Thursday, May 30, 2019

Coping With Loss: The Lessons Given To Us by the Apostles



(Ascension Thursday 2019: This homily was given on May 30, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1:1-14; Psalm 47:2-9; Ephesians 1:17-23; Luke 24:46-53.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension 2019]


 A close friend moves away—a trusted co-worker takes a job at another company—your mother or father or child or some other relative dies after a long illness.

How do you deal with the loss?  What do you do to cope?

Those are very important questions, since we all face losses like these throughout our lives.

Let me share with you today a few lessons on how to deal with such situations, courtesy of the 12 Apostles.  Lest we forget, they experienced a terrible loss in their lives on the first Ascension Thursday—the loss of Jesus!  After living with these men for 3 years, and then appearing to them for 40 days after his resurrection, our Lord ascended into heaven, never to be with them in exactly the same way again.

But, to their credit, the Apostles handled this loss much better than they had handled the loss of Jesus on Good Friday.  Back then, they ran away and did everything wrong; this time, they did almost everything right.

First of all, Scripture says, they prayed.  They dealt with their loss through prayer.  And this wasn’t just casual, half-hearted prayer that they engaged in.  Scripture says, “They devoted themselves to constant prayer.”  To be perfectly frank, they probably prayed as hard as they had ever prayed in their lives!

And they engaged in this prayer together.  That’s also significant.  Scripture says that after Jesus ascended, the Apostles went to the Upper Room as a group.  Back on Holy Thursday, they had scattered after Jesus was arrested; now they gathered together and prayerfully supported one another. 

Whenever we suffer a loss in our lives, we should also turn to prayer, believing that God’s grace can help us deal with our pain.  And we also need to reach out to good friends—especially Christian, Catholic, believing friends—who will give us the human and spiritual support we need. 

Of course, if we want an even greater measure of help we should look beyond the friends we have on this earth and look to the “friends” we have in heaven—especially our Blessed Mother.  This is something we also learn from the Apostles: the Bible tells us explicitly that Mary was with them in the Upper Room after the Ascension and until Pentecost. 

Notice, if you would, our last stained glass window.  Pictured in that glass is the moment the Holy Spirit descended—10 days after the Ascension—and Mary is in the center of the group.  You could say that there, in that window, you have 12 men dealing with their loss with the help of Mary.

As many of you I’m sure already know, young Karol Wojtyla—who would someday become Pope John Paul II—lost his entire family (his mother, his father, his sister and his brother) before he was 21 years of age.  In the midst of those losses, he developed a very strong devotion to our Blessed Mother—so much so that when he became pope he took as his motto, “Totus Tuus” (meaning “I’m totally yours, Mary—I’m totally consecrated to Jesus through you”).

Like Peter and the Apostles, Karol Wojtyla dealt with his losses by seeking support from the Blessed Mother.  That, in and of itself, is a good reason for all of us to do the same.

The Apostles, I think it’s safe to say, also turned to the Eucharist during this difficult time.  After Pentecost, the Bible says that the early Christians devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread” (the “breaking of bread,” of course, was the Eucharist).  Well, if that was the case after Pentecost, I think it’s pretty reasonable to infer that the Apostles also celebrated this sacrament before Pentecost when they were with Mary and the others in the Upper Room. 

I know many people who began to go to Mass daily at some point in the past after someone close to them died—and they’ve continued the practice to the present day.  They continue to do it because they have found strength and comfort in the Blessed Sacrament, as the Apostles most probably did after the Ascension. 

And finally, these 12 followers of Jesus persevered.  They prayed, they supported each other, they looked to Mary, they most likely received the Eucharist—and they kept it up for 10 days until the promise of Jesus was finally fulfilled and the Holy Spirit descended on them. 

Jesus had told them it would happen “within a few days.”  They probably interpreted that to mean “1 or 2,” but they didn’t give up even after a week had passed. 

