Sunday, November 12, 2017

Live Like You Were Dying

"St. Francis in Prayer" by Caravaggio (1571-1610)

(Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 12, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 25: 1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday 2017]

“Live Like You Were Dying” is a song by country music singer Tim McGraw, that came out back in 2004.  It eventually went to number 1 and won the Grammy Award that year for the Best Country Song.  It tells the story of a man, in his early 40s, who gets diagnosed with a terminal illness.  When the man is later asked about what he did in response to hearing this bad news about his physical health, he answers first by listing three things he did that were obviously on his “bucket list”.  He says, “I went skydiving; I went Rocky Mountain climbing; I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.”

But then he says these things, which are far more important:

“And I loved deeper; and I spoke sweeter; and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying. …I was finally the husband that most of the time I wasn’t, and I became a friend a friend would like to have. …I finally read the Good Book, and I took a good, long, hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again.”

And he ends it all with the classic line: “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

Live like you were dying.

That’s exactly what I believe the Lord is telling us today in this gospel parable from Matthew 25: Make sure you live like you were dying.  In other words, make sure you’re living your life with an awareness that someday it will end, and that you’ll then be called upon to (as the Bible says) “render an account” for what you did—and for what you didn’t do—during your time on planet earth. 

Notice that all ten virgins in this story were invited to the wedding feast—just like all the people of the world are invited to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb of God in heaven.  But only five had oil in their lamps; only five were ready to meet the bridegroom when he arrived.  The “oil” there can be seen as a symbol of “sanctifying grace”: the grace that Jesus won for us by his passion, death and resurrection; the grace that makes us pleasing to God; the grace we need in our souls in order to pass through the pearly gates of heaven!

And the analogy holds given the fact that in the story the oil was not transferrable!  That’s a very important detail.  The wise virgins were not able to share their oil with the foolish ones.  Each of them was personally responsible for the condition of her own lamp.

And so it is with us and our souls.  As Professor William Barclay put it in his commentary on Matthew, “There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others.”

This is why confession is so important.  We receive sanctifying grace into our soul through baptism, but we can lose it through mortal sin.  The ordinary way to get it back is through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

When was the last time you went?

Now what I really like about Tim McGraw’s song is that it indicates that the main character—the man in his 40s with the terminal illness—has lived a better and a more fulfilled life since his diagnosis.  That’s why he says, “Someday I hope you [too] get the chance to live like you were dying.”

He’s not wishing evil on us there; what he’s doing is expressing his hope for us!  He’s expressing the hope that we will experience the same kind of transformation in our lives that he’s experienced in his.  From all that he says in the song, it’s clear that he’s been transformed in his relationships with other people (“And I loved deeper; and I spoke sweeter; and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying. …I was finally the husband that most of the time I wasn’t, and I became a friend a friend would like to have.”); he’s been transformed in his relationship with God (“I finally read the Good Book”); he’s even been transformed with respect to his sins and failings (“I took a good, long, hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again.”)

The implication is that he would do some things differently.

His terminal disease has made him aware of his own mortality—and that’s a good thing (as I hopefully have already made clear in this homily)!  It’s a good thing because it’s reality!  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we do not have on this earth a lasting city.  That’s a fact.  Life is short.  And if you don’t believe me, just ask an elderly person.  (“Father Ray I celebrated my 95th birthday last week.  Where did the years go?”—I’ve heard elderly people say that kind of thing lots of times over the years) 

But we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we do have a lasting city here—and that way of thinking can lead us to ignore God, and delay our repentance, and have the wrong set of priorities in life.

Like the man in this song did before his diagnosis.

The great saints, praise God, never fell into the trap.  They avoided it.  They avoided it because of how they looked at things.

In this regard, there’s a wonderful painting of St. Francis of Assisi by Caravaggio, the Italian artist of the late 16th century.  Perhaps some of you have seen it.  The title of the painting is, “St. Francis in Prayer,” and it shows the saint kneeling prayerfully, with his attention riveted on the object that he’s holding in his hands.

And what is the object he’s holding?

A cross?  No. 

A Bible?  No.

It’s a skull!  A human skull!

St. Francis is holding a human skull gently—you might even say “lovingly”—in his hands as he prays and meditates.  Which isn’t surprising, because apparently he had a skull in his possession and would sometimes bring it with him to the breakfast table so that his fellow friars could meditate on it too!

And St. Francis was not unusual among the great saints of the Church.  Many of them, believe it or not, kept skulls in their bedrooms or on their desks, which is why you will often see them in the portraits of canonized saints.

So why did they do this?  Were they obsessed with death?

