Today we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. I share with you a homily that I gave at a high school in my diocese at a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Beatification of Pope John Paul II, a few years back. Now he is a saint. There is much in this homily that I think applies even more to our situation now than it did then.
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DO NOT BE AFRAID
“Do not be afraid” – the first words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when she appeared on this day in 1917 to three poor shepherd children in Fatima – in the countryside of Portugal. From there she would appear to them five more times on the thirteenth of each consecutive month until October. Our Lady would answer their petitions for the cures of many people; she would produce a miracle, with the sun spinning and dancing around in the sky, which was witnessed by over 70,000 people and reported on in the secular press; and she would leave those three children with a message to share with the whole world: the message of prayer (especially prayer of the rosary) and reparation for sin. Today, May 13, we celebrate the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima.
“Do not be afraid”. These were also the same words with which Blessed John Paul II began his pontificate. They were words he would repeat many times. The first non-Italian pope in 455 years, he was called by God to be the Bishop of Rome and the Universal Pastor of the Church. It’s a big task, and that’s why there is a place in the Sistine Chapel called the “Room of Tears”. The Sistine Chapel, as you know, is where the papal election takes place, and after the new pope is elected, they go into that room to “put themselves together” so that they can then go out on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica and greet a waiting world. Often they go into that room to weep, thinking about the new burden that they have to bear. When Pope John Paul proclaimed those words to the whole world – “Do not be afraid” – surely he was saying them to himself as well.
“Do not be afraid”. On this very day, 30 years ago, the year 1981, a man with evil intent – a man named Mehmet Ali Agca – went into St. Peter’s Square for the Wednesday Papal Audience. He opened fire on Pope John Paul II, attempting to assassinate him; a total of four bullets hit the Holy Father, two of them lodging in his lower intestine, the others hitting his left hand and right arm. There were screams of panic in the crowd; they rushed the pope, who was in the popemobile, back inside the Vatican walls and then off to the hospital. Meanwhile, some bystanders subdued Ali Agca, and he was taken away by police. He would receive a life sentence, though he was pardoned in the year 2000. There is a marker in the pavement of St. Peter’s Square that shows where the assassination attempt took place.
“Do not be afraid”. A year after the shooting, in 1982, Pope John Paul – fully recovered from the attempt on his life – would go to Fatima in Portugal. He noted that the attempt happened on the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, and he believed firmly that it was because of the Blessed Mother’s intercession and protection that he was saved. So he wanted to make an act of homage, and give thanks. He placed one of the bullets in the crown on her statue there – similar to the one you see here. It was one of the many public acts of homage and devotion to Mary that he would make during his almost 27 years as pope: he had a deep love for the Mother of God. His papal motto was “Totus Tuus” – all yours, Mary; he knew that any affection shown to the Blessed Mother was also shown to her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Do not be afraid”. In December of 1983, Pope John Paul would go to meet with Ali Agca in his prison cell – there are some moving photographs of that meeting. Soon after the shooting the pope had already asked everyone, “Pray for my brother, whom I have sincerely forgiven”; now he went to forgive him in person. This whole scene was astounding to many. Think about how you would feel if someone tried to kill you: forgiving them from a distance would be hard enough, never mind meeting them in person! But the Holy Father knew that he was the Vicar of Christ – Christ’s representative on earth – and that his action was not only the right thing to do from the standpoint of our faith, but also a necessary teaching moment for people of goodwill everywhere. Whenever you are having difficulty forgiving someone, think of Pope John Paul; think of Christ on the Cross – “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.
“Do not be afraid”. These words were spoken some 94 years ago by the Blessed Mother, near the beginning of the 20th Century, and they were spoken often by Pope John Paul II, from near the end of that same century, right into this new millennium. They are a necessary preface to the times in which we live. “Do not be afraid” – this world has become a scary place, and in the modern age, evils never before seen or even imagined have been visited on individuals and nations. Are things getting any better? It’s hard to say for sure. But do we have hope? The answer is most certainly: Yes. We can live in this world and not be afraid, because we have faith in Jesus Christ, and hope that he has prepared something unimaginably better for us, if we follow him faithfully. The path that we must take is the path of love: that path first taken by our Blessed Mother when she said “Yes” to the angel, then went on her way to visit her cousin, and ultimately followed the way of the Cross. It is the path that Pope John Paul II showed to us as he continually, in the words of our psalm, went “out to all the world to tell the good news”.
“Do not be afraid”. The message of Our Lady of Fatima was prayer – especially the prayer of the Rosary – and penance; that is, reparation for sin. These are themes that Pope John Paul II continually taught on as well. He even added a whole new set of mysteries to the Rosary so that we could go even deeper in our meditation and reflection on the life of Christ and the life of our Blessed Mother. He was, I think it is fair to say, the image of a real man: a man who knew who he was, where he was going, and why he was going there; a man who loved God and his Church, and wasn’t bashful about being religious or sharing his beliefs with others; a man with a generous spirit, who taught us in his own person how to live.
“Do not be afraid”. Today we give thanks, because we now call Pope John Paul II “Blessed”. The pope who named so many people saints during his pontificate has now been declared blessed as well, the final step before being canonized a saint. He has shown us that radical holiness is possible in this scary world. He has shown us that Christ is real, and that it is wonderful to be in his Church. He has shown us how to embrace the cross in carry it, as none of us can forget those images of his final months and days, how he suffered under his illness but never gave up. What a blessing it is for us that our school is named after him – that we have such an inspirational example to follow in our work here!
“Do not be afraid”. On this Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, we recall those first words that our Blessed Mother then spoke – those first words that our namesake, Pope John Paul II, spoke as well – and we gather in thanksgiving. May Our Lady watch over and protect us, our families, and our school in a special way, leading us courageously into a deeper relationship with her son, Jesus Christ. And may Blessed John Paul II ever inspire us and help us with his prayers, so that each and every one of us may embrace all the blessings and challenges of this life and join with him and all the saints in heaven.
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