Divine Mercy Sunday reminds me of the occasion I was in Poland for the feast, when the school choir were singing for High Mass at the Divine Mercy shrine near Kraków. I won’t forget the sight of the devout Poles kneeling in the snow outside. So vast were the crowds that only a small proportion of them could fit inside the huge modern basilica, so the rest remained outside for the Mass which was relayed on screens. They knelt throughout the Eucharistic Prayer and to receive Holy Communion in the snow.
By contrast, I was in a privileged position. Before Mass I had made my way to the large sacristy below the basilica where a couple of hundred concelebrating priests were vesting. Not speaking Polish, I waved my celebret in front of the Sister who kept the door. The celebret is an A4 letter headed with the bishop’s coat of arms and his name in bold letters. Below, in smaller print, it asks, in Latin, that the bearer be allowed to celebrate Mass, since he is a priest in good standing.
The letter produced an instant effect on the good Sister. I was whisked upstairs to another sacristy where Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, the Archbishop of Kraków, who had been St John Paul II’s secretary for 40 years, was vesting with five more Polish prelates. I was ushered in and issued with a similarly lavish vestment and took my place in the line-up.
At the time I wondered whether this clerical equivalent of an upgrade to first class was due to my being with the choir. As the Mass began, and I discovered that I was the only “ordinary” priest mingling with the bishops, I realised that the Sister had concluded I was the bishop named atop the letter. Either way, I had been invited to go up higher.
This year I am celebrating the feast in Tasmania, at a beautiful retreat centre overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bay framed by wooded hills. The sea breaks on white sand and surges up through a blowhole – a rock formation which funnels the incoming tide so that it spouts up like a geyser. I need Jesus to breathe his peace on me because I feel a little unsettled at being on the other side of the world, on the other side of the seasons of the year and the other side of the day from home, having lost some of the Easter Octave because of the long journey to the other side of the globe.
I have always thought that distance is almost as difficult a concept as time for the finite mind to grasp, and the 30-hour trip to Tasmania confirms me in this idea. Though the spirit has no extension in time or space, part of being human is to be rooted in a particular time and place. I think of my nuns on the Isle of Wight, with their vow of stability, whose rootedness allows them to concentrate on what is essential. It strikes me as significant that the risen Jesus bids the women tell his disciples that he will go before them into Galilee. This was the place of his growing up, of much of his ministry, and by the shores of its sea he will reveal his Resurrection. To be human is first to belong somewhere; no one can belong nowhere.
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