were faithful to the end would hear the Father say to them: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Jesus practiced what He preached. He was — and is — Fidelity Personified.

Wisdom comes from the wounds of Jesus as we are taught how to believe in a loving Father when seemingly abandoned by Him. Archbishop Fulton Sheen once noted that Christianity is the only religion in which even God for a brief moment sounded like an atheist as Jesus cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” But if the Lord did not finish Psalm 22 aloud, we know that He surely completed its sentiments in His heart, as that psalm concludes on a note of confidence and absolute trust in God.

Christians, then, worship for all time a Wounded Healer. And we are not embarrassed or ashamed because, as Julian of Norwich put it, we do not really look on these as wounds but as honorable scars — tokens of victory and of love. And so it is that we come today to listen to the words of wisdom that come from our Wounded Healer.

Saint Andrew of Crete reminds us:

Had there been no cross, Christ could not have been crucified. Had there been no cross, life itself could not have been nailed to the tree. And if life had not been nailed to it, there would be no streams of immortality pouring from Christ’s side, blood and water for the world’s cleansing. The legal bond of our sin would not be canceled, we should not have obtained our freedom, we should not have enjoyed the fruit of the tree of life and the gates of Paradise would not stand open. Had there been no Cross, death would not have been trodden underfoot, nor hell despoiled.

And so, a symbol of ignominy throughout the ages, the Cross is transformed by Jesus Christ into a symbol of victory. The Book of Genesis tells us that the cause of Adam’s disobedience was a tree; Jesus, ever-obedient to His Father’s will, takes that tree and makes of it an instrument of salvation. Today we see that good does ultimately triumph; Jesus has not gone down in the annals of history as an executed criminal; on the contrary, He is history’s point of reference.

Therefore, today the Church invites us to venerate the Cross of Christ. See in that invitation nothing less than the invitation of Jesus to come to Him: He who died for you does not want your death; He wants your life. Naked and wounded, but still loving and still our King, His outstretched arms beckon and remind us, “But I, when I am lifted up, will draw all things to myself.” That drawing power of the Cross is the ultimate triumph of the Cross. Therefore, every cross borne by any believer in history gains meaning and becomes life-giving when it is brought into a relationship with the Cross, the Cross from which Jesus reigned as the King of Love and over which He triumphed in His glorious Resurrection. The Hill of Crosses, then, is not a cemetery but the very ante-chamber of Heaven.

Our persecuted ancestors knew and believed that, as do their suffering descendants in so many places in the world today — and that faith is rewarded. We Catholics living still in relative peace need to learn the same lesson, not fleeing from the crosses which come our way, not blending into a pagan culture to avoid mockery or persecution, not trying to fashion for ourselves a soft, comfortable religion. No, we must embrace our own particular crosses, seeing the possibility for them to be united to the saving Cross of Christ Himself. I would make a special appeal to any here this afternoon who suffer in any way: Do not “waste” your suffering. Offer it up in union with the sufferings of our Savior, and thus make them redemptive.

With this understanding clearly in place, we have to assert that there is no room in the lives of committed disciples of the Lord Jesus for “cruciphobia.” On the contrary, we are taken up by “cruciphilia” — not fear of the crucifix but love for the Cross and for Him who reigns therefrom.

On this beautiful, moving and exhilarating Day of Atonement, we echo the plea of the Good Thief on Calvary: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” And our faith informs us that we have reason to be confident that we shall receive the same assurance as did Dismas: “This day, you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

In the meantime, we make our own the refrain composed by St. Francis of Assisi and devoutly prayed at the Stations of the Cross: “We adore Thee, O Christ, and we bless Thee — because by Thy holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.”

Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021

Readings: Acts 10:34a, 37–43 • Ps 118:1–2, 16–17, 22–23 • Col 3:1–4 or 1 Cor 5:6b–8 • Jn 20:1–9

bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/040421.cfm

Behold! I tell you a mystery. (1 Cor 15:51)

How many of us have been energized by that line from Handel’s “Messiah,” which leads into the magnificent trumpet flourish and aria, announcing the resurrection of the dead? But what is a mystery? Let us say what it is not: it is not a story akin to the who-dun-its of Agatha Christie or Perry Mason or Columbo. Theologically — and even sociologically — speaking, a mystery refers to the whole plan by which God saves us in Christ.

And so, it is proper to speak of the two fundamental doctrines of Christianity — the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the Lord — as “mysteries.” When presented for belief, both call for a response of humility. Is it mere happenstance that to enter the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one must bow low, in order to enter (the original door being partially blocked, so that the invading Muslim horsemen could not defame the holy site); likewise, entering the “edicule” or burial site of Our Lord in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher requires the pilgrim to bow low to enter?

