Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sin: the Opposite of Peace

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 1, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 14: 23-29.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter 2016]

What’s the opposite of peace?

Think about how you’d answer that question.

What’s the opposite of peace?

Is it war—or hatred—or fighting—or disharmony—or disagreement—or conflict—or agitation?

Those are some of the words you’ll find in a thesaurus when you look up antonyms (opposites) of the word “peace”.

I know that because I did it the other day in preparation for this homily.

Now it’s very interesting, one word that I did not find in any of my research is the word that I believe Jesus would have used had someone asked him this question 2,000 years ago during his earthly ministry.

Had someone said to him, “Lord, what’s the opposite of peace?” I really believe Jesus would have said, “Oh that’s easy. 
The opposite of peace—real peace—is SIN!”

Not war, not hatred, not conflict, not any of the others, but rather sin.

I base that assertion on what Jesus says to us in today’s gospel reading from John 14.  There he speaks about peace; but he does so only AFTER he speaks about love and obedience.  He begins by saying, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”  In other words, “Whoever loves me will obey me.” To obey Jesus, of course, means TO AVOID SIN.  Then, a few verses later, he mentions peace.  He says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  Not as the world gives do I give it to you.  Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

In the eyes of the world, peace means “the absence of war”: that’s the kind of peace the world “gives”.

But that’s a very superficial—as well as a very flimsy—kind of peace, is it not?

And the reason it’s so superficial and so flimsy is because it can actually COEXIST with sin!  You can hate someone with every fiber of your being; you can refuse to forgive that person for the things they’ve done to you; you can refuse to speak to them or even acknowledge their existence: as long as you’re not at war with the person—as long as you’re not directly attacking him or her in some way—you’re “at peace” with them in the eyes of the world.

This is the kind of “peace” we had with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Some of us are old enough to remember those days.  There were no bombs dropped during the Cold War (although we came close during the Cuban Missile Crisis); there were no soldiers dying on the battlefield; there were no declarations of war by the two countries—so, technically speaking, we were “at peace”.  But behind it all and at the same time there was a lot of anger and bitterness and hatred in the hearts of people in both nations.

The Cold War is a great example of the kind of peace “the world gives”: a peace that often coexists with sins like hatred.

The peace of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior (that is to say, real peace) is different.  The peace of Jesus is about two things: being “right with God” and being “right with your neighbor”.  This means, quite simply, that if you want the peace of Jesus Christ in your life, you need to begin with repentance—because that’s the only way to “get right” with God! 

Please hear that, especially if you haven’t been to confession in a while.

And repentance, if it’s genuine, leads to a firm purpose of amendment.  In other words, it leads to OBEDIENCE: obedience to the Lord’s word, obedience to his commandments (especially the two great commandments: to love God above all things, and your neighbor as yourself).

This is why I said that, for Jesus, the opposite of peace is SIN.  Worldly peace and sin can coexist, but real peace and sin cannot.

So—you wanna know why there’s so little real peace in the world?  It’s because a lot of people nowadays believe the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ believed!  For Jesus, peace and sin were antonyms, but for many people in our world right now peace and sin are not antonyms, they’re almost synonyms!  They go together!  These men and women think they can have real peace in their lives while stubbornly clinging to their sins—especially their serious ones.

But that is impossible.

Fr. Roger Landry of the Diocese of Fall River said it beautifully in a homily he gave several years ago.  He said, “Just think what our world—from our families, to our schools, to our communities, to our nation, to the international community—would be like if we all just minimally kept the Ten Commandments.  Everyone would center their life on God.  People would come together to worship God.  There would be no swearing.  Parents and children would honor each other.  There would be no murder.  No hatred.  No broken families.  No cheating.  No robbery.  No lying.  No personal or class envy.  Christians often sing, ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.’ If we want that peace on earth, Jesus tells us it begins concretely with your and my keeping the commandments.”

And, I would add, repenting if we break them!

Lord Jesus, give us the grace to do these things: the grace to obey, and the grace to repent when we don’t obey, so that we will be able to do our part in bringing peace—your peace—real peace—more fully into our world.  Amen. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Reparation and Indulgences

Bishop Tobin opened our Holy Door in December of last year.

(Third Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on April 10, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 21: 1-19.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2016]

When was Peter forgiven?

We know when he sinned.  There’s no question about that: He sinned on Holy Thursday night in the courtyard of the high priest, when he denied Jesus three times.

But when exactly did he receive forgiveness for those terrible sins?

Some would say that it was during the encounter we just heard about in today’s gospel reading from John 21:  this encounter that Peter and a few others had with the risen Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias.  They see forgiveness implied in the three invitations that Jesus gave to Peter to profess his love: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

But I would disagree.  I would say that Peter had been forgiven by Jesus long before he had this discussion with our Lord.  In fact, I would maintain that the words Jesus spoke from the cross—“Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”—didn’t just apply to our Lord’s enemies.  They also applied to his friends who had abandoned him and who had betrayed him—especially Peter!

