Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Sin of ‘Neglect’

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 25, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 16: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here:Twenty-sixth Sunday 2016]

My homily today is about the sin of “neglect.”

I decided to preach on this topic after I saw the movie, “Sully” earlier this week.

“Sully” is about what some have called the “Miracle on the Hudson,” which took place back on January 15, 2009.  As most of you will probably remember, that was the day that U.S. Airways’ Captain Chesley Sullenberger (“Sully” for short) made an emergency landing of a jet airplane in the Hudson River in New York City.  He made the decision to land in the Hudson because the plane had hit a flock of birds shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport, and had both of its engines knocked out in the process.

Sullenberger had to literally “glide” the plane into the river.

Amazingly—some would say “miraculously”—all 155 people on board survived the landing and were rescued shortly thereafter.

Most of the movie deals with the investigation that occurred later on by National Transportation Safety Board, which tried to determine whether there was some kind of pilot error in how Sullenberger handled the situation; that is to say, was there something Captain Sullenberger NEGLECTED to do that he should have done—like turn the plane around and try to land back at LaGuardia?

As the film portrays it, some people on the Safety Board were prepared to blame Sully and accuse him of failing to act as he should have in the crisis, but in the end it turned out that the members of the Board were the ones guilty of neglect.

And what exactly did they neglect?

You’ll have to see the movie to find out!

No spoiler here.

Neglect, it’s important to note, is not always a sin.  For example, in this movie the members of the Safety Board were ready to make a judgment on Captain Sullenberger’s performance based on the information they had at their disposal.  They didn’t realize that they were neglecting to factor something into their analysis—until someone made that clear to them.

But there are other times when neglect is a sin—as we see in this famous gospel story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Notice why the rich man suffers after death.  It’s not because he killed Lazarus; it’s not because he hated Lazarus and physically attacked him in some way.

All he did was ignore the guy!  All he did was to NEGLECT the poor, sick man on his front doorstep—someone whom he could easily have helped.  That was his sin.

And from the way the story is written it appears he neglected Lazarus in this way not just once, but every day!

The challenge of being a Christian—the challenge of living as an authentic disciple of Jesus Christ—is, from one standpoint at least, the challenge to eliminate sinful neglect from our lives.

And this involves more than simply reaching out to help the poor, the sick and the needy—although it certainly includes those things.

The fact is, sinful neglect can take many different forms.  I’ll give a few examples:

1.    Neglecting the condition of our soul.  That’s definitely a form of sinful neglect.  How many people think about the condition of their soul each and every day?  From the relatively small number of people who go to confession on a regular basis, I would say that very few do!  And yet the condition of our soul—in other words, whether or not our soul is in the state of grace—is what will determine where we spend eternity: in heaven or in hell.
Neglecting to reflect on it (at least occasionally) is a big mistake.

2.    Neglecting our relationship with Jesus.  That’s yet another form of sinful neglect.  In many of the homilies he’s given since he became pastor, Fr. Najim has talked about the importance of having—and the importance of nourishing—a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  That, of course, is supposed to be the most important relationship we have in this life.  But, since we don’t see Jesus in the same way that we see our relatives and friends, it’s very easy to put someone else in the number 1 position—or to neglect Jesus entirely.

3.    Neglecting to teach children how to put the Lord first in their lives and how to set their priorities properly.  This is a form of sinful neglect that we have to face every year in our religious education program.  Every CCD director will tell you how frustrating it is to deal with certain parents, who attach a greater importance to their children’s involvement in sports and dance and other extra-curricular activities than they do to their children’s religious education and formation in the Faith.  Without realizing it, perhaps, those parents are teaching their children that it’s okay to neglect your spiritual life when something “more important” comes along.

4.    Neglecting our human relationships (especially in our families); in other words, putting things before people.  Being a better mother or father or wife or husband or son or daughter or brother or sister or friend takes a back seat to buying some unnecessary luxury or to getting ahead professionally.  People made in the image and likeness of God are neglected in favor of “stuff”—stuff that we will eventually leave behind when our earthly life is over.

In closing, I would ask you to take that word “neglect” home with you today and to pray about it.  Say to the Lord, “Lord, help me to recognize any sinful neglect that’s present in my life right now, and give me the strength and determination I need to deal with it.”

