Have you ever noticed how fascinated people are, to the point that it sometimes becomes headline news when someone famous becomes Catholic?   In our celebrity-obsessed culture, that might not be surprising.  Movie producers will go out of their way to get a professional athlete to attend a film’s premiere.  Restaurant owners proudly display pictures of famous actors or political figures dining with them.  The attention these celebrities receive, these individuals hope, will provide free advertising or word of mouth, drawing their fans to these places, which often has proven true.  When Justin Bieber moved into the Montclair area a few years ago, some of the students from MSU ended up semi-stalking places in town, he was said to have visited.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – Divine Mercy Sunday April 7, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

What’s strange, though, is that when a famous person becomes Catholic, it kind of receives different reactions.  The tone accompanying these stories from many in the media seems shocked or skeptical, which isn’t just a modern experience.  The press wasn’t too excited when, at the end of the 19th Century, famed Irish poet and writer Oscar Wilde became Catholic; they were taken aback when Tennessee Williams, the American playwright did in the 1960’s; they were shocked when American actor and Hollywood Icon John Wayne did in the 1970’s.  When actor Shia LeBeouf did a few years ago, it was seen as another dramatic episode in this guy’s personal life as they quickly recounted all the struggles and scandals that had resulted in many setbacks for the man.  So, on the part of many mass-media reporters, there must be something wrong, some angle to explain why a famous person would become a part of something that many have rejected (and many of those reporting have rejected).

What’s equally as strange is seeing and hearing the reaction of many Catholics to these stories.  They see and hear that someone famous, brilliant, or influential is entering the faith and can find themselves excited for the wrong reasons.  Thinking maybe others will want to become Catholic because this celebrity did.  Or feeling validated or affirmed in their faith because this person has “joined our team.” You could find examples of that this past week.   Jordan Peterson, a famed psychologist, author, and media personality who has gained quite a following, especially over the last decade – last Saturday night at the Easter Vigil, Jordan’s wife Tammy became Catholic.  Tammy has been very publicly sharing how she was introduced to the Catholic faith while battling Cancer.  She very beautifully testifies how a friend giving her the rosary and teaching her how to pray resulted in not just a miraculous recovery but a much deeper spiritual awakening that led her to start the prayer and study of the faith called the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults (what we used to call RCIA) and ultimately to her being baptized last weekend.

However, many Catholics who shared this story of her conversion, seemed more interested asking, “How cool would it be if Jordan Peterson ends up becoming Catholic?” And lots and lots of people liking that and chiming in, agreeing.  Or adding their own “wish” list of people they’d like to draft to become “Catholic.” There was this sense that the motivation for some was that they wanted the agreement or assurance or affirmation that someone they looked up to, were impressed with, became Catholic.  Like it’s something they want or need for themselves – with someone even saying, “I was born and raised Catholic but haven’t been to Mass in years, I might have to go to Mass if he becomes Catholic.”            They have it backward.  People – famous or not – become Catholic not because of anyone else but Jesus.  Every individual has to decide for themselves to believe.  Yes, there are many influences, experiences, and other people who impact that – things that God, in His providence, provides or can use to help a person come to this enlightenment.  But in the end the choice to believe is something everyone personally needs to make in their heart and soul, and internalize and renew themselves in.  That Jesus Christ lived, died, rose again from the dead.  That truth means through Him, we can experience His Divine Mercy: the forgiven our sins, and through His resurrection, we can defeat death as well.

I think, unfortunately for a lot of Catholics, people’s doubts, some born of the scandalous behavior of those in the Church that embarrasses and enrages us – some just born of the difficulties, the pains, the trials of life make us susceptible to look for a quick, easy answer to those doubts – that makes it tempting to fall for this celebrity fascination as an answer.

Which is why this Sunday has become a favorite part of the Easter Season for me.  Every year, we pause the usual rotation hearing from the different Gospel writers that we have on a three-year cycle, and the Church gives us this particular passage from the Gospel of John every year.  This, unfortunately, and (I think wrongly) titled “Doubting Thomas” summarization of the first Easter.  Because of this incident, most have forever cast Thomas as the group’s pessimist, which in many ways is unfair.

Lest we forget, all of the apostles, the disciples, after Good Friday were devastated.  The horrific predictions Jesus had made of what was going to happen to Him multiple times, which, as He was telling them before it happened, they didn’t understand, or it was too horrible to consider that they tried to ignore – all of it had unfolded just as Jesus had told them it would.  The events of Good Friday unleashed such brutality and humiliation for Jesus, His closest friends- His apostles and disciples were in severe desolation.  So much so that they didn’t even remember Jesus’ further prophecies and promises of being “raised up.” None of them, even the first ones who saw the empty tomb and the burial cloths and shroud that covered Jesus’ head left behind, none of them recalled Jesus’ promises of resurrection initially.  Their impulse was to think that another awful thing, another humiliation, had occurred.

