I'm sure many of you are joyous today, perhaps because there are a lot more seats open than there were last Sunday. Or, maybe you had an easier time finding a parking spot in our lot, compared to last week.
There are lots of reasons to be joyful today. First of all, we are still in the Octave of Easter, celebrating each day this week as if it was still Easter Sunday itself. Easter is just too big of a feast to celebrate on one day. Today is also the day we consider the mercy of God as we celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday. Our Lord appeared to a Polish religious sister, St. Faustina Kowalska, asking her to help promote this 2nd Sunday of Easter as a day to experience God's endless mercy. It makes sense, after all, since we heard in today's Gospel the Lord give the Apostles the power to absolve sins: "Jesus breathed upon them and said, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.'"
On our calendar, though, this is not such a joyous day. Today is the 147th anniversary of the death of President Abraham Lincoln, following a gunshot to the head the night before. Today is also the day, normally, that our Federal Income Taxes are due. No one is happy about that. But the biggest thing we commemorate today is that it is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, on its way from England to New York.
The story is told of a young man, Francis Browne, whose mother died when he was young and whose father died when he was a teen. Francis and his siblings came under the guardianship of their uncle, who was a Catholic Bishop, the Bishop of Cloyne, Ireland. Four of the Browne children entered religious life, including Francis, who felt called to join the Jesuit order. While still a seminarian, Francis received a gift from his uncle the bishop, a ticket aboard the Titanic. Not the whole trip, but the first leg, from England to Ireland. On board, the seminarian made use of his camera and gave us what has become a priceless record of life on board the ship: the dining room, the radio room, on deck, even the gymnasium. While on board, he made friends with a wealthy American couple who were bound for New York, and offered to pay for him to remain on the ship for the entire voyage. He telegraphed his superior, asking for permission to extend his vacation, and his boss wrote back: "GET OFF THAT SHIP". How he must've been disappointed, but he obeyed his superiors, and disembarked in Ireland.
How shocked he must have been when he got word, days later, that that great ship had sunk. How it must have been unbelievable to him. What went through his head? "Impossible! I was there! I saw the size of it. I heard about the safety features. There is no way anything could have caused that ship to sink." Just like Thomas in today's Gospel, Francis had seen too much evidence to the contrary to believe what he had heard. Francis saw the steel; Thomas saw the wounds. Francis saw the power; Thomas saw the Passion. Francis couldn't believe they were dead; Thomas couldn't believe He was alive.
Records tell us that there were 3 Priests on board the Titanic's voyage across the Atlantic.
- Fr. Juozas Montvila was a Lithuanian Priest who ministered to Roman Catholics in a place largely filled with Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Czar's government wanted him out of the country, so he booked a ticket on the Titanic to make a new start, hopefully finding a spot among the Lithuanian communities in either Brooklyn or in Worcester, Massachusetts.
- Fr. Joseph Peruschitz was a Bavarian Benedictine monk, and a teacher. He had just been named Principal of a new school in Collegeville, Minnesota, and was aboard Titanic on his way to his new assignment.
- Father Thomas Byles was an Englishman, a convert to Catholicism like his brother William. William had gone to America, fallen in love, and asked his brother to come to New York to perform the marriage.
Eyewitness accounts tell similar stories about the Priests. All of them made themselves useful on board, celebrating Masses and hearing Confessions of the passengers, all of them, from First through Third Class. A few times they helped each other, delivering sermons in the various languages they spoke and the passengers knew. Our 1st Reading today is from Acts of the Apostles, the beautiful story of the early days of the Church. "The community of believers was of one heart and mind". Though much has been written about the difference in classes aboard the Titanic, it's good to know that the Priests were shared by the rich and poor alike.
When the ship began to sink, the Priests helped in getting passengers above deck and to the lifeboats. Eyewitness accounts say that each of them were offered a seat on a lifeboat, and each refused it in order to help remaining passengers. What did the Gospel say? "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own ... and they were distributed to each according to need." Each gave away the way to stay alive, because (I hope) each had faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose to give us not just life in this world, but eternal life. Witness accounts tell us the Priests led remaining passengers in the Rosary, in prayers, and then gave them General Absolution from their sins (see, THIS is when the Church says General Absolution is OK, when it's certain that most, if not all, will die). How they must have been talking to the people about God's endless mercy and love for them. Were they thinking of today's 2nd Reading, "This is the one who came through water and blood, Jesus Christ, not by water alone, but by water and blood."? All three went down with the ship, and were lost at sea.
Why do I bring this up? Because we think we're unsinkable. We might even make the mistake Titanic's owner did, saying, "Not even God can sink this ship!" (trust me, don't dare God). We think we're self-sufficient and better, stronger, and more advanced than those who went before us. But icebergs are out there, waiting, sneaking up on us. Icebergs of sin, doubt, addiction, greed, selfishness, you name it. We must keep lookout for these icebergs, in order to keep our ship afloat and safe. Here and now, in this Easter Season and the rest of the year, too, we have to remember who died and rose from the dead: Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus and death had a fight, and death lost! That beautiful re-translated opening prayer says it all: may we "grasp and rightly understand in what font [we] have been washed, by whose Spirit [we] have been reborn, by whose blood [we] have been redeemed."