Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Loss of Childhood Innocence and What We Can Do About It

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 9, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 11: 25-30.)

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

Life is Beautiful is an Academy Award winning movie that was released back in 1997.  Pope John Paul II saw it at the time in a private screening, and it quickly became one of his favorite films.  The story itself is set in Italy, just before and during the Second World War. 

About halfway through the film, the main character, a Jewish Italian waiter named Guido, and his young son, Joshua, are taken away to a concentration camp.  The remainder of the movie deals with Guido’s many attempts (some of which are quite funny) to shield his son from the horrible reality of this situation.  For example, when they’re on their way to the camp, Guido tells Joshua that his dad once took him on a “trip” like this, and that if he stays quiet, and doesn’t cry and obeys all the rules, he will win points.  And when he accumulates 1,000 points, he will win the first prize: a real tank that he can ride on.  Little Joshua believes what his father tells him; consequently for the remainder of the movie he thinks he’s a participant in a game rather than a prisoner in a death camp.

It’s a great story!  It’s a great story of a man who loves his son so much that he wants to protect the boy’s innocence—at almost any cost.  Guido doesn’t want his precious child to be wounded and corrupted by the evil that’s literally all around him, and so he does whatever he can to shield him from it.

We need more men and women today who have this same protective attitude toward young people, many of whom are having their innocence stolen from them at a very young age: through what they’re exposed to on television, on the internet, in movies, in popular music, in school, through their friends—and, sad to say, even sometimes by what they’re exposed to in their own families!  As Judie Brown, the president of the American Life League, put it in an article I read recently:
On a daily basis, we see the innocence of children eroded. Television, Internet articles, and social media combine to allow children to enter a world of sexualization [and, I would add, a world of violence] at an earlier age – and adults and parents just seem to accept this. Indeed, even some embrace it and welcome it into their schools and their homes. When will we realize the damage we are doing? When will we say enough is enough?
 She goes on in that article to talk about an America’s Got Talent program that she and her husband had recently watched—a program in which a 12-year-old boy proceeded to come on stage, tell dirty jokes, and then get a standing ovation from many of those in attendance.  She writes:
What's wrong with this picture? A 12-year-old child shocking only some and sending an audience of hundreds to its feet is perhaps a tiny peek into the culture we live in today.
Unfortunately, because our culture is what it is at the present time, it’s nearly impossible to completely preserve a child’s innocence—unless, of course, you lock that child up for the first 18 years of his or her life (which, incidentally, I am not advocating!).  My point here is that even the best parents and teachers and priests and friends can’t shield a young person from every negative influence that’s out there right now.

Although we can do some things to limit what children are exposed to (like restricting their internet access).

And we MUST do these things if we really love our young people--because their relationship with Almighty God hangs in the balance (both their relationship with him here on this earth, AND their relationship with him in eternity)!  You see, Jesus makes a connection in the Bible between childlike innocence and openness to God.  For example, in today’s gospel text from Matthew 11 our Lord says,
I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,for although you have hidden these thingsfrom the wise and the learnedyou have revealed them to little ones.Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
Then later, in chapter 18 of Matthew, Jesus says these famous words:
Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
According to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, innocence and openness are closely connected in the spiritual realm—which is precisely why these assaults on the innocence of children are so prevalent today!  They’re not coincidental.  They’re part of Satan’s strategy: his 21st century strategy against the human race.  The devil knows that the more innocent a person is—that is to say, the less influenced and corrupted a person is by evil—the more open that person will be to God’s transforming grace.  So he’s desperately trying to destroy innocence in as many people as possible as early on as possible, in order to gain a foothold in their lives.

Because he knows that if he can gain a foothold—and keep it—he can eventually take their souls.

Which is always his ultimate goal.

So what about those who have completely lost their innocence in this way—is there any hope for them?  And how about the rest of us who’ve been negatively affected by the day-to-day evil we’ve encountered in our lives?  Is there any hope for us to be more open to God?

