Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Do You See?

Kevin Becker

(Second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 15, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 1: 29-34.)

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

In today’s gospel story, John the Baptist sees what no one else sees.  Everybody else sees a young, Jewish rabbi walking toward John at the Jordan River.  Nothing extraordinary about that.  But John has a deeper perception; he “sees” something more.  John sees “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”!  John sees his Messiah; John sees his Savior.  In short, John sees God ALIVE and PRESENT and AT WORK in his cousin, Jesus.

Which brings us to Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, and a young man named Kevin Becker. 

Many of you know the story of Blessed Pier Giorgio, who’s become a great inspiration and role model to Catholic young people all over the world, especially in the last few decades.  Recent popes have often mentioned him and quoted him in their World Youth Day talks and homilies—and in other addresses they’ve given where lots of young people have been present.  Pier Giorgio was born in Turin, Italy in 1901, and died just 24 years later of polio—a disease that he probably contracted from the many sick people he visited and cared for during his relatively short life.  He came from a wealthy family (his father owned a newspaper), but he gave away most of what he had to the poor—even, sometimes, his bus money.  He was also a very athletic young man—a mountain climber, among other things.  And, of course, he was deeply devoted to prayer and the sacraments and his Catholic faith.

He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1990.

Now on to Kevin Becker.  In 2011, Kevin was a student at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.  He didn’t know any of this information about Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati; he didn’t even know Pier Giorgio’s name.  Then came the terrible day that year when he fell from the second floor of the house he was renting with two friends, two fellow college students.  He fractured his skull in five places and his brain was severely injured.  The doctors did emergency surgery immediately, but for nine days afterward he was completely unresponsive.  The doctors thought he probably wouldn’t live; and if he did somehow recover they said that in all likelihood he’d be severely handicapped for the rest of his life. 

Well, one of Kevin’s cousins suggested that the family begin praying to Blessed Pier Giorgio, asking for his intercession, because, as she put it, “He needs one more miracle to be canonized a saint.”  So the family did, and Kevin’s mother placed a picture of Pier Giorgio by her son’s hospital bed.

The next day, much to the surprise of everyone, Kevin opened his eyes for the first time since the accident.  Shortly thereafter he began to stand, speak and walk normally.  When he left the hospital and began his physical rehab, he discovered that he was miles ahead of the other people who were there with brain injuries—including those who had been in recovery for six months to a year.  When he was given some cognitive tests to determine how much brain damage he had experienced, he passed with flying colors.  In fact, the doctors told him it was like he had never been injured.

On the day after he came home from the hospital, he decided to take a walk with his mother, and during the course of that walk he told her about a strange, dreamlike experience that he had during the time he was unconscious.  Kevin said that, during this “dream,” he woke up in the house he shared with his friends, and he heard someone moving downstairs.  Kevin said it was unusual for one of the other guys to be downstairs first in the morning, because he was normally the first one up.  So he went down to investigate, and in the living room he found a young man—a young man he didn’t know.  He said, “Who are you?”  The man said, “I’m Giorgio, your new roommate.”  Kevin said, “That can’t be.  I already have two roommates, Nick and Joe.”  The stranger said, “You don’t have to worry about them for now.”

Kevin then spent the “day” with Giorgio, who, he said did everything possible to keep him in the house.  And that was difficult for Kevin, because he’s an athletic guy—an ardent soccer player—who hates to stay indoors.  But Kevin said that every time he tried to leave the house Giorgio would say to him, “You’re not ready to go out there yet.”

Kevin’s mother then said to her son, “Do you think you’d recognize this person if you saw a picture of him?”  Kevin said, “Yes.”  So she showed him the picture of Pier Giorgio that had been at his bedside (he hadn’t seen it in the hospital), and Kevin said, “Yes, that’s him.  That’s the guy in my dream.  That’s the guy who kept telling me not to leave the house.”