It is interesting to observe that not a few Fathers of the Church conjectured that Lucifer’s revolt was occasioned by God the Father’s declaration that He intended His Son to take on flesh. That God would become man was so repugnant to Lucifer that he shouted out his “Non serviam” (“I shall not serve”). The enfleshment of divinity was too much for that brilliant — and haughty — angel of light.

Similarly, for two thousand years “brilliant” men have declared the notion that a dead Man could be raised was just too much, a lovely fairy tale perhaps, but certainly nothing that a “modern” person could swallow. I vividly recall getting a call from CNN on Spy Wednesday of 1994, informing me that the radical Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, had just published a new barn-burner: Resurrection: Myth or Reality? Needless to say, the point of his book was to assert that all the “empty tomb” stories were nothing more than charming myths, in the sense of fables. Would I, they asked, be willing to debate him on Holy Thursday? I agreed.

The experience was most unpleasant but ultimately successful. Spong declared that my idea of a real, bodily resurrection was absurd and untenable for contemporary men. I replied with the line of St. Paul: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14). He smiled condescendingly and proceeded to say, “Father Stravinskas represents a point of view that no serious Catholic scholar would hold to today.” He proceeded to hold up Father Raymond Brown as an example of such scholarship.

I knew Father Brown personally and, it should be noted, Brown had been appointed to serve on the Pontifical Biblical Commission by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger; in fact, on Ratzinger’s American lecture tour of 1988, at St. Joseph Seminary in New York, he cited Brown as an exemplary Catholic biblicist. Interestingly, Brown had written a small work on both the virginal conception of Jesus and His bodily resurrection, affirming both scripturally and dogmatically, a work Spong either did not know or chose to ignore. Short of divine inspiration, I pulled a line out of Brown’s commentary on the Infancy Narratives, in which he mentions Spong: “Spong is complimentary in what he writes of me as a NT scholar; . . . I hope I am not ungracious if in return I remark that I do not think that a single NT author would recognize Spong’s Jesus as the figure being proclaimed or written about.” The would-be bishop was reduced to silence.

Spong’s position is that it doesn’t really matter if Jesus rose from the dead in a physical body. What matters is that He is risen in our hearts. If that’s the case, then why not follow Socrates, who was surely a good man and who likewise died an unjust death? Can’t we remember Socrates as effectively as Jesus? There’s only one problem with that approach: Socrates never even remotely suggested that he would rise from the dead, and not a single one of his disciples ever hinted at such a prospect. Jesus Christ makes that declaration numerous times, and His disciples took it very seriously — as did the Jewish religious authorities, so seriously that they prevailed on Pilate to put a guard at the entrance to His tomb! If He didn’t rise from dead, as He prophesied, then He is a fraud and we should have nothing more to do with Him.

As you undoubtedly know, a few years back, a restoration project was embarked upon in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, with particular attention given to the edicule or place of the Lord’s entombment. As scientists, archeologists and other workmen reached the “slab of anointing,” Geiger counters went berserk and other instruments died, affected by strong electromagnetic disturbances. This led some scientists to connect this phenomenon with the commonly accepted hypothesis on how the bodily image was transmitted onto the Shroud of Turin.

Someone might ask why I am spending so much time on technical, even scientific, evidence for the Lord’s Resurrection. “Isn’t it enough just to believe?” To be sure, belief is essential, but it is the final step, not the first. The act of faith must always be the act of the whole person — intellect and will. Therefore, what we believe can never be irrational — super-rational, yes, but never irrational. That is why the Evangelists go to such great lengths to highlight the reality of Christ’s true bodily Resurrection: He eats, He speaks in a familiar voice, He can be touched, He bears the wounds of His saving Passion and Death.

A priest, recently returning from a Holy Land pilgrimage, recounts the excitement and anticipation of his group as they waited on line to enter the edicule. What would it be like to enter the place where Christ the Morning Star, “coming back from death’s domain, . . . shed his peaceful light on humanity,” as the incomparable Exsultet had us sing last night? The priest says that he bowed low to enter, knelt and was overcome by the emptiness of the space. “There was nothing there,” he exclaimed. And then it dawned on him, “Of course, there is nothing there. He is risen!” Wasn’t that the message of the angels on Easter morning? (see: Mt 28:6).

