It was a year and a half ago that the Newman Center at Montclair State University welcomed Father Vincent Lampert as a guest lecture. Here was a parish priest from Indianapolis who for the most part is very unknown, coming to a public, state run university campus and he filled the Conference Center (over 600 students) on a Wednesday Night and had people on the edges of their seats for over 2 and a half hours.
This was no ordinary parish priest. Father Lampert is an official exorcist of the Roman Catholic Church who was trained by the Vatican at his Bishop’s request to learn how to perform this dramatic, often depicted but very rarely understood ritual of the Church. When we announced that Father Lampert was coming and what the topic was, it’s true, we had fun with the advertising and wanted it to be a bit provacative. Coming a few weeks prior to Halloween, there was already that imaginary “spooky sense” in the atmosphere with decorations of spider webs, tomb stones, witches and black cats. We billed it as “An Evening with an Exorcist” - and before we knew it, there was quite a stir about it both on and off the campus.
For the most part it seemed most people came out of curiosity. And I don’t know if I could pit a guess on what percentages this falls to, but I would say a majority came in thinking “This isn’t really real, right? We don’t actually believe the devil possesses people — That there’s evil operating in the world?”
Father Lampert would most definitely disagree with those notions, not simply because of what the Church and the scriptures teach - but by his own personal experiences. Witnessing some incredibly dramatic (and for some in the audience, terrifying) things as he has tends to make you more definitive about things like the presence and activity of evil in the world.
And while he did share these experiences with us: like seeing levitations, speaking in strange languages and super human strength – one of the major things he wanted people to walk away from the lecture wasn’t just that exorcisms aren’t simply the stuff of the movies and fiction - but that the devil is real. The evil one is real. And while “demonic possession” is very, very, very rare (I think that he said something along the lines of out of 100 calls he receives asking for advice, 99 won’t be demonic possession) the presence and activity of the evil one is much more common, much less dramatic - subtle even, as the evil one doesn’t need to do great and spectacular things. If the main goal of the evil one is to cause division among human beings, to cause division within ourselves so that we find ourselves conflicted falling short of being who we’re called to be; to ultimately desiring to cause separation from the Heavenly Father and we his sons and daughters– who became such through Jesus Christ – then the devil doesn’t need to become overly dramatic in causing such things to happen.
We can see demons all around us – Roaming our world not so much with red pitch-forks and horns, but in much more real and destructive ways:
-People who are suffering from a demonic possession by their addictions to alcohol, or drugs blinding them to the pain they are in and causing those around them. . .
- People who succumb to temptations by the demons of lust, being trapped by pornography, giving into those distorted desires causing them to have pre-marital sex or affairs...
- There are demons that mask themselves as something good but underneath reveal themselves to be quite different - like a government sponsored health-care bill which was presented on the surface as a way of helping the poor and suffering, but has revealed itself in the last couple of weeks to be attacking our very faith - demanding that Catholic health care would violate our own religious beliefs and give out contraceptives and abortifacients – or else face fines or other punishments. Sorry if this offends some, it offends me, and should offend all of us -whether you believe what our Church teaches on this issue or struggle with it...
- There are demons who in the forms of celebrity and entertainment mock our religious beliefs, mock our convictions.
- There are demons of greed and materialism that cause people, institutions even nations to have uncontrollable appetites and will do anything, mis use, abuse and trample of those who stand in the way of those pursuits...
- There are demons of laziness and boredom - the hours we can waste being lulled by the radiation screens of our TV’s, computers, phones that make us zombie like. (If you doubt this one, see how well we react when “the cable goes out” or there’s a power failure... )
- and there’s so many personal demons that people suffer from, often times in silence, afraid, embarrassed and in real pain...
The thing is we’ve gotten so cautious not to speak of these things. It’s not politically correct. People’s sensitivities might be offended. You might panic individuals and “turn them off” to religion. Yet as Father Lampert said in his lecture – if there’s no evil in the world, then there’s no need for Jesus, is there? Jesus simply becomes a nice moral teacher, a guy who said some really nice things that make for nice bumper stickers and gives us an excuse to have parties and gatherings for his birthday.