I read recently that the medical records of Kevin Becker’s case have been sent to Rome, to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.  Perhaps it will be the miracle that results in Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati finally becoming Saint Pier Giorgio Frassati!

I certainly hope it is!

In today’s gospel story, John the Baptist sees what no one else sees: He sees God ALIVE and PRESENT and AT WORK in his cousin, Jesus. 

In the story I just told in this homily, what do you see?

  • ·         A mysterious case of spontaneous healing?
  •           An unexplained phenomenon that has a natural explanation that we just don’t understand yet—but someday will?
  • ·         A young man who got lucky?

Or do you see a God who is ALIVE and PRESENT and AT WORK in his world?

In this story, what do you see?

I’m not sure how you would answer that question, my brothers and sisters, but I can tell you with almost absolute certitude how John the Baptist would answer it.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

The ‘Light’ of the Magi and the ‘Darkness’ of Herod

Jagger goes to the gallows.

(Epiphany 2017: This homily was given on January 8, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)

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

Light and darkness.  The contrast between those two realities is crystal clear in the story we just heard from Matthew 2—and in the verses that immediately follow this passage in Matthew’s gospel.  The “light” of the star that guided the Magi from their homeland (probably ancient Persia) to the Savior of the world in Bethlehem, stands in sharp contrast to the “darkness” that filled the heart of King Herod: a darkness—a hatred—which led him to murder a lot of people, including some members of his own family.

First, the light.  The journey of the Magi can be seen, from one perspective at least, as a metaphor for the Christian life.  The life of a disciple—a true disciple—of Jesus Christ is really a lot like the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem: it’s a journey to Jesus. It’s not always an easy journey; there are obstacles and difficult people (like Herod) that you have to deal with along the way.  But you don’t have to do it alone and without help!  As a baptized, Catholic Christian you have a “light”—the light of your Catholic Faith—to guide you safely to your destination, just like the Magi had the light of the star of Bethlehem to guide them on their way.  And if you follow that light of faith and persevere in your journey as these Magi persevered in theirs, it will be worth it in the end.  You will meet Jesus as they did; only not in a manger, but rather in his eternal kingdom!  As the priest used to say in the old opening prayer for the Mass of the Epiphany: “Father, you revealed your Son to the nations by the light of a star.  Lead us to your glory in heaven by the light of faith.”

Which brings us to the darkness—specifically the darkness of King Herod—which, as I said a few moments ago, filled his heart with hatred, and motivated him to kill a lot of innocent people, including the Holy Innocents.

His purpose in killing was usually to get rid of rivals: to get rid of any and all potential rivals to his throne.  That, of course, was why today’s gospel said that he was “greatly troubled” when the Magi told him that they were there to see the “newborn king of the Jews.”

If he were alive today and were evaluated by a modern-day psychologist or psychiatrist, I suspect that Herod would be diagnosed as a “paranoid psychopath”—or something along those lines.  After all, among the people he murdered were two of his own sons, his wife and his brother-in-law.

Now you know why Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, once made the remark that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than it was to be Herod’s son.

Which brings us, finally, to 2017.  What really has me concerned, my brothers and sisters, is that in our American society right now the “darkness of Herod” seems to be eclipsing the “light of the Magi.”  In other words, in many places and in so many ways hatred seems to be trumping faith these days.  And I use the word “trumping” there as a kind of pun, because nowhere has this been more evident to me in recent weeks than in the response of many of our cultural elites (and other people as well) to our new president-elect!

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican—it doesn’t matter whom you voted for in this past election—this kind of Herod-like vitriol that we’ve been hearing since November 8 ought to concern you.  It ought to concern everybody!  It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s policies, it’s quite another to use every four-letter word you can think of on social media to describe a man and his family—or to purposely engage in violent, hate-filled protests; or to beat and torture a mentally handicapped man, as those 4 young people in Chicago did last week!

And of course, our president-elect hasn’t always responded to others with charity and respect either—which has only compounded the problem.