No!  Quite oppositely, they were obsessed with life—eternal life—the eternal life that Jesus had died on the cross to give them.  They did not want to miss out on that life for anything; they didn’t want to be like the five foolish virgins in this parable!  So they kept this symbol of death around: a human skull.  They kept it around to remind them that they needed to be ready for that moment of death always, since, as Jesus says here, none of us knows the day or the hour when the Lord will come for us. 

And, in the process of doing this, these holy men and women lived fulfilled and joyful—albeit sometimes difficult—lives.

They lived like they were dying—even when they were in good physical health—and because of that they now live forever in a place where there is no death.

A place where we will also be someday, if we follow their example.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

When Priests Don’t Meet Your Expectations

The Bishop's 'Cathedra' in the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence.

(Thirty-first Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 5, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 23: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-first Sunday 2017]

Some of you have probably heard this before, but it bears repeating today:

If a priest preaches more than 10 minutes, they say he’s long-winded.  If his homily is short, they say he didn’t prepare it well.  If the parish funds are in the black, they say he has business savvy.  If he mentions money, they say he’s money-mad.  If he visits his parishioners, they say he’s nosy; if he doesn’t, they say he’s a snob.  If he has dinners and bazaars, they say he’s bleeding the people; if he doesn’t, they say there’s no life in the parish.  If he takes time in the reconciliation room to advise sinners, they say he takes too long.  If he doesn’t, they say he doesn’t care.  If he celebrates Mass in a quiet voice, they say he’s boring; if he puts emphasis in his words, they say he’s an actor.  If he starts Mass on time, they say his watch must be fast; if he starts late, they say he’s holding up the people.  If he’s young, they say he’s inexperienced; if he’s old they say he ought to retire.

I guess that last one applies to me now (probably a few of the others do as well—but we won’t go there!).

The point of this little reflection, of course, is that sometimes people have expectations of their priests and religious leaders that are excessive and unrealistic.  Not even St. Peter or St. Paul could live up to them.

And sadly, these unmet expectations sometimes cause people to leave the Church and abandon their Catholic faith—and, in certain extreme cases, to lose their faith in Jesus entirely and perhaps even to abandon their belief in God.

Just the other day a woman emailed me about a priest who embarrassed and humiliated her publicly (this didn’t happen locally—let me make that clear), and she was honest about the fact that she was hurt so deeply by what he did that she was tempted, for a moment at least, to abandon her faith entirely.

Thankfully she didn’t.  But others have in similar circumstances.

This problem of religious leaders who don’t practice what they preach is nothing new, and it’s certainly not something that’s peculiar to the Catholic Church.  Every religious group has experienced it—including the Jews of the first century (as Jesus makes clear in the gospel text we just heard from Matthew 23).  Our Lord says there, “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.”  One note of clarification here: This wasn’t literally an old chair from the time of Moses that the scribes and Pharisees took turns sitting on!  The “chair” in this text is a symbol: a symbol of authority—a symbol of the legitimate religious authority that the scribes and Pharisees had in the Jewish community of the time.

We employ the same symbolism in the Catholic Church today when we use the word “cathedral” to describe the principal church of a diocese.  The English word “cathedral” comes from the Latin word “cathedra” which means “seat”.  A cathedral, therefore, is the place where the bishop has his “seat”—which is literally a chair (the big, presidential chair in the sanctuary) which only he is allowed to sit in during Mass.  If I or any other priest celebrates Mass in a cathedral, we have to sit in another chair—because only the diocesan bishop possesses the authority that the “cathedra” (the big chair) symbolizes.

The scribes and Pharisees taught the people the Mosaic Law, so in a certain sense they possessed the authority of Moses in the first century Jewish community. And because they had this legitimate authority Jesus tells his disciples, “You must obey them!”

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.  For they preach but they do not practice.”

I think Jesus would say something similar to us today when we encounter an uncharitable priest (or bishop or deacon) like that woman did whom I mentioned earlier in my homily. 

He’d say, “Yes, you must obey them when they tell you to live the Gospel, but don’t do the things they do.”

This is a very important message for you to take to heart, my brothers and sisters, because God does not want your faith damaged or destroyed by an unpleasant encounter with “Father Pharisee”—or when your parish priest fails in some way to meet your expectations.

And it CAN be damaged or destroyed in such circumstances, as I said earlier—especially if your expectations are excessive and unrealistic.

Which leads to this very interesting question: What should you expect of your priests?

What are some realistic expectations that you should have of your clergy?

Well, here are a few that I think you should have …
  •  You should expect them to believe—not just in God and Jesus, but also in everything the Catholic Church teaches and professes to be revealed by God.  Basically that means everything in the Bible and the Catechism.  That’s what we expect of converts to the Catholic faith, so it shouldn’t be too much to expect the same thing of our clergy.