We as Catholic-Christians need to realize the reality of this evil enemy we face who comes to destroy. But not getting overwhelmed by fear (which is one of the devil’s greatest tools) but in trust, in confidence, in believing in the one who speaks with authority: this Jesus of Nazareth who even the demons know who he is – the Holy One of God.
Jesus continues to come casting those demons out who cause us to suffer. The Sacrament of Reconciliation – yes, confession – is one of the most tremendous gifts we should treasure. We have an opportunity to take responsibility for the times I’ve allowed the demons to run free in my life and hear Jesus’ words of forgiveness said directly and personally to us through a priest and those sins are instantly gone. We have an opportunity to receive Jesus body and blood, the only food that can nourish us, strengthen us in these spiritual battles... Only the devil could twist us so much that so few would utilize these Sacred gifts. Someone once said “people go and confess to Oprah or Dr. Phil, and thousands tune in to watch it... and after the show ends and the credits role, those sins and demons remain.
The day after the exorcist left our campus, there was an inter-faith conversation that one of our professors from the Religion and Philosophy department runs on a weekly basis and she asked students their perceptions - what struck them in the 2 and a half hour presentation. I was expecting that they would share some of the dramatic stories Father had shared with them or some of the interesting and various questions that were asked by the audience. But the first young lady, who wasn’t Catholic, spoke really surprised me in a good way. She said “What struck me? This guy had seen all of this crazy stuff and he just wasn’t scared. And when he said ‘What do I have to fear? Jesus is already victorious over all of this, so there’s nothing to be afraid of’ I really believed him.”
For those of us who gather here today, those same questions of faith are presented to us - “What do we have to fear?” Do we believe Jesus is victorious over evil? Even more important though is the question that precedes that, Do we recognize the evil that is in our midst... and want it driven out?
As always, thanks for stopping by and reading - your feedback and comments - for sharing the blog with others.... I’m grateful for all your support! Fr. Jim
There was a commercial on the other night for a show called “The Biggest Loser.” I’ve never seen the show, but just from the commercials you can figure out what it’s about - a reality show where a group of people chronicle their attempts to lose weight. But more than that, change their lives, themselves... Viewing the transformation of who “they are” to who “they will be.”
Television presents these various shows in neat-compact hour long 22 episode season. For most of us, we know that journey is far less scripted, or completed in one season. Whether it’s weight loss or other aspects of our lives. For example, the other day I was complaining to my spiritual director about the “state of my soul.” Here it was just a few days before the end of winter break... all of our students will be returning tonight and tomorrow. I had a few weeks – not with nothing to do as some of my friends kid me (well hopefully they’re kidding) – but some time where the pace isn’t as demanding, where the schedule is not as hectic as it is in session. It seemed an opportune time for me to accomplish some things that I always want, desire to do but in the every day, crazy pace of the “regular schedule” seems impossible:
-Like sitting down and reading - I have a stack of books that I’ve wanted to read for sometime... I pulled three or four of them off my book shelf and had them on a coffee table at the beginning of break. They got moved around a lot during these few weeks, but remained unopened and went back on the shelf till May when I’ll try again...
-Like sending Christmas cards (I actually bought the things and intended to write something meaningful to friends and family I haven’t seen in awhile – even if they weren’t done in time for Christmas, I figured I would use the “Liturgical Season” and do them by the Epiphany... here they are, still in their sealed box)...
-and – Like growing spiritually – There were a few things that I wanted to start doing that I feel the Lord has put on my heart for some time. Things I wanted to start to work on – that again, these few weeks with some more flexible time would have been an opportune time to really delve into. And sadly, like the books that remained unopened; and cards that went unsent – this wasn’t accomplished either.
