Sunday, May 21, 2017

Love and Obedience

Image result for st augustine caravaggio
"St. Augustine" by Caravaggio

(Sixth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 21, 2017, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 14: 15-21.)

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

My homily today is entitled, “Love and Obedience.”

In the minds of many people these days, those are two ideas that definitely don’t go together, spiritually speaking.  And this is true even for many Christians!  They say they love God (and I presume most are sincere in making that assertion), but they also believe that obedience to his commandments is optional (here I include the Ten Commandments, as well as the other commandments that Jesus gives us in Scripture and through his Church—like the commandment to love your enemies).

But Jesus never said these laws were optional!  Quite oppositely, our Lord made a direct connection between love and obedience on many occasions.  He did it twice in today’s gospel.  He began by saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  Then later on he added, “Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.”

In the Christian life, obedience is supposed to flow from love; it’s supposed to be rooted in love: the love of a Person (a divine Person) whose name is Jesus Christ.

To the extent that that’s the case—to the extent that our obedience is rooted in love, it will actually be easy; to the extent that our obedience rooted in obligation or something else, it will be difficult.

Bishop Sheen had a great way of illustrating this.  He said, “There isn’t a driver [among us] who hasn’t broken the law against speeding.  [But] did you ever lean over your steering wheel and say an act of contrition [afterward]?  Nobody is really sorry for breaking a law, unless he gets caught.”

Sheen was right.  Keeping a commandment for the sake of keeping a commandment doesn’t provide much motivation for doing what’s right, whereas keeping a commandment out of love for another person does provide that incentive.

Love for God will motivate us to obey him; and it will lead us to repent when we don’t obey him—because we will be conscious of having hurt someone we love. 

Let me change Bishop Sheen’s example just a bit to illustrate this point.  Imagine that you broke the speed limit law one day, drove recklessly and nearly got into a serious accident—with your two little children in the back seat of the car.

In that case, would you say an act of contrition afterward for travelling so fast?

You should!  In fact, I would say that you should probably bring that sin to confession.

In any event, you’d be far more likely to realize you broke a law and to repent in a situation like that, simply because what you did directly affected two people whom you dearly love.

So, if you’re having difficulty obeying one or more of God’s commandments, ask the Lord to fill your heart with love for him.  I do that all the time, in the midst of my own sins—because I know if I love God more I will obey him more (and sin less!).

Here we can all take a lesson from Augustine and his experience back in the 4th century.  Most of us know the basic outline of his story. …

For his first three decades on earth Augustine lived a lifestyle that would have made Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy magazine, proud.  That is to say, for his first three decades on earth Augustine lived the life of a hedonist.  His constant prayer was, “Lord, make me chaste—but not now!”  Yes, he believed in God, but for him, God was “out there.”  For him the Lord was an abstraction to be discussed in a philosophical debate—and God’s commandments were simply a bunch of arbitrary rules that threatened the lifestyle he had chosen to embrace.  Well, finally, thanks in large part to his mother Monica’s faithful prayers, Augustine had an experience of God’s love through the Sacred Scriptures. 

It happened one day when he was in the city of Milan with a friend, trying to make sense of his messed-up life. As is the case for most hedonists, Augustine’s years of debauchery had left him empty and confused and on the verge of despair.   Well, at one point he heard a child off in the distance singing a song that he had never heard before.  One of the lines in the song really struck him: “Pick it up and read it.  Pick it up and read it.”  He thought that maybe God was trying to speak to him at that moment, and so he found a copy of the Bible and picked it up, making the decision to read the very first passage his eyes fell upon.  That turned out to be the text from Romans 13 where St. Paul says, “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.”

At that moment, God reached out to Augustine with his love and mercy—and Augustine knew it!  That proved to be the turning point in his life.

Many years later, reflecting back on his three decades of sin and his subsequent conversion, Augustine wrote this prayer to God—the God he had clearly fallen in love with:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.It is not a coincidence, my brothers and sisters, that Augustine changed his life in a radically positive way.