Because, as the rich man in today’s gospel story would surely attest, it’s far better to deal with your sinful neglect in this life than to deal with it in the next.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Three Ways to Make Confession Easier

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 11, 2016, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ex 32: 7-14; 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2016]

The title of my homily today is, “Three Ways to Make Confession Easier.”

That’s easier for you—and easier for the priest!

Obviously the theme of all our Scripture readings today is the same: the awesome and boundless mercy of God.

In the first reading Moses intercedes for the disobedient and hard-hearted Israelites, and God responds by showing them mercy.

In the second reading St. Paul talks about the radical change that took place in him once he became a Christian.  That change was the work of God’s mercy—a fact which Paul explicitly acknowledges in the passage.

And then we have the story of the prodigal son as our gospel reading today—a story that Pope Francis has rightly described as “the parable of the merciful father”.

Because at its core that’s really what the parable is all about.

God’s mercy is boundless, and is always available to us.  But like Moses—and St. Paul—we need to reach out to the Lord in order to receive it.

And the way we reach out is through repentance—and by expressing that repentance in the confessional, especially if we have serious, mortal sins on our souls.

Recall once again my mercy equation: Recognition plus Repentance equals Reception

Recognition of sin combined with repentance for sin leads to the reception of mercy.

When a person goes to confession with the right disposition of heart, that mercy equation is fulfilled and his sins are taken away.

But recognition and repentance are not easy—especially regarding serious sins—which is why confession can be a very difficult experience for us at times.

And yet, there are some things we can do to make it a bit easier.  I’ll share three of them with you briefly this morning.

First of all, we can make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant by knowing what our sins are before we go into the confessional.  Many people get nervous about going to confession because they’re worried about remembering the Act of Contrition, or the opening formula (“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned …”)—but the priest can help you easily enough with details like those.  What he can’t tell you is what your sins are—unless, of course, he has the ability to “read souls” like Padre Pio and John Vianney did!  They could sometimes tell people their sins before they confessed them—or when they purposely neglected to confess them.

Don’t worry.  I think you’re safe with Fr. Najim and me!

But this means you need to examine your conscience thoroughly beforehand, so that you don’t leave out any serious sins that need to be confessed.

If you don’t have a list of questions to help you do this properly you can always get one from a priest.  You can even find some good examinations of conscience online.  There’s an excellent one, for example, on the Knights of Columbus web site.

And, if your memory is poor, feel free to write some notes to yourself as you go over the examination of conscience questions, and then use those notes during your confession.

Just make sure you don’t forget to destroy the notes afterward!

The second thing we can do to make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant is to remember to confess any and all mortal sins according to “kind” AND “number”.  In other words, if you commit a mortal sin, you not only need to identify the sin itself, you also need to let the priest know how often you committed it.  With a venial sin it’s sufficient to mention the sin and leave it at that.  For example, it’s fine for a little boy to come to confession and say, “I argued with my brother”.  That’s an acceptable way to confess that sin because it’s venial.  But if that same boy grows up, gets married, has an affair, then eventually repents and goes to confession, it will not be enough for him to say, “I committed adultery”; he will also need to say how many times he committed that sin.

Now here, in all honesty, is where it can get very uncomfortable for the penitent AND THE PRIEST!  If you confess a serious sexual sin like adultery but don’t tell the priest how often you committed it, he will probably ask you that question—even though it makes him very uncomfortable doing so (at least it always makes me uncomfortable!).

If that ever happens to you, please understand something: It’s not that Father wants all the sordid details!  It’s not that he’s prying into your affairs (pardon the pun!).  He just wants to help you to make a good confession and get rid of the sin in your life!

Now someone might say, “But, Fr. Ray, I’ve been away from the sacraments for 20 years.  I know that missing Sunday Mass is a serious sin just like adultery is, but I have no idea EXACTLY how many times I’ve missed Mass during the last 2 decades!”

In cases like that, when you don’t know the exact number, it’s sufficient to say that you committed the sin “many times” or “frequently”, or to say that you missed almost every Sunday and Holy Day Mass for the last 20 years.

The bottom line is: In some way the frequency of the sin needs to be mentioned whenever the sin is mortal.

Which brings us to the final thing we can do to make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant: Relax about the Act of Contrition!

Some people stay away from confession, or have a meltdown whenever they go to confession, because they either don’t know the Act of Contrition or they’re afraid they’re going to forget it when the priest asks them to say it (which, of course, usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: they get nervous about forgetting, which causes them to forget!).