Thankfully the answer to both those questions is yes!

Here’s where the beauty and power of the sacrament of Reconciliation come into the picture.

Confession, unfortunately, cannot restore every aspect of childhood innocence.  That’s the bad news.  You can’t go back in time and start all over again. 

But the good news is that confession can restore the most important aspect of childhood innocence, namely, SANCTIFYING GRACE: that’s the grace that makes us pleasing to God; it’s the grace that makes us open to God; and, most important of all, it’s the grace that makes us ready for heaven!

So if you’ve lost your innocence to any extent whatsoever, make sure you get to confession SOON—and have your innocence restored, to the extent that it can be restored in this life.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Respect, Courtesy and Hospitality

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 2, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I.,  Read 2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16a; Matthew 10: 37-42.)

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

In a book I was reading this past week, I came across the following little story:

During the second month of nursing school, a professor gave the students a quiz. One of them was a conscientious student who had breezed through the questions, until she read the last one, “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?” Surely, this was some kind of joke. Everyone knew that the cleaning woman was tall, dark-haired, and in her 50s, but they did not know her name. The student handed in her paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward the grade. “Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.” The conscientious student later commented, “I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I also learned her name was Dorothy.”

Respect.  Courtesy.  Hospitality.  The professor in that story understood and believed in all of those things.  So, of course, did Jesus, who spoke to us in today’s gospel about the importance of showing hospitality and respect toward prophets, the righteous and all those who call themselves his disciples.  He says that those who do so will be rewarded for their efforts (if not here on this earth, then most certainly in eternity).  But Jesus, as we know, didn’t limit charity to believers only.  In the mind of our Savior, every human person is to be loved and respected: “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”

Even in the Old Testament we see the importance of respect, courtesy and hospitality.  We see it in stories like the one we heard in today’s first reading from 2 Kings 4: this story of Elisha the prophet and the childless Shunammite woman, who showed Elisha hospitality by welcoming him into her home whenever he happened to be traveling in the area.  God rewarded her for her efforts by blessing her with a son.  The promise Elisha made to her at the end of this story was, indeed, fulfilled.

Which brings us, finally, to our modern world and to our current cultural situation here in the United States of America.  If you look up the words respect, courtesy and hospitality in a modern dictionary of the English language you will certainly find them there.  And they will be properly defined.  (At least in most dictionaries they will be!)

The problem is that very few people seem to believe in these things nowadays.  The sad reality is that to a growing number of men and women in this country right now respect, courtesy and hospitality have become words on a piece of paper—and nothing more.  Nowhere has this been more evident in recent months than in the worlds of entertainment and politics.  And it’s not just the uncharitable tweeting that’s been taking place back and forth to and from the White House! …
  • ·         Comedienne Kathy Griffin has a photo taken of herself holding a fake, severed head of Donald Trump, and she thinks it’s funny!  
  • ·         Madonna talks about wanting to blow up the White House!
  • ·         A crazy man shoots a congressman on a baseball field because he doesn’t agree with the congressman’s political views
  • ·         College students riot because they don’t like the person who’s been invited to speak at their school

All this, my brothers and sisters, is not only disrespect and a lack of courtesy and hospitality—it’s insanity!

And the scary thing is, this insanity is fast becoming mainstream—which means it’s beginning to manifest itself not only in Hollywood and Washington.  This disrespect and craziness is beginning to manifest itself more and more frequently in our schools, at athletic events, in social gatherings, in workplaces—and in families.

Which means we need to address it PRONTO—before it destroys us as a nation.

“But what can I do, Fr. Ray?  I’m just one person.”

Actually, each of us can do a lot!  No, as individuals we don’t have the power to transform our entire society in a positive way.  But we each can do our personal part to help make it happen.

