I return to a theme of which I have spoken and written in the past. It has to do with the central message of the Gospel that we live and preach. It is especially timely to reflect on this theme as we celebrate Holy Week and Easter during this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis.

I had the great joy of celebrating Mass at the Rise Up youth rally recently with about 425 high school students. At the beginning of the homily I asked the young people a question. I pointed out that we, all the Church together, are called to evangelize, which means to spread the Gospel, the “Good News.” Then I asked, “So what IS the Good News?”

Much to my surprise and delight, a young lady immediately gave the exact answer I was looking for, but expecting to have to work to get. She simply said, “John 3:16.” She was, of course, referring to the 16th verse of the third chapter of the Gospel of St. John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

There it is — the Gospel in a nutshell. There is a reason why “John 3:16” is put on posters at sporting events and on bumper stickers. It summarizes in the most succinct and direct way the Good News of God’s love for us shown forth in Jesus his Son. Of course there is a lot more detail to be understood and believed in how we experience and live out this message, but this is the heart of the Gospel.

This is also the revelation of God’s mercy toward his children and the mystery we will celebrate very soon during Holy Week and Easter. I emphasize this because I fear at times that we are in danger of forgetting what the Christian life is all about. It is about the salvation offered to us and to all people through the passion, death and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Certainly, our response to this mercy of God toward us is lived out in our lives of charity and mercy toward those all around us, especially the poor, but the heart of the message of our redemption in Christ must never be obscured or glossed over.

When we reflect on John 3:16, we notice something. We notice that the gift eternal life is not “automatically” given to people. There must be a response to the offer of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ — we must believe and live a life of fidelity to Christ and his commandments. Without what Christ did for us on the cross, we would all perish. That is the reality the human race has faced ever since the first sin, the “original sin,” of Adam and Eve.

But here we see God’s mercy and love for us. He does not desire that we die in sin and thus perish. By “perish” we mean paying the price for our sins, which is everlasting separation from God in hell. If you don’t believe in hell, then you have not read carefully the words of Jesus in the Gospels, or the Catechism of the Catholic Church (## 1033-1037). It is not that we dwell on the reality and possibility of hell. Rather we rejoice and give thanks to God that he has delivered us from sin and eternal death by sending his Son into the world for our salvation. This he has done out of his pure goodness and love, as the Father of mercy.

We deserve eternal punishment for all our sins, but Jesus has paid the debt for us so we would not have to. He took upon himself every sin we would ever commit and nailed it to the cross. In rising from the dead he has shown forth his complete victory over sin and death and has shared that victory with us.
But again, this demands the response of faith from us and a willingness to live in a way that is pleasing to God in obedience to his commandments. But even then, when we fail and fall into sin — even mortal sin — God in his mercy does not abandon us but extends to us the hand of mercy and reconciliation. This we experience in a powerful way in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

In a very recent address Pope Francis said the following: “Let us put back at the center — and not only in this Jubilee Year! — the Sacrament of Reconciliation, true space of the Spirit in which all, confessors and penitents, can experience the only definitive and faithful love, that of God for each of His children, a love that never disappoints.”

Therefore, as we celebrate the Paschal Mystery this year (the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ), let us rejoice in the mercy of God for us his wayward children. And may we commit ourselves to celebrate that mercy in a recommitted way in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation by going to confession soon and often.

As the priest and penitent say together at the conclusion of every confession: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good. His mercy endures forever!”