He was touched by the love of God; he began to love God in return—and in response to the love he experienced from God, he was also motivated to obey.  And he obeyed so well, that he eventually became a saint.

It’s my prayer today that we will all follow that very same pattern in our lives.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Importance and Dignity of Motherhood

(Fifth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 14, 2017, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 6: 1-7; 1Peter 2: 4-9; John 14: 1-12.)

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

The Holy Father was not pleased.

As many of you probably heard …the other day the Pope was speaking to a group of students at the Vatican, and he expressed his great displeasure at the nickname the United States military has given to the most powerful non-nuclear explosive in its arsenal: the “Mother Of All Bombs”—which was the weapon that was used against ISIS terrorists in Afghanistan last month.  He said, “A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother.  What is going on?”

Since English is not his first language, it’s understandable that the Holy Father isn’t attuned to all our idioms and figures of speech, but what he is attuned to is the importance and the dignity of motherhood! 

That’s why he said what he said to those students.

We should also be attuned to the importance and dignity of mother—and not just once a year, on Mother’s Day!  Many, of course, are not so attuned.  Let’s be honest about it, we live in a society right now where motherhood is very often treated like it’s a disease.  That’s one reason why contraception and abortion are so prevalent.

Well, motherhood is not a disease!  It’s a gift—a gift without which none of us would be here right now.  Yes, it’s true, no earthly mother is perfect—and some of us have had an earthly mother who is (or who was) extremely imperfect.  But every one of us was blessed with a mother who said yes to God and who cooperated with him to give us life.

And for that fact alone, we can (and we should) be grateful.  Eternally grateful.

But even if we’ve had a severely-flawed earthly mom, the good news is that at the same time we’ve had (and do have) a heavenly Mother who is not flawed in any way whatsoever—and her name is Mary.  On this Mother’s Day weekend we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mary’s first apparition to the three children in Fatima, Portugal: Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia.

How appropriate that is, since our Blessed Mother appeared to those three children for the sake of all her children—including you and me.  She came to remind them—and us—to pray (especially the Rosary), to repent, and to obey God in every situation of life (which is basically the message she gives in every apparition).

Like every good mother, she tells her children the same things over and over again—because children usually need to hear the same things over and over again!

They usually don’t “get it” the first time.

I think that Mary would like our readings today, because, even though they’re not explicitly about motherhood, they do point us towards certain qualities that we find in good earthly mothers—qualities that Mary demonstrated perfectly in her own life.

Take, for example, our first reading from Acts, chapter 6.  There we heard about the call of the very first deacons.  The English word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for servant—“diakonos”—which I would say pretty accurately describes what a good mother is to her family.

You young people, how often do you say “thank you” to your mom for driving you to all your appointments and activities?  For cooking for you, and cleaning up after you, and for giving up the things she wants to do so that you can do the things you want to do?

Hopefully you say “thank you” more than once a year on Mother’s Day!

In today’s second reading St. Peter says that true believers offer “spiritual sacrifices” to the heavenly Father through Jesus.  Good Christian mothers do that by living their vocations well, and by offering up their sufferings for their children (remembering the lesson that St. Paul gives us in Colossians 1: that offered-up suffering is like prayer, in that it draws down God’s blessings into the world and into the lives of those we love).

Later on in that second reading Peter uses the image of a “rock” in speaking of Jesus.  Every good Christian mother helps her children to build their lives on that rock:  the Rock” of Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

So, young people, don’t complain that your mother makes you go to Mass every Sunday!  You thank God you have a mother who cares about you that much—a mother who makes sure that you have an encounter with Jesus in word and in sacrament every weekend and every holy day!

She’s helping you to build your life on a solid rock foundation!

And then we have this gospel text from John 14, which begins with these words of Jesus: “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Here we see our Lord at the Last Supper—just a few hours before his own horrific passion and death—actually consoling his friends (his friends who would all, in the very near future, abandon him in one way or another). 