Now, how does this saving truth apply to us? How does it “save” us? Knowing of G.K. Chesterton’s firm belief in Christ’s bodily resurrection, a skeptical reporter asked him what he would do if he found the Risen Christ standing right behind him. To the amazement of the reporter, Chesterton retorted, “But He is!” He is with us, not merely in some kind of “spiritual,” ethereal way; He is with us in a real and substantial way in the Holy Eucharist. Hence, St. John Chrysostom urges his congregation — and us: “What does it matter if you do not hear His voice? You contemplate Him on the altar.” He goes on:

Believe with living faith that this is even now the same supper in which Christ took part with the Apostles. Indeed there is no difference between the Last Supper and the Supper of the Altar. Nor can it be said that this supper is celebrated by a man and the other by Christ, because Jesus Himself performs them both. Well, then, when you see the priest present this sacred food to you, do not think that it is the priest who gives it to you, but know that it is the hand of Christ outstretched toward you.

Chrysostom was merely putting into elegant language the equally elegant scene portrayed by St. Luke in that most charming and moving of Resurrection appearances, the Emmaus story. You remember it well, I am sure. It is Easter night, and two disheartened (seemingly former!) followers of Jesus are hightailing it out of town, lest they endure the same fate as their former Master. They are approached by a Stranger, who inquires about their distress and who eventually leads them through the Sacred Scriptures, so as to revive their hope in Jesus. So buoyed up by Him are they that they invite Him to have dinner with them, during the course of which, the Guest becomes the Host, as He “breaks bread” for them and, in that characteristic gesture, they finally recognize “the Stranger” as none other than the Risen Christ. At which point, He vanishes from their sight!

How bizarre, until we realize that St. Luke wants to teach his readers and us today that having the Eucharistic Christ, one has the very same Lord who traveled the roads of Galilee. We are not at all disadvantaged; in fact, we can say that we are even more highly blessed than the Apostles because Jesus’ presence to us constitutes an indwelling, whereas their experience of Him during His earthly life was external. Permit me to suggest a way of prolonging this liturgical celebration: As you pray grace before your festive meal today, read out Luke 24 and invite the Stranger of Emmaus to dine with you and you with Him (see: Rev 3:20) and thus fulfill the petition of that lovely hymn, Draw Us in the Spirit’s Tether, which asks “may all our meals be sacraments of Thee.”

We have now come full-circle. The mysteries of the Incarnation and Resurrection are re-presented in every celebration of “the Sacred Mysteries” — Holy Mass — as Jesus is born in us, dies in us, and rises in us. There is nothing in the edicule because Christ is in His Church, most especially in the Holy Eucharist. At the Communion Antiphon, Mother Church will have us echo St. Paul: Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus: itaque epulemur in azymis sinceritatis et veritatis, alleluia (Christ our Passover has been sacrificed; therefore, let us keep the feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth, alleluia.).

In that haunting and venerable Victimae Paschali, in a play of holy paradoxes, the Church gave us the reason for our boundless joy: Agnus redemit oves (The Lamb has redeemed the sheep); Christus innocens Patri reconciliavit peccatores (The innocent Christ has reconciled sinners to the Father); Dux vitae mortuus regnat vivus (The Prince of Life who died now reigns alive). With believers across the ages, we asked the Magdalen: Quid vidisti, Maria? (What did you see, Mary?), to which she gleefully replied: Sepulcrum Christi viventis (I saw the tomb of the Christ who lives). Her proclamation of the empty tomb caused us to shout out with all the fervor and faith we could muster: Scimus Christum surrexisse a mortuis vere (We know that Christ has risen from the dead) and because of that, with eminently good reason, we plead: Tu nobis, victor Rex, miserere (Have mercy on us, Victor King). Amen. Alleluia.

Behold! I tell you a mystery. (1 Cor 15:51)

Second Sunday of Easter/Divine Mercy Sunday – April 11, 2021

Readings: Acts 4:32-35 • Ps 118:2–4, 13–15, 22–24 • 1 Jn 5:1–6 • Jn 20:19–31   

bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/041121.cfm

The first word uttered by the Risen Christ on Easter night conveyed His special Easter gift to His Church: “Peace!” It is significant that immediately following on the heels of that greeting is the Lord’s commission to His Apostles to forgive sins in His name: “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” What is the connection between the two statements?

Shalom, the Hebrew word Jesus would have used that first Easter, carries within itself so many meanings that it cannot be adequately translated by a single word. Shalom connotes wholeness, harmony, unity, peace and right relationships. It harks back to the Genesis accounts which depict God and man in an intimate union of friendship and love. That union was destroyed, however, by the sin of our first parents. From that day on, sin has always obstructed the movement of the human person toward God. For peace to be found, the roadblock of sin must be removed. Hence, the link between the Resurrection gift of peace and the Resurrection gift of forgiveness.

That link is maintained by the Church in the Sacrament of Penance. Not without reason did many of the Fathers of the Church refer to Penance as the “the second Baptism.” They saw in this sacrament the consoling possibility of returning to baptismal innocence, the ability to have a second chance if one is only willing to repent and begin again.

