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Mary, Exorcism, and the Memory of Past Sins

The Roman Station for the 3rd Sunday of Lent is the Minor Papal Basilica of St. Lawrence outside-the-walls. There are five Papal Basilicas, four Major and one Minor. They were once called Patriarchal Basilicas and they corresponded to the five ancient Patriarchates, St. John Lateran in Rome with the Patriarch of the West, the Pope. St. Peter’s in the Vatican was assigned to Constantinople, St. Paul’s outside-the-walls to Alexandria, St. Mary Major to Antioch and the Minor Basilica of St. Lawrence outside-the-walls to the last (chronologically) of the patriarchates, Jerusalem. Hence, the Patriarch of each of those ancient sees had a basilica representing them in Rome, supporting the universal jurisdiction of Rome over all the other sees, no matter how distinguished and ancient.

By the way, the title “Patriarch of the West” was probably first attributed to Pope St. Leo I “the Great” (+461) in a letter of 450 from the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. One can stretch to understand why Benedict XVI might relinquish a title like this for the sake of ecumenism. It’s not, after all, on par with relinquishing some other title, like “Vicar of Christ”… which is what Francis did in 2021, relegating it to “historic” along with Patriarch of the West. But I digress.

The context of Sunday’s Mass at a Roman Station usually gives us a crow bar to pry open the content of the formulary (antiphons, readings, etc.). Today, it helps release something about the complicated Gospel reading, which can be broken into three sections: 1) the Lord performs an exorcism and is accused of doing so by Beelzebul and He confounds their accusation, 2) the description of the return of a demon to repossess someone and 3) Christ’s repost about true blessedness to a woman’s praise of His Blessed Mother, Mary.

We can’t tackle all of this in one piece, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tackle some of it. Ad ramos.

Firstly, at the end of the Gospel pericope (a “cutting out” from Scripture – I want you to be able to use the fancy terms), a woman raises her voice over the crowd:

‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ (Luke 11:27-28)

The tacking on of this Marian addition to the two pieces about demonic possession seems out of place. However, we are in spirit today at the ancient St. Lawrence outside-the-walls, where the great deacon was buried. The original Laurentian Basilica built by the Emperor Constantine was too small. Therefore, there was a large hall tacked on to it by Pelagius II (+590) dedicated to – wait for it – the Blessed Virgin Mary. So strong is the Marian component of the combined structure that Leo IV (+855) established that the Roman Station Mass for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin should be there. This is why, I think, we have that strongly Marian allusion tacked on to the previous sections about exorcism and relapse: it’s a subtle reference to the very structure of the Roman Station church and I suspect that would not have been lost on the Romans.

Sticking to the readings for the Mass, we note that Paul’s admonition to the Ephesians concerned eschewing pagan ways, especially impurity. It was at the Laurentian Basilica on this 3rd Sunday of Lent when aspirants to the Catholic Church, the Catechumens, were tested or “scrutinized.” Catechumens went through seven scrutinies on their journey to baptism and membership in Christ’s Mystical Person the Church. They were being instructed and tested about how they were giving up former ways and adapting to a new way of life. Just as the traditional rite of baptism itself has exorcisms, so too those entering the Church had to deal with their demons, real and psychological. We do too.

This is the second part of Lent. As Pius Parsch puts it in The Church’s Year of Grace, in the first two weeks we put ourselves on guard against attacks by the Prince of this world, the Devil and fallen angels, with the weapon of mortifications. On this Sunday we move from defense against the Enemy to attack: Christ casts out a demon and refutes any connection with the Enemy. He then explains how not to allow the demons – and maybe “our demons” in the form of memories of past sins that haunt us – to return to trouble us. On that note, Paul inveighs against sins that not only will haunt us for the rest of our lives, but will also be avenues through which demons can attach themselves to us to oppress us and also attach to the places where those sins occurred. We have to put out “houses” in order. Hence, we have that second part of the Gospel reading.

That second part of the pericope needs some untangling. Christ says that after an exorcism the demon wanders about and then tries to get back into the person. The fallen angel finds a person that is squared away, house “swept and put in order” (Luke 11: 25). It reenters the person with seven others even worse. But, one will object, how is it that they can enter if the person’s soul is “swept and put in order”? This seems to be a contradiction.

