Our Lady of Fatima

Homily at Our Lady of Fatima

The Unclean Spirit, Ideological Possession, and the Dignity of All Persons

In Sunday’s reading from the Gospel, Jesus encounters a man with an unclean spirit in, of all places, the sacred space of the synagogue. The spirit recognizes him and fearfully reacts “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” Jesus silences the unclean spirit and casts it out of the man.

Certainly, demonic possession is still a phenomenon that happens today. But is seems that most often, evil prefers a much subtler approach. What might that look like?

One of the great thinkers in our day has coined a phenomenon he describes as “ideological possession.”

As I understand it, it’s the idea that a person can become so attached to an ideology that no amount of evidence or truth can ever bring them to have a change of heart or mind. And it doesn’t matter whether the truth is revealed by science or religion, by empirical evidence or experience; they are completely resistant to it. If you have ever engaged someone like this in a discussion, you know that the truth frightens them, as if it might actually harm them.

As Catholics, we believe that the Truth has a name; Jesus Christ. And we are called to follow him wherever he leads us. This isn’t easy. Because to follow Jesus, to be loyal to the truth, means that we will have to let go of those things in our lives that are not true. It means we have to be open to being changed, or transformed by the truth. And while this is not easy, we do it because we believe that Jesus is ultimately leading us to a higher good. “You will know the truth,” he said, “And the truth will set you free.”

Ideological possession exists even in, of all places, the Church. There are many examples but I will share with you two extremes. I have met people within the diocese who do a good job of raising our awareness of the dignity of immigrants, for example. This is important and necessary work, especially today. But they would suggest that such work must necessarily lead one to deny the dignity of the unborn. They rationalize what our society is doing to the unborn. And no amount of evidence will convince them otherwise.

On the other hand, there is the extreme that raises our awareness of the dignity of the unborn, likewise, extremely important work in our day. But they suggest that such work requires denying the dignity of immigrants. They rationalize what is currently happening to immigrant families who are being torn apart. And nothing you tell them about the immigrant families that live in their communities will ever convince them to have a change of heart.

Both extremes throw a veil over the dignity of human persons. They just happen to do it in different situations. They make us believe we have to choose between the unborn and the immigrant. Their hearts are completely hardened against the truth.

The role of the Church

The role of the Church in all of this is to highlight the dignity of each person. Without sensationalizing the issues, we have to say over and over again that the dignity of each person means we are responsible for what happens to one another. It means our status as sons and daughters of God does not rely on our being born or having a birth certificate or any other government issued document.

I don’t want to give the impression that there isn’t room for disagreement and passionate debate within the Church. If anything, we need more debate. But we need good debate. We need to be mindful of the spirit that is driving it. Is it one that is motivated by fear of the Truth and where it could lead? Or is it one of faith in Christ who leads us to a higher good?

We are Doing. God is making.

I am often reminded that the work God gives us keeps our focus on what we are doing, while God is focused on what we are becoming in our hearts. And what he wants for us is that we become saints. By God’s grace, I hope to always remember that if I should win every single public policy debate before me, but I become an obstacle to Christ to even one person, then I have failed. If I enjoy every success according to the world’s standard but I do not become the saint God wants me to be, then I have failed.

Joyful Witnesses

I often meet good Christian men and women who are frustrated by politics. They are disappointed by what is happening. I try to gently remind them that our hope does not abide in a political savior or a political party; that that is precisely what Judas was hoping for. And if we are not careful, placing our hope in anyone besides Jesus can lead us to betray him.

He is our hope. And while the world, at times, seems to be racing toward its own demise, we believe that Christ has already conquered sin and death. So while we acknowledge our frustrations we must preach a Gospel of hope.

Our Lady is the perfect model for this. So filled with grace was she, that merely the sound of her voice was enough to cause her cousin Elizabeth to think of Jesus. Just her voice at the door made Elizabeth cry out “How is it that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me?” Think about that. Just Mary’s voice made Elizabeth think, “Ah! Jesus!” Do our voices do that? When people hear Deacon Mike’s voice at the door do they think, “Ah! Jesus!” Or is there reaction more like, “Oh Jesus…. He’s back.”

Joy is contagious. It spreads like wildfire. But in order to spread it, we first have to have it. And our Lady shows us how to have joy.

We have it when we have Jesus in our hearts. He shows us the dignity of each and every person we meet, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, Catholic, non-Catholic, believer or non-believer, unborn or immigrant, from the womb to the tomb and every state in between.

This recognition is the foundational truth from which all of our advocacy for the common good flows out of. But if we don’t get it, we can’t do it. If we don’t recognize our own dignity, we will never see the dignity of others.

So I invite you to fix your eyes on the image of our crucified Lord now, and listen to what I have to tell you. Whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever languages you speak, whatever your perception of God is right now, whatever you have done in the past, whatever you have failed to do in the past, whatever your state in life, however old you may be, know this, you are worth that kind of pain. You are worth that much suffering. You are even worth dying for; because you are precious in Father’s eyes. This, is the Truth! This is the reason for our joy. Whatever life brings you, remember that.

