Sunday, July 08, 2018

My Three ‘Go-to Verses’

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 8, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 123; 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourteenth Sunday 2018]

You could call them my “go-to verses”: three verses of the New Testament that I call to mind quite often—especially in the midst of trial and difficulty and temptation.  These verses give me strength, and hope—and perspective (which is always a help when you’re dealing with a challenging and difficult situation in your life).

In doing this I’m taking the advice St. Paul gave to Christians in Ephesians 6 when he said, “In all circumstances hold faith up before you as your shield; it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, the word of God.”

For St. Paul the word of God was, among other things, a weapon: a weapon that we should use to battle all those things that Satan will use to try to destroy us: fear, anger, doubt, confusion, lust, greed, etc.  Of course, to use this weapon effectively, you have to first of all know what the word of God says (which means you have to be reading your Bible), you then have to believe what you read in the word, and finally you have to cling to the truth that you find in the word.

We have a great example of this, not surprisingly, in Jesus himself.  As we all know, our Lord prepared for his three-year ministry by fasting for forty days and forty nights in the Judean desert.  When he finally finished that fast he had to have been tired, physically weak—and extremely hungry.  Satan was well aware of this, and tried to take advantage of the situation by tempting Jesus: by tempting him to say no to the mission the Father had given him to die on the cross and save the human race.

Notice how Jesus resisted the three temptations that Satan threw at him.  He did it by the power of the word; he successfully resisted the temptations of the devil by quoting Scripture to him.

  • ·         Satan said, “Command that these stones become loaves of bread.”  Jesus said, “One does not by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”  (That’s Deuteronomy 8:3.)
  • ·         Then the devil took him to the top of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. [The angels will catch you.]”—to which Jesus responded “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”  (That’s Deuteronomy 6:16.)
  • ·    Finally the devil tried to get Jesus to worship him by bribing our Lord with earthly power.  By then Jesus had had enough!  He said, “Get away, Satan!  It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord, your God; him alone shall you serve.’”    (That’s Deuteronomy 6:13.)

Here we have Jesus using the word of God like a sword to repel the attacks of the evil one.  I suppose you could say that these verses of Scripture were three of our Lord’s “go-to” Bible verses.

But it really doesn’t matter what you call them; the point to remember is that they worked!  Here Jesus, I believe, is giving us an example to imitate, an example that St. Paul obviously followed in his own life, as that text from Ephesians 6 that I read to you earlier indicates.

I mention this today because one of my three “go-to verses” is found in today’s second reading.  It’s 2 Corinthians 12:9, and it reads, “My grace is always sufficient for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection.”  Here St. Paul is talking about his “thorn in the flesh”—which was some kind of trial or suffering that God allowed him to experience, at least from time to time.  The word in Greek that Paul uses there is “skolop”.  It’s usually translated as “thorn,” but many Scripture scholars will tell you that the word is more accurately translated as “stake”.

So what was this “thorn” or “stake” in the flesh that troubled St. Paul so much?

Well, we don’t know for sure.  Some say it was the persecutions Paul often experienced when he preached the Gospel; others say it was a temptation to pride or lust or some other sin; still others say that it was a physical ailment of some kind, perhaps something that had to do with his eyes.  They say that because in Galatians 4:15 Paul wrote, “Indeed, I can testify to you that, if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”

Whatever it was, it must have been pretty bad, since Paul prayed hard (and more than once) for God to take it away.

But the Lord didn’t take it away.  He didn’t remove the stake.  For some reason (probably Paul’s growth in holiness) the Lord allowed it to continue—as he allows us to experience certain ongoing trials in our lives (which are supposed to help US grow in holiness!).

And yet, even though God didn’t take the thorn away, he promised Paul that he would always be there to give him the strength, the power and the help he needed to deal successfully with it. 

“In your weakness, Paul, my power reaches its perfection.”

