In my senior year of college, we had what was called a “Values Seminar”.  It was a theology course of only seniors.  It was different from other classes – there really wasn’t any exams or tests.  (Which is one reason I liked it).  There was some reading, writing of reflection papers, discussing, debating, and, my favorite part – Watching movies.  The seminar was called “The world of Evil” and our movies that semester were “The Exorcist” “The Mission” “Romero” “The Good Son” and a movie I had never seen or even had heard of before titled “Ordinary People.”

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this, my homily for the 4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME January 31, 2021, for sharing it on your 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

Ordinary People is the story of a family struggling to deal with the accidental death of one of their teenage sons.  The mother and father with their surviving teenage son Conrad live in a wealthy Chicago suburb. Some months before the time of the film, Conrad’s older brother Buck drowned when the small boat he and Conrad were sailing capsized in a windstorm.

As the film begins, the mother, played by Mary Tyler Moore seems cold, withdrawn from Conrad.  As the film progresses, you learn later that Buck had been her favorite as she is actively hostile to Conrad and to her husband.   Conrad, had recently come home from three months in the hospital after an attempted suicide.  The kid is between uneasy and agonized in his high-school and family world. The father goes from trying to be emotionally present to his family but often gets distracted and caught between his wife and his son, talking about things that don’t really matter.

It’s within this setting, the film tells the story of Conrad’s attempts to deal with the guilt he feels after his brother’s death.  Through a series of psychotherapy sessions they are able to make progress. It’s after one of these sessions where the husband, played by Donald Sutherland starts to come to some realizations.  He has a midnight confrontation with his wife, where he lays out his heart to her – he tells her of his sorrow and points out that she has substantially changed for the worse.  At that she proudly packs her bags and leaves the father and son. The film ends early the next morning, with Conrad and his father in an emotional embrace alone together on the front steps of their home.

This movie of all the films we watched that semester, and perhaps of all the topics we discussed, sparked one of the greatest debates our class had ever had.  When we came into class, our professor, Fr. Dailey said “So, tell me about the movie” – for ten minutes we were all reacting saying things like “it was a powerful movie” “wow” “I never could imagine Mary Tyler Moore playing such a challenging and different role”.  It was almost like we were avoiding talking about the main point of why we were watching it in the first place. Which Fr. Dailey was having none of as he finally asked “What is the evil in the movie?”

The one sons death?  That seemed to be the consensus, and we were all pretty settled with that answer.  Fr Dailey was completely dismissive and wouldn’t let us discuss it as he said “What else” – “the suicide attempt?” that didn’t even get an opportunity for someone to agree with before he said “What else” At that there was silence.  We didn’t know, we can’t really see anything else, there’s really was nothing else.  It went on for a difficult few minutes of awkward silence that seemed to go on for ages.   “What about the mother” he asked, “Well, what about her?” we answered.  “Is she evil?”

OH NO – come on, she lost her son, she’s overwhelmed with grief, you can’t say that.  HOW COULD YOU SAY THAT.  We would not even accept the premise.

Finally, Fr. Dailey snapped and said “The mother was evil.  Did you see how she not only admitted one son was her favorite over the other, but that she wished the one son was still alive (and the other one gone) displayed by her not reaching out to help her surviving son deal with the guilt he was feeling, but instead fostering that guilt.  Get over it men and women.  The woman who could turn the world on with her smile was a heartless (word for a female dog) and personified evil.”

Well, to put it mildly, we sat there with our jaws open, and he followed it up with this: Evil can mask itself in many different ways.  The worst thing we can do is to deny it’s existence or be afraid to confront it.

I can’t tell you how impactful that class was.  What initially was my attempt for an easy class of simply watching movies became a very important focus for my young mind at the age of 21.  Because so often we tend to make excuses for evil in the world – in our own lives.  We find new words to call it “misguided” “youthful indiscretion” “oversight” all in the process of not confronting it before us, and perhaps not to confront it within us.  Very rarely will we see a little guy in a red suit with pitchfork in hand – more likely it can be the cold hearted, vicious individual who may be far gone, may have co-operated with evil for so long they don’t even realize it anymore, but now is unleashing it with abandon.  It is true what countless individuals from philosophers, theologians and popes have said: the worst thing we can do is to deny that evil exists, that the devil exists.

