Editor’s note: The following homily was preached by the Reverend Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D., on 29 September 2017, feast of the Archangels at the Blue Army Shrine in Washington, New Jersey, for the pilgrimage of the members of the Altar-Rosary Societies of New Jersey.
A story is told of an elderly priest who had served at the motherhouse of a community of Sisters for decades. As he was dying, the Mother General asked him if he had any last requests. He said, “I want to be buried with the Sisters.” She informed him that, according to the rule of the order, that was not possible. He pressed: “After all my years of service, I think I deserve some special consideration.” Reverend Mother went to the general council, who came up with a Solomonic solution: Monsignor could be buried in a plot at the entrance to the nuns’ cemetery. So, now the question was: “What do you want on your tombstone?” Quickly, the old gent replied: “Blessed art thou among women!” I feel somewhat like that today.
The convergence of your pilgrimage, the Fatima centennial and the feast of the day presents us with an embarrassment of riches. I hope I can do justice to it all.
First of all, the Church’s calendar would have us honor the three archangels named in Sacred Scripture: Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Those familiar with the Low Mass of the Extraordinary Form, of course, know that the Leonine Prayers include the petition to St. Michael the Archangel to “defend us in battle” and to “to be our safeguard against the wiles and snares of the Devil.” However, when was the last time you prayed that lovely prayer the Sisters taught us in kindergarten: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here. Ever this day be at my side to light and guard, to rule and guide.”?
Let us give some specific consideration to St. Michael as the great defender of the honor of God and the protector of the Church’s faithful, who find themselves under the assault of the Evil One in so many ways.
There are the assaults that come from without, done by the hands of those who hate God and/or His holy Church. Here we think of what our co-religionists suffer in places like Communist China, in so many countries of the Middle East, but also through the militant secularists of Western Europe and North America, yes, even in our own country, thanks to the aggression of the neo-pagans in our midst and groups like the ACLU.
Then there are the assaults that come from within the Church, done by those hell-bent (literally) on creating a new Church and a new religion. These would-be reformers preach and teach overt heresy and destroy the sense of the sacred by their liturgical machinations. And all of this so often is done with the complicity of priests and bishops who are weak and ineffectual. Yes, Satan uses our weakness to pursue his plan with strength.
To ward off the assaults of Satan – both internal and external – we need to have recourse to the powerful intercession of St. Michael the Archangel. The one who faced down Lucifer and his minions at the dawn of creation has not lost any of his power; indeed, the Book of Revelation informs us that it is precisely he who will lead the faithful to final victory.
And now for a bit of refresher course in “angelology” – to which the Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes no less than twenty-five paragraphs.
Angels are pure spirits who assume bodily form when sent on a mission by the Almighty. In fact, their very name in Greek means “messenger.” So it is that we relate to them not in terms of their own identity but for the One Whom they represent. Both the Old and New Testaments are filled with references to the interventions of angels, which are always seen as signs of God’s desire to be present to us, as well as His wish to reveal His will and providence to us.
As I mentioned, the angels of today’s feast have names, and like all Hebrew names, they have meaning and give a clue as to their special mission. Michael’s name translates as: “Who is like God?” – a reminder that it was he who was sent to do battle with the personification of pride in Lucifer, who indeed saw himself as like unto God. “Gabriel” means “God is strong” – an important point to ponder when, like the Blessed Virgin at the Annunciation, we ask how something apparently impossible can happen. Raphael’s name tells us that “God heals” – a fact so obvious to a person of faith that we often fail to be impressed continually by the love it represents. Thus, the names of those three angels point to the ineffable omnipotence and benevolence of the very Godhead.
What is the work of the angels? To watch over the lives of us here below; to present our prayers and petitions to God; to serve as the Lord’s special messengers; to lead the just into Paradise, as we sing in the beautiful In Paradisum of the Mass of Christian Burial. All of this bespeaks the Lord’s love and concern for His children. However, the first and most important task of the angels gives us a hint as to what God expects of us humans, too – the unceasing adoration of Almighty God.
And so, the most important thing the angels do is linked to the most important thing the Church on earth can do as the liturgy of earth is united to the liturgy of Heaven. As we enter into the Canon of the Mass, we shall recall this fact when we say: “And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.” That everlasting hymn of praise to God is the angels’ highest calling, and it is ours as well. Further into the Canon, we shall ask the Father: “Command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty.” The Incarnation announced by Gabriel reaches its fulfillment in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist as God’s messenger becomes the deacon, as it were, who presents the Eucharistic Christ once more to His heavenly Father.