That is so important in the lives of human beings that when the great English writer and convert G. K. Chesterton was asked why he became a Catholic, he said very simply: “To get my sins forgiven!” And that remains a very powerful reason for belonging to the Catholic Church — to experience the compassion, the forgiveness, the mercy of Almighty God.

It has become popular in some quarters to speak about whether or not a person is “saved.” In truth, however, salvation is an ongoing process in a person’s life in which one attempts to grow ever closer to God. It is with the goals of growth and reconciliation in mind that the Church provides the Sacrament of Penance for her sons and daughters. As defined by the Council of Trent, the Sacrament of Penance was instituted by Christ for the purpose of reconciling the faithful to God as often as they fall into sin after Baptism.

According to the Church, there are three distinct facets of the Sacrament. First and foremost is the need for contrition on the part of the sinner; that is, that he feel sorrow for having sinned. Forgiveness is contingent upon a desire to be forgiven, and a resolve to avoid that sin in the future. This sacrament is intended to be a true encounter between the sinful self and the forgiving Christ. Anything less is a hypocritical charade. Nothing less than a true desire to turn from sin, to change one’s life, to go through a conversion experience is required. Frequently, non-Catholics have the impression that the Catholic approach to sin is one of: “Oh well, I’ll just go to confession on Saturday.” Such an attitude makes a mockery of divine justice and is a parody of the Church’s sacramental theology.

Secondly, the sinner must confess his sins and admit to having fallen in the eyes of God.

We are told in the Epistle of James to “declare (our) sins to one another” (Jas 5:16). In admitting that we have sinned, we also acknowledge our need for the healing power of Jesus Christ in our lives.

The final component of the Sacrament of Penance is satisfaction. In addition to seeking the removal of the guilt of sin, the penitent should attempt to make some type of reparation for the wrongs committed.

The Sacrament of Penance, while criticized by many outside the Church as unbiblical, has definite scriptural foundations. At root, it is grounded in Christ’s power to forgive sins.

In the ninth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, the Evangelist relates the story of Jesus’ cure of a paralytic at Capernaum. Jesus informs the paralytic that his sins are forgiven, causing the scribes present to think that Jesus has blasphemed, for only God can forgive sins. They did not, of course, recognize Jesus as God. Jesus responds to their mental musings by ordering the paralytic: “Stand up! Roll up your mat and go home” (Mt 9:6). Jesus says that He issues this command in order “to help (them) realize that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mt 9:6). Jesus obviously possesses the divine authority to forgive sins.

The Catholic Church maintains, on the basis of scriptural and historical data, that Christ passed on His authority to forgive sins to His disciples, for it is obvious from the Gospels that Jesus did indeed confer power and authority upon His Apostles. Luke states that “Jesus now called the twelve together and gave them power and authority to overcome all demons and to cure diseases” (Luke 9:1). Clearly, the delegation of divine prerogatives to the disciples was not without precedent.

Just as Christ conferred upon His disciples the power and authority to overcome demons and to cure diseases, so too did He grant them the power and authority to forgive sins. In Matthew 18:18, Jesus says to His disciples, “I assure you, whatever you declare bound on earth shall be held bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The power to bind and loose, in rabbinic terms, constitutes the authority to declare what is allowed and forbidden under the law. It also possesses the alternate meaning of imparting the authority to excommunicate persons from the community or to include them in it.

St. John’s Gospel leaves little doubt regarding Christ’s intention to empower His Apostles to forgive sins. In today’s Gospel passage, as already noted, the Risen Christ says to the Apostles: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” There is obviously a specific and deliberate delegation taking place, particularly since Christ equates His commission to the Apostles with that which He Himself had received from His Father. It is at this point that Christ grants the Apostles definitive power and authority to forgive sins as He says to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them; if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” This is not a parable or analogy but a direct delegation of power and authority from the Lord to His Apostles. And as Christ chose followers to carry on His ministry, so too did the Apostles choose successors to carry on their work (cf. 2 Tim 1:6; 2:2).

Now let’s take our time-machine forward from Christ and backward a century from ourselves.

In 1905, a girl was born to a poor but devout Polish couple. As a teenager, she entered the Congregation of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy in Warsaw. Because she was uneducated, Sister Faustina was assigned the most menial tasks; in the midst of the tasks of a cook, baker, gardener and housekeeper, the young nun underwent many mystical experiences, during which Our Lord asked her to become both His apostle and His secretary — to announce anew to mankind the Gospel of God’s mercy. In one of the Lord’s messages to her, He said: “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to my mercy . . . My daughter, be diligent in writing down every sentence I tell you concerning my mercy, because this is meant for a great number of souls who will profit from it.”