Many Catholics don’t realize that there’s a lot of flexibility in this part of a confession.  You have some options.  For example, if you want to, you can say one of the standard Act of Contrition prayers, like the one that begins, “Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you …”

But you don’t have to!

You can use your own words, if you wish—and many people do.  Most of these prayers are simple—nothing fancy: “Dear Jesus, I’m sorry I’ve hurt you and others by my sins.  Help me to be better in the future.  Amen.”

You can even use the one-line prayer of the humble tax collector whom Jesus talked about in Luke 18: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s all you have to say!

“Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

That’s a simple prayer that says a lot—when it’s spoken from the heart.

So there you have it, three things you can do to make the experience of going to confession easier and more pleasant: know your sins when you go into the confessional; confess any mortal sins you may have according to kind and number; and don’t get uptight about the Act of Contrition.

And remember, to make it more convenient for you to receive the sacrament on a regular basis, we’ve begun to offer confessions every Wednesday evening here at St. Pius from 5 to 6pm (in addition to our regular time on Saturday afternoons).

Wow—how much easier can it get?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Help Jesus ‘Light a Fire on the Earth’

Katie Ledecky (top) and Simone Biles

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 14, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53.)

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

How would you describe "a devout Catholic”?  What personal qualities, in your opinion, does a devout Catholic possess?

I don’t know how you would answer those questions, my brothers and sisters, but I can tell you with almost absolute certitude how most of the people in the mainstream media would answer them.

To most of the men and women who report the news in this country in 2016, “devout Catholics” have the following qualities:

1.    They say they’re Catholic.  And they have baptismal certificates to prove it—maybe even First Communion and Confirmation certificates as well!  Although many of them would have trouble getting sponsor certificates for themselves, since they don’t go to Mass every Sunday and holyday.

2.    They are devoted followers of Pope Francis (well, not the real Francis in Rome, but rather the imaginary Pope Francis that people in the liberal media have created: the Francis who “parrots” their liberal views).

3.    They are pro-Planned Parenthood and pro-abortion (although such “devout Catholics” will usually not call themselves those things.  They’ll insist that they are simply “pro-woman” and “pro-choice”—always refusing to identify what the choice is that they are for.)

4.    They are for saving the environment (which is a very good thing).  Unfortunately, however, they’re not normally as interested in saving the lives of unborn babies.

5.    They are against people (especially their fellow Christians) who want to follow their consciences when their consciences are telling them to obey a God-given law which contradicts a civil law.  But if the consciences of those people are telling them to disobey God in some way, these “devout Catholics” are all for that.

6.    They are for freedom—if you’re talking about the freedom to violate one of the Ten Commandments, especially the sixth (which has to do with sexual morality).  But amazingly, these same “devout” believers will turn against freedom when the subject is religion (more specifically, when the subject is Christianity).

7.    They describe themselves as “non-judgmental”—although they judge their fellow Christians all the time.

8.    They call themselves “open-minded”—although their minds are closed to the truth about many things.

9.    They claim to love everybody—although many of their fellow Catholics don’t feel a lot of love from them.

Please keep all this in mind the next time you hear somebody called “a devout Catholic”—or better yet “a Pope Francis Catholic”—by a reporter in the secular media.  Nine out of every ten times, this is the kind of person the reporter is talking about.

Which is why I often say that for the majority of the men and women in the media today the only “good” Catholic is a bad Catholic!

When Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” this is not what he meant.  When Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” this is not the kind of discipleship he was talking about (although he certainly foresaw it!  He foresaw the fact that many of his professed followers would be lukewarm and half-hearted—because right after he made this statement about coming to light a fire on earth he added, “How I wish it were already blazing!”)

Is it blazing in us?  Is it blazing in us?

How convinced are we that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the cure for what ails the world?  (That’s another way to ask the same question.)

If we are truly convinced that Jesus Christ is the answer to what’s wrong with the world, then we will be passionate about living our faith in a radical way—like the REAL Pope Francis tells us to—even if some people don’t appreciate our efforts.  And you can be absolutely certain that there are some men and women out there who will not appreciate our efforts—at all!  Jesus says as much in this gospel reading, indicating that we shouldn’t even be surprised if the opposition comes from members of our own families.

