Ascension of the Lord C and Our Lady of Fatima – May 13, 2010
Homily at the closing liturgy of Spring Enrichment 2010 in the Diocese of Albany
Today’s Biblical Texts. Note the second reading was Ephesians 1:17-23.
In 1917 three shepherd children witnessed a series of apparitions in Fatima, Portugal. It is a well known event. The messages they received from the Mother of God dealt with predictions, requests, warnings and promises. In an official statement called The Message at Fatima the Vatican said such apparitions are found throughout history and go to the heart of human events. They play a part in the unfolding of history. 1
The theological commentary on Fatima continues to say the purpose of such visions is to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction. The visions were not fantasies, mere expressions of the imagination. Rather they were experiences where the soul is touched by something real, even if beyond the senses.
Today the church calendar marks the Ascension of the Lord and Our Lady of Fatima. It is also the end of another Spring Enrichment experience in our Diocese (Albany, NY) — three events full of imagination and wonder. Were the disciples who saw Jesus being lifted up into the clouds imagining something or were they being touched by an encounter with the post-resurrection Christ? Are all of us merely continuing our education this week or are we experiencing a potent vision for the future Church?
The Ascension story is not about a historical moment. It is part of the Easter event and was a manifestation of the risen Christ like other post-resurrection apparitions. Andrew Greeley once wrote that Catholics go to church to hear such stories about the unimaginable. Storytelling always carries a message that can be useful in life. However, sometimes the story is so compelling, so believable, we never get beyond it to discover its true meaning. Further, how do these narratives invite us to tell our own stories?
Our lives and our imaginations are not isolated but shaped by political, social, and cultural events. Some scholars believe Luke wrote about the Ascension because the experiences of the early church were constantly being readjusted by history and current events. 2 Both of Luke’s volumes were written sometime between 80 and 90 CE after the Jewish-Roman war (66-70 CE) and after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Those were anxious times for the early Christians who thought Christ was returning soon.
It was not to happen and so Luke’s story continues the Easter experience with another apparition and then points to the future mission of the Church. 3 He was saying OK, it looks like the Christ is not coming back and so, in the face of fear, we have to get on with our mission; there is much work for us to do.
Conditions were also challenging for the citizens of Portugal in 1917. There was a shortage of food; there were riots in the streets; the Portuguese troops were fighting in World War I (40,000 soldiers were sent to France one month before the first vision at Fatima); construction workers went on strike; and Parliament was overthrown at the end of the year. Portugal needed a vision for the future. Perhaps the innocent shepherd children were imagining a better country, a more peaceful world, through the intercession of Mary.
Today we ask who among us is imagining a brighter tomorrow in our country, in our church? Disappointment, cynicism, mean spiritedness are partners against reason, integrity and civility. Immigration, health care and respect life issues wear us down and tear us apart. In our church we ponder our future. Demographic shifts have forced us to close churches and schools. Shortcomings in the governance of the church have caused many to leave. There are anxieties about who will be our leaders in the future. What do we imagine lies ahead for us, the people of an Amazing God? 4
There is good news for our church in an age when Facebook and Twitter networks, the megachurch and the unchurched demand our attention. The Conciliar call to universal holiness may not have completely bridged the divide between hierarchy and laity. However, it has helped us celebrate a baptized priesthood of women and men, ordained or not; people full of gifts, talents, and a firm desire to be coworkers. Like the teachers in the early church, and even like the children in Fatima, catechists today are essential witnesses in the unfolding history of the church and society. This often thankless ministry of witness demands long hours of prayer and preparation; it also requires that we nourish one another with mental, physical and spiritual sustenance.
We know our mission is to instruct others, first from the heart with stories of faith, and then from textbooks. We witness to others to empower them with the Spirit God. The passage from Ephesians this morning begins with a prayer “May God give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” The Easter event gave the disciples an exciting vision for future glory. The faith-filled Fatima children in their devotion to Mary had hope for the future. Now it is our turn to imagine the possibilities for society and the church. Let us replace low morale, cynicism and skepticism with a new Spirit, a new energy. If the evangelist Luke were standing here he might say to us — there is much work for us to do, so let’s get on with it.
1 The Message of Fatima. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Vatican.
2 Reginald H. Fuller. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 88-90, 366-367, 436-438.
3 Fuller, ibid.
4 Amazing God is the theme of an upcoming experience of evangelization and reconciliation in the Diocese of Albany