‘The situation is tragic and begs us to raise our voices,’ archbishop says

The following are Archbishop Samuel Aquila’s remarks from the interreligious prayer service for peace Aug. 11 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver.

To sign the PLACE statement, click here

My dear brother and sisters, I am grateful to every one of you for your presence here tonight. We have come together to pray for those Christians, Muslims, Jews and other religious minorities who are presently affected by the violence that is convulsing the Middle East. The situation is tragic and begs us to raise our voices in prayer for those innocents who are being persecuted and murdered.

This evening, we have heard from the Quran, the Torah and the Gospel about the importance of loving God above all else and loving our neighbor as ourselves.  The truth that runs through all three of these passages is that anytime we move away from the love of God, we move away from the love our neighbor.

This is also a test of the truth of any religion. Does it unite the love of God with the love of one’s neighbor? The atrocities being committed in the Middle East demonstrate that the radical version of Islam that the ISIS fighters are imposing with brutal force and violence is not a true religion.

It is impossible for a person to love God and then seek to destroy the crowning achievement of His creation, the human being whom he has created in his image and likeness.

Last Friday, the Pope’s personal representative to the United States, sent me an appeal from Pope Francis on behalf of those who are suffering in Iraq.

He said to every bishop of the United States: “[O]ur brothers and sisters are persecuted, they are pushed out, forced to leave their homes without the opportunity to take anything with them. To these families and to these people I would like to express my closeness and my steadfast prayer. Dearest brothers and sisters so persecuted, I know how much you suffer. I know that you are deprived of everything. I am with you in your faith in Him who conquered evil!”

Yesterday, after praying the Angelus prayer, Pope Francis repeated his condemnation of religion being used to condone violence. “Hatred is not to be carried out in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!” he declared.

One only needs to look at the latest headlines to see why he is so concerned. Christians’ homes have been marked with the Arabic letter “N” for Nazarene. In the case of Shiite Muslims, their homes have been spray-painted with an “R” for Rejecter. Members of the Yazidi ethno-religious group are being branded as “devil worshippers,” and some 40,000 of them have been driven by Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) militants into the Sinjar Mountains west of Mosul, near the border with Syria.

Today in the news we heard of 500 of the Yazidi being buried alive.

These are scenes that many thought were impossible in our day. But here we are, it is 2014 and the Islamic State’s fighters have made beheadings, rape, extortion, systematic persecution, and the murder of children (whom they have cut in half!) all too real.

I am reminded of the quote which is most frequently attributed to the English statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

We have seen this throughout history and we cannot be good men who do nothing.  What can we do? How can we resist this evil?

Our first reaction must be to pray, as we are doing tonight. We must do so with faith that the Creator of all is truly in control of our world and can save our brothers and sisters. We must pray with the conviction that prayer is our most powerful weapon. God may use the hands and feet of aid workers, the decisions of political figures, or soldiers’ actions to defend a defenseless and helpless people, most especially defenseless children, but it is still He who acts.

All of us have a duty and obligation to “raise up a ceaseless prayer with one voice” on behalf of our persecuted brothers and sisters, as Pope Francis recently said. And when I say “our brothers and sisters,” I do not mean that we should each pray for those who belong to our own faith. We are all called by our common humanity and in seeking the common good to pray for every single person who is experiencing the scourge of violence or persecution because of their faith, regardless of their religious affiliation.

We all believe that mankind was created out of nothing by God, and that we have a special dignity because of that. Our shared, God-given dignity is what makes us brothers and sisters with one another. And this is what makes it possible for all of the religious leaders you see here tonight to stand together against evil, against the assault on our fellow man.

One cannot help but recall St. John Paul II and his call to the world, to every person of good will, to build a culture and civilization of love.  Or to embrace the civilization of death.  That is the battle we find ourselves in today.  And it continues.  But it is up to each one of us to choose the civilization of love.

And so we must do more than pray. Our Creator entrusted us with free will, and we must use it to choose the good and act in favor of it. To that end, with the direction of his bishop, Elias Zaidan, Father Andre Mahanna and I have been working to promote the Peace, Love and Co-Existence initiative.

The inter-faith PLACE initiative is a statement of our united purpose, as well as a petition that asks President Obama “to work urgently through diplomatic channels and ethical intervention to stop the murder and persecution of Christians in the Middle East,” and “with equal urgency to oppose the persecution of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East.”

Just before this ceremony, I signed the PLACE statement with Dr. Shaul Gabbay, Sheik Ahmed Nabhan, Father Andre Mahanna of the Maronite Catholic Church, Deacon Elias Naoum of Syriac Orthodox Church, Father George Shawareb of St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church, and other leaders.

We hope, through this action, to love our neighbor as ourselves by calling our leaders’ attention to their plight and asking them to defend the tens of thousands of innocents fleeing ISIS.

So many of you here tonight are not clergy but lay people. You might be asking, “What can I do?”

First, you must begin by praying for those being persecuted and for the conversion of those who are carrying out these heinous acts. I urge you though not to stop there. You can also donate to charities that are active in these afflicted regions, and call your local congressmen and senators to express your concern and ask for sustained intervention to protect those who are being persecuted. You can take a stand for religious freedom by your words and by your actions!

Every single action and every prayer counts. I am reminded of what Mother Teresa said when she was asked if she ever got discouraged by the number of people who were still in need, despite the thousands of poor and suffering people she picked up off the street. She replied, “No. God does not call me to be successful; God calls me to be faithful.”  And whether we are Jewish, Muslim or Christian, we are called to be faithful to the God of love, to the God who calls us to build a civilization of love and peace.

May all of us adopt her attitude and be faithful in defending our fellow human beings, especially the most innocent. One can only weep as one gazes upon children who are being murdered.  We should not worry about how big the problems that led to this situation are. Instead, we should be faithful and seek to give glory to God by loving our neighbor through prayer and action.

It must not be said that we were the generation that stood idly by while evil consumed our brothers and sisters. We cannot be a generation that embraces the culture of death.  But rather we must be those who love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbor as our self! May the God of peace and love bless each one of you abundantly and help you to build that civilization of love in today’s world.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”