You should also expect them to teach these doctrines—and not their own personal opinions—to their congregations.
  •  You should expect your bishops, priests and deacons to acknowledge the fact that they’re sinners on the same pilgrimage that you’re on—like Pope Francis did when he was elected to the papacy and was asked to describe himself.  He said, very simply, “I am a sinner.”  That kind of humility goes a long way in ministry.
  •  You should expect your clergy to avoid scandalous behavior, and to pursue holiness in their personal lives.  That’s just basic Christianity 101!
  • You should expect your clergy to be obedient to the authorities that God has placed over them—especially their bishops.  Some priests, unfortunately, are not obedient to their bishops, and yet they expect their parishioners to be obedient to them!  That’s wrong!
  •  You should expect your bishops, priests and deacons to have the courage to address the hard issues of the day (like abortion and euthanasia and so-called “gay marriage”).  In other words, you should expect them not to be spiritual wimps!
  •  You should expect them to avoid opulence and materialism.
  •  You should expect them to live simple, detached lives.
  •  You should expect them to care about the poor and those in need.
  •  You should expect them to be men of prayer—who even pray about their ministry, so that God can help them to see what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and what he wants them to do next.
  •  And, of course, you should expect them to be men devoted to the sacraments of the Church.

Those are all reasonable, realistic expectations.  There’s nothing outlandish or excessive about them.  So in closing I ask you to pray for us!  Pray for all bishops, priests and deacons in the Church today: pray that we will meet or exceed all these expectations in everything that we do.

And if we fail to meet them from time to time because of our human weaknesses (like the scribes and the Pharisees failed), don’t give up on your Catholic faith, and certainly don’t stop praying for us—because that’s precisely when we need your prayers the most.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Mark Wahlberg and the Desire to Be a Saint

Mark Wahlberg

(All Saints’ Day 2017: This homily was given on November 1, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12a.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Saints 2017]

I want to begin my homily on this All Saints’ Day by speaking about Mark Wahlberg, the well-known actor.  Now if you know anything about him—and his personal and professional history—you might find it a little odd that somebody would use his name and the word “saints” in the same sentence!

But that’s precisely the point.

Wahlberg has become a practicing Catholic in recent years, but prior to that he was definitely not what you would call a “good role model” for our youth.  Among other things he was involved with gangs, he spent some time in jail for assaulting a Vietnamese immigrant, and he made some bad decisions in terms of the roles he played in feature films.  Last month he spoke at a Catholic youth conference out in Chicago, and there he said, “I just always hope that God is a movie fan and also forgiving, because I’ve made some poor choices in my past.”  When he was asked about particular movies that he regrets starring in, he mentioned “Boogie Nights” specifically—a film in which he played a porn star.

And this is a good thing!  It’s good that he feels this kind of regret for some of the roles he’s taken in the past.  It shows that he’s developing a good conscience.

Now he’s got a long way to go—even his views on things like so-called “gay marriage” need some refining.  But it does seem that he has the desire to move forward, the desire to grow closer to God, the desire to become “the best possible version of himself”—the desire, in other words, to be a saint.

Which is the first step to becoming one!

When he goes to Mass today, on this holy day of obligation, I hope and pray that his desire for sanctity will intensify—because that’s one of the purposes of this celebration!  It’s one of the reasons we have All Saints’ Day on the Church’s liturgical calendar.  We gather here to honor our brothers and sisters who’ve already made it to heaven; our brothers and sisters who lived the Beatitudes, and who are now a part of that vast crowd that St. John saw in that vision we heard about in today’s first reading from Revelation 7.  We gather, in other words to honor ALL the saints of heaven: the canonized and the un-canonized.

But, in honoring them the Church wants us also to be inspired by them!  The Church wants us to be inspired by them to pursue holiness ourselves.

Mark Wahlberg needs that inspiration (especially in the environment he lives and works in).  But we all need it too, because we’re living right now in a culture that’s constantly pulling us away from God and his truth.

All you saints of God, pray for Mark Wahlberg and for us, that we will have a deep, strong, unwavering desire to become saints ourselves.  And pray that we will ACT on this desire each and every day of our lives. Amen.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Love God (Not Your Neighbor) With ALL Your Heart

Leonard Whiting as Romeo and Olivia Hussey as Juliet in the 1968 film.

(Thirtieth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 29, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 22: 34-40.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirtieth Sunday 2017]

See if you can figure out where these two quotes come from.  I’ll give you a hint: They’re found in the same well-known story:

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

“Good night, good night!  Parting is such sweet sorrow, that I shall say good night till it be morrow.”