The image that came to mind this week as I prayed about this was the image of a furnace.  That’s the kind of “fire” the Lord wants to find burning inside of us: the kind of fire that you find inside a furnace.  In most homes, as you know, the furnace is located down in the basement.  That means very few people who come into the house actually see it—and yet, the effects of the furnace are felt throughout the entire building.

Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be with our Catholic faith.  We’re not supposed to be boisterous about it; we’re not supposed to ram it down other people’s throats.  Rather, it’s supposed to “burn” in the hidden recesses of our soul, and then effect everything in our life.  And I mean EVERYTHING!  As the light and heat from a furnace will make an entire house warm, so too the truth and love of the Gospel are supposed to guide everything in our life—everything from how we treat other people to our political views.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews obviously believed this when he wrote the words we heard in our second reading today.  There he said, “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”  That’s just another way of saying, “Let Jesus—and the love and truth of his Gospel—guide and influence every aspect of your life.”

This is the challenge that faces all of us as professed disciples of Jesus Christ: the challenge to be devout Catholics in the TRUE SENSE of that term, by striving every day to be obedient to the teachings of Jesus and his Church. 

On that note, I read a great article online this past week about two athletes who’ve made big headlines in recent days because of their gold medal performances at the Olympic Games in Rio: gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky.

The article (which, not surprisingly, came from a Catholic news source) focused on the fact that both of these young women are practicing Catholics who are quite open about the important role that faith plays in their lives.  Lidecky was quoted as saying, “My Catholic faith is very important to me.  It always has been and it always will be.  It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith.  It helps me put things in perspective.”

She also mentioned that she says a Hail Mary before every race, while Simone Biles talked about her devotion to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes.

Well, all I can say after watching these two women perform in the last seven days is that the Blessed Mother and St. Sebastian did a really good job praying for them!  Their performances were nothing short of spectacular!

My prayer is that they will continue to keep Jesus and their Catholicism at the center of their lives in the future—in the midst of all the fame and all the public acclaim that they’re sure to experience after the Olympics are over and they come back home to the United States.

If they can do that—if they can continue to live as devout Catholics (devout not in the eyes of the mainstream media, but rather devout in the eyes of God)—then they will be able to have a positive influence on others (especially on young athletes), and in their own way they will help Jesus to “light a fire on the earth”—a fire of faith, a fire of hope, a fire of love.

Which is the same kind of influence that Jesus wants to have on other people in this world through you and through me.

And he will, if we let him.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Battle between Faith and Fear

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 7, 2016, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 11.)

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

The other day I came across the following poem.  It’s entitled, “The Battle,” and it goes like this:

Faith and fear,
Soldiers ever obedient and loyal,
Locked in raging combat,
Across the heart’s hidden battlefield.
Each seeks the advantage required
To control the fickle mind,
Burdened as it is with the wretched curse,
Of one man’s failed stand;
But graced now and forever,
By another’s blood-stained Royal Road.
At stake in this crimson-colored clash
Of generals supreme,
Is dominion over all that matters—
In time,
But not in time alone.
Thus the volleys will go on,
The combat unabated,
Until the war’s wearied host at last surrenders—
In happiness or horror—
To his conqueror eternal.

Most people would say that the opposite of faith is unbelief—and from one perspective they’d be right.  It is.  To have faith in God you obviously need to believe that he exists.  So if you lack faith, you lack belief in a Supreme Being.  But from another perspective you could say that the opposite of faith is fear.  Here I’m not talking about the good and healthy fear we have in our lives: the fear that leads us to avoid evil things that can hurt us; rather, I’m talking about the kind of fear that can lead us into sin and undermine our relationship with God.  This is the fear, for example, of not being loved and accepted by other people—which is a fear that can lead us to compromise our morals, to do things that we otherwise would not do.  I ask you, how many young women have had sex with their boyfriends because they thought that if they didn’t, their boyfriends would leave them?

That’s fear at work.

This bad fear is also the fear of not having enough (which can lead us to steal or cheat on our taxes).  It’s the fear of losing what we already do have (which can lead us to become greedy and materialistic).  It’s the fear of not being appreciated (which can lead us to put other people down so that we can look good to our peers).  It’s the fear of being lonely and of losing friends (which can lead us to form unhealthy friendships).  It’s the fear of being taken advantage of (which can lead us to take advantage of others “before they take advantage of us”—sort of a “do unto others before they do unto you” mentality).  It’s the fear of not getting something we think we deserve (which can lead to envy).