 

 

 

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Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

Happy New Year everyone!

I made a New Year’s resolution for 2018 to eat healthier and get more exercise and I am happy to report to you that I have not yet broken it!

I was thinking what a wonderful way it is to start the New Year with the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of God. We tend to see the New Year as an opportunity for new beginnings. It’s a time when we allow our imaginations to be fired up a bit envisioning a better future brought about by personal change. Really, the Gospel reading shows us the path for that better future when it says, Mary experienced the incarnation and the birth of Jesus and all of the mysterious events that surrounded it, then it says, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary had a reflective interior life of prayer. This is actually the opposite of our focus sometimes when we are seeking change. We often focus on the external things. We want to shed a few pounds for example, when what we need more than a magic number on a scale is to become more active.

The Gospel tells us again and again that the external things are important, but just as important is the interior conversion of our hearts. Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” This is a much higher standard than “You shall not kill.” It is the antidote to the Pharisees’ attitude of the time and it is the antidote to our own cultural climate today which says you should do whatever you want to do as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.

Jesus goes on to say, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is quite a contrary message to the cultural one which says you can look with lust at anyone, as long as you don’t touch. The culture seems to think that there can be a disconnect between the interior and exterior life. We believe that the exterior life is the manifestation of what we are living interiorly.

My family has gotten hooked on the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” I’m usually not a fan of spooky shows, but it has a good storyline and it has a lot of symbolism. It’s set in a small town in the 80s and the backstory is that the government has been conducting experiments and accidentally opens a door to another dimension. And an evil presence begins to enter the town through that portal. The government then tries to contain this evil presence while covering up its mistake. All of this is discovered by the sympathetic characters in the story.

At a certain point, the characters discover that the evil has broken containment and it has created underground tunnels that give the evil presence access to the entire town. Initially, life above ground seems to be much the same as it always was. People are mostly unaware of the danger they are in. Life above ground seems unaffected by the underlying evil, until it suddenly begins to be affected. An entire pumpkin patch begins to die when the evil seeps through. And of course, much worse things begin to happen to the town after that.

Much in the same way, a worldly attitude tempts us to open doors to evil, and suggests that we can contain that evil, that there is nothing actually wrong with it as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else. Of course, the reality is, if we allow anger or lust or pride or any sin to build tunnels in our hearts, our lives will eventually begin to reflect that. If we allow sin to be normalized in our hearts, we will eventually hurt people whether we intend to or not.

Our Blessed Mother shows us the antidote. It’s more than seeking behavior changes. It’s even more than rooting out the evil inroads we have allowed to be constructed in our hearts. It’s actively building tunnels of grace in our hearts. She experienced God’s grace and love in her life and what did she do? “She kept all of these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Instead of allowing anger or lust to take hold of her heart, she gave her heart to gratitude and wonder.

Every one of us here today has had experiences of God’s grace in our lives. Maybe they were big or maybe they were small moments. But they were times when we felt God’s hand moving in our lives. Perhaps, through the business of life, we haven’t thought about those experiences in a while. We think of them as just memories. But memories are very powerful. And reflecting on those moments of grace can have a big impact on our lives.

I remember one day our daughter Sophie was about 4 or 5 years old. Jen and I were making dinner and Sophie was watching the movie, The Fox and the Hound on VHS. She came upstairs at one point in tears. She had just watched the part where Todd, the fox is left out in the wild all alone and it made her sad. I listened as Jen comforted her and reminded her “You’ve seen this movie lots of times before, you know it’s going to get better, just keep watching.” Sophie dried her eyes and went back downstairs. Fifteen minutes later she came back upstairs crying again. Jen said, “Why are you crying now?” Sophie said, “Well, I rewinded it…”

This is the very real power of reflecting on things in our hearts. When we reflect on our memories of experiencing God’s grace, when we rewind those tapes, it can move us to tears, it can move us to joy. It can inspire conversion and a desire to change that lasts well beyond the New Year. It helps us build tunnels of grace in our hearts. It helps us build a holier interior life, which will eventually make for a better world. This is the example our blessed Mother sets for us. Let us ask her for her intercession as we place our hopes for a happier, healthier and holier year before her.

Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed are though amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

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Gaudete Sunday

This is Gaudete Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent in which we are called to rejoice, as we enter the final stretch before the season of Christmas.

I have found that in some years, I experience Advent in a very profound way. It’s like I don’t even have to make much of an effort. Physically, emotionally and spiritually speaking, I am “in” the season of Advent and looking with great anticipation toward Christmas. And then there are years like this one when I feel like I am kind of going through the motions. Like everyone else is having this great spiritual experience, and I am just an observer.