When I face a trial or difficulty in my life, I imagine Jesus saying those same words to me: “My grace is always sufficient for you, Fr. Ray, for in your weakness my power within you reaches its perfection.”

2 Corinthians 12:9—it’s a great “go-to verse”.

My other two “go-to verses” are 1 John 4:4 and Philippians 4:13.  1 John 4:4 reads, “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”  Now, when I call that verse to mind I always personalize it for myself: “Greater is he who is in me [namely, Jesus] than he who is in the world [the devil].”  That verse gives me a special strength and confidence in dealing with the evil I encounter in the world—and in dealing with temptation.  It reminds me that the power of God is always greater than the power of evil; it’s also greater than the power of the temptation to do evil (which can sometimes feel very strong, as we all know).

And lastly there’s Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”  That verse reminds me that I need to trust in Jesus and rely on him in every aspect of my life, especially in challenging situations; in other words, in those circumstances when I begin to doubt my ability to do what I need to do.  Now I’m sure that St. Paul wrote these words based on his own personal experience of sharing the Gospel.  As we all well aware, St. Paul was not always “affirmed” in his apostolic ministry!  As he said in one of his letters, he was stoned once, beaten with rods three times, and scourged with forty lashes five times—among other things.  I’m sure that there were moments in the midst of all those trials when he wondered if he would have the strength to continue the mission God had given him.

But the strength came, and in the process the Lord taught him this lesson—which he shared with the Philippians 2,000 years ago and which he shares with us today: “I, Paul, can do all things—not by my own willpower and strength; rather I can do all things through Jesus Christ who strengthens me with his saving grace.”

I need to think that same thought about myself quite often—especially when the task at hand seems too great for me, and I wonder, “How am I going to do this?”

These are my three “go-to verses” (2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 John 4:4; and Philippians 4:13).

What are yours?  If you don’t have them—if you don’t have any “go-to verses” at the present time—my suggestion is that you read your Bible (especially the New Testament) and allow God to give you some. And he will!  You’ll be reading along and all of a sudden a verse will jump out at you and you’ll say, “That’s it!  That’s one of them.  That’s something I need to remember and be reminded of—especially in difficult situations.”

Then memorize the verse—and begin to use it.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

The ‘Mystery’ of Death

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 1, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8: 7-15; Mark 5: 21-43.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2018]

Death is a mystery.  Now the good news is it’s a mystery that every single one of us will someday solve; the bad news is we won’t be around to tell anybody about it!

Actually when I use the word “mystery” here I’m using it in its theological sense.  Theologically speaking, a mystery is a truth that we can know something about (whatever God has revealed to us), but which we cannot understand completely with our finite human minds.

And that’s the way it is with death.  There are certain things, thankfully, that God has made clear to us about the end of our lives on this earth.  He’s done that through his written word and through his Church.

But there’s a lot about death and its aftermath that we don’t know—a lot that remains hidden from our mortal eyes.  As I indicated a few moments ago, there’s only one way to find out that information—and I presume most of us are not too anxious to have that “enlightening experience” anytime in the near future!

So today I’ll focus on what we do know.  My homily will be about some of those aspects of the mystery of death that we do understand—some of the aspects that God has revealed to us already.  I’ll also deal with some erroneous ideas about death that I’ve encountered in certain Catholics and others during my 32 years of priestly ministry.

The first point to be made in this regard is that, although some people blame God for the existence of death, he’s not the source of it.  He’s made that clear to us.  As today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom puts it, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.  For he fashioned all things that they might have being. … God formed man to be imperishable.”

Death became part of the human experience only after Adam and Eve made the free choice to sin, in response to a temptation by the devil.  God didn’t do it; it’s not his fault! As the writer of Wisdom puts it, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.” 

So if we’re going to blame anybody, we ought to blame Satan.

