Working in campus ministry, one of our goals is to come up with ideas, events, lectures that will engage others at the University. Without a doubt, the most successful event ever was a few years back when we hosted a Vatican trained exorcist to come and speak about his experiences in dealing with people who were possessed by the devil. We had posted flyers and gotten the word out about our “Night with the Exorcist” – and reserved a large conference room for the talk. Its always hard to tell what’s catching students attention or not. With so many sources of information – too many invitations and requests, and just distractions – you can never be sure what’s “trending” on campus – or as my generation would’ve put it – who or what has got a “buzz” around them. But this was far and away the most popular thing we had ever done.

Hi everyone here’s my homily for MARCH 1, 2020- FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT. Thanks so much for stopping by to read this and even ore for sharing it on your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and everywhere else people share social media posts and your feedback and comments! For the audio version you can get them at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. Thanks again – I hope you and yours experience all of God’s blessings today and always! In Christ – Father Jim

No doubt there was a curiosity factor. Movies and television programs all have done different takes on “demonic possession” multiple times. And having the event a couple of weeks before Halloween definitely helped us with our own marketing. But I have to admit that it was a bit unnerving to me that the day of the event we were getting local television stations and reporters calling looking to do interviews. The lecture even landed on the front page of the largest newspaper in the state the day of the event, the newspaper reporter calling our visitor directly and preparing a type of preview story. Seeing crowds of people lining up before closed doors thirty minutes before the program was set to begin was unexpected. We’re so used to working hard to promote events, being intentional and invitational in our outreach to people- that seeing this take off with nowhere near the amount of effort and promotion that we do on a regular basis kind of took me aback. Well over 700 people sat on the edges of their seats and listened to this soft-spoken, really laid back priest- just standing at a podium with his notes and a bible for a solid hour and then remained for another 90 minutes for Q & A.

The priest shared his experiences of encountering legitimate demonic possessions. All the bizarre stories like where people levitated – spoke in bizarre voices and strange languages – all the stuff you might have seen before in those movies or shows. It was fascinating seeing and hearing people’s reactions as the night went on. But what I was most surprised by was the reaction and the impressions people had in the aftermath.     The day after the event, one of the classes on campus – which wasn’t a Christian class or anything that could be described as promoting the Catholic faith – had encouraged their students to attend the event and the day after they were going to discuss it. And I was invited to the class as a guest to answer follow up questions and help them process and discuss. The class had a range of kids who described themselves as atheist or agnostic, non-Christian or the majority of kids who had been raised Christian or Catholic not really practicing. They all talked about how as the priest described things he encountered in exorcisms in pretty elaborate detail which FREAKED THEM OUT, he was so very matter-of-fact about it – he was really unimpressed, unmoved by it… he talked about it like a fireman who’s seen an entire building engulfed, floors collapsing and just calmly talks through each step of getting in and getting out of that situation. One of the kids who had identified himself as an agnostic said “I was just amazed at this guy’s faith – that he was able to face that stuff and talk about it so dispassionately.” Another kid picked up on that saying “Yeah the priest was just this really humble, simple guy and here he’s telling these different stories that people were all reacting to and kind of freaking out and he kept coming back to the fact that Jesus Christ was far more powerful and that is the thing that was more impressive…” I have to admit I was relieved that was the thing that registered – that this wasn’t a glamorization of evil but rather a testimony to faith in Jesus Christ.

Even more interesting to me was when the professor asked what was the thing that surprised the students the most. After just the fact that this stuff is real and really happens – and not just a Hollywood thing – was that they didn’t realize that Satan didn’t just attack people and take them over or something like that – that the devil didn’t just somehow get into unsuspecting people – but that people had somehow in someway invited these evil forces in… that in the end, those who were suffering from these things had in some way cooperated with evil. Which to me was the most important point – especially working with young people.

Because while it was important to underline the fact that while demonic possession is real – that it is very, very, very rare. That over 99% of the time the priest explained that when he’s called, people are dealing with a spiritual crisis or even an mental or psychological illness that legitimately need help but not an exorcist. But aside from his being an exorcist – he’s the pastor of a parish and he explained that the greater issue, the greater problem, the greater threat for the greatest number of people – isn’t demonic possession – but rather it is us not taking our encounters with temptation more seriously. Not being more vigilant in confronting evil.

Do we recognize those voices, those influences that tempt us in seemingly small ways? Tempt us to go against what we know is right and to do something we know is wrong? On this first Sunday of Lent, right as we’ve entered this season where we’re invited to repent and believe in the Gospel, perfectly timed we have a Gospel that forces us to confront those questions. Every year we hear about how the devil in all arrogance even goes after Jesus. And it’s helpful for us to look at how he does what he does and see how it’s similar for each of us. “The tempter” comes at Jesus with things that you could hear tinges of “logic” that people could even say “what’s so wrong about that?”