His focus, incredibly, was on their suffering, their anxiety, their pain—not his own.

A good earthly mother is like that, isn’t she?  A good mother might be in terrible physical or emotional pain herself, she might be going through the worst trial of her entire life—it doesn’t matter.  If one of her children needs her assistance, if one of her children needs a word of encouragement or a message of hope, she will do her best to provide it.

That’s why when children are in really, really big trouble or are really, really hurting, they will usually call for their mothers.  I’ve been told that even hardened criminals will do that.

In today’s gospel Philip says to Jesus, “Show us the [heavenly] Father and that will be enough for us.”  Jesus reprimands Philip immediately.  He says, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  In other words, “Philip, if you want to know what God the Father is like, all you have to do is look at me, God the Son.  My words and my actions will reveal to you all that you need to know about the First Person of the Blessed Trinity.”

Philip did not see in Jesus what he was supposed to see in Jesus.  That was his problem.

By the same token, we sometimes do not see in our mothers what we’re supposed to see in them—what Almighty God wants us to see in them.  We can very easily take for granted their love, their compassion, their dedication, their service and their sacrifice.

May that change—forever—for each and every one of us—on this Mother’s Day.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

The Fold of the Good Shepherd: Easy to Get Into, But Difficult to Stay In

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 7, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2: 14a, 36-41; John 10: 1-10.)

[For the audio version of this file, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2017]

In his book, “The Song of the Bird,” Fr. Anthony de Mello writes the following little story:

A sheep found a hole in the fence
and crept through it.
He wandered far
and lost his way back.

Then he realized he was
being followed by a wolf.
He ran and ran, but the wolf
kept chasing him, until the shepherd
came and rescued him and carried
him lovingly back to the fold.

In spite of everyone’s urgings
to the contrary, the shepherd
refused to nail up the hole in the fence.

That little anecdote illustrates a very important truth that I think God wants us to ponder on this “Good Shepherd Sunday”: It’s very easy to get into the sheepfold, but it’s very difficult to stay there.

Baptism, of course, is the way in, as St. Peter told the people of Jerusalem after he preached to them on Pentecost Sunday.  We heard the last line of Peter’s sermon in today’s first reading from Acts, chapter 2.  And it was obviously an extremely powerful talk that Peter gave that day, because the Bible says that those in attendance were “cut to the heart” when they heard what Peter said, and they immediately asked the apostles to tell them what they needed to do.  Peter responded by saying, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

And three thousand did!  Praise God!  On Pentecost Sunday three thousand new “sheep” entered the fold: the safe and secure fold of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. 

But how many of them stayed there?

The answer is: We don’t know.

I pray that all of them did!  I pray that all of them faithfully followed Jesus Christ for the rest of their earthly lives, and are now living with him forever in heaven—but I also know that that might not be the case, because, as I said a few moments ago, “It’s very easy to get into the fold, but it’s very difficult to stay there.”

That’s because there’s always a hole in the Good Shepherd’s fence, as Fr. de Mello’s story makes clear.  In other words, there’s always a temptation to walk away from Christ and his truth.  We always have that freedom.  And this hole in the fence—this temptation to leave the Good Shepherd and his Gospel—seems to be getting bigger every day.  It’s a growing problem, especially for our young people.  In this regard, Bishop Robert Barron wrote the following in an article recently.  He said:
Anyone looking for concrete evidence of the crisis [in our culture] doesn’t have to look very far or very long. Twenty-five percent of Americans now identify as religion-less, and among those thirty and younger, the number rises to 40%. The majority of people under fifty now claim that their moral convictions do not come from the Bible, and traditional prohibitions, especially in regard to sex and marriage, are being aggressively swept away.  In fact, legally speaking, the momentum has shifted so dramatically that now those who defend classical views on sexuality are subject to harassment, even prosecution.

Welcome to the world of 2017.

