The great joy of the Easter season is now upon us.  For 50 days we shall celebrate Christ’s triumphant victory over sin, suffering and death.  We shall join our neophytes in rejoicing over the new life of grace which is ours through Baptism.  We thank God that the Holy Spirit continues to empower us for our church’s evangelizing mission through the sacraments of the church.  The forgiveness of our sins is a gift ready for the taking.  How blessed we are to be the people of God, the holy church entrusted with the message of God’s amazingly great love for all of us.

Pope Benedict XVI has written, “The event of Christ’s death and resurrection is the heart of Christianity, principal fulcrum of our faith, powerful lever of our certainty, impetuous wind that sweeps away every fear and indecision, every doubt and human calculation.”  Without belief in the resurrection of Jesus, no one can be a true Christian.  What happened to those followers of Jesus after the tragedy of Good Friday is no made-up story.  Remember how fearful they were.  They had fled when the Lord was arrested.  After his burial they were hiding in the upper room.  When the risen Lord came to them that first Easter Sunday night, gradually he freed them from their fear and reignited their faith, their hope and their love.  When the Holy Spirit came upon them that first Pentecost, he sent them forth to carry on the work of Jesus and build up the family of believers, the Church.

In early Lent, 97 of us pilgrims participated in a marvelous Holy Land adventure.  It was a privilege to be in the land where the Lord himself lived and walked and talked.  After walking the Via Dolorosa on a Lenten Monday morning and praying the Stations of the Cross, we culminated the walk by celebrating an Easter Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  In that ancient edifice, marking the place where the Lord died on Calvary and was buried, we rejoiced in the good news of Christ’s victory, but we also grieved over the fact that so few of the inhabitants of modern day Jerusalem are able to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Messiah.  This has been one of the great mysteries of the growth and development of our Christian family.  There remains only a small percentage of Christians in the Holy Land these days.  Many have sought refuge in other nations, rather than continue to suffer the oppression and marginalization which, sad to say, has been their lot.  We prayed for them and I encourage you to pray for them and to support those who remain through your prayers and sacrifices.

The reduction of Christians in the Holy Land is not something unique to that sacred place.  We too seem to be suffering a reduction in our numbers as we celebrate Easter, 2012.  Pastors tell me that, were it not for the growing number of our Hispanic sisters and brothers, the population of this church of western Oregon would be in decline.  Many of our Catholic sisters and brothers have chosen to walk away from the church because much of what the church teaches, like what Jesus taught, comes across as a hard saying.

We are reminded of a similar struggle that took place when Jesus was preaching and teaching nearly 20 centuries ago.  Many of his listeners found his teachings too hard to take.  When that happened, Jesus asked the apostles who remained, “Will you also leave?”  St. Peter spoke up on behalf of the others and said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of everlasting life.”  As we fret over the loss of our brothers and sisters in faith, Jesus also looks into our eyes and asks us the same question, “Will you also leave?”  We join Peter in his response and assure Jesus that we recognize that there is no other who has spoken as he spoke.  There is no other to whom we could possibly go and hear the words of everlasting life that he speaks to us through his church.

Is the church a problem?  For many, it is an insurmountable problem.  For many of us, in spite of the church’s very human limitations, it is a source of our hope and our joy.  There always has been much that one could describe as wrong with the church, but we ourselves are the church.  This Easter season gives us an opportunity to be strengthened by the grace of God and be more effective in making our church a spiritual home for all who seek God.  We are all searchers.  We all have our doubts.  Left to our own personal resources, without the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the support of our companions in faith, namely, the church, the likelihood of ever grasping the ultimate meaning of life would tragically escape us.

Good Friday is in the past on Easter Sunday morning.  But we must never forget it.  The way to glory for Jesus was through the cross.  The same is true for us.  Our personal sins caused the death of Christ within us.  Sin turns us away from God and gradually, without acknowledgement and the seeking of forgiveness, will end the life of Christ within us.

During the Easter Vigil the deacon or cantor sings, “O felix culpa!”  O happy fault!”  Sin is never a happy experience when it is hidden or denied.  But when it is acknowledged and forgiven, then it is truly a source of Easter joy because Christ, through His paschal mystery, has overcome even sin itself.  God is not a curmudgeon like we are when it comes to forgiving.  He loves us unquestionably and is eager to extend mercy and peace to all who welcome his loving embrace.

The 50 days of Easter will be filled with many celebrations of joy here in the Archdiocese of Portland.  We all look forward to the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit through the sacraments of Holy Orders, Confirmation, Reconciliation and First Eucharist.  This year we take special pride in the decision of Pope Benedict to appoint one of our own priests, Father Liam Cary, as the seventh Bishop of Baker.  His ordination and installation are scheduled for May 18 in Bend.  We regret the loss of his priestly life and ministry among us but we rejoice that through his episcopal ministry God will strengthen and empower the evangelizing mission of our neighbors in eastern Oregon.  Here in our own archdiocese we shall celebrate the ordination of five seminary deacons on May 19 and eleven new priests on June 9.  Bishop Steiner and I will be traveling around the archdiocese confirming the faith of countless young Catholics through the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The Bread of Life will be shared among many first communicants. 

It is also our sincere hope that those who return to church to worship with us on Easter Sunday will discover a meaningful spiritual home where a lost relationship with God is rediscovered and re-established.  Some people fret over these Christmas and Easter Catholics who darken the doors of our churches so infrequently.  I, for my part, rejoice that the messages of Christmas and Easter still in some way touch their hearts.  It gives us an opportunity to be a more welcoming church, a more forgiving church, a more focused church.  I pray that the 50 days of Easter, 2012, will truly be a time of grace and renewal for all of us.  Yes, Jesus lives.  He lives in us and among us.  Alleluia!