          The first temptation is right after Jesus has just fasted 40 days and 40 nights – and not our watered down “you can only eat one full meal and two smaller meals not equal to one full meal – and no meat” – He fasted – meaning nothing to eat for 40 days. So it’s a slight understatement on St. Matthew, the Gospel writer to say “he was hungry.” So he’s walking along making this long treck back from the desert. You could almost hear the devil saying “you’ve been so good, so self-disciplined, so faithful – YOU DESERVE a loaf of bread… you have the ability to turn these stones into bread, God won’t mind…” It’s no different then when you and I are tempted to find an easy way out, a way to cut corners… aren’t we constantly bombarded with temptations to take care of a bodily needs or desires or wants that seem never fulfilled? We’ve gotten to a place where we almost believe that we have a right to pamper ourselves. And then to speak for God with a “He’ll understand.”   I had a good friend that stopped going to Sunday Mass and when he talked about how or why, he couldn’t really pinpoint any real reason. He had always been so faithful and consistent. But then he was working hard, got busy was tired and one weekend just said he wasn’t going that he was going to sleep in, while saying “God will understand.” When he gave into that temptation once, when he allowed his commitment and faithfulness to be undermined in that one occasion which had never happened before, it became easier and easier to do that on other occasions to where this former daily mass going, bible study leader found himself feeling awkwardly looking for a Church’s Christmas Mass Schedule.   While God does want us to take care of ourselves – and does wants us to enjoy the blessings He has poured out on us – we need to be cautious when we start looking to make our own blessings for our own wants and desires – when we want to make our own loaves of bread – rather than gratefully acknowledging the ones God’s supplied.

In the second temptation, where Jesus is brought to the temple and challenged to throw himself from the heights to see if the Heavenly Father will send His angels to catch him, the tempter is calling Jesus’ relationship with God into question. He’s saying to Jesus – If you’re truly God’s beloved Son, He’ll catch you.   Aren’t all of us constantly finding our identity being similarly tested? The fact that we have a Loving Heavenly Father who looks at us as His beloved Sons and Daughters – is under assault by voices saying “if that’s true then why are you suffering from that illness; why did that heathen get that promotion, that better grade then you who went to Mass; why haven’t you found the love of your life yet?” The devil constantly is tempting us to test God to prove His love for us – undermining a faith-filled, trusting relationship that believes God never stops casting his loving eyes of each of us. That God is with us when we face trials, failures and set backs and is constantly reaching out to us to help and guide and direct us… just as He is regularly pouring out His grace, His blessings, His favor in our lives and hoping we will receive it with thanksgiving.

And in the final confrontation Jesus being tempted to worship Satan seems the most far-fetched for the devil to even propose. It seems ridiculous to imagine for Jesus to consider.   Even if it is for “all the kingdoms of the world.”   And while it seems far-fetched to us, in a sense we encounter this temptation a lot as well – a lot more often then we realize. Think about it, who are we desperate to impress or get their attention?   What compromises would we make, do we make to be more popular or to win the praise of our friends, our family members, our bosses our professors? What are we willing to do to get ahead of everyone else? Who do we have to throw under the bus… When being God’s beloved Sons and Daughters for whatever reason ceases to be “enough” – when we fall for the lie that we’re missing something and start to seek it elsewhere, we might not be full on “devil worshiper” – but the tempter is happy for just the slight turning away from God, for however long that glance is turned away from our Loving Father and turned towards something else. With the hopes that the next time, and the time after that, that glance, that turn will be just a little longer than before.

          This isn’t about us being guilted and shamed as “bad people.” This isn’t to make us fear that we risk falling into the clutches of the devil in need of an exorcist. The devil is far more satisfied in us being lukewarm to the voice of God, being indifferent to Jesus’ love for us. When we received our ashes on Wednesday, we were invited to “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus is lovingly calling us to turn away from the lies about who we are and remember who God created us to be; He’s calling us to reject those voices that undermine our faith and trust in His loving Father; He’s calling us to not be seduced by the things of this world and to reorient ourselves towards Him on the life He’s calling us to live here and now and for all eternity. Our being here is a great important start. Embracing the practices of Lent – Fasting where I sacrifice something; Almsgiving where I help someone who has no way of “paying me back” – and increasing my Prayer – where I simply spend more time with the Lord these all help us in responding to the calls to return to the Lord with our full hearts this Lenten season. But maybe it’s been awhile since we’ve gone to confession. The gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that we have an opportunity to lay bear all the things that we’ve been burdened with and Jesus lovingly wipes them away… we’re healed and restored.

Because the truth is and the good news is that no matter where we are in our faith lives- God the Father loves us… He believes in us… His hope in humanity – despite how wayward and distant we can become at times – His hope is never diminished. He sent His son Jesus to Hell and back so that we would truly know that and hopefully embrace that truth – and more importantly embrace Him. This Lent, will we make decisive moves to do that?