If, perchance, you don’t’ recognize those two lines, maybe this third one will help: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

That clarifies the matter, I’m sure.

Those, of course, are three short quotes from William Shakespeare’s classic play, Romeo and Juliet.  The play tells the story of “star-crossed lovers” (as Shakespeare calls them) who come from feuding families, but who still manage to fall in love and secretly marry.  Then, to escape from her oppressive parents, who want her to marry someone else, Juliet devises a plan to fake her own death and go off with Romeo.  She does this with the help of the Friar who had married them secretly. 

Most of us know the rest of the story.

Friar Laurence gives Juliet a special potion which makes her appear to be dead.  She’s then put into the family crypt, which is where Friar Laurence and Romeo are supposed to meet her after she wakes up, so that she and Romeo can go away without anyone pursuing them, and live happily ever after.

Unfortunately, however, Romeo never gets the message that’s sent to him explaining the details of the plan.  So when he’s told that Juliet has “died,” he thinks she’s really gone.  He decides at that point that life isn’t worth living without her, so he buys some poison, drinks it, and dies next to her in the crypt.  Juliet then wakes up, realizes what Romeo has done, and decides that she can’t live without him either, so she takes her own life by stabbing herself in the chest with Romeo’s dagger.    

A tragic ending, for sure—although the tragedy did finally stop the feud between the two families.

Too bad they waited so long to reconcile.

Now it’s very clear from the way the story is written: Romeo loved Juliet.  He loved her with all his heart and soul and mind and strength.  And, by the same token, Juliet loved Romeo with all her heart and soul and mind and strength.

AND THAT WAS PRECISELY THEIR PROBLEM!  That’s precisely what was wrong in their relationship!  Which is why in the last line of the play Shakespeare wrote these words: “For never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Notice that in today’s gospel Jesus makes a distinction—a very clear and a very important distinction—between the way we’re supposed to love God and the way we’re supposed to love other human beings.  They’re not the same!  He says we’re to love God (and only God!) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  We’re NOT supposed to love our neighbor in that way.  And this is true even if the “neighbor” in question happens to be our husband or wife or parent or child or brother or sister or best friend!

According to Jesus, we’re supposed to love our neighbor as we love ourself.  Which is an awful lot, by the way.  To love is to “desire the good” for someone, and most of us “desire the best” for ourselves in this life.  Jesus is simply saying that we need to have that same desire for everyone else on this earth—including our enemies.

Mixing up these two commandments, like Romeo and Juliet did, is a big mistake.  It’s a big mistake because other human beings, even if they are very good, are weak and imperfect sinners: weak and imperfect sinners who will most certainly disappoint us, and hurt us, and at times maybe even abandon us.

And, of course, they will all eventually die.

Only God is always there for us; only God can be counted on never to abandon us, or hurt us, or fail us—or die.  This is why our relationship with him (a relationship that’s nourished by daily prayer and the sacraments) needs to be our number one priority in this life.  You’ve heard me say that before; you’ve also heard Fr. Najim say that many times since he became the pastor of St. Pius last year.

And here’s the very interesting irony: When we do grow in our knowledge and love of God; when we do make the effort every day to love the Lord (and only the Lord!) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, we love other people more, not less!  Love of God doesn’t negate the love of neighbor, it actually increases our love for our neighbor.

As I was preparing this homily the person who came to mind in this regard was St. Maximilian Kolbe—the priest who sacrificed his life to save a condemned prisoner in the concentration camp at Auschwitz during the second World War. 

I’m sure most of us have heard the story before.

It happened near the end of July in 1941, when someone from St. Maximilian’s cellblock escaped from the camp.  As soon as he found out about it, the Nazi commandant decided that 10 other prisoners would be chosen at random and executed, in retaliation for the one who had gotten away.

One of those chosen was Francis Gajowniczek, a married man who had a young family. When he was picked he fell to his knees and begged to be spared—for the sake of his wife and children.  It was then that St. Maximilian stepped forward and volunteered to take his place.

And he did.

Now, if you know anything at all about St. Maximilian Kolbe, you know that he loved Almighty God a lot more than he loved any human being on this earth—including the members of his own family.  But it was precisely that intense love for God that motivated him to demonstrate his love for another human being—a person whom he didn’t even know!—in the most radical way possible: by laying down his life for the man.

“Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”

My brothers and sisters, our world today is in desperate need of fewer Romeos and Juliets, and of many more Maximilian Kolbes.  May we be among that number, by living these two great commandments as they are written, as Jesus gave them to us: loving God—and only God—with ALL our heart and soul and mind and strength.