Sister Faustina was also told that the Church should celebrate a feast in honor of the Divine Mercy — on the Sunday after Easter. Not by accident does the Church on that day read the Gospel text which recounts Christ’s institution of the Sacrament of Penance, which is the surest and clearest sign of the Divine Mercy. The young mystic likewise wrote down two prayers dictated to her by the Font of Mercy Himself. The first goes like this: “Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for my sins and those of the whole world.” The second is like it: “For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on me and on the whole world.”

Our Lord promised Sister Faustina that great things would happen if people prayed this chaplet of prayers with the proper attitude:

Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death. Priests will recommend it to sinners as their last hope of salvation. Even if there were a sinner most hardened, if he recited this chaplet only once, he will receive grace from my infinite mercy. I desire that the whole world know my infinite mercy. I desire to grant unimaginable graces to those who trust in my mercy.

Indeed, the Risen Christ’s first gift to His Church was His peace, which flows from His abiding mercy. We need to reflect on that and believe it with all our hearts, thanking God for this gift, which so many people desire and hope for but never realize is so readily available to them.

For a variety of reasons, this devotion to the Divine Mercy did not receive a very positive response from the hierarchy. That is, until a young Polish bishop named Karol Woytyla re-opened the discussion and then, as Pope John Paul II, gave definitive approval to the devotion, even making Sister Faustina the first saint of the third millennium.

We know that faith, so much the focus of today’s Gospel passage, consists in far more than just believing in the existence of God. Faith requires that we act upon and live our belief by keeping God’s laws and seeking to grow ever closer to Him. Being saved is not a stagnant, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but an ongoing response to the love and will of God. Despite our best efforts, however, we all fall short of this ideal and fall into sin. By giving us the Sacrament of Penance, Christ allows us to reconcile ourselves to Him continually and to grow steadily in our faith. The Church and her priests, in the name of Jesus Christ, carry out their divine commission by calling all members of the Body of Christ to repentance, reconciliation and a more perfect union with their Savior, Jesus Christ.

If Jesus inaugurated His Resurrection appearances to His Apostles with the greeting of “Peace,” we also know that He began His public ministry with the invitation, or better, the command: “Repent” (Mk 1:15). The Sacrament of Penance is the means by which Catholics go through the process of repentance, so as to experience Christ’s peace. Or, as the confessor assures the penitent: “The Lord has freed you from your sins. Go in peace.”

Third Sunday of Easter – April 18, 2021

Readings: Acts 3:13–15, 17–19 • Ps 4:2, 4, 7–8, 9 • 1 Jn 2:1–5a • Lk 24:35–48 

bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/041821.cfm

“The mystery of faith,” the priest proclaims. Notice that he does not say,”A mystery of faith,” but the mystery. And what is that mystery? It is the mystery of the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection sacramentally re-enacted upon the altar, bringing the central event of human history into the present. It is the mystery of the Incarnation extended in space and time through the Church. It is the mystery of God’s love for mankind, the sign of His desire to be close to those He loves. It is the mystery which looks to the day of Christ’s return as Judge of the world, ushering in those days when sacraments shall cease because God “will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28), because then we “shall know even as [we] are known” (1 Cor 13:12). And all this explains why we fast, why we genuflect, why we receive Holy Communion only in the state of grace, why we have a special love for the priests who bring us this mystery, why we are concerned with fostering vocations in young men to take their places.

On this Third Sunday of Easter, the Church has us re-read the twenty-fourth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, the Emmaus story, my favorite passage in the New Testament. As you heard, it is Easter night as two lonely, frustrated disciples of Jesus are on the road when they meet a Stranger who engages them in conversation about the meaning of the Scriptures which have to do with the suffering and death of the Messiah. They are so intrigued by Him that they invite Him to share a meal with them, and then in a glorious reversal of roles, the Guest becomes the Host as He “breaks bread” for them, opening their eyes to recognize Him as none other than the Risen Lord, in which moment He vanishes from their sight.

Luke passed on this story of rare charm and beauty because he was writing for people so much like us, people who were living some thirty or forty years after Christ’s Death and Resurrection, people who had never known Him in His earthly life, people who perhaps felt cheated for having missed out on that experience. They were also people who well may have fallen into the habit of celebrating the Eucharist without enthusiasm or awareness of the greatness of the mystery. The point driven home by the Emmaus story is a very profound one, namely, that we who live two millennia after the Lord’s Death and Resurrection are no worse off than those who walked and talked with Him, a statement very subtly made as we learn that the very minute those two disciples recognized Christ in the breaking of the bread, He vanished from their sight. Therefore, our forebears in the faith had no advantage over us, for we have access to the Risen Lord in a way every bit as real as they.