This story, therefore, is not about forgiveness, since Peter had already experienced that grace—that gift—from Jesus.  Rather the story is about reparation: it’s about Peter making reparation for sins—three sins—three terrible sins—that he had already been forgiven for.

The need that we have as human beings to make reparation for our forgiven sins—either here on earth or in purgatory—is something that many Catholics seem to be unaware of these days.  To make reparation basically means “to make amends”—to make amends by trying as best we can to undo the negative consequences that our sins have caused (especially in the lives of others).

As the Catechism says in paragraph 2487: Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven. When it is impossible publicly to make reparation for a wrong, it must be made secretly. If someone who has suffered harm cannot be directly compensated, he must be given moral satisfaction in the name of charity. This duty of reparation also concerns offenses against another's reputation.”

One issue where most people can very easily see the need for reparation is the issue of thievery.  As the Catechism reminds us in paragraph 2454: Every manner of taking and using another's property unjustly is contrary to the seventh commandment [Thou shalt not steal]. The injustice committed requires reparation. Commutative justice requires the restitution of stolen goods.”

That means if you steal $100 from somebody, it’s not enough to go to confession and confess the sin to a priest.  You also have to give back the hundred bucks!

You need to return the money in reparation for the sin.  And if, for some reason, you can’t return it to the person from whom you stole it, you need to make some other comparable sacrifice.  I would tell the person to give the money to a worthy charity—like St. Pius X Church!  (That, of course, would only be a suggestion.  Any worthy charity would be okay.)

In today’s gospel story Jesus helps Peter to make reparation for his three denials on Holy Thursday night by giving him an opportunity to profess his love three times.  That’s really what’s going on here.  Peter had committed three separate offences against our Lord, consequently he needed to make reparation for those sins with three separate professions of love for our Lord.

One way for us to make reparation for our sins is through prayer.  This is why, when I give a penance of prayers to a person in the sacrament of Reconciliation, I will never just say, “Pray x-number of Hail Marys.”  I’ll normally say, “Pray x-number of Hail Marys for the people you have hurt by your sins.”  Or maybe I’ll ask the penitent to pray for one or two of the people that he or she mentioned during the confession.  (It depends on how the Spirit moves me.)  But in either case it’s what I would call a “targeted penance”—meaning that I ask the person to pray for specific individuals, as an act of reparation for the sins that the person committed against those individuals.

This is also where indulgences come into the picture.  Some Catholics think that the Church dropped its belief in indulgences after the Second Vatican Council—but that’s not true!  The Church still believes in indulgences because the Church has always believed—and will always believe—in the need people have to make reparation for their sins.  In fact, that’s basically what indulgences are all about: they’re about the saints in heaven helping those of us still here on earth (as well as the souls currently in purgatory) to make reparation. 

Here’s how I would explain it: the prayers that the saints said and the good works that they performed during their earthly lives resulted in a lot of what you might call “reparation grace”—far more than they themselves needed.  So God allows them to share those graces with all of us through indulgences.

And that’s very good news because these graces can help to lessen our need for purgatory—or eliminate it altogether!

I’m sure many of you already know that a plenary indulgence (which totally eliminates the need for us to make reparation for our past sins) can be obtained during this Jubilee Year of Mercy by passing through one of the officially designated “Holy Doors”.

Every cathedral in the world (including ours in Providence) has one, as do a number of special shrines. 

But it’s not just a matter of taking a little walk through an open door in a big church.  There are other requirements that also need to be fulfilled (aside from being in the state of grace, which is presumed).  Here’s the explanation given in the Church’s handbook on indulgences: “To acquire a plenary indulgence, it is necessary to perform the work to which the indulgence is attached [in this case, passing through a Holy Door] and to fulfill the following three conditions: sacramental confession, Eucharistic Communion, and prayer for the intention of the Sovereign Pontiff.  It is further required that all attachment to sin, even venial sin, be absent.”

That last requirement is the most difficult one to fulfill, and it’s the reason why most people who try to obtain a plenary indulgence for their forgiven sins do not end up receiving it.

Most people—even very good people—still have at least some attachment to their favorite sins in their hearts.

I read a story once about St. Philip Neri, who lived back in the 16th century.  One day, as he was preaching a jubilee indulgence in a very crowded church, he received a private revelation from the Lord.  In that revelation God indicated to him that only he and an old cleaning woman who was there in attendance were actually receiving a plenary (or full) indulgence.

Of course, many of the people in the church for that service probably did receive a partial indulgence—which is still very good.