The bottom line, my brothers and sisters, is this: the Apostles could not stop Jesus from ascending into heaven; they could not prevent that “loss.”  Most of the time, we can’t control the losses in our lives: neighbors move, friends change jobs, loved ones die—and we are powerless to stop any of it from happening.  But what we can control is our response to the losses we experience, as these Apostles controlled their response to the loss of Jesus.

May God help us to respond as they did—and to persevere—so that we will eventually experience the strength and consolation of the Holy Spirit that they all experienced at Pentecost.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Answering the ‘Big Questions’ of Life



(Sixth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 26, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 15:1-29; Psalm 67:2-8; Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23; John 14: 23-29.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter 2019]


Where do you go for answers to the big questions of life?  I’m talking about questions like, “What’s the meaning of human existence?” “Why am I here?” “Is there a God?” “Is he good?—and if he is good, why is there evil and suffering in the world?”  “Does God have a will—and if he does, can I know what that will is?”  “What happens when we die? Is that the end of it all, or is there something after death? And if there is a life that we experience after death, what will that life be like?”

Those are just some of the big questions that we ponder in our lives.  And it’s good that we do!  Because if we don’t—if we do not try to find answers to the basic, fundamental questions of human existence—our lives will lack meaning and purpose.  They will also lack real joy, since there can be no real joy in a meaningless life.

Some people, of course, will look to the Bible for answers to the big questions, and that’s good—or at least it’s a good start.  The problem is the Bible needs an interpreter.  By quoting one or two verses from the Bible out of context you can pretty much justify anything!

Other people will look to science for the answers.  The other day I came across a book online that was written by the late, great physicist, Stephen Hawking.  The title of the book was, interestingly enough, “Brief Answers to the Big Questions”.  I didn’t have time to read the book this week, but I did do a little research on it.  And I discovered that in the book Hawking addresses some of the very same questions I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.  There’s only one problem here: Hawking was a scientist, not a philosopher or a theologian.  This means that his opinion on issues like whether or not God exists is worth as much as my opinion is on whether or not black holes exist!  As a scientist, he didn’t have the competence to make definitive statements on matters of philosophy and theology any more than I have the competence to make definitive statements on matters of science.

Our world tends to treat scientists as if they’re experts on everything—but they’re not.

Personally, I choose to look for my answers to life’s big questions in the same place that the early Christians did.  And where, exactly, did they look?

They looked to the Church!  They looked to the one, true Church established by Jesus Christ, and to the apostles he had chosen to guide and shepherd that Church here on earth.

We see a great example of this in today’s first reading from Acts 15.  Here the early Christians were dealing with a question that is not very big to us in 2019 but was HUGE for them back in the first century! (Of course, the reason it’s not big to us today is because it was big to them back then—and they dealt with it.)

The question was: What about the gentiles?  What about those who are not Jews?  We know Jesus wants to save everybody—Jew and Gentile alike; he’s made that clear to Peter.  But do gentile converts to the faith need to observe the Mosaic Law as Christians?  Are they bound by all the Jewish ceremonial laws in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible)?  And do the men have to be circumcised?

Some Jewish converts were saying, “Yes, they do have to be circumcised and observe the Mosaic Law”—and that was causing a split in the Christian community.  As we heard in our first reading: “Some men came down to Antioch from Judea and began to teach the brothers: ‘Unless you are circumcised according to Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.  This created dissension and much controversy between them and Paul and Barnabas.’”

It was a very contentious issue.

And the problem was not only theological, it was also very practical.  Let me put it to you this way …
Imagine that you’re a 40 or 50 year-old gentile man living in the city of Antioch at this time.  You hear Paul and Barnabas preach about Jesus on several occasions and you’re intrigued!  In fact, you’re more than intrigued—you’re actually thinking of getting baptized and becoming a Christian.  But then you meet some of these Jewish Christians from Judea and they say to you, “Friend, it’s wonderful that you’re thinking of becoming a follower of Jesus.  We’re overjoyed!  But remember—becoming a Christian also means that you must observe all the ritual laws of Moses: all the dietary laws, all the purification rituals, all the laws of animal sacrifice.  And it means, first and foremost, that you must be CIRCUMCISED—as soon as possible!” 