God is “the Lord and giver of life”, not the dealer of death!  It’s precisely because he’s the Lord and giver of life that he sent his Son to die on that cross 2,000 years ago.  Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

Jesus also said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

When Jesus refers to dying in that last verse, of course, he doesn’t mean physical death; he means “spiritual death,” “the death of the soul,”—what the Bible sometimes calls “the second death.”  Physical death is unavoidable.  (It’s one of the residual effects of original sin.)  The second death, on the other hand, IS avoidable by the “sanctifying grace” that has its source in the cross and resurrection of Jesus: the grace that comes to us for the first time in the sacrament of Baptism, and is preserved in us by a life of faith and charity.

If, perchance, we ever lose this grace by committing a mortal sin somewhere along the way, the good news is that it can be restored.  The ordinary way for sanctifying grace to be restored is in and through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

The condition of our soul at the time of death determines what happens to us afterward.  In death, our soul is separated from our body (that’s what death is: the separation of body and soul).  Our soul is then judged by God, and according to how it’s judged it goes to one of three places: heaven, hell or purgatory.  Those who go to purgatory are assured of their salvation.  They’re on their way to heaven—and they know it.  But they also know they’re not quite ready for heaven, since the Bible says that nothing impure can enter the kingdom of God.  You can’t even have one little sinful attitude in your soul and get through the pearly gates. (Rev. 21:27).  Besides that, you also need to attain a certain level of holiness to enter.  That’s why the Letter to the Hebrews tell us to “strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord.”  (Hebrews 12:14)

Some non-Catholics don’t believe in purgatory because they mistakenly think that the Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a “second chance”—but that’s wrong.  Those who die without sanctifying grace in their souls go to hell.  There are no second chances for them.  Souls in purgatory are in the state of grace, but need to be “cleaned up a bit” before they can enter the eternal wedding banquet.

Of course, the real tragedy is when Catholics reject the teaching on purgatory.  And some do.  I hope those Catholics never have Masses offered for their deceased relatives and friends; because, if they do, they’ll be contradicting themselves!  The only reason to have a Mass offered for a deceased person (the only reason to pray for the dead at all) is if purgatory exists!  If purgatory does not exist, then there’s only heaven and hell.  But souls in heaven don’t need our prayers to get into the kingdom, since they’ve already arrived; and souls in hell can’t be helped by our prayers, since hell is eternal.  Once you’re in, there’s no way to get out.

When we have Masses said for the deceased (or pray other prayers for them) we are doing something that presumes the existence of purgatory.  I pray for my deceased relatives and friends every day.  Since none of them is a canonized saint, I presume they all need some purification on their way to the kingdom.

But, Fr. Ray, what if they’ve already been fully purified and are now in heaven?    

Well, then the grace will go to help other souls who need it.  No prayer for the dead is ever a wasted prayer.

What I’ve said so far concerns our souls.  But what about our bodies?  Every human person, after all, has both a soul and a body.  This, incidentally, is why when someone dies it’s wrong to say that they’re now “an angel in heaven”—unless we’re speaking metaphorically.  That’s because angels are pure spirits.  They have no bodies (although when they’ve appeared to people over the centuries God has sometimes allowed them to assume a human form).

Now since we do have bodies as human beings, we are, in a very real sense, incomplete without them.

Which is our initial situation after death.  As I said earlier, when we die our bodies and our souls are separated from one another.  Under normal circumstances, our bodies then decay and decompose.  But, happily, that’s not the end of the story.  As Catholics we believe that our bodies will be raised up in an immortal, glorified state at the Final Judgment at the end of the world.  At that time our souls will be reunited with our bodies—our risen bodies—and everyone will end up (body and soul) in either heaven or hell. 

Purgatory will cease to exist when everyone who needs to pass through it has done so.