This could be explained by a relapse into the previous sins through which a person came to be afflicted by demonic oppression. It might also result from a morbid dwelling upon those sins to a point that one doubts the love and might of God to cleanse sins, no matter how grave, from the soul and not just to ignore them or pretend that they aren’t there, as in the error of the Protestants. Hence we have a situation that we could described as corruptio optimi pessima… the corruption of the best thing is the worst sort of corruption. For example, as great at the Jesuits might have once been, their falling off into …whatever it is they are doing now, is a worse sort of corruption by the fact that they were once so great. So too with a fall into the state of sin which is also characterized by a lack of hope and faith in God, because that person no longer turns to God for salvation.

As mentioned above the complexity of the Gospel today constrains our space and time here. Therefore, allow me to circle back to the Marian addendum and then make the peroration you are no doubt impatient to find.

The passage about the woman praising Christ’s Mother and His repost could be taken to be a slight of Mary. “Your mother is great!” and you respond, “Those people over there are great!” It doesn’t play well at a surface reading. This snippet comes up fairly often in the Vetus Ordo because it is in Votive Masses of the Blessed Virgin that are traditionally celebrated on Saturdays, Santa Maria in Sabato. As a result, traditional-minded priests and congregations alike have a chance to contemplate this passage with some frequency. It occurs to me that Christ, in redirecting the praise is not seeking to slight His beloved Mother in any way, but rather is trying to help people think beyond the mere physical relationship of blood, indeed the physical at all. After His resurrection, Christ would not allow Mary to take hold of Him, in Greek “cease holding on to me” (John 20:17). On the same day of the resurrection, the disciples on the road to Emmaus don’t recognize Christ until he breaks bread (Luke 24:35). Then He disappears, teaching them that they will now have Him present with them in this new way, the Eucharist, not in His physical form as when He was amongst us. In redirecting the praise of His earthly Mother, Our Lord was already teaching about our new bonds of kinship in and through Him, untrammeled by ethnicity or consanguinity. This will be especially important after the giving of the Great Commission to go to all the nations.

Secondly, this passage about the woman who praises the Lord’s Mother could be of solace also to couples without children. The Lord underscores in the briefest way, the most important offspring we can have, that is the fruits of our hearing the Word (who is Christ) and keeping the Word (who is Christ), particularly through the good works we are called to perform. Consider that in performing especially works of mercy, in particular the spiritual works, we can both beget new “family members” and reclaim our “prodigal sons.” By your effort in true charity, seeking the true good of the other even at a cost, you might bring someone back into the life of grace through counseling the doubtful, admonishing the sinner, instructing the ignorant, being patient with the troublesome. By being inviting to the lapsed, to the curious, you can change lives.

Which leads me to the end and that peroration. Regarding the morbidity of memory that we can slip into about our sins and become mired in a kind of black resolve, we all grieve over past sins and we suffer. However, I recall a line from a great baseball movie based on a mediocre novel by Barnard Malamud, The Natural. Roy Hobbs, down and wounded, regrets past decisions. His redemptive character, the woman he loved when he was young (before he made stupid, life-changing mistakes), says to him that we have two lives, the life we learn with and the life we live afterward.

I sure feel that way myself. I feel that way almost every day of my life, as a matter of fact. But I believe in Christ’s promises. Past sins can be seen as part of the fabric of the tapestry that tells the story of our lives, and that story is not over while we draw breath and have through Holy Mother Church and our baptism access to Life Himself.

We will always have the memory of our sins. Try not to beat yourself over the head too much. As a matter of fact, as we move into this new phase of Lent, let’s go on the attack!

Our post-baptismal sins are forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance.

The Lord Himself forgives your sins through Holy Church and the priest, alter Christus.

When with true sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment you make a sincere and complete confession of all mortal sins in both kind and number, all your sins will be forgiven, taken away, gone. They aren’t simply overlooked, or covered over. They are eradicated, washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb, never to be held against you when you come to your judgment.

Also, and this is important, there is no sin so horrible that we little mortals can commit that God will not forgive provided we ask for forgiveness. That doesn’t mean that we forget. It means that we are forgiven.

Though your sins be red as scarlet, they will become as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

Don’t forget it.

So, dear readers, go on the attack now. You are, after all, soldiers of the Church Militant. Look at your life with brutal honesty, and go to confession. Be inviting and help others to do the same. Invite, especially, the fallen away members of our Christian family languishing and exposed to moral perils. What a difference you can make. Never underestimate the immense power of an invitation. How the Enemy must howl at the acceptance of such an invitation to return to the Sacraments through confession and good Communion, perhaps the first in years.

Gently now… ATTACK!

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