That would definitely get me to think twice!  That would definitely tone down my excitement at the thought of converting to Christianity!  And I’m sure most if not all of the guys here this morning would feel the same way.

Anesthesia in the first century, remember, was not what it is today.

So what did they do with this question?  What did Paul and Barnabas and the others do to get this big question about the gentiles answered (since Jesus had not directly addressed the issue in his ministry)?

Very simply, they took it to the pope and the bishops who were in union with him!  That is to say they took the issue to Peter and the other apostles—who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time.

They met in council, prayed, talked, reflected on the matter, and finally reached a decision: a decision that they and the whole community believed was from God.  That’s why in their final decree they said, “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …”

In other words, “This is not just our opinion on the matter; this is what Jesus Christ—who has given us the charism to faithfully interpret his words—would say if he were physically present with us right now.”

This is why I would maintain that the two most important books every Catholic should own are the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

The Bible is the word of God, but, as I said earlier, the word of God needs an interpreter—always!  Otherwise it can be misinterpreted and misused to say whatever a person wants it to say.

So whenever we face a big question in this life, we should look to those two books before we look anywhere else.  We should look to the Bible, yes—but we should also read what the Catechism says about the matter in question, because the Catechism faithfully interprets what the Bible says.

If we do those two things, my brothers and sisters, then the good news is we will be well on our way to finding the answer that we’re looking for.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Persecution of Christians in 2019




(Fifth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 19, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 14:21-27; Psalm 145:8-13; Revelation 21:1-5A; John 13:31-35.)

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


345—105—219

Those numbers are from the group, Open Doors USA, which monitors the persecution of Christians throughout the world.  Sad to say, there’s an awful lot for them to monitor these days.  Here’s a quote from their website:
Every day we receive new reports of Christians who face threats, unjust imprisonment, harassment, beatings and even loss of family because of their faith in Jesus.  [Now here’s where the three numbers come in.]  Every month, [in the world] on average:
  • 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons
  • 105 churches and Christian buildings are burned or attacked
  • 219 Christians are detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned
In today's first reading, St. Paul says, "It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God."

Truer words were never spoken.  St. Paul, of course, knew this from experience.  He dealt with persecution first hand—many times.  In last week’s first reading, for example, we heard about how he and Barnabas were verbally opposed and attacked in the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia, and how they were eventually booted out of town.  In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul talks about other persecutions he had to face in his ministry: how he was scourged 5 times by the Jews, beaten with rods 3 times and stoned once—among other things!

It’s ironic that, after being one of the biggest persecutors of Christians in history, St. Paul himself became one of the most persecuted Christians in history! 

The kind of persecution Paul faced 2,000 years ago is being experienced by believers in over 60 countries around the world at the present time.  (That’s according to Open Doors USA.)  The country, incidentally, that’s #1 on their list of persecutors is none other than North Korea.

No surprise there.

The prevalence of this kind of open persecution came home to me the other day, when our summer seminarian came for a visit.  He came for lunch and to meet the parish staff, with whom he’ll be working this summer for several weeks, beginning at the end of June.  His name is Doan (pronounced “Dwan”), and he’s from Vietnam—which is, of course, a communist country at the present time.  Fr. Najim at one point asked him about the condition of the Church in his country and the relationship that Catholic bishops and priests there have with the civil government.  Doan said that everything is fine—unless you take a public stance against the government and criticize its policies.  Then there are consequences.  They might even decide to close your church and confiscate it and the land it’s built on.

I read recently that some historians believe that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century ALONE—more people who died because of their faith in Jesus Christ—than in the previous 19 centuries PUT TOGETHER!

