Fr. Michael McGourty is the pastor of St. Peter’s Parish in Toronto, Ont.
Normally, at this time of year, my parish and all the parishes in the Archdiocese of Toronto, would be celebrating First Communions. Sadly, this year, due to the COVID-19 restrictions, these celebrations are being delayed until it is safe to have such gatherings in our churches again.
Recently, the focus at First Communion has been taken away from the school class and put where it belongs: on the family of the child who is preparing to receive the Eucharist. This has brought about a change in our First Communion celebrations that I just love. In the parishes that I have served in, we have taken to inviting the entire family of the young person making his or her First Communion to come up and receive the sacrament with the young person. I think it is so beautiful to see these young people coming forward to receive Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, while they are surrounded by the family that loves and cares for them so much. Each family is filled with such joy as they witness the reception of First Communion by the young candidate. The experience of witnessing so many different families coming up with their young person to receive his or her First Communion has really emphasized something that all of us share in common: love and the desire for happiness for our friends and families.
The love that radiates from each family that comes forward with their young person for First Communion reflects the love that we all seek from the Lord in the Eucharist, and are called to share with one another. At most of our churches here in Toronto, those families that come up at First Communion are from every continent on the face of the earth. We are so blessed to have families in Toronto from both of the Americas and Central America, from Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia, as well as the far North and South. Despite all of these diverse backgrounds and cultures, there is the same beautiful bond of love in each family and the same knowledge that the Lord desires to give Himself in love to all who come forward to receive Him and know of His “abiding” presence. As we normally see people young and old, from all around the world receiving the Eucharist in our parishes, we are reminded that this gift of the Eucharist was given to the Church so that we might continue the mission that Christ gave to the Church. That mission is expressed in today’s Psalm, as it states: “The Lord has revealed his victory in the sight of the nations.”
The fact that Jesus came into the world for all people and that all people are equally loved by God is something that we hear Peter articulating in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. One of the first questions that the early Church had to deal with was: “For whom was Jesus’ message of salvation intended?” There were some among the first Jewish followers of Christ who thought that Jesus had come only for the Jews. Yet, Peter saw clear signs of faith in those who were not of Jewish origin, like Cornelius, a centurion from the Roman court, and he understands that Jesus’ message was brought for all human persons. The faith of Cornelius led Peter to proclaim: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him and does what is right is acceptable to Him.”
As Peter understands that Jesus has come to proclaim God’s love for all people, he asks how it is possible that the water of Baptism should be withheld from anyone who fears God. God’s love is for all His people.
All of the other readings for this Sunday continue with this same theme of the universality of God’s love and the love that we all owe one another because God has loved us first. The passage from the First Letter of John, which we hear in the second reading this Sunday, is quite clear about this: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” God who made everyone, loves everyone. God has loved us into being. The way in which we are called to love God is to love the others that He has made and loves. For the Christian, God’s love makes all of us members of the same family and we are called to love all people.
This is also the message that we hear from Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. The Gospel of John tells us this weekend that Jesus has laid down His life to save all of us. He has done so because He loves each of us and desires us to be His friends. We are not to be His servants, but His friends. In making us His friends by His love for us, Jesus leaves us one commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is not a commandment to love those who are similar to us. It is a commandment to love all people, as brothers and sisters made in the image and likeness of God.
There is a beautiful word that Jesus uses to express how closely He desires to be with each of us. That word is “abide.” This word reminds us that Jesus loves each of us so much that He wishes to dwell in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit. In fact, the word “abide” is a reminder that we are all called to be a Temple of the Holy Spirit. In the Sacrament of Marriage, the couple is to love the other on behalf of Christ, because each is a Temple of the Holy Spirit. In today’s Gospel and Sunday readings, we are reminded that we are to love others because God loves all people and wishes to “abide” in them, as He wishes to “abide” in us. Each human being is sacred because he or she was created by God, is loved by God and God wishes to abide in each person. God’s love knows no partiality. Because of this, we are called to love all people.
As I read these beautiful readings about God’s love knowing no partiality and the call that we have to love all people, I thought of something else that knows no partiality – something that has frightened many people over this past year: COVID-19. We have all seen over this past year how this disease has taken a toll on all people around the world. As fear of illness has been a global phenomenon, one of the secondary news stories that has been in the background throughout the pandemic has been racism and the fear that this has caused among many people. Whenever there is a surge of the virus in one area of the world, there has been a corresponding fear and sentiment of hatred that has sadly grown there too. My own parents who are Canadian, but live in the United States, were frightened to drive up to Canada with their car’s American licence plate for fear of discrimination. There have been many reports of people of Asian background being attacked because of racist motivations. At the same time, other tensions have produced awareness among black and indigenous persons that have caused them, and others, to rightly speak out against racism and discrimination.
The simple fact is that all Christians must oppose and be against racism.
This Sunday’s readings provide a call to recognize the solidarity of the human family — the entire human family. Peter recognizes this call as he states in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles: “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears Him … is acceptable to Him.” Salvation is for the Jews and all the Gentiles; it is for everyone. This is also the reason why the Psalm proclaims that His victory is intended to be revealed to all the nations. This universal love of God for all people is also what we are told about in the second reading from the Letter of John, and the Gospel of John, in which Jesus gives us the great commandment to love one another as He has loved us.
On the day of our First Communion, we are invited to come forward with our immediate family to receive the Lord in our local parish community. On the day we gather for the eternal banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven, we are going to gather as all people, from every nation and land and tribe. Jesus invites us to live on Earth as though we were aware that this will be our destiny in Heaven — to be one family together. We will be admitted into Heaven because Jesus has loved us first and laid down His life that we might be His friends. His commandment is that we recognize one another as His beloved people and treat one another as such. As He wishes to abide in us, He desires to abide in all of our brothers and sisters from around the world and throughout time. All of us, made in His image and likeness are one family. He invites us to live as one, by caring for one another and keeping His commandments. For this reason, racism has no place in the life of any Christian.
Another thing that we all share in common is that we all have a mother. This weekend, I will remember all of the mothers of our parishioners, living or deceased, at our parish Masses. To my own dear mother, and all of the mothers of our parish, my heartfelt thanks for the gift of life. Happy Mother’s Day!
This reflection based on the readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter—Year B: Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 4:7-10; and John 15: 9-17.