Which is why today’s Gospel is so foundational, so essential, so important.  Two weeks into the opening chapter of the Gospel of Mark, we move from Jesus’ call of his first disciples that we heard last week announcing that “the kingdom of God was at hand.”  And what’s the next scene?  Jesus confronting evil.  His first miracle in the Gospel of Mark is an exorcism.

Far too many want to kind of skip this chapter.  Far too many want to try to explain it away – saying well in that day and age, which was so primitive and superstitious, people were not as enlightened as we are today… they didn’t understand metal health issues, medical issues (uh, yeah they did – there will be times when Jesus heals someone from something without it being an exorcism – those distinctions are clearly made).  Far too many think that even talking about the devil and his influence is embarrassing and makes being a practicing Catholic Christian seem foolish.  When the opposite is true – if someone doesn’t believe in the devil and calls themself a Catholic Christian, they’re foolish.

Jesus’ very name means “God saves.”  The kingdom of God that He just proclaimed in last week’s Gospel that was at hand, is on the march.  Which sets the stage for today’s passage. This first confrontation between Jesus and the works of the devil and his influence takes place in what would seem the most unlikely of places – the synagogue.   Already Jesus’ very presence and call had captured the hearts and minds of Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John… and earlier in this passage people are described as “astonished” at His teaching because he speaks with such authority.  That didn’t even scratch the surface though.  In this next moment, the reality that God had become man – that Jesus was here to definitively and clearly show us that He is victorious over evil and He is here to unleash that victory on the cross and in His resurrection is just beginning to dawn for everyone.   He is here to empower us to be members of that Kingdom to defeat the devil, to confront and overcome evil in our day and age.  That is what made this visit to the Synagogue memorable for all eternity.

Now more than ever we have to be serious about this fight, about the spiritual warfare we all, everyone of us, will  encounter – particularly as so many have drifted away from their practice of the Catholic faith, their very belief in Jesus Christ and growing more and more secularized.  We see ever growing numbers of people simply embracing vocabulary that’s celebrated like “individualism” – which by its nature eliminates God.  More and more are becoming numb to sin where there’s this distorted notion of freedom where people believe they can do whatever they wish and not recognizing that in the process they’ve making a god of themselves. Too many dismiss evil as simply something of our own making, or the absence of something…

For us here, hopefully we have the faith and certainty that God is real… That Jesus is alive and present here in His word being proclaimed, in His body and blood we receive in the Eucharist.  This isn’t just make us feel good or connected to something bigger than ourselves – but to help us confront and defeat evil in our lives and in our world.

We’re a few weeks out from lent, which is our annual period of intense focus on the need for repentance, but that’s not to limit it to just that time.  Jesus wants to strengthen us in this our daily fight, to free us from the things that are unclean deep within.   He equips us for this battle most especially with this, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and receiving the Body of Christ in the Eucharist – but outside of that, Jesus has given us other weapons that we’re meant to make use of.  Making a thorough examination of conscience, naming the sins that we hate to admit and going to confession is so important because it is our opportunity to name the evil that we’ve allowed into our own lives, the things that the devil uses to weigh us down with guilt and shame and have the Lord completely rid us of it with His absolution.  Another thing that we don’t talk about enough is the need to fast.  Fasting from something – deliberately choosing to refrain from eating for a day, or from watching television or going on social media even – when we make a conscious decision to refrain from something that is not sinful but something enjoyable, something I desire or want – it’s a quiet act of faith, it’s a prayer that involves mind, body and soul where I’m making space to say that I know God alone sustains me, He alone gives me breath to breathe… The food I truly desire is the bread of life – in the Eucharist.  When we start to utilize these spiritual weapons and integrate them into my daily life, I find myself less anxious when I see and hear evil in the world.  Because I know that Jesus, the Holy One of God has helped defeat it in my own life.

Some of this can make us feel uneasy.  It’s one reason people deny evil in the first place.  Want to name it something else even when it’s obvious. It seems too powerful for us to even imagine engaging in this battle.  St. Padre Pio shared how in a private revelation, when God was calling him to greater holiness and reminding him of this reality of spiritual warfare, it was a bit disconcerting.  But he felt peace and was able to proceed when he heard these words “Take heart, enter confidently into the combat, go forward courageously, for I shall be close to you.”  May we have that same faith, trust and confidence, knowing that Jesus is desiring and willing to rid us of all that is unclean, all that is evil in our midst so that we can live with the true freedom that comes from being God’s beloved sons and daughters.