With incidents like the attacks on the 3 churches in Sri Lanka this past Easter Sunday, it seems that some radical Muslim terrorists and others would like to eclipse that mark in the 21st century.

It’s interesting that we have this gospel reading about love paired with this first reading from Acts 14.  Jesus tells us in this gospel to love one another as he has loved us.  Well, the love that Jesus had (and still has) for us is selfless, and patient, and self-sacrificial—and forgiving.  I think it’s a tremendous witness of faith when Christians forgive their persecutors (like some of the survivors of the Charleston, South Carolina church shooting did back in 2015).  But to forgive does not mean that you completely ignore or forget about justice.  That’s an important point to remember.  Those of you who are parents of young children know this well.  You forgive your children all the time for the bad things that they do—but you also punish them appropriately.  Your forgiveness doesn’t eliminate your justice.

Nor should it!

I’m reading a book right now about Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan.  Both men were shot by would-be assassins in 1981.  Both men forgave their attackers.  But Ronald Reagan didn’t give John Hinckley a presidential pardon, nor did John Paul II immediately pressure Italian authorities to release Mehmet Ali Agca from prison.  Forgiveness did not eliminate the need for justice—and these two men understood that.

So what can we do to respond to this situation?  What practical steps can we take to address the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world—as well as right here in the United States?  Lest we forget, Christians are also undergoing persecution here: the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were persecuted by our government for failing to offer abortion and contraception coverage in their healthcare plans for their employees; the florists and bakers who have been publicly vilified because they’ve respectfully declined, for religious reasons, to provide flowers or to bake a cake for a “gay wedding”; the Christian doctors and nurses and pharmacists who are pressured by their peers and by the government to violate their consciences in their work.

Those are just a few examples of the persecution that’s happening right here in our midst.  We don’t need to go to North Korea to suffer for our Catholic beliefs.  There’s plenty of opportunity to do it right here in the good old U.S. of A!

So obviously the first thing we need to do is pray!  We need to pray—daily—for our brothers and sisters who are suffering for their faith (both here and around the world), and especially for those who are being asked to give the ultimate witness to Christ through martyrdom.

And secondly, we need to make it personal.  We need to make “freedom of religion” an important issue on our personal list of important issues—and we need to vote people into public office who also consider it important: people, in other words, who will work to preserve and protect religious freedom here in our own country and who will, at the same time, support policies that promote religious freedom throughout the world.

And please remember, freedom of religion is different from freedom of worship (which is what some of our leaders say they support).  Freedom of religion, which is what our Constitution guarantees, is much more than freedom of worship.  Freedom of religion means that you can live your private life—and your public life— according to the dictates of your faith. Freedom of worship means, “You Christians can pray however you like within the four walls of your church building, but outside in the real world you had better think and act and live like the rest of us—or else!”

It’s freedom of religion that people need, not just freedom of worship.

Let me end this morning with a brief quote from Pope Francis, who addressed this topic in a homily he gave back in 2014.  There he said this:
 There are many martyrs today, in the Church, many persecuted Christians. Think of the Middle East where Christians must flee persecution, where Christians are killed. Even those Christians who are forced away in an ‘elegant’ way, with ‘white gloves’: that too is persecution. There are more witnesses, more martyrs in the Church today than there were in the first centuries. So during this Mass, remembering our glorious ancestors, let us think also of our brothers who are persecuted, who suffer and who, with their blood are nurturing the seed of so many little Churches that are born. Let us pray for them and for us.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Faithfulness of a Mother’s Love



(Fourth Sunday of Easter (C): This homily was given on May 12, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9-14; John 10: 27-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2019]


“Patient dead.  Mother prayed.  Patient came back to life.”  Those words were written by the first doctor who treated 14-year-old John Smith on January 19, 2015—the day he fell through the ice on a frozen lake near his home in St. Charles, Missouri.  By the time the first responders located John and pulled him out of the icy water, he wasn’t breathing, had no pulse, and had been without oxygen for a full 15 minutes.  They immediately started CPR and took him to the local hospital, where doctors and medical personnel continued to work on him feverishly for 43 more minutes—with no response.  The medical team finally gave up, and called in John’s adoptive mother, Joyce, so that she could pay her final respects to her son before they officially declared him dead. 