On this feast when the Church invites us to reflect on the ministry of angels, we thank Almighty God for giving us His messengers, and we ask for the wisdom and humility of children to appreciate anew their significance for our lives because, after all is said and done, if one has outgrown the angels, that same person may also have outgrown God – a point made by Our Lord in the Gospel for the memorial of the Guardian Angels.
Today’s archangels are known to us because of their apparitions to people like us. And, of course, the whole Fatima devotion is based on the apparitions of Our Lady a hundred years ago to three shepherd children. Which leads to our next consideration.
And so, allow me to reflect on the meaning of miracles, both biblical and post-biblical, the topic of two volumes of the work of Blessed John Henry Newman – which I would commend to the more stalwart among you.
It seems that there are always two opposing approaches to the miraculous: the first denies the possibility of any divine interventions ever, while, the second finds a miracle under every tree or on every hamburger! As usual, the Church declares, “in medio stat virtus” (virtue stands in the middle).
Cardinal Newman observes that miracles in the Old Testament are rather scarce; this may surprise those who are used to viewing the Old Testament through the prism of Cecil B. DeMille. Miracles, however, were to blossom at the coming of the Messiah, according to Jewish thought – a proof of his identity and a sign of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. And so, as few and far between as they are in the Old Dispensation, we find them popping up on almost every page of the New Testament. It is interesting that no one (not even Jesus’ enemies, whether pagan Romans or hostile Jewish religious authorities) suggests that He did not work miracles; His opponents merely seek to explain them away by asserting either that they are little more than a magician’s tricks (which is why St. John never uses the word “miracle,” preferring “sign”) or that He is able to do such marvelous works because He is in league with the Devil.
So, from even a purely critical, objective and historical standpoint, the miracles of Jesus should be undisputed. The problem surfaces for some, however, when it comes to what Newman calls “ecclesiastical” miracles, that is, miracles occurring in the age of the Church. And the Cardinal has a very engaging response to such skeptics:
Catholics, then, hold the mystery of the Incarnation; and the Incarnation is the most stupendous event which ever can take place on earth; and after it and henceforth, I do not see how we can scruple at any miracle on the mere ground of its being unlikely to happen. No miracle can be so great as that which took place in the Holy House of Nazareth; it is indefinitely more difficult to believe than all the miracles of the Breviary, of the Martyrology, of saints’ lives, of legends, of local traditions, put together; and there is the grossest inconsistency on the very face of the matter, for anyone so to strain out the gnat and to swallow the camel, as to profess what is inconceivable, yet to protest against what is surely within the limits of intelligible hypothesis. If, through divine grace, we once are able to accept the solemn truth that the Supreme Being was born of a mortal woman, what is there to be imagined which can offend us on the ground of its marvellousness?1
In other words, if the Incarnation is true (which every Christian must believe) – and it is undoubtedly the greatest miracle imaginable – then why grouse about other miracles? The principle is simple: If God can do the greater, He can do the lesser.
That said, we can and should ask, “Why does God enable human beings to work miracles? Or, why miraculous events?” For two reasons, says St. Thomas Aquinas:
First and principally, in confirmation of the doctrine that a man teaches. For since those things which are of faith surpass human reason, they cannot be proved by human arguments, but need to be proved by the argument of divine power: so that when a man does works that God alone can do, we may believe that what he says is from God: just as when a man is the bearer of letters sealed with the king’s ring, it is to be believed that what they contain expresses the king’s will.
Aquinas goes on to offer a second purpose: “To make known God’s presence in a man by the grace of the Holy Ghost: so that when a man does the works of God we may believe that God dwells in him by His grace.”2 That said, Aquinas concedes that “miracles lessen the merit of faith,” but – nonetheless – he declares, “it is better for them to be converted to the faith even by miracles than that they should remain altogether in their unbelief.”3
Truth be told, the Church herself always exhibits a healthy skepticism when such extraordinary events are reported, with the presumption that the “seer” is either a deceiver or self-deceived. Clear criteria exist to test the veracity of the claim of supernatural character, among which are the orthodoxy of the message; the spirit of willing submission to ecclesiastical judgment on the part of the visionary; good fruits flowing from the event. Investigations into visions are conducted at the local or diocesan level, through recourse to theologians, pastors, psychiatrists and other professionals in a position to evaluate the spiritual, physical and mental state of the seer. Some investigations result in relatively quick judgments (usually negative), while other investigations can go on for years and may yield an indeterminate decision. It has been estimated that for every alleged apparition the Church accepts, there are a hundred that never receive a favorable judgment.