And on and on the list goes!

These are the fears that are at the root of most of the sins people commit in their lives—even people of faith (although very often those fears are not clearly recognized, even by people who believe).  Which is why that poem says that faith and fear are “locked in raging combat across the heart’s hidden battlefield.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, my brothers and sisters, this is the core battle of life!  Faith and fear do battle in our hearts at every moment of every day, each seeking (as the poem says) “the advantage required to control our fickle mind(s)” burdened as they are “with the wretched curse of one man’s failed stand”—in other words with the residual effects of the sin of Adam: original sin.  You see, even after original sin is removed in the sacrament of Baptism, a certain inclination to sin remains in us.  We call this inclination—this weakness—“concupiscence”.  This is why at one moment we can be very strong and very faithful, and in the very next moment extremely weak and completely unfaithful.

But we do have a power—in Jesus Christ—to overcome all these ungodly fears and to live our lives in faithfulness and love.  And that’s good news!  As the poem puts it, we’ve been “graced now and forever by another’s (that is to say, by Jesus’s) blood-stained Royal Road” (in other words, by his passion, death—and subsequent resurrection).  As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”

I mention all this today specifically because of our second reading, which is taken from the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Hebrews 11 begins with a brief definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Then it goes on to mention a number of Old Testament saints, beginning with Abraham.  Think, for a moment, of the fears Abraham had to deal with during his life.  This passage says that when the Lord called him, Abraham left his homeland “not knowing where he was to go”.  Can you imagine doing that?  It’s one thing to leave your home willingly, so that you can travel to a destination of your choice.  It’s quite another to leave your home and your past life and not have a clue as to where you’re going to end up!  So Abraham certainly had to face the fear of the unknown.  And even though the Bible says he left his homeland with all his possessions, he must have been concerned about thieves stealing those things somewhere along the way (remember there were no police to call for protection back then when you travelled; he couldn’t dial 911 on his cellphone!)—which means he had to deal with one of the fears I mentioned earlier: the fear of losing what you have.  And if you’re battling the fear of losing what you have, you’re probably also dealing with the fear of not having enough—of not having enough for your own needs and the needs of the people you’re responsible for.

Those were just some of the fears Abraham had to face during his life—and especially during his travels.  But, more often than not, this man allowed his faith to conquer his fear, which is why St. Paul refers to Abraham in Romans 4 as “our father”—our father in faith.

The other Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 also lived in faith most of the time.  Although they all had their moments when fear won out.  Take David, for example—he’s mentioned in verse 32 of this chapter.  Faith conquered fear in David on the day he went up against Goliath with a slingshot and a few little stones.  But fear conquered faith in him on the day that he committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and on the day that he had her husband, Uriah, murdered on the battlefield.  It was the fear of not having something that he thought he deserved (in this case, the fear of not having someONE that he thought he deserved!).

What are the fears that you are battling in your life right now?  We all have them.  Some of them—specifically the ones that keep us away from harmful people and harmful things—are good fears.  I’m not talking about those!  I’m talking about the fears I mentioned at the beginning: the ones that can lead us into sin.

I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on that question: What are the fears I’m battling in my life right now?  Because if we can come to recognize the fears that are troubling us, we might be able to get at the roots of the sins in our lives—and get rid of them for good.

Remember, there’s a lot at stake here.  Recall the last part of the poem:

“At stake in this crimson-colored clash of generals supreme (in other words, this continuous battle in our hearts between faith and fear),
Is dominion over all that matters—
In time,
But not in time alone.
Thus the volleys will go on,
The combat unabated,
Until the war’s wearied host (that’s you and me—that’s each of us) at last surrenders—
In happiness or horror—
To his conqueror eternal.

You see, in the end, my brothers and sisters, either faith will win the ultimate victory in us, or fear will win out.  One of those two “generals” will be our personal “conqueror”—and the consequences of that conqueror’s victory will be eternal.

So, make sure that FAITH wins the ultimate victory in your life.  Make sure that faith is your eternal conqueror.  I certainly want faith to be mine!  That’s why I pray a lot, and receive the Eucharist often, and go to confession frequently, and read Scripture daily—and even write some things about faith from time to time.

Like the poem you just heard about in this homily.