But Joyce Smith was not ready to give up hope for her son’s recovery!  And so she began to pray over his lifeless body—in a loud voice that could be heard throughout the emergency room of the hospital.  She doesn’t remember her entire prayer that day, but she does recall saying these words to God: “Please send your Holy Spirit to save my son!”

Suddenly, without any further medical intervention, the boy’s heart monitor began to register a pulse—which put him on the road to what has become a full and complete recovery.

John’s miraculous story is the subject of the recently-released film, Breakthrough, which is in theaters now.  I highly recommend it, since it’s a beautiful testimony to the power of prayer, and to the faithfulness of a mother’s love.

The reason I mention it in my homily today is primarily because of that last point. It’s Mother’s Day weekend, and this story witnesses in a powerful way to the faithfulness of a mother’s love—a good mother’s love.  The love of a good mother is not conditional; it does not depend on circumstances.  The love of a good mother is consistent and hopeful and selfless.  Some of us, unfortunately, might not have experienced that kind of love from our moms, but thankfully many of us have.  We should praise God today for that.

This kind of love was certainly present in Joyce Smith.  Here I think it’s important to note that even after John began to register a pulse in the ER, most of the medical personnel involved in his case were not very hopeful.  Neither was John’s adoptive father.  They all believed that even if John did somehow manage to survive this ordeal, his quality of life would be extremely poor—since he had been deprived of oxygen for so long and had probably experienced severe brain damage in the process.

Only Joyce persevered in her hope for a complete recovery.  Only she continued to believe that a positive outcome was possible.  She never gave up!  She had the kind of determination and perseverance that Paul and Barnabas exhibited in today’s first reading.  There we were told that these two apostles went into the synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia on two consecutive sabbaths, where they proclaimed the gospel message with clarity and conviction.  But not everybody liked what they heard on those two occasions—and these opponents of the apostles were definitely not quiet in their opposition.  As the Bible puts it, “They were filled with jealousy and with violent abuse contradicted what Paul said.”  Ultimately they threw the two apostles out of town.  But notice that Paul and Barnabas did not throw in the towel!  They didn’t give up their mission to preach and teach in the name of Christ.  They didn’t stop doing what they believed God wanted them to do.

They simply shook the dust of Antioch in Pisidia off their feet, and took the gospel message to the next town. And they did it joyfully, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In her faithful love for her son, Joyce Smith (like Paul and Barnabas) refused to give up.  Yet her love was not perfect—as you’ll find out if you go to see the movie Breakthrough.  But that should not surprise us, since no earthly mother (however good she might be) loves her children with a perfect love. However the good news is that we do have a Mother in heaven who does love us in that way!  Regardless of what our earthly mother is or was like, our heavenly mother Mary loves us unconditionally and with a perfect faithfulness, always praying for us to grow closer to Jesus.  She never gives up on us or on any one of her children—even when they’re in the state of mortal sin and as dead spiritually as John Smith was dead physically. 

Some people would probably say that Mary’s faithful love for her children (that is to say, for all of us) is like Joyce Smith’s faithful love for her son John—but that would be wrong.  It’s actually Joyce’s imperfectly-faithful love for John that’s a bit like Mary’s perfectly-faithful love for us.  Mary’s love is the standard!  Her love is the perfect standard by which every earthly mother’s imperfect love is measured.  So let’s conclude now by seeking Mary’s prayers for all earthly moms (especially all the moms here present): that they will love their children in the future more like Mary loves her children always.  And so for all mothers we pray, “Hail, Mary …”