Well, then, is this a story about the Resurrection or about the Eucharist? Both — at one and the same time — for we behold the Risen Christ precisely in the Eucharist, the mystery of faith, as the Sacred Liturgy speaks of it. And that fundamental mystery contains within it every other mystery of faith. St. Luke’s story is like a comprehensive catechism, presenting the basics of Christian doctrine — all of which lead us not to mere intellectual knowledge for its own sake but to a deep, personal experience of the Risen Lord. The best way to prove what I’m saying is to follow the Lord’s example, as Luke communicated it to us. When Jesus wanted to enlighten those two confused disciples, He joined them on a walk. May I invite you to join me on the walk to Emmaus, a walk which once led two men to know the Lord in a new, unique, exciting and vibrant way?

Luke introduces us to two disciples leaving Jerusalem, en route to the backwater town of Emmaus. Jerusalem is the reference point because it was there that Jesus underwent His redemptive Death, and notice —the disciples are getting away from Jerusalem as fast as they can; they don’t want to be the next to suffer, which is to say that they reject the notion of a suffering Messiah. However, the Stranger goes to great lengths to show just how necessary Christ’s Passion was. The obvious conclusion to draw is that the Lord came into His glory only because He accepted the ignominious death of the Cross. The application to a would-be believer in any age should also be obvious: We have no right to expect a share in Christ’s Resurrection if we refuse to be identified with Him by accepting a share in His sufferings.

It is also important to realize that this saving encounter occurs because Jesus takes the initiative, not because they were clever enough to contract the services of a good guest speaker or because they saw the intriguing possibilities of getting onboard a winning team. Rather, Jesus approaches them and offers them the occasion to embark on a life of faith. Humility calls us to consider the fact that God chose us in Christ; we did not choose Him. He invites us to believe, but He will never force Himself upon us. Only a thoroughly engaged personal response can guarantee that great things happen.

What had kept those two disciples in Jesus’ company during His earthly life and ministry? They tell us themselves: “We were hoping that He was the one . . .” Hope is the critical virtue. If any element is lacking in contemporary life, it is hope, and that is why we witness so many succumb to the ultimate act of despair through suicide. But our hope must never be misplaced; we trust in Christ and in the power flowing from His Resurrection; a hope grounded in any lesser reality is less than true hope, providing us with faulty assurances and depressing results.

As the journey progresses, they reach an inn, and they ask the Stranger to stay with them. Why? Only conjecture is possible: Was it their desire to continue a conversation on a topic dear to them? Was it to distract them from their sadness and loss, or to keep their hopes kindled? Was it an exercise in Christian charity, in fidelity to Christ’s commands? Whatever the explanation, the request “Stay with us” needs to be the plea to the Lord from every believer. And He then proceeds to show them how He could remain with them.

Jesus performs an action which Luke’s audience around 80 A.D. would clearly have perceived as a Eucharistic service, using ritual, familiar language and gestures: “He took bread, pronounced the blessing, then broke the bread and began to distribute it to them.” With what result? “Their eyes were opened and they recognized Him.” Then what? “He vanished from their sight.” How odd, until one sees what Luke was trying to do. Poetically and beautifully, he is saying that the presence of the Earthly Jesus is not needed when one has the Eucharistic Jesus. Having prepared the disciples by breaking the bread of God’s Word with them on the road, the Risen Lord then breaks the bread of His Body. Isn’t that exactly what we do in every Mass as the Sacred Scriptures are proclaimed and explained, making our hearts burn within us for yet more? And the ever-generous God does give us more — in the gift of His Son’s Body and Blood.

I should note that this entire passage is focused on one word. A Scripture scholar, who perhaps had little else to do with his time, informs us that a counting up of the words demonstrates that the exact mid-point of the story is the word “alive,” as the women convey their “tale,” to quote their skeptical hearers. Christian faith must, of course, hold that Jesus is risen or alive, but not just in Heaven, removed from us until Judgment Day. We experience Jesus as “alive” most especially through the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, which comes to us through the Church, His mystical Body.

This is the case because Christ has willed to be inseparable from His Church: He is the Head; we are the members. That Church has a divinely established order to it — a priestly order which makes the Eucharist present on our altars and a priestly order which preaches the Word of God as the Emmaus story likewise makes clear. Hence, the women’s testimony is not accepted. Neither is the story of the two disciples, it would seem, for they are greeted with the line: “The Lord has been raised! It is true! He has appeared to Simon.” These private revelations or experiences of the Risen Christ, as inspiring as they might have been, had to be validated or confirmed by the witness of the divinely appointed teachers, the Apostles, and most particularly, by Peter, the Prince of the Apostles. Only then does the proclamation of the disciples and the women have meaning. To this day, any who would want to have the Eucharistic Christ must receive Him from His Church, which automatically means accepting the teaching authority of that Church and putting it into practice in one’s daily life.