We don’t know why Thomas was not with the other 10 in the Upper Room that first Easter Sunday Night.  I always joke that he’s the patron saint for people who miss Sunday Mass.  But as I’ve prayed with it and tried to imagine the scene, I just think he was overwhelmed with grief and anger.  Thomas is grieved at what had happened to Jesus, the one he had left everything behind to follow.  Angered knowing that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, someone Thomas must’ve seen as a brother – denied by Peter, someone Jesus himself had raised to be the leader of the apostles – and abandoned by the rest of the 12 except for John.  So I don’t blame him if, in his emotional state, he didn’t exactly want to be with the others three days later.  When these same ones tell Thomas the incredible news that Jesus has risen from the dead, things get interesting.  Thomas doesn’t look at “Peter” the Rock and determine his faith because he or any of the others say so.  Instead, Thomas calls Jesus out boldly.  If Jesus is alive, if He is risen, Thomas cries let me see you, let me touch your wounds.  He’s not being disrespectful.  Thomas is still traumatized.  But we have to notice something else.  Thomas is not arrogant or demanding.  He’s not putting conditions on how or when that needs to happen.  He’s not saying that he will remain isolated and alone until Jesus answers his prayer the way he wants.  Because notice where he is the next Sunday.  He’s with them in that upper Room.  The same group he was angry and disappointed with, he pushes past whatever prevented him from being their that first Sunday night that the following week when they get together again, he joins them.  Yes, St Thomas, the patron saint of people who miss Sunday Mass, doesn’t continue to miss Sunday Mass on a regular basis!

In that second Sunday gathering, Jesus comes again… And notice that as Jesus comes again, he doesn’t admonish Thomas at all because Thomas is honest.  He loved Jesus.  He had already demonstrated that by being with Him and following Him.  And who wouldn’t want this news to be true?  He – nor the rest of the apostles and disciples – had never experienced something this glorious and spectacular as Easter.  So as Thomas humbles himself and moves past his anger and disappointment, he is focusing on the love.  The love that he still had for his brothers and sisters in the upper Room, the love for Jesus that had captured Thomas’ heart that made him abandon everything to follow Him in the first place.  Its there and then where Thomas can encounter the Risen Christ himself.

Which is still the case.  Jesus is pretty clear in telling His apostles, and His disciples that moving forward they themselves will be His voice, His hands, His feet.  And 20 centuries later, we who have not seen the physically risen Jesus Christ but believed, Jesus’ prediction is fulfilled – we are blessed… blessed to have received this inheritance, blessed to have the benefit of 20 centuries of witnesses, testimonies, of lives being transformed by the Risen Christ’s continuing action in the life of the Church and through her members who continue to be His voice, His hands and His feet.  We have been blessed to experience that transformation, still underway in each of us, where the Risen Christ wants us, as He tells us in the Gospel of John, “to experience life and to have it abundantly.” Both here and now and for all eternity.

I’ve seen Jordan Peterson’s dialogue about questions about what he believes on a philosophical and religious level from all kinds of quarters over the years, including with some of the most respected and well-versed people in the Church like Bishop Robert Barron.   But when Jordan Peterson was interviewed this week by a Catholic reporter after his wife’s baptism who he asked Jordan how his wife Tammy’s new Catholic faith has affected them as a couple, it was the first time I saw him break down in tears as he said:

“I love my wife from the moment I laid eyes on her when I was a kid.  And if you love someone, it hurts you when you see them deviate from the thing that draws you to them.   And since she’s pursued her efforts at enlightening herself more thoroughly, and this investigation of Catholicism has been key to that- she’s much more who she is.  And that’s great because I love who she is.  So the more of that, the better.  And its its it’s the same thing you want to see if you have a child that you love.  You want to see them become everything they can be – and that’s a lot – if they can become everything they can be that’s an endless unfolding – and so there isn’t anything better than to see that in someone.”

No, it won’t be a famous actor, celebrity, or media influencer who will convince Jordan Peterson to become Catholic, or anyone else to, for that matter, nor for any of us to stay Catholic.  It is only in our paying attention to the questions that unsettle us within… where we look to alleviate the anxiety that our brokenness, our sins, causes us to experience; where we seek an answer, long for the freedom from fear that death understandably causes.  Having the boldness and honesty of Thomas in calling out in prayer, to Jesus.  But also the humility of Thomas, to push past those feelings that cause us to withdraw, tempting us to isolate, and taking the risk to give and receive genuine, sincere, authentic, selfless love.  That is how the Risen Christ shows Himself to us here and now.  It’s then that Easter becomes real for each one of us.