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Most Reverend James D. Conley, S.T.L.
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver
Bishop-designate of Lincoln
Homily, EWTN Televised Mass and first day of Novena to the Mother of God for the Nation
September 29, 2012
My brother priests and deacons, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today we begin our novena of prayer for our religious liberty and freedom of conscience through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of God. Mary is our life, our sweetness and our hope. She is the tabernacle of freedom, for she bore in her virginal womb the one who sets captives free. Mary’s Immaculate Conception ensures that we can come to know and love her son, Jesus Christ. Mary is a perfect intercessor for this great nation of ours, a nation consecrated to her under the title of her Immaculate Conception.
Further, we should remember by virtue of the Immaculate Conception, God prepared Mary for the work of bearing our Lord. Her preparation began with her own sinless conception. God, too, is preparing us for the work he calls us to. Like Mary, let us trust in his preparation. Let us trust in his providence. And, like the Lord himself did, let us place our trust in the Blessed Mother herself, as we consecrate our country to her.
Our novena begins on the feast of the Archangels: Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Therefore, it is fitting to reflect on the angels this morning, and it is a most fitting day to begin a novena of prayer for the protection of religious liberty.
Angels are those spiritual beings created by God who have freely chosen the good. Angels are intelligent creatures who have the capacity to choose God freely -- and they have done so.
St. Augustine reminds us that angels are the same kind of creature as demons. The difference between an angel and a demon is choice -- the choice to serve God, or to serve sin, vanity, and pride. Angels are the original exercisers of religious liberty and freedom of conscience. The Lord himself gave them the freedom to choose and the Lord himself respected their choice.
Angels are real creatures and they are engaged in real work; the work of building up the Kingdom of God. They struggle against the evil one in a real battle.
Blessed John Henry Newman, the recently beatified 19th century British convert, considered that angels are not only “the ministers employed by the Creator … but as carrying on the Economy of the Visible World.” Angels, Newman wrote, are “the real causes of motion, light, and life, and of those elementary principles of the physical universe, which, when offered in their developments to our senses, suggest to us the notion of cause and effect, and of what are called the laws of nature.”
Angels, for Newman, are the driving forces behind the visible world. And their battle against the evil spirits is palpable. For Newman, thunderstorms and other natural phenomena are the physical manifestations of an ongoing celestial battle against evil.
Our vocation is to join the angels in their spiritual battle against evil. Our call is to share in their work. St. Paul exhorted the Ephesians to remember, that “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers…against the spirits of wickedness in high places.”
Our work to defend and promote religious liberty is not merely a political battle. It is not even a cultural battle, primarily. Our work today as Christians is most especially a spiritual battle, and our enemies, as Peter Kreeft recently put it; are “…demons. Fallen angels. Evil spirits.” Those people, our fellow citizens, who threaten our religious liberty, or slaughter the unborn, or seek to destroy the Church are not our real enemies. Our hope for them is redemption in Jesus Christ. Our enemies are the demons who entrap them. And who seek to entrap us. Our enemy is sin, and the father of sin, the evil one.
Brothers and sisters, we are called to join in this heavenly and angelic battle.
The Archangels, whom we celebrate today, are especially instructive in the battle we fight.
Scripture, and especially the book of Tobit, tells us that there are seven archangels “standing before the throne of God. Only three of them are named in Scripture: Raphael, Gabriel, and Michael. Four of the archangels are unnamed in Scripture and unmentioned in the economy of salvation. This fact itself is an important lesson. Of the seven archangels in heaven, more than half of them work in anonymity, quietly going about their important mission.
In the Christian life, the most important work we do is done in secret. Our prayer and sacrifice, our fasting and mortification, this is work that advances the Kingdom of God before all else. Too often, we are eager to jump into battle with the world by our external action. But even among the archangels, more than half are called to hidden witnesses.
If we want to build up the Kingdom of God, we must begin with the hidden things: with prayer, with fasting, with sacrifice. Offering up a small sacrifice in the quietude of our hearts may do more to build up the Kingdom than all of the world’s preaching and teaching combined.
We need to get serious about the spiritual dimension of the Christian life. This is the first message of the Archangels.
The three named Archangels serve very different roles in the Scriptures. We can learn from all of them in the battle to build up the Kingdom of God.
The Archangel Raphael appears primarily in the book of Tobit. Many Catholics are unfamiliar with the book of Tobit. Parents should read it with their teenagers. It is a fantastic story which is at once epic, funny, and deeply insightful into the love of God. The Archangel Raphael, whose name means “Divine Healer,” helps Tobias find medicine that will heal Tobias’ wife and his father. The medicine comes from a monstrous fish which attacks Tobias and which he wrestles to death. (I told you that Tobit is a REALLY good story!)
With the help of Raphael, a man is cured of blindness and a woman set free from a demon. But here is the part that is instructive. Raphael takes the medicine from a horrible monster—an evil, and attacking beast. Raphael helps Tobias find the good in the monster. This is our task as Christians. If we reject the monster of contemporary culture, we will not be effective. The task of the New Evangelization is to find what is good, and to use it for God’s glory; to seek the conversion of our neighbor and, thus, the transformation of our culture.
We need cultural healing in this country. We need to build up a culture redeemed by Jesus Christ. If we find the good and use it for God’s glory, we will be “Divine Healers.”
Gabriel is a messenger. Gabriel appears to Daniel, to Zacharias, to Elizabeth, to St. Joseph, and to the Blessed Virgin Mary for one reason, one reason only: to proclaim the Word of God. To build up the Kingdom is to proclaim the Word of God.
In fact, our forefathers were enthusiastic to proclaim the Word of God in this country. Many, if not all of them, came to these shores seeking religious freedom. Among them Protestants in New England, Catholics in Maryland, and Jewish people in the Carolinas -- and they expected that America would be a place where the Word of God was sacrosanct and could be freely lived and proclaimed.
As we pray together for religious liberty, let us recall a simple fact. The role of religion in America will be respected when religion is lived with enthusiastic and infectious vitality. When we proclaim Jesus Christ with joy, in authentic freedom, the world will listen. Let us imitate Gabriel the messenger.
Finally, dear brothers and sisters, we address St. Michael the Archangel. St. Michael is called, in the Book of Daniel, the prince of angels. In the book of Revelation, St. Michael leads the heavenly hosts in battle and victory against the minions of Satan. St. Michael, as you know, is our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.
The snares of the devil on the issue of religious liberty are the temptations of relativism, of dangerous moral equivocation and an aggressive objectification of women, an objectification that robs them of their dignity. We must engage in battle with those elements of wickedness. We must not be afraid to engage what is evil in our country.
The scourge of abortion is our national shame. The efforts to redefine marriage in law, violates our religious liberty. These are fruits of the wickedness and snares of the devil. To pursue truth, and to reject the lies of Satan; this is our call as Christians. We must not be afraid to fight evil- with our minds, our hearts and our strength.
But St. Michael’s stance as defender comes from a higher place. St. Thomas Aquinas says that St. Michael is the “breath of the Redeemer’s spirit.” St. Michael makes the Lord present, and through that, he defeats evil. Let us make the Lord present in our nation. Through the Redeemer’s spirit, let us defeat Satan.
The Archangels -- in the primacy of the spiritual life, and as healer, herald, and defender, serve as a blueprint for us in our efforts to defend religious liberty and freedom of conscience in this country. Let us call upon the intercession of the mighty archangels, and let us imitate their work -- lived out in the freedom of choosing what is good.