If there really is a God in charge of the Universe, and a personal God at that, he would want to let us know, right? Well, it turns out that he has, but you have to have a humble heart that is open to persuasion in order to be convinced. There is a fascinating series of coincidences of dates associated with The Apparitions at Fatima, the Divine Mercy devotions, Pope St John Paul II and now most recently, the death of Mother Angelica. God gives us these clues because he knows how much we tend to be like Doubting Thomas in the gospel reading for today …
13th May and other thirteens
I’ll start with 13th May 1917, when the Virgin Mary appeared to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, three peasant children from Fatima in Portugal. There were a total of six apparitions, one on the 13th of each month from May to October that year. (The August apparition was on 15 August, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.) About 70,000 people were present for the final apparition, and many supernatural phenomena, including the Miracle of the Sun, were observed. But the point of the appearance of the Virgin Mary was to encourage penance and prayer, especially the rosary, a meditation on events in the lives of Jesus and Mary.
13th May 1917 also just happened to be the date when Pope Pius XII, then Eugenio Pacelli, received his episcopal ordination. It was he who subsequently formally defined the ancient belief in the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, and he himself confirmed that he had witnessed the Miracle of the Sun several times in 1950, the year he proclaimed this dogma.
Meanwhile, in Poland …
Meanwhile in Poland, Sr Faustina (1905-1938), a Christian mystic, began to experience apparitions of Christ. She recorded her conversations with him in diaries over several years. It was February 1931 when he first appeared to her as King of Divine Mercy. Over the course of the apparitions, he asked her to have a painting made showing him with red and white rays emanating from his heart and instructed her to promote prayer through the Divine Mercy Chaplet, whose purposes were threefold: to obtain mercy, to trust in Christ’s mercy and to show mercy to others. Sr Faustina died of suspected tuberculosis at the age of 33, one year before Hitler invaded Poland, and for some time the Divine Mercy Devotions were destined to remain mostly hidden from the wider world.
Fast forwarding to World War 2, Karol Wojtyla, the future Polish Pope John Paul II, was told about the Divine Mercy Devotions by a classmate in the seminary he attended secretly in Krakow (the Communist government had attempted to eradicate religion from society) . He began to visit the grave of Sr. Faustina at the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy on his way home from night shift at the Solvay Chemical Plant.
There’s a long and fascinating story of how devotion to the Divine Mercy was banned and went underground for several decades, but to cut to the chase, Karol Wojtyla involved himself in collecting information about Sr Faustina’s life and in removing the prohibition that had been placed on her diaries. Six months after he had achieved this, he was elected Pope. The message of Divine Mercy was still close to his heart, and his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), published in November 1980, was a reflection on God’s superabundant mercy and a plea for Christians to implore God’s mercy on the sinfulness of mankind.
Only six months later, on 13th May 1981, an assassination attempt was made on Pope John Paul II. He survived four shots from a 9 mm Browning fired at him by the Turk, Mehmet Ali Agca. Multiple perforations of his colon and small intestine caused him to lose three quarters of his blood before he was stabilized after five hours of surgery. But by October of that year he was back at work. In his audience address of 7 October 1981 (The Feast of the Holy Rosary) he said:
Today it has been granted me, after a long interruption, to resume the general audiences which have become one of the fundamental forms of pastoral service of the Bishop of Rome.
The last time, the pilgrims who came to Rome gathered for such an audience on 13 May. However, it could not take place. Everyone knows why …
Today, after an interval of five months, beginning this meeting so dear to me and to you, I cannot help referring to the day of 13 May.
… Could I forget that the event in St Peter’s Square took place on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to the poor little peasants has been remembered for over sixty years at Fatima in Portugal? For, in everything that happened to me on that very day, I felt that extraordinary motherly protection and care, which turned out to be stronger than the deadly bullet.
Today is the memorial of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. The whole month of October is the Month of the Rosary. Now that nearly five months later it has been granted me to meet you again at the Wednesday audience, dear brothers and sisters, I want these first words that I address to you to be words of gratitude, love and deep trust, just as the Holy Rosary is and always remains a prayer of gratitude, love and trustful request: the prayer of the Mother of the Church.
But even while Pope John Paul II was recovering from this attack, another milestone was unfolding in the history of the Church.