Having been nourished by the Eucharist, believers must also imitate those early disciples by going forth to share the good news of the Risen Christ with all they meet. Mission-mindedness must be the hallmark of every Christian, as Vatican II reminded us, which requires personal efforts at evangelization and support for the work of those committed to full-time missionary labors. After all, wasn’t it Christian hospitality to the itinerant preacher which enabled those two disciples only later to discover it was Christ all along — the Christ who so often comes in the guise of the poor and the needy, of the Christ who is revealed in a special way by missionaries?

The Stranger of Emmaus leads the disciples from blindness, to sight, to insight. The pattern of faith described is most interesting: incipient faith . . . shaken faith . . . disillusionment . . . understanding . . . true faith. That was the pattern for the Apostles, for the disciples, and it is so for us as well. True faith is only a faith which has been tested, but in the testing, we need to remember and to believe that Jesus is there with us on the road — sustaining us with His Word and His Body, moving us forward to the Kingdom where the wedding feast of the Lamb has already begun.

On that last day, I would not be surprised if Christ will begin His final revelation by doing something very familiar to us, something that would give us a clue as to what is about to happen. It may be that He will “break bread” for us in that heavenly feast and, as we fall down in adoration (as we do at that action here on earth), Jesus will not vanish from our sight as He did at Emmaus; no, He will reveal Himself to us in all His glory. The mystery of faith will no longer be mysterious, nor will we have need of faith, but we will understand with certainty how the Eucharist did indeed keep us on the road — to Jerusalem and beyond — and how it kept our eyes fixed on a Jesus who is very much alive. Our prayer, “Stay with us,” will be answered on that day when the Lord invites us to stay with Him.

Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 25, 2021

Readings: Acts 4:8–12 • Ps 118:1, 8–9, 21–23, 26, 28, 29 • 1 Jn 3:1–2 • Jn 10:11–18     

bible.usccb.org/Bible/readings/042521.cfm

Since 1963, the Church Universal has used this Good Shepherd Sunday to “pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into His harvest.” But prayer for priestly and religious vocations takes place in a context — both social and ecclesial — as does the response to such calls. What is the contemporary context in which we are asking the Lord to open the hearts and minds of our youth to hear His summons? What can or ought we do to enable His voice to be better heard?

One observer wrote about what he called “the utter contempt into which Catholicism has fallen” in this land. That analysis actually came from the pen of the great Cardinal Newman over a century ago, on the very brink of the Oxford Movement’s major successes. I cite him to provide some type of historical framework for our own analysis and also by way of recalling that, not infrequently, the adage is correct: It is always darkest before the dawn. But hope should not be confused with presumption, nor should a Christian optimist lapse into the role of a Pollyanna. So, let us survey the landscape, using the style of a Caravaggio — chiaroscuro — looking at the total picture with its lights and shadows.

What is the image of priesthood and religious life to those outside the Church? The average American knows of priests who are sources of scandal, women religious who are radical feminists, laity who are struggling to break free from “medieval” patterns of oppressive existence. We know that the Church of 60 Minutes is not the real Church, or at least not the whole story of the real Church. We know that the priesthood represented by a sick film like Priest does not reflect the real priesthood, or at least not the whole story of the real priesthood. We know that the New York Times version of American Catholic theology and practice is not the real story of our theology and practice, or at least not the whole story of our theology and practice. So, what should we do?

I would suggest a two-pronged approach. First, let us be honest enough to acknowledge that — unfortunately — there is truth in what the media say about us: We do have fornicators, adulterers, radicals and dissenters within our bosom; indeed, in all too many places they hold positions of power and authority and exert strong influence on the formation of our national and diocesan priorities, as well as in their execution. It seems to me that if we wish to attack the media elite for their unfair handling of Catholic affairs (and we should), we also need to clean up our own house. That will involve both devoted prayer and serious work. We must pray Almighty God to move the embarrassing sheep within our sheepfold to an experience of genuine conversion, so that their lives are brought into accord with the commitments they freely and, presumably, lovingly made many years ago. At the same time, we must never tire of prevailing upon the bishops — our fathers in God and the chief shepherds of the local churches — to take seriously their responsibility to deal effectively with those who mar the image of the spotless Bride of Christ by their infidelity and counter-witness.