In years like this, it’s hard to come to Mass and hear the first reading from Isaiah when he says, “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.” It’s hard to hear St. Paul in the second reading say “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks…May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I don’t know about you, but I know that I am not “perfectly holy.” I am not “blameless.” And when I’m not “feeling” God’s grace bringing me to that perfection, I can be subject to all kinds of doubts. I begin to wonder if maybe holiness isn’t really possible for me. Maybe this is as good as things are going to get. Maybe God has gotten tired of me and my sins.

And I begin to reminisce about happier Advents and Christmases. But here is the thing. I remember how happy I was, but I seem to forget what a wicked little tyrant I was at the time. It’s true! I know that holiness is still a long way away for me. But I am much closer than I used to be, thanks be to God. God has done great things for me! And I’m sure that if you thought about where you have come from, you know it to be true of yourselves! Probably many of us are not there yet, but God is bringing us along! It’s good to look honestly at our past now and then to remember how far we have come.

It’s also good to remember that God is not done with us yet! I was thinking about this and it reminded me of my dad. He just turned 83 this last September.

Growing up, if you would have asked me to describe my dad, “saintly” is not an adjective that would have come to mind. I would have said he had a “bad temper” (especially when we were moving cows.) I would have said he was a “hard worker.” I would have even said that he was a “good man.” But I would never have called him a saint.

Yet, I remember, because he always got up so early, he also went to bed very early. And I can vividly picture him kneeling down in front of a chair outside of my parent’s bedroom every night and praying. Sometimes it was only for a minute. But he did it every night before he went to bed.

I’ve shared before that about 12 years ago, dad was diagnosed with emphysema. He smoked for most of his life. The doctor said that he only has about 30% lung capacity but his heart looks like that of a 30-year-old. Thanks to that and the miracle of modern medicine, dad is still living. But he has had to make changes.

For most of his life, he measured his own self-worth by how much he had accomplished on a given day. But he liked to work hard so for most of his life, that philosophy suited him. Now, he found, walking across the room was enough to exhaust him. So he couldn’t accomplish much of anything. As a result, he was feeling worthless.

These last 12 years I’ve seen my dad struggle with that. And yet, I have also seen his faith grow tremendously. These days, he only misses Mass if he is too sick to go. He prays the Rosary with Mother Angelica and her sisters on EWTN every night. He frequents the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Because mom’s hearing is diminished, he spends most of his days communicating in a very loud voice. More than once, the priest has told him in the confessional “Bill, lower your voice or the whole town is going to know what you’ve been up to.”

Even if he goes to Mass he will watch the televised Mass which is filmed up in Casper. He keeps me posted on which priest is saying the tv Mass each month. And he even tells me which priests give the best homilies. That is a secret I must now take to the grave. While he can’t do much physically, his mind is forever focused on trying to take care of my mom.

I can’t judge the state of dad’s soul but I see there is a gentleness and a sense of peace that wasn’t there before. If he is not yet a saint, it seems to me that he is very close. “Saintly” is now a word that comes to mind when I think of him. Obviously, that makes me happy for him. But it also gives me hope.

While I can’t presume that God is going to allow my own path to sanctity to go on for 83 years, I do see how God’s mercy has allowed for time in my dad’s case. I do see how God took the smallest acts of piety on my dad’s part, like kneeling down in prayer every night, to bring him closer to holiness. It gives me hope. I am sure if you thought about it, there are parents or grandparents or friends in your life who God has been sanctifying right before your eyes.

So I think, when we experience those times where we feel like we are just going through the motions, we have to trust that even then, God is shaping us in some mysterious way. We don’t want to presume that we have lots of time, but it’s good to remember that God does have time. He has all of eternity. And even if we can’t see progress, God does see it. So don’t give up. Don’t be scandalized by your own sins. God is not surprised by them. He knows perfectly well the evil we are all capable of. So don’t be scandalized by your sins, repent of them.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down. What matters is that you get back up one more time.

Most importantly, do not allow your struggles to cause you to give up thinking about heaven. Do you still think about heaven? Do you allow yourself the time to dream about what it will be like?

I think sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to think about heaven because we know we can’t get there. But God knows it to. That is why he sent his only son. When St. Paul calls us to be perfect in holiness and to be preserved blameless, he says “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.” You see? It’s not all on us thanks be to God!

So if you feel like this Advent is one where you are going through the motions, remember, it is all in anticipation of the gift of Christ who is leading us to perfection and to the glory of heaven.

So let’s allow ourselves time this week to dream big. Imagine a year of favor from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. Picture a place where every broken heart will be healed, where captives and prisoners will be set free. A place where there is no more war, or violence, or abuse. Where there is no more cancer or disease, no more addictions. And there will be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain. Every tear will be wiped away, and when we enter heaven’s gate, we will be greeted by lost loved ones.

My brothers and sisters, let us rejoice heartily in the LORD, for he is faithful, and he will also accomplish it.