And this is why we should make plans to take a little trip to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Providence sometime soon, pass through the Holy Door that’s there, and then fulfill the other requirements for the plenary indulgence—even if we only end up receiving a partial one.

It will eliminate at least some of the reparation we need to make for our sins—or it will help a deceased relative or friend make some of their reparation, since we can apply indulgences either to ourselves or to souls in purgatory.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

When Peter was given the chance to make reparation for his three denials of Jesus on Holy Thursday night, he made the most of it.  He took full advantage of the opportunity the Lord gave him to make amends for what he had done.  May we do the same with respect to our own personal sins during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

An Important Announcement

Fr. Michael Najim

Instead of sharing the Good News (capital G, capital N) with you in my homily today, I have some good news (small g, small n) to share: as of July 1st we will be getting some full-time, priestly help here at St Pius X. 

This is something that I’ve desired for a long time—and I know many of you have as well.  Bishop Tobin and Bishop Evans also agree that this should take place.

And you’ll be very happy to know who will be coming here to be with us: Fr Mike Najim, who was once a student at St. Pius X School, as well as an altar boy here and a member of my youth group when I came to St. Pius 28 years ago.  Presently he’s the spiritual director at the diocesan seminary in Providence and the Catholic chaplain at LaSalle Academy.

The other bit of news is that he’s not coming here as the assistant; he’s coming here to be the pastor—and that pleases me greatly, because Fr Najim has the same spiritual outlook that I have, and he works very well with young people (which are two big priorities for me, pastorally speaking—qualities I always hoped and prayed would be present in my successor).

But I will be staying here in residence to continue doing what I have been doing in my priestly ministry.  You can’t get rid of me that easily!  Of course, the good news for me is that with this arrangement I won’t have to worry about administrative issues anymore (like paying the bills and dealing with contractors and insurance companies, etc.).  I’ll leave those things now to the young guy.

As Bishop Tobin and I see it, this decision is a “win” for everybody.  It’s a win for the people of the parish because they get the services of 2 priests; it’s a win for Fr Najim because he gets his first pastorate in a town that he loves; and it’s a win for me because I get to stay “home”.  Yes, I was born and raised in Barrington and in Holy Angels parish, but after 28 blest years my heart is here in Westerly and in this parish.  This is home.

And now I get to channel all of my energies into my priestly work, and don’t have to use part of my energy for administration—which will definitely have a positive effect on my battle with Parkinson’s Disease, since the symptoms of Parkinson’s always get worse with stress.

And administrative work, without question, causes stress.  Just ask any pastor!

One footnote to all this: when you see these assignments posted in the RI Catholic within the next few weeks, it will say that my status is “retired”.  Please understand, this does not mean I’m slowing down!  I’ve got plenty of mileage left in me.  This is being done for a very practical reason.  St. Pius X parish cannot afford to pay the salaries of two full-time priests at the present time.  But if I’m designated as “retired”, the diocese will be responsible for paying my salary, medical benefits, etc.  So they’ll pay the tab, and you—and any other place I help out in—will reap the benefits.

In closing let me say that my prayer at this Mass is that the words of today’s first reading will be prophetic for our parish community, especially where it says, “more than ever, believers in the Lord, great numbers of men and women, were added to them.”

Bishop Tobin has called St. Pius “a spiritual powerhouse” in the Diocese of Providence.  May these upcoming changes make our parish even stronger spiritually, and help us to be a place where many more men and women are drawn to Jesus Christ and added to our number.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Connection between Love and Suffering

Anna Beam (Kylie Rogers) and her mother Christy (Jennifer Garner) in 'Miracles from Heaven'

(Good Friday 2016: This homily was given on March 25, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; also read the Passion Narrative of St. John.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2016]

The cross of Jesus Christ reminds us that there is often a very close connection in this life between love and suffering.  Our Lord, of course, made that clear during the Last Supper when he said those famous words, “Greater love no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

Laying down one’s life obviously involves some suffering—in most cases a great deal of suffering!

St. Bernadette—to whom the Blessed Mother appeared in Lourdes, France, in 1858—said something similar once.  She said, “Why must we suffer?  Because here below pure love cannot exist without suffering.”

Jennifer Garner witnesses to this truth in a very powerful way in the new movie, “Miracles from Heaven”—a film that I highly recommend.  I saw the other day it over in Stonington.  Garner plays Christy Beam, a young mother of 3 from Texas, whose 10-year-old daughter Anna is diagnosed with a rare and incurable digestive disease—a disease that puts her in constant pain and threatens to take her life.  I won’t be a spoiler here and reveal all the details of the story, but I will say that one of the things that becomes crystal clear in the movie (which is based on real events) is how much Christy Beam loves her daughter, and how much she is suffering with her daughter.  You can literally “feel” this woman’s emotional pain as you watch the film and see her frantically trying to get Anna the help she needs.  She suffers much, because she loves much.

