Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - Opening of the Seminary Year
Homily of Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP - First Sunday of Lent, Year A, and Opening of the Seminary Year, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Sunday 9 March 2014
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Welcome to today’s celebration of Mass on the First Sunday of Lent. For six weeks we will walk with Christ to His Passion and Cross that He might ready us for His Resurrection and ours.
Today we also celebrate the opening of a new year of Holy Spirit Seminary and in its new premises at Harris Park. I welcome in particular the Rector, Fr John Hogan, and the seminarians as they embark on a new year of priestly formation.
Beginning this year are Adam Carlow, Matthew Dimian, Shinto Francis, Matthew Griffin and Evans Mary Onah. It is really very exciting and encouraging to have five fine young men joining us this year. I welcome their families to this morning’s celebration. The wide variety of backgrounds – ethnic, familial, ritual and educational – is a testament to the unity in diversity of our Diocese.
Forty years ago the Hollywood horror film The Exorcist was released. Adapted by William Peter Blatty from his own novel, it depicts the struggle between good and evil in the life of a 12-year-old girl, Regan MacNeil, and thus in the lives of all those around her. Linda Blair plays the sweet, amiable child who starts to display strange and aggressive behaviours after playing with a Ouija board. Her mother Chris MacNeil, played by Ellen Burstyn, is a famous actress, agnostic, quick-tempered but a loving mother. Regan’s behaviour leads her to consulting neurologists, psychiatrists and, when all else fails, a Catholic priest. Jason Miller plays Father Karras, a Jesuit psychologist who is sceptical about the existence of the Devil and even of God; but when all natural and medical explanations for the phenomena fail, he asks his bishop if he may perform the Rite of Exorcism. The bishop agrees but wisely directs that that he involve a saintly older priest who has prior experience of exorcism, Father Merrin (played by Max von Sydow).
The Exorcist is best remembered for its horrifying special effects, such as Regan’s head rotating 360 degrees, her green vomit, her walking around the ceiling like a spider and so on. I suspect that many people’s ideas of the Devil come from such Hollywood films rather than the Bible or the teaching of the Church. They either believe the Hollywood version, which is always perilous, or they dismiss the whole idea as at best entertainment, as more often the explanation primitives give for natural phenomena they don’t understand, or as at worst religious fantasies used to frighten and control people. We end up either overestimating or underestimating the Devil.
But Hollywood can sometimes get some things right and the Exorcist film accepts, if not uncritically, that the Devil is real and can possess people who invite him into their lives. As the 19th Century French poet, Charles Baudelaire wrote, as CS Lewis explained in his famous Screwtape Letters and, as Verbal said in the film The Usual Suspects, “the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist”. Lure people into a false sense of security, so that they think nothing of evil, sin, death, judgment, hell and the Devil and they’ll be much easier prey to the charms of each. Whether or not it’s Satan’s tactic, there’s no doubt it is commonplace in our culture to dismiss the demonic as primitive nonsense. Sociologist Philip Rieff observed that there has been a “triumph of the therapeutic” in modernity, in which the reality of sin and the need for prayer and penance to overcome it are ignored and medical, psychological and educational treatments are thought to be able to cure everything.
So what are modern Catholics to think? Well, let me start with that most modern of Catholics, Pope Francis. In his letter, Evangelii Gaudium (the Joy of the Gospel) the Holy Father observes that the sense of personal and collective sin has weakened in modernity (EG 64). In some ways that might be a good thing, as we no longer accept evasions of personal responsibility such as “the Devil made me do it” and we no longer seek inappropriate remedies for things like epilepsy and depression. But the Pope warns against explaining all evil away, as if it is all just opinion or bad structures. Evil, he insists, is very real and it exists precisely in angelic and human persons freely choosing to act against God’s will.
Now, that’s not the Pope Francis we hear about in the media. But there’s more. Already on several occasions as Pope he has warned us to “always be on guard” against the deceitful wiles of the Evil One. There is, he insists, a spiritual battle going on for the soul of humanity and of each person, where eternal salvation is at risk and where the Devil and his colleagues are real players. “The Devil is present from the first page of the Bible to the last,” the Pope recently said, no doubt having in mind today’s Genesis account of the Fall (Gen 2:7-9; 3:1-7). A subtle and serpentine Satan seduces humanity to disobedience. Created good and chief amongst the angels he and his allies have chosen definitively not to obey God; his goal now is to tempt us to do the same, indeed to “play God”. Where he succeeded with Adam and Eve he has often done ever since: our sins might not be as original as theirs, but their consequences can be as serious. Sin kills, as Paul observes (Rom 5:12-19), including that spiritual and psychological death that is vice, mortal sin and hell.
But even if South American popes and ancient Jewish and Christian writers believed in the Devil, should thoroughly modern Millies like us in contemporary Australia do so too? Well, let’s look at Jesus. In that first Lent that was His 40 days in the desert, Jesus contended with Satan, refusing to “play God” by letting bodily hunger, desire for worldly glory or spiritual pride trump God’s will (Mt 4:1-11). He returned to the theme many times in the years of public ministry that followed. The Devil, Jesus taught, seeks to obstruct people receiving God and His word (Lk 8:10; Jn 8:44); to thwart our best he sows evil men and evil deeds among them (Mt 13:38-39); he cannot conquer if divided against himself (Mk 3:23), but he can turn the heart of a Judas to betrayal and can try to claim a Peter too (Jn 6:70; 13:2,27; Lk 22:31-32; Mt 16:23); the Devil and his minions await the unjust in hell (Mt 25:41) but they cannot conquer the just (Lk 10:17-18). Jesus’ enemies called Him a demon and possessed (Mk 3:22; Jn 8:52; 10:20) but the fact was that He fought the Devil and regularly freed people from demons (Mk 7:24-30; Mt 15:21-28; 17:14-20; Lk 4:31-34; 11:14; etc). On His last night Jesus prayed that the Father preserve us from the Evil One, just as He had taught us to pray in the Our Father (Mt 6:13; Jn 17:15). The evidence is overwhelming that Jesus believed in the Devil – a personal and powerful force for evil – and if Jesus believed it, that’s good enough for the Church, for Pope Francis, and for me.
But that’s not the end of it. Pope Francis notes that the Bible ends with a prophecy of “the victory of God over the Devil”. We Christians know what Hollywood does not always know. We should have a Paul-like confidence that Christ triumphs over evil and death and that the Church, for all her failings, is His instrument in this. At the end of The Exorcist, the formerly possessed but now liberated girl, seeing a Roman collar, runs up to a priest, affectionate and grateful for what priests do, including mediating Christ’s victory over sin and the Devil. The Devil is real but Christ is more real; the Devil is powerful but Christ is more powerful; the Devil is full of hate but Christ is all love; and Christ is God and so we need not fear as long as we cling to Him.Today, as we celebrate the beginning of a new seminary year with our seminarians, we pray that they may be loyal to their God-given calling amidst their own spiritual battles in formation and that, if it is God’s will, one day they may be priestly ministers of Christ’s light in our struggles with darkness without and within. We thank them and their families for their generosity in offering themselves for service in God’s kingdom.
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