Sometimes people ask, “What does it matter if a vision is really occurring or not, as long as good things are happening (e.g., conversions, cures)?” It matters a great deal because the act of faith must always be grounded in reality and truth; it can never be based on a falsehood. That is why the Evangelists went to great pains to convince their readers that the Lord’s resurrection appearances were real and not phantasms; hence, the stress on His eating and drinking and being able to be touched. Belief is serious business, and God wants no one to be duped for He is, as the traditional act of faith declares, the One Who “can neither deceive nor be deceived.”
The present moment in history finds us confronted with hundreds of purported supernatural visitations. This proliferation is not cause for rejoicing; on the contrary, it suggests that people are not being spiritually fed through the normal means of grace (good catechesis and preaching; uplifting celebrations of the sacraments; strong witnesses to Christian living), and so, they run after cheap substitutes. Jesus cautioned us against such a spirit: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign.” He continued: “But no sign shall be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet” (Mt 12:39). Jonah’s message was a call to repentance; his sign in the belly of the whale for three days and nights was a prefigurement of Christ’s very passion, death and resurrection. Time after time, the Blessed Virgin, Queen of Prophets, directs us toward the “sign of Jonah” as she urges repentance through reception of the Sacrament of Penance and an experience of her Son’s Paschal Mystery through a worthy and devout reception of the Holy Eucharist. In this centennial of the Fatima apparitions, we need to heed the essence of that message.
Not infrequently, we hear people say, “If I had lived during the Lord’s earthly life and ministry and had seen his mighty deeds, my faith would have been so much stronger than it is now.” Once again, Cardinal Newman has a penetrating response:
. . . we are really far more favoured than they were [those who witnessed biblical miracles]; they had outward miracles; we too have miracles, but they are not outward but inward. Ours are not miracles of evidence, but of power and influence. They are secret, and more wonderful and efficacious because secret. Their miracles were wrought upon external nature; the sun stood still, and the sea parted. Ours are invisible, and are exercised upon the soul. They consist in the sacraments, and they just do that very thing which the Jewish miracles did not. They really touch the heart, though we so often resist their influence. If then we sin, as, alas! we do, if we do not love God more than the Jews did, if we have no heart for those “good things which pass men’s understanding,” we are not more excusable than they, but less so. For the supernatural works which God showed to them were wrought outwardly, not inwardly, and did not influence the will; they did but convey warnings; but the supernatural works which He does towards us are in the heart, and impart grace; and if we disobey, we are not disobeying His command only, but resisting His presence.4
We are about to witness and benefit from the greatest miracle possible, let us ask for the grace never to “resist His presence.” Interestingly, in the lead-up to the Marian apparitions of Fatima, the children encountered angelic visitations, during the last of which the angel was holding in his left hand a chalice and, over it, a Host from which drops of blood fell into the chalice. He instructed the visionaries to pray thus:
Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I adore You profoundly, and I offer You the Most Precious Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present in all the tabernacles of the world, in reparation for the outrages, sacrileges and indifferences by which He is offended. And by the infinite merits of His most Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I beg the conversion of poor sinners.
The angel then communicated the children, who imitated his acts of adoration. How much do we need to hear that angelic message today as thousands of Catholics approach the Holy Sacrament unworthily; as people receive Holy Communion as though in line at a supermarket and give no thought to what – or better, Whom – they are receiving; as priests find Hosts that have been taken in the hand and then discarded in missalettes, in holy water fonts and even in toilets.
As the Angel of Portugal led those three children to reverence and adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament, we should pray that the whole heavenly court, led by Our Lady, would do the same for us as we enter into the “miracle of miracles” within a few short minutes, echoing the beautiful words of the Byzantine Liturgy: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim and sing the thrice-holy hymn to the life-creating Trinity, set aside all earthly cares, that we may welcome the King of all, invisibly escorted by angelic hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Our Lady, Queen of Angels, pray for us.
1John Henry Newman, Lectures on the Present Position of Catholics in England (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1908), p. 305.
2Summa Theologiae, III, Q. 43, Art. 1.
4“Miracles No Remedy for Unbelief,” PPS, pp. 86-87.