To the extent that we love another human person, we suffer when they do.  We also suffer when they reject us or betray us or attack us in some way.

This, incidentally, is one reason why the sufferings that Jesus endured during his passion were far greater than any sufferings we may endure during our lives.  Christy Beam suffered a lot, because she loved her daughter a lot—but she didn’t love her daughter perfectly.  None of us loves in that way on this side of the grave—because we’re all sinners who are prone to selfishness.

But Jesus DID love us with a perfect love!  He loved EVERYONE with a perfect love!  Which means that when he was rejected by the scribes and Pharisees, and betrayed by Judas, and abandoned by his friends, and attacked by the Romans, his suffering was far, far greater than ours would be in similar circumstances.

He suffered the most, because he loved the most.

If we understand this connection between suffering and love, my brothers and sisters, we can gain a new and far better perspective on the crosses we’re forced to deal with every day.

Let’s be honest, most people see their crosses in purely negative terms.  They see their trials and sufferings as liabilities, and as liabilities only.  Saints, on the other hand, also see their crosses in a positive way: as OPPORTUNITIES—as opportunities to love.  And isn’t that precisely how the Blessed Trinity looked at the cross of Jesus?  To God, the cross of Christ was not only the instrument chosen to bring salvation to the world.  To God the cross was also an opportunity: an opportunity for him to demonstrate his PERFECT LOVE to his imperfect creatures.

I mentioned St. Bernadette at the beginning of my homily; I’ll mention her again now at the end. 

Bernadette, I believe, had this positive perspective on her sufferings, which were many.  She grew up in poverty; she had a number of physical ailments; the civil authorities mistreated her; her parish priest didn’t believe her at first when she told him she had seen the Blessed Mother; she even suffered later on in the convent after she became a religious sister.  And yet, she still managed to be grateful to God in the midst of it all.

To a great extent, that’s because she looked at her sufferings in the right way!  It’s because she knew that all her crosses, as bad as they were, were only temporary, and that if she could love others in the midst of those trials, she would someday experience an eternal reward—the reward Mary had promised Bernadette in one of her apparitions.

This all can be seen clearly in something the saint wrote before she died, a writing that’s come to be known as Bernadette’s “testament of gratitude”.  It reads as follows:

§  “For the poverty in which my mother and father lived, for the fact that everything failed for us, for the collapse of the mill, for the fact that I had to look after the children whom I was feeding too much and for the dirty noses of the children, for the fact that I had to guard the sheep, for the constant tiredness, thank you, my God!”
§  “Thank you, my God, for the prosecutor and the police commissioner, for the policemen, and for the harsh words of Father Peyramale!”
§  “For the days in which you came, Mary, for the ones in which you did not come, I will never be able to thank you…only in Paradise.”
§  “For the slaps in the face, for the ridicule, the insults, for those who thought I was crazy, those who suspect me of lying, those who suspected me of wanting to gain something from it, thank you, my Lady.”
§  “For my spelling, which I never learned, for the memory that I never had, for my ignorance and for my stupidity, thank you.”
§  “For the fact that my mother died so far away, for the pain I felt when my father, instead of hugging his little Bernadette, called me, “Sister Marie-Bernard”, I thank you, Jesus.”
§  “I thank you for the heart you gave me, so delicate and sensitive, which you filled with bitterness.”
§  “For the fact that Mother Josephine proclaimed that I was good for nothing, thank you. For the sarcasm of the Mother Superior: her harsh voice, her injustices, her irony and for the bread of humiliation, thank you.”
§  “Thank you that I was the privileged one when it came to be reprimanded, so that my sisters said, ‘How lucky it is not to be Bernadette.’”
§  “Thank you that I was the Bernadette threatened with imprisonment because she had seen you, Holy Virgin.”
§  “Thank you that I was that Bernadette who was so frail and worthless that when people saw her, they said to themselves, ‘That must be her,’ the Bernadette that people looked at as if she were an unusual animal.”
§  “For this miserable body that you gave me, for this illness that burns like fire and smoke, for my decaying bones, for my perspiration and fever, for my dull and acute pain, thank you, my God.”
§  “And for this soul which you have given me, for the desert of inner dryness, for your nights and your flashes of lightening, for your silence and your thunders, for everything. For you—when you were present and when you were not—thank you, Jesus.”

Those are the words of a very strong—and a very loving—woman of God.

St. Bernadette, pray for us on this Good Friday, that we will come to see our sufferings as you saw yours—as opportunities to love—and someday experience the reward of that love with you and all the saints in God’s eternal kingdom.  Amen.