This is why we show respect for the body of a person even after that person has died.  Their lifeless physical body is still important, because it’s a foreshadowing of the risen body they will have for all eternity.  Therefore, it should be interred in some fashion (e.g., in a grave or in a mausoleum)—even after cremation.  It does not show proper respect for Uncle Joe’s cremated body to scatter his ashes to the four winds at Westerly Town Beach because that’s where he liked to hang out every summer!  Nor does it show proper respect for mom’s body to keep her ashes on the mantel above the fireplace in your living room!

Hopefully we’re all clear about that.

I was trying to find a way to conclude this homily on the mystery of death, and lo and behold I came across a little story that a parishioner emailed to me 15 years ago.  Let me read it to you now.  It will end things on a positive note. 
A sick man turned to his doctor, as he was preparing to leave the examination room and said, “Doctor, I’m afraid to die.  Tell me what lies on the other side.” 
Very quietly the doctor said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?  You, a Christian man, don’t know what’s on the other side?" 
The doctor was holding the handle of the door—on the other side of which came a sound of scratching and whining.  As he opened the door, a dog sprang into the room and leaped on him with an eager show of gladness.  (Sounds like Fr. Najim’s dog!)  Turning to the patient, the doctor said, “Did you notice my dog?  He’s never been in this room before.  He didn’t know what was inside.  He knew nothing except that his master was here, and when the door opened he sprang in without fear.  I know little of what is on the other side of death, but I do know one thing … 
I know that my Master is there, and that is enough.”
May it also be enough for us.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Desire to ‘Fit in’

John the Baptist

(Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist 2018: This homily was given on June 24, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 49: 1-6; Psalm 39: 1-15; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1: 57-66, 80.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Birth of John the Baptist 2018]

“The desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing.”  That’s the title of a very interesting online article that I came across recently.  The author of the piece is a philosophy professor from the College of William and Mary named Christopher Freiman.

Freiman begins his article by pointing out the fact that many of the greatest philosophers and thinkers over the centuries have taken the position that “wrongdoing tends to be motivated by self-interest” and that “an immoral person is one who’s ready to defy law and convention to get what they want.” 

While he doesn’t deny that this is true in many cases, Freiman says that from his perspective very often the opposite is true.  He writes, “Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values.  In these cases, it’s not that we care too little about others; it’s that we care too much.  More specifically, we care too much about how we stack up in the eyes of others. … We ‘go along to get along’ in defiance of what we really value or believe because we don’t want any trouble.”

  • ·    Someone tells a dirty or bigoted joke at work.  You really don’t think it’s funny, but everyone else seems to, so you find yourself laughing along with them.  You want to fit in.
  • ·       You’re in school one day and a controversial subject comes up (abortion, homosexual activity, transgenderism—something along those lines), and even though you believe that it’s wrong, you find yourself supporting it because the majority of the other students in the class are supporting it.  You want to fit in.
  • ·       You’re a teenager, and you start abusing alcohol because all your friends are abusing alcohol.  You want to fit in.
  • ·        You’re with a group of people who are trashing somebody they don’t like, and you find yourself nodding your head in agreement—even though you have nothing against the person they’re talking about.  You want to fit in.

“The desire to fit in is the root of almost all wrongdoing.”

This is a desire, my brothers and sisters, that we have to try to be aware of in ourselves, because under certain circumstances it can affect all of us by leading us into temptation (as I hopefully made clear by the four examples I just shared with you).

Now, to be sure, this “desire to fit in” can also be a good thing at times: specifically, when we desire to “fit in” with the saints and with those who are practicing virtue.  As the old song puts it, “O Lord I long to be in that number when the saints go marching in.”

That’s a good desire.

But all too often the desire to fit in is of this other kind, this bad kind. 

In its extreme form, of course, it can be incredibly destructive.  This is what we see in gangs today—like MS-13: young men, who desperately want to fit in, will rape and kill and do almost anything to be initiated into the group.  This is what we saw during the Second World War in Nazi Germany: seemingly ordinary people who were willing to do horrific things to Jews and others—so that they could fit in with the evil people who were in power.