By the way, have you noticed how “out of control” many people are these days?  Have you noticed the lack of control that many contemporary men and women have over their emotions?

It’s scary!

Think of the violent protests we’re seeing in major cities and on college campuses all over the country, and the inability of many people to listen to a person who has a different opinion from theirs—the kind of thing that we saw at UCal Berkeley last week (a university that used to be known for its promotion of free speech!).

This disturbing trend, I would say, is not coincidental.  We are living in a society right now in which a lot of people have run—and are running—through that hole in the fence of the Good Shepherd.  They’re rejecting anything and everything associated with Jesus Christ and his Gospel.

Well, as the sheep in Fr. de Mello’s story found out, running through the hole in the Good Shepherd’s fence has consequences—one of which is the loss of control over your emotions.

It’s very easy to get into the fold, but it’s very difficult to stay there—especially nowadays.

So how do we do the difficult thing and remain in the fold?  In the midst of all this turmoil and pressure to give in to the culture, how do we remain strong in our faith and close to the Good Shepherd?

Well, if you’ve taken the time to read the book Fr. Najim gave to you last Christmas, then you already know the answer.  That book (in case you weren’t here) was entitled, “The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic”.  It was written by the well-known Catholic author and speaker, Matthew Kelly.  In that book Kelly says that, through his study and observation, he’s come to the realization that Catholics who are really serious about living their faith, Catholics who are deeply committed to Jesus and his Gospel—in other words, Catholics who are making the effort to stay in the fold of the Good Shepherd—engage in four important activities in their lives: prayer, study, generosity and evangelization.  These are what he calls the four “signs” of a “dynamic” Catholic.

First, PRAYER.  Dynamic Catholics, he says, pray—and not just once-in-awhile or when they’re in trouble.  They have a prayer life that’s disciplined and consistent.  Personal prayer is a regular part of their day-to-day experience.  Sunday Mass, of course, is a top priority for them as is the sacrament of Reconciliation—which they receive ASAP if they do happen, on occasion, to wander through the hole in the fence by committing a mortal sin.  Yes, serious, dynamic Catholics might, in a weak moment, wander away from the fold—but they don’t stay out there in the wilderness for very long.

Number 2, they STUDY the truths of their faith so that they can understand them better, live them more completely, and defend them against the lies of the culture in which they live. 

Number 3, they practice GENEROSITY in terms of their time, talent and treasure—which basically means they’re generous in their love for their neighbors.

And number 4, they take EVANGELIZATION seriously, and are deeply concerned for the spiritual well-being and salvation of others, beginning in their families.

It’s very easy to get into the fold, but it’s very difficult to stay there.

Difficult, but not impossible.

Prayer, study, generosity and evangelization make it possible.

May the Lord give us the grace today to put all of those “signs” into practice in the future—and to read Matthew Kelly’s book, if we haven’t done so already.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Where do you draw the ‘Mercy Line’?

Are these men beyond the 'Mercy Line'?

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year A): This homily was given on April 23, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2: 42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1: 3-9; John 20: 19-31.)

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

Where do you draw the line—the “mercy line”?

The mercy line marks the point beyond which, in your view, mercy should NOT be offered to a person:  If you do such-and-such a thing—if you cross this particular line in your behavior—you should not be offered any mercy by God.  None whatsoever!  Justice—yes; vengeance—perhaps; but mercy—no.

Where do you, personally, draw the “mercy line”?  One way to answer that question is to identify some of the people who, from your perspective, have actually crossed the line.

No doubt many men and women nowadays would have at least a few world leaders on their list: people like the communist dictator of North Korea, who reportedly has had his half-brother and hundreds of other people murdered in recent years to secure his power; and the current President of Syria, who used chemical weapons on his own citizens recently—including young children.

Or how about the guy from Cleveland who took a video of himself killing a 74-year-old man on the street the other day, and then posted the video of the murder on Facebook?

Would he be on the bad side of your “mercy line”?