Then we can take on the media with a measure of conviction and integrity. And that is critical to do because not only is vocation recruitment adversely affected by the negative images of the Church abroad in society, but also the Church’s overall work of evangelization. Inaccurate images perpetuate stereotypes which form popular perceptions, and perceptions create reality, whether we like it or not. The persecution against the apostolic Church alluded to in today’s First Reading could not be stemmed by those early believers; it was completely beyond their control. That is not the case with the present onslaught being launched against the Church and her mission to teach and preach the truth of Christ by a self-proclaimed devout Catholic president; we are full-fledged citizens of a democratic republic, with rights and responsibilities to add our voices to the chorus of a pluralistic and free nation. A refusal to do so is to fail both our homeland and our God.

Now, what do we see within the Church? Or better yet, what do our young people see when they seek out images of priesthood and religious life? The Church-at-large has been fed a line which argues that the vocational well has dried up, that no young people are willing to “buy into” the traditional notions of priesthood and religious life. When we assert, without fear of contradiction, that such a contention is patently false and an exercise in wishful thinking, we have been most charitable in our evaluation. The young themselves are often put through the paces by ecclesiastical bureaucrats who intend to screen out those who have the mind of the Church and in this way to obviate the true renewal of the Church envisioned by the Second Vatican Council and, at the same time, to create such a dearth of vocations that their own aspirations for Catholic life will become the operative terms of the discussion, by dint of circumstances.

Bishops also play into the hands of such people — not infrequently in an unwitting manner — by committing themselves and their dioceses to pastoral plans which take defeat and disaster as “givens” with programs like the appointment of lay parochial administrators and the encouragement of so-called priestless Eucharists. Good religious abet the further deterioration of religious life by adopting the herd instinct of “going along to get along” and maintaining silence in the face of wrong-headed schemes within their communities. Priests who are not normally identifiable as priests in the day-to-day affairs of the secular city make the priesthood even more invisible and eccentric; beyond that, deputing lay people to perform their sacramental responsibilities simply reinforces notions of a priesthood in which there is very little to recommend a life-long, celibate and sacrificial response.

But once more we must realize that this is by no means the total story. For there are dioceses and religious congregations in which we find such a glut of youthful vocations as almost to exceed one’s wildest dreams and imaginings. What image do they project? One sees young clergy and religious on fire with love for Christ, His Gospel and His Church. One sees confident disciples who know the truth and desire to spend their lives communicating it. One sees clerics and consecrated religious who are proud of their vocations, want the world to know that, and intend to encourage countless others to follow them in responding to the invitation of the Master. And the result of all this? Dioceses and communities like that will not know what to do with all their candidates and will eventually be sending them out as missionaries to other ecclesial settings which are in danger of extinction because of prior decisions to embark on programs of action which have been suicidal.

Today the Book of Revelation speaks to us about those “who have survived the great period of trial.” I submit that you and I are among that number. When Cardinal Newman took a realistic look at the situation in which he found himself, he ultimately concluded that “it is the coming of a Second Spring; it is a restoration.” We can have a similar confidence, not because of our own genius, creativity, ingenuity or gimmickry but because this is the Church of the Lamb, and it is He who will shepherd us. He has promised it, and His Word never fails.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation on priestly formation. He entitled it, Pastores Dabo Vobis, harking back to the prophecy of Jeremiah as God assured His people: “I will give you shepherds after my own heart.” The “will” of that verb is not a simple future tense; it conveys a determination on God’s part to give us the shepherds that we need. Therefore, even when society tries to dirty our faces, God says, Pastores dabo vobis. Even when Church officials sit on their hands in the face of crises, God says, Pastores dabo vobis. Even when the vessels of election show themselves to be vessels of clay, God says, Pastores dabo vobis. And they are to be shepherds of a most special kind — shepherds after the heart of none other than the Good Shepherd Himself.

The Holy Father reflects on the divine pledge thus:

Today, this promise of God is still living and at work in the Church. At all times, she knows she is the fortunate receiver of these prophetic words. She sees them put into practice daily in so many parts of the world, or rather, in so many human hearts, young hearts in particular. On the threshold of the third millennium, and in the face of the serious and urgent needs which confront the Church and the world, she yearns to see this promise fulfilled in a new and richer way, more intensely and effectively; she hopes for an extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit of Pentecost. [n. 82]

My dear friends, may our poor prayers and efforts always seek to be worthy of God’s holy determination to provide His flock with the shepherds it needs, shepherds of appropriate quality and quantity, shepherds after the Lord’s own heart.

Avatar About Fr. Peter Stravinskas

Fr. Stravinskas founded The Catholic Answer in 1987 and The Catholic Response in 2004, as well as the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, a clerical association of the faithful, committed to Catholic education, liturgical renewal and the new evangelization. Father Stravinskas is also the President of the Catholic Education Foundation, an organization providing financial assistance to Catholic high school students and serving as a resource for heightening the Catholic identity of Catholic schools.

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