The darkness of Herod, I’m sad to say, is enveloping our culture right now.  On this matter, and on many other issues.  Hopefully we are not contributing to it—and, if we have been contributing to it, hopefully by the grace of God we will stop, because no nation built on hatred can survive for very long.

The destructive power of hate was illustrated beautifully in an old Twilight Zone program that I saw the other day during the Syfy Network’s New Year’s Day Twilight Zone “marathon”.  In this particular episode a man named Jagger is to be hanged for murder.  He’s unrepentant, and filled with hatred toward the people of the town where he allegedly committed the crime—and by the same token the townspeople all hate him.  They can’t wait to see him strung up and hanging from a noose.  Then on the day of the execution something very strange happens: the sun doesn’t rise.  Darkness covers the town throughout the day—and deepens after Jagger is hanged.

The people can’t understand the reason for the phenomenon, until the local reverend steps forward and says that the sky is black because of hate—their hate—the hatred they’re holding onto in their hearts.

The episode then comes to a close when someone turns on the radio to hear the local news report.  The announcer says that the darkness is not only happening locally, it’s also being reported in other places around the country and around the world: North Vietnam, Dallas, Budapest, Chicago, Shanghai, etc.

The last word of the program, of course, as usual, goes to the creator of the Twilight Zone, Rod Serling—and it’s a powerful one (so powerful that I’ll also make it the last word of my homily).  It gives us the message he wants us to take from the story, which is the same message I would like people to take from this homily.

Serling says:

A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ—but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don't look for it in the Twilight Zone—look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Matthew 1:18-24, Revised for Modern Americans

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 18, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 1: 18-24.)

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

The words we just heard in this gospel were written by St. Matthew sometime in the mid-to-late first century.  He wrote them primarily for Jewish converts to Christianity. 

But what if he were writing this same gospel story today, for a modern, American audience?  (This was the thought that occurred to me as I pondered this gospel passage during the past week.)  If Matthew were writing this story for American citizens in 2016, could he tell it in the same way that he told it here in this passage?

I don’t think so.

If he wanted to tell the story of Jesus’ conception and birth and make it understandable to the vast majority of people in our nation right now, I’m convinced that St. Matthew would be forced to modify the text in several ways.  Basically, he would have to make the story longer by explaining certain things—certain very important things: things that he did not have to explain to people back in the first century.

First of all, he’d have to mention the basic and foundational truth that marriage is between a man and a woman—that is to say, one man and one woman.  He would also have to explain the Jewish marriage customs of his day.  For example, it says there that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph.  That’s an important point.  The betrothal period in first century Israel lasted for about a year—and it was more than an engagement.  If you were betrothed to somebody, you were legally married to that person, but you were not yet living together as husband and wife.  That’s why it says that Joseph was thinking of “divorce” and not of breaking off an engagement.

St. Matthew would also need to explain that having sexual relations outside of marriage is a serious sin (which, of course, many people today don’t believe it is).  The whole reason why Joseph considered divorce was because he thought that Mary had committed that sin and been unfaithful to him.

Which leads to something else that Matthew would need to mention.  In his expanded gospel story he’d have to note the fact that Joseph initially believed that Mary’s child had been conceived in the normal way.  Matthew would need to make that point to an audience in 2016 because nowadays you can’t presume that’s how a child is conceived.  Even though the Church teaches that every child has the right “to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,” (CCC, 2378) that’s not always the way it happens.  Sometimes conception results from the use of immoral reproductive technologies.  It should be noted here that not all reproductive technologies are bad.  But some are.  And those bad ones often lead to terribly difficult situations—like the one actress Sofia Vergara finds herself in at the present time.  In case you haven’t heard, she and her former fiancĂ©e are in a big legal battle right now over frozen embryos that they created through in vitro fertilization back in 2013.

Here we have innocent human lives being treated like commodities.  How sad—and how tragic.