Today, of course, is the Second Sunday of Easter, which means it’s “Divine Mercy Sunday”.  It’s officially been such since Pope John Paul II put this feast on the Church’s liturgical calendar in the year 2,000—although it was celebrated unofficially even before that.  Actually, you could say that we celebrate and focus on divine mercy every single day in the Catholic Church, since the primary reason that Jesus Christ came to this earth 2,000 years ago—and suffered, and died, and rose again from the dead—was to bring us the mercy and forgiveness of God! 

This was a core part of “the teaching of the apostles” that the early Christians were devoted to, as we heard they were in today’s first reading from Acts 2.  It’s summarized beautifully in our second reading from 1 Peter 1, where our first pope says:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hopethrough the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith.
And this mercy of God—which “endures forever” (as our responsorial psalm today reminds us)—was extended by Jesus to Thomas in this famous gospel story from John 20.  Thomas had refused to believe in the resurrection of Jesus after the other apostles told him they had seen our Lord on Easter Sunday night.  But Jesus gave Thomas a second chance a week later.  In his tremendous mercy, our Lord gave Thomas the opportunity to repent, and believe—and change!  Please note: Jesus didn’t have to give him that opportunity; he didn’t “owe it” to Thomas (if he had owed it to him, it would have been an act of justice to give him a second chance).  It’s precisely because Jesus did not owe Thomas anything that his act became an act of mercy.

The Lord did not draw a “mercy line” with Thomas when Thomas doubted his resurrection.  Nor does he draw a “mercy line” with us when we sin.  That’s good news.  Of course, the corollary to all this is that if God doesn’t draw a mercy line with you or with me, then neither does he draw that line with anyone else—including people like the totalitarian leaders of North Korea and Syria, and the Cleveland Facebook murderer.

Mercy is available to us, as long as we have breath within us.  The key is to reach out for it and to receive it like Thomas did—which is something that we Catholics do in a powerful way whenever we go to confession.

And then we have to show mercy to others—which is the hard part, as you are all well aware.  But it’s also absolutely necessary, if we want to go to heaven someday!  Remember, in the Lord’s Prayer we tell God that we want him to have mercy on us just like we have mercy on others: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I hope you realize, if we’re not willing to make at least an attempt to forgive other people, then every time we pray the Our Father we’re actually telling Almighty God not to forgive us!

And that’s not a very good idea!

In this regard, I was so impressed when I read some of the comments made by the children of Robert Godwin the other day.  (Godwin is the 74-year-old man who was killed by the Facebook murderer.)   In an interview with CNN his daughter Tonya said, “Each one of us forgives the killer, the murderer.  We just want him to know that God loves him, we love him.  Yes, we’re hurt, but we have to forgive him because the Bible says if we don’t then the heavenly Father won’t forgive us.”  Another daughter said, “I honestly can say right now I hold no animosity towards this man because I know he is a sick individual….I promise you I could not do that [forgive] if I did not know God, if I didn’t know him as my God and Savior.  I could not forgive that man.  And I feel no animosity against him at all.  I actually feel sadness in my heart for this man.”  Finally, his son, Robert, Jr. said, “One thing I do want to say is I forgive him, because we are all sinners.  Steve, I forgive you man.  I’m not happy with what you did, but I forgive you.”

Those are three extraordinary responses to an extraordinarily evil act.  I share them with you today because I think they show us that extending mercy to another person is possible, even in the most horrific of circumstances.  Yes, it’s difficult—extremely difficult—but it’s still possible by the grace of God.

I’ll end now with the question I began with: Where do you draw the “mercy line”?

The Lord never draws one—even for the most evil person on the planet—on this side of the grave.  Robert Godwin’s children, amazingly, haven’t drawn one with respect to the man who brutally murdered their father.

If we have drawn mercy lines for some of the people in our lives (which is very easy to do!), then I would say that we need to pray very hard at this Mass for the grace we need to erase them.