The desire to fit in was at the root of much of the evil that was done during the Holocaust.

I mention all this today because this weekend we celebrate a feast in honor of St. John the Baptist.  One of the reasons why John the Baptist is a saint, one of the reasons why Jesus called him “the greatest man ever born of woman,” is that, when it came to evil, he had no desire to “fit in.”  Ever.

He didn’t have the desire to fit in, for example, with the materialists of his day.  The Bible tells us that John wore a garment of camel’s hair (which doesn’t sound very fashionable—or comfortable!—to me).  And he lived out in the desert on a diet of grasshoppers and wild honey.  (The wild honey I could deal with; the grasshoppers—I don’t think so!)

Obviously, John was not concerned with getting rich and living a lavish lifestyle.

Nor did John have the desire to fit in with the hedonists of his day—like King Herod, who committed adultery with a woman who was already married to his brother Philip.  John confronted him directly about that.  He told Herod, “It’s not right for you to live with your brother’s wife!” 

Nor did John have the desire fit in with the politically-correct crowd in first century Palestine (yes, politically-correct people were even around back then!).  John was clear, blunt and to the point—with Herod, and even with the religious leaders of the Jews, when some of them came to him to be baptized.  He recognized their pride and their hypocrisy, and so he called them a “brood of vipers”—right there, at the Jordan River, to their faces, in front of everyone!

This, I would say, makes John the Baptist a patron saint for all those who are tempted to compromise their moral principles and do evil.  Which means he’s a patron saint for all of us—because all of us are in that position at various moments of our lives.  And so, whenever you, personally, have this experience—whenever you are tempted to do something wrong in order to fit in with a group of people (your friends, your co-workers, the men and women you socialize with)—ask John the Baptist to pray for you that you may overcome the temptation and do the right thing—as he did the right thing so often in his life.

Let me close now with a prayer to John that I came across during this past week.  I think this ties in well with the message of this homily:

O Martyr invincible, who, for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, did with firmness and constancy withstand the impiety of Herod even at the cost of your own life, and did rebuke him openly for his wicked and dissolute life; by your prayers obtain for us a heart brave and generous, in order that we may overcome all human respect and openly profess our faith in loyal obedience to the teachings of Jesus Christ, our divine Master. Amen.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us!

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The ‘Sowing’ Father

(Eleventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on June 17, 2018 at St. Clare’s Church, Misquamicut, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 17: 22-24; Psalm 92; 2 Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Eleventh Sunday 2018]

What’s grown depends on what’s sown.

That’s a truth that all farmers and gardeners understand based on their experiences of farming and gardening.  When a farmer plants a field of corn, for example, he doesn’t expect to reap a harvest of tomatoes (at least not in that particular field).  When a gardener plants some geranium seeds in the flowerbed in front of her house, she doesn’t expect petunias to grow there.

“Fr. Ray, this is common sense.”

Yes, it is—at least when it comes to corn and tomatoes and geraniums and petunias and other plants that are grown from seeds.  But the thing is, this principle (What’s grown depends on what’s sown) applies to other areas of life besides farming and gardening. 

And in many of those other areas of life, sad to say, the truth is not so obvious to a lot of people.  Either they’re unable—or unwilling—to see the connection between certain ideas that are “sown” into the minds of modern men and women, and the actions that result from (or you might say “grow from”) those ideas.  Jesus understood the connection better than anyone, which is why he used the analogy of seeds in this gospel text we just heard from Mark 4.

This connection between the ideas that are sown in a person’s mind and the actions that flow from those ideas was made in a powerful way back in the 1980s, in an anti-drug public service ad that appeared on television.  I’m sure some of you remember it: 

The ad begins with the shot of a teenage boy in his bedroom.  The boy is reclining on his bed, with headphones on, happily listening to his stereo.  His father then barges into the room, obviously angry, with a box in his hand—a box that has various types of drug paraphernalia in it.  Dad turns off the stereo and says to the boy, “This yours?”  He replies, “No.”  His dad says, “Your mother said she found it in your closet.”  The boy suddenly gets really nervous, and starts to stumble over his words as he desperately tries to maintain his innocence.  Dad, of course, isn’t buying any of it.  Finally the father says, angrily, “Answer me!  Who taught you to do this stuff?”  His son shouts out, “YOU, ALRIGHT?  I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU!”