Oh yes, that’s another thing Matthew would need to mention in his modern version of the story.  He’d need to make it very clear that the entity inside the womb of Mary was actually “a baby.”  Not “a cluster of cells” or “the product of conception”, but rather “a baby”—a living, distinct human being.  Matthew could presume that people in the first century knew that; he could not make that same presumption in 2016.  I thought it was interesting, on his television show the other night Jimmy Kimmel said (and here I quote), “Another thing I wanted to mention.  My wife is hosting a baby inside her body.  So that’s exciting.”

He’s absolutely correct, of course.  His wife’s pregnancy is exciting.  I mention it here because I think it’s highly unusual for someone in Kimmel’s position in 2016 to describe a pregnancy in that way.

However, I’m very glad he did—since it’s the truth.

It’s also unusual for a man and a woman to have the kind of relationship that Mary and Joseph had—love without sex.  Actually, it’s not unusual—although a lot of people nowadays would say it is.  They don’t believe you can deeply love a member of the opposite gender without physical, genital intimacy.  (It just goes to show how our society has twisted the idea of love.)  This would be another issue that Matthew would have to address in making this gospel reading understandable to a modern audience.

Finally, Matthew would have to deal with Joseph’s response to the message that God gave him here—the message of God that came to him through the angel.  Specifically, Matthew would have to explain why Joseph had to obey the instruction to take Mary into his home, and why it would have been a sin—a very serious sin—for him to do otherwise.  In other words, Matthew would need to make it clear to his modern readers that when Almighty God gives an instruction like this to somebody, it’s a command.  It’s not a suggestion; it’s not a recommendation.  It’s an order to be obeyed.

That would clarify the matter for all those who think that the Ten Commandments are just the Ten Suggestions or the Ten Recommendations.

So, what exactly would this passage of Scripture sound like after it was revised by Matthew for a modern audience?  Well, I can’t say for sure, but I can certainly venture a guess—which is what I’ll do to close my homily this morning.

I think Matthew’s revised story would sound something like this:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  It all centered around the permanent and exclusive bond between one man and one woman that we call “marriage.”
Sometime during the year that Jesus’ mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph—that is to say, in that time period when the couple were legally bound to one another as husband and wife, but before they lived together, Mary was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Initially, of course, Joseph was unaware of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the child’s conception.  Consequently, when he learned that Mary was pregnant, he felt betrayed, since he naturally presumed that this new human life had been conceived in the normal way.
Yet Joseph was a righteous man, who was unwilling to expose Mary to shame as an adulteress.
He was unwilling to expose her because he still loved Mary with an intense and chaste love—in spite of her apparent infidelity.
He decided instead that he would divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.  For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.  She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home—because when God gives a command like this, we human beings must obey!  Disobedience is not an option.  Ever!

There you have it—a story that every American in 2016 should be able to understand.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

John the Baptist’s Annual Advent Call to Repentance

(Second Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 4, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 3: 1-12.)

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

  • Can you imagine how they felt?
  • Can you imagine the thoughts that were running through their minds?
  • Can you imagine the things they were tempted to do to John the Baptist?

I’m talking about the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River.  These were dignified men, respected men, revered men—the religious leaders of the Jewish people.

And then one day this scruffy-looking guy dressed in weird clothes comes out of the desert and has the audacity to call them a “brood of vipers” and to threaten them with God’s judgment—basically telling them that if they didn’t change their ways they were going to hell!

  • Can I imagine how these Pharisees and Sadducees felt?  How about livid—enraged—infuriated—irate—and embarrassed?!
  • Can I imagine the thoughts that were running through their minds?  Yes—but I can’t say those words from this pulpit!
  • Can I imagine the things they were tempted to do to John the Baptist?  Of course.  They’re the things you see done in horror films nowadays (none of which is very pretty).