There’s a whole list of reasons / excuses I can give. Some legitimate, some, not so much so... And I know I’m not being overly critical of myself when I just said to my spiritual director, completely exasperated – that it’s the same thing over and over – I feel stuck in that space between the guy that I am and the guy I want to be....
Frankly it stinks. And I know I’m not the first person to feel or experience that– whether it’s the person who made that new year’s resolution and by January 16th has already thrown in the towel on it and given up in frustration. Or the guy who leaves the confessional after avoiding it for so long and feels the power of Jesus’ love and forgiveness and the grace of that moment and sincerely believes that they will “go and sin no more” only to find those temptations re-emerging and giving into them once again. How often do we find ourselves living in that space between “who we are” and “who we want to be?” It can be discouraging.
As I was reflecting (or bemoaning) on my less than productive Christmas break - this reality jumped out in today’s Gospel. As Jesus is starting to call His first apostles, the guys who will be His “right hand” men, as He looks at the one who is to be “the Rock” of the Church; the one who will be our very first Pope - Jesus says – “You are Simon the son of John – you will be called Cephas (...Peter)” How interesting to think that Peter would find himself in the same spot as all of us – living in that space between who you are and who you will be.
Because so often we who look to Peter as “St. Peter” as that first Pope can in our minds fast forward from this scene and in a sense imagine this encounter changed everything for Simon Peter. That as Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God utters those words; that as Simon experiences this intimate, encounter where his very name has been changed, which in scriptures identifies that God has called this person to something of newer, greater, divinely charged significance to Peter – the grace, the sheer awesomeness of this would be something like that cartoon “transformers” that Simon would leave behind the “you are” of Simon and simply by Jesus’ word of “you will be” morph into this super Apostle Peter who would defend Jesus, follow Him perfectly. That Peter would be everything you’d expect from a right-hand man... from someone you count on to be that rock that you would build the Church on.
Yet that was far from the reality of things. Throughout the Gospels Peter is often emotional. We find instances where he speaks without thinking first. Incidents where his commitment, his dedication, his loyalty, his fidelity would waver – most spectacularly during Jesus’ Passion where Peter very much resorted back to Simon as he claimed I don’t know him...
Even in the Acts of the Apostles – after Peter has seen, touched, experienced Jesus being Resurrected from the dead; after He witnessed that glorious Ascension of Jesus into heaven; after he received the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon him and the others in the Upper Room at that first Pentecost – his fears would at times re emerge. His doubts and anxieties would take over and he would find that - despite all that had happened – he too was still living in that space between “you are” and “you will be.”
But the great hope for us who can relate to living in this space as well is realizing that for Simon Peter, even with his failures - the vision never disappeared. That voice calling him to become a man greater than who he was never ceased calling him to that... That voice would offer words of encouragement. That voice would speak words of forgiveness. That voice would remind him over and over that when he is “beholding the Lamb of God” THEN he can become Peter (and on the opposite is true as well, when he forgets that, he would be Simon) Jesus who knows our humanity meets Simon Peter in this “space in between” - even utilizing his weaknesses so that Simon won’t forget that the desire he has to become “Peter” can only take place when he allows Jesus to set the vision.
The same is true for us who find ourselves struggling between who we are and who we are called to be. For each of us, it can be so easy to give into the temptation to despair, to give up on ourselves, to tune out that voice of Christ believing that as frustrated as we are that we struggle, that we make mistakes, that we are stuck in this place between the men and women we are and who we want to be, who we’re called to be – that Christ must be as frustrated as well.
Yet the good news is that he meets us in this space. If we can hear the words of John the Baptist and “behold the Lamb of God” – behold Christ, we will find he’s not looking at us with disappointment that we’ve made our mistakes, that we haven’t fully taken advantage of the gifts we’ve been endowed with… He reminds us that the desire to utilize them, the vision of the men and women who we “will be” comes from Him as well. May we learn as Simon Peter did that it is in our humble submission to Jesus Christ that he can take us out of our own 'in-between' places, and transform us from who we are to who we will become.