The ad ends with the announcer saying, “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”

That’s a perfect example of a father who sowed “bad seed” into the heart and mind of his son.  He did it not so much by his words, but by his actions.  And then he acted surprised when he encountered bad fruit in his son’s life.

He should not have been surprised.  That’s exactly what he should have expected.

And speaking of fathers, I think it’s providential that we have this gospel reading about seeds and their growth on Father’s Day weekend.  I say it’s providential because we’ve got a real cultural problem right now, and fathers (along with mothers) have an indispensable role to play in helping to solve it.

Think of some of the ideas that have been “sown” into the minds of young people during the last half century or so.  Ideas such as:

  • ·         It’s your body and you should be able to do whatever you want with it.
  • ·         Self-indulgence and having lots of stuff leads to happiness.
  • ·         You should be able to decide for yourself what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • ·         When it comes to sex, almost anything goes.
  • ·         Freedom means doing what you want to do, not what you ought to do. 
  • ·         Feelings matter more than facts.  So do what you feel like doing.
  • ·         There are no moral absolutes; everything is relative.

Do those ideas sound familiar?  They should.  Those are some of the seeds—the really BAD seeds—the seeds of destruction—that have been “planted” in the minds of Americans (young and old) on a daily basis for at least the last 50 years—especially in our schools, in our universities, in the arts, and in the mainstream media.

And now we’re reaping the tragic harvest.  The gun violence we’ve seen in schools in recent years is just one example of the bad fruit that’s come from all this.

There’s an old saying: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

The destiny (the eternal destiny) of our young people ultimately will be rooted in the way they think. And the way they think will, to a great extent, be determined by the seeds (the ideas) that get planted in them—especially by their parents. 

That’s one reason why the Church teaches that parents are to be the primary religious educators of their children.  And today moms and dads really need to take that job seriously, because if they don’t—if they don’t sow good seeds into the minds of their children—the world will be more than happy to sow the bad seeds I mentioned a few moments ago.  And lots of others as well.

On this Father’s Day I would be remiss if I didn’t thank the Lord for the good seeds my dad sowed into my mind—especially during the final year of his life.  He died of cancer back in 1971 when I was fourteen years old.  His last year was difficult; he suffered a lot.  But as tough as that last year was, it was also a time of great blessing.  During his final months, my dad and I did what we had rarely done before: we had some great father-son talks—about all kinds of issues.  I remember one of the things he often spoke about was the importance of getting a good education—which I did. 

That little mustard seed of advice that I took to heart has borne a lot of good fruit in my life.  And he taught me by his actions.  During most of his final year he wasn’t able to work, so he began to go to daily Mass.  And he continued for as long as he was physically able to do so.  That planted another good seed in my mind.  His going to daily Mass taught me that when you experience a suffering like cancer in your life you shouldn’t turn away from God, you should turn toward him.

That little lesson has come in handy many times over the years—and especially since December 23, 2010 (the day I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease).

As I said at the beginning of my homily: What’s grown depends on what’s sown.

With that truth in mind, I want to end this morning by offering a special prayer for all the fathers here present.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, you have called all fathers to be sowers in this life: sowers of truth, sowers of goodness, sowers of love.  On this Father’s Day we ask you to give these fathers the grace they need to be the best of sowers.  By their words—and even more importantly by their deeds—may they help their children to get on (and to stay on) the road that will bring them someday into your eternal and glorious kingdom.  This we ask through the same Christ, our Lord.  Amen.