The problem with the Pharisees and Sadducees, of course, was that they weren’t sincerely repentant.  They were sinners like everybody else who was there that day, but weren’t prepared to admit it.  John the Baptist recognized that fact, and confronted them in this very forceful manner—not to embarrass them, but rather to motivate them: to motivate them to examine their consciences, repent of their sins—and receive forgiveness.

But it was impossible for these men to receive forgiveness that day when they first arrived on the scene, because they didn’t think they had done anything wrong.  And John the Baptist knew that.  Yes, God will forgive anything; yes, God will forgive everything—but not without our cooperation!  He loves us too much to violate our freedom in that way.

Did some of the Pharisees and Sadducees respond to the words of John by getting beyond their initial feelings of anger and then sincerely repenting of their sins?

I hope so.  I pray so.

But, in all honesty, it would have been difficult for them to do that, given the fact that they were very proud people, and proud people don’t like to admit that they need to change—anything.

I thought of all this the other day, after I read an online article by Bill Donahue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.  The article was about “Bad Santa 2” and three other “Christmas movies” that have come out of Hollywood this year—none of which is what you would call “wholesome entertainment”.

Donahue begins the article by saying this:
The corruption of American culture is evident in many ways, but few markers are more telling than the way Hollywood entertains us at Christmastime. It was 70 years ago when “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released. NBC describes it as “a holiday classic and remains the movie people associate with Christmas more than any other. Frank Capra’s definitive film is a tearjerker that proves that, even in our darkest hours, the human spirit can and will rise triumphant.” Today, we are being treated to obscene lyrics, raw sex, misogyny, and violence. Not one of the four Christmas-themed films released this season is worthy of being described as a family movie. There are no guardian angels directing the lead characters to consider how the world would be without them; no triumph of self-sacrifice; no statement against greed; no childhood sweetheart to marry; no inspiration of any sort. Just filth.
He then gets into some of the gory details—which I will spare you!  Suffice it to say that they would need to be censored for a church audience.

But what was most upsetting were the comments of two men associated with these films: producer Bob Weinstein and actor Billy Bob Thornton.  Here we have two men who are not only unrepentant like the Pharisees and Sadducees were; these two guys are actually PROUD of their sins!  Here’s what Bill Donahue wrote:
Bob Weinstein recently commented on why he accepted the script for the original “Bad Santa.” He did so after Universal Studios decided not to pick it up. “I asked a Universal executive,” Weinstein said, “Why’d you guys pass on it?” The executive replied, “It was the most foul, disgusting, misogynistic, anti-Christmas, anti-children thing we could imagine.” To which Weinstein said, “That’s exactly why I bought it.” Billy Bob Thornton was attracted to doing “Bad Santa 2” precisely because the original was so vulgar.  [He said], “I think part of it was that there hadn’t been a movie that profane and unapologetic about itself. I think it’s the alternative to the real syrupy Christmas movies.”

Yeah, Billy Bob, God forbid that we should have wholesome, uplifting, “syrupy” modern Christmas movies!  What a tragedy that would be!

Unfortunately, we can’t change modern Pharisees like Bob Weinstein and Billy Bob Thornton (how I wish we could!).

But the good news is we can change ourselves.

And the Lord invites us to do that every Advent.  He invites us through John the Baptist.  As many of you know, there is a three year cycle of readings that we use for Sunday Masses in the Catholic Church.  But it doesn’t matter which year we’re in—year A (which is the one we’re in now), year B or year C—the gospel reading on the Second Sunday of Advent is always the same.  It’s always the story of John the Baptist and his call to repentance.

John came 2,000 years ago to prepare people to meet their Messiah and Savior by helping them to clear out the sin from their lives.  John comes to us through the Scriptures in 2016 to help us to deepen our relationship with our Messiah and Savior by calling us to do the same thing—by calling us to repent of our sins.

The best way to do that as Catholics, of course, is in and through the sacrament of Reconciliation—also known as “Confession.”

When was the last time you went?