Broadcasting to the World
August 15th 1981 (yes, the Feast of the Assumption, again!) heralded the first broadcast from the Eternal Word Catholic Television Network (EWTN), an initiative of Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, a Franciscan nun. Mother Angelica, who died last week on Easter Sunday, was known for the great suffering she endured throughout her life, her radical trust in Jesus, her no-nonsense style and her orthodoxy. Born Rita Rizzo, she was the only child of Italian-American immigrants who divorced when she was six years old; her father had abandoned the family when she was very young, and her mother struggled with chronic depression. She remembered her childhood as a constant battle to keep food on the table. But instead of thinking God had abandoned her, she developed an intense prayer life and her love of Jesus bore fruit in many miracles, which are amply described in Raymond Arroyo’s biography. EWTN has now grown to be the largest global religious media network, with a viewership of 250 million homes, not including those who watch it streamed online. You could say that God used EWTN to promote devotion to both the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Holy Rosary – these are on its schedule every day of the week.
Not only that, but God organised things so that EWTN took off in the midst of the period when the Holy Father was undergoing a recovery from an attempted assassination. One could almost say that the Holy Father was required to undergo a great suffering himself in order for fruit to come forth elsewhere in the church. In similar fashion, according to Michael Warsaw, the CEO of EWTN, the network’s reach exploded most markedly in the 14 years since Mother Angelica suffered a debilitating stroke on Christmas Eve 2001. She had spoken many times of the redemptive power of uniting one’s sufferings to the Lord and had written a book on the subject, The Healing Power of Suffering (1977).
So how else did God orchestrate a new focus on his Divine Mercy? In April 2000, Sr Faustina became the first saint of the new millennium, when Pope John Paul II officially designated the 2nd Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday and canonized her on that day. A year later, the Pope was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and now began his time of deteriorating health and preparation to meet the Lord. He had achieved so much during his period as Pope: one of the chief forces behind the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe, inspirational on the Theology of the Body, and tenacious in defending both faith and reason and bringing unity in the Church. His funeral was reportedly the single largest gathering of Heads of State in history with more than four million mourners gathered in Vatican City. So what time did God choose for his death? It was just after the Mass of the Vigil of the 2nd Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday for 2005 had been celebrated in his room.
Only two months previously, the last of the Fatima visionaries was taken to heaven. Sr Lucia was 97 years old and yes, the date was another of the series of thirteens connected with the Fatima apparitions: 13th February 2005.
And what of Mother Angelica, the woman who brought Catholic teaching to the world through her television network? How wonderful that God chose the day of her death as Easter Sunday, the most important day of the year for Christians.
Mother began to cry out early in the morning from the pain that she was having. She had a fracture in her bones because of the length of time she had been bedridden. They said you could hear it down the hallways, that she was crying out on Good Friday from what she was going through. These two people said to me she has excruciating pain. Well, do you know where that word ‘excruciating’ comes from? ‘Ex’, from, ‘cruce’, from the cross. Excruciating pain. After the 3 o’clock hour arrived on Good Friday she was more calm, she was more peaceful.
On Easter Sunday, Fr Wolfe was called again to her bedside.
I anointed her, did the litany for the dying, gave her the apostolic pardon that the church grants to someone who is dying, and the sisters prayed their divine office around her bed – the morning prayers.
At 10:30 Father Paschal offered Mass in her room and she received the precious blood, Viaticum, the food for her journey. The precious blood by which we have been saved. All of us have been saved by the precious blood of Jesus…., a drop or two of the precious blood, into her mouth.
It was in the afternoon that Father Miguel and I went to her bed at the hour of mercy, at 3 o’clock. We had just finished praying the divine mercy chaplet. We all continued to pray silently around her bed. Then it was shortly before 5 p.m. that she went to the Father’s house. She breathed her last.
Not only was it Easter Sunday, but as Fr Mitch Pacwa reported, it was also the Feast of the Annunciation in the Maronite Rite, and Mother Angelica had taken as her title, the name, Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation. And then, look at the year which God chose for her to die: she could have had another stroke at any old time in the last fourteen years, but she died in the year which Pope Francis has proclaimed as the Jubilee Year of Mercy, a time for all of us to say to him, “Jesus, I trust in you”. And, by the way, Pope Francis was ordained on 13 December 1969 and became Pope on 13 March 2013 and announced the Jubilee Year of Mercy on 13 March 2015.
I like to think of God as the creator of a glorious symphony, bringing in one part here, while another fades into the background after performing its virtuoso piece, making different voices interweave and coalesce into the climax of a harmonious chorus, while the instrumental section repeats an ostinato pattern underneath. In this last century we have seen the Holy Rosary, Divine Mercy, the Assumption and all those fabulous thirteens appear and reappear as motifs for our enjoyment and encouragement as we participate in the great symphony of the life of the Church.
Word format:Year C Easter 2nd Sunday 2016
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