For example, here are some simple, everyday activities that we can engage in on a regular basis: actions that will help to promote respect and courtesy and hospitality toward other people (this, by the way, is not an exhaustive list—these are just a few suggestions):
  • ·         Stop your car when people are trying to cross the street in a designated crosswalk (that’s courtesy—plus it’s the law!)
  • ·         Allow someone to go ahead of you in traffic every once in a while—or in the church parking lot
  • ·         Refuse to use ethnic or racial slurs—ever!
  • ·         Say “please”—and “thank you”
  • ·         Write thank you notes to people who give you special gifts
  • ·         Pay more attention to the people you’re with and less attention to your cell phone
  • ·         Turn your cell phone off in church—even if the organist doesn’t ask you to do so
  • ·         Don’t text when you drive
  • ·         Try to be on time for things (including Mass!)
  • ·         Speak about people in authority respectfully, even if you don’t like the things they say and do (young people, that includes your parents!)
  • ·         When you disagree with someone, stick to the issues and avoid arguments directed against the person himself or herself
  • ·         When you see somebody new at church, say hello
  • ·         When you’re in a social setting where you notice someone being left out of the conversation, try to find a way to include them in it
  • ·         Support the right to life of every human person, from natural conception to natural death
  • ·         Oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide
  • ·         Support immigration (that is to say, legal immigration!)

These are all simple but important things that we can do in our lives right now to counter the disrespect, discourtesy and lack of hospitality that are infecting our American culture at the present time.

May God grant us the grace—and the determination—to put these suggestions into practice, to the extent that we can.

Oh yes, one more thing before I close: the people who clean the church each week are named Tom and Sylvia—just in case someone asks you that question on a test in the near future.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The 'Eucharistic' Love of a Good Father

(Corpus Christi 2017 (A): This homily was given on June 18, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 6: 51-58.)

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

 Professor Anthony Esolen, in his book “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture,” writes the following:
What is the single condition of a boy’s life that correlates most strongly with whether he will turn criminal?  Not income, not by a long shot. It is whether he grew up in the same home with his father.  Our prisons are full to bursting with fatherless boys who never became the men and fathers that God meant them to be.
This is something that many people are not aware of.  They think that poverty is the major reason why many young men (especially from our inner cities) end up in prison, but it’s not.  It’s a factor in the equation, for sure, but it’s not the major factor.  The major factor is the absence of a father (or at least a father-figure) in a young man’s life.

After I read this in Anthony Esolen’s book the other day, I went online to do some further research on the matter, and these are some of the statistics I came across:

·         90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes
·         63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes
·         85% of all children who show behavior disorders come from fatherless homes
·         71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes
·         75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes

You get the picture.

The point here is simple: FATHERS MATTER!  Their love matters; their encouragement matters; their presence matters; their discipline matters; their forgiveness matters—and their example in every dimension of life (including the spiritual dimension) matters!

Our role model in all this is God, our heavenly Father.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a spiritual father like me, or a natural father as so many of you are, the heavenly Father is to be our standard.  In other words, when we want to know what a father is supposed to be like, first and foremost we are to look to him.  His Fatherhood is perfect; ours is imperfect.  That’s extremely important to remember, because very often people make the mistake of judging God according to their own experience of earthly fatherhood.  And so, if their father was not very kind or loving or forgiving, they project those qualities onto the Lord.  They have trouble relating to God as “Father” because they’ve made their human father their standard of fatherhood—which is the exact opposite of what they should do.  The Catechism puts it this way in paragraph 239:
The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father.

Which brings us to the feast we celebrate in the Church this weekend: the Feast of Corpus Christi (the Body and Blood of Christ).

This is a moveable celebration, which means that it doesn’t fall on the same Sunday every year.  This year it happens to coincide with Father’s Day—which I think is extremely providential, because you could say that an earthly father’s love for his children is supposed to be “Eucharistic.”

Think, for a moment, about how the Eucharist came to us.  It all started with the heavenly Father.  In the Creed we say that God the Son was eternally begotten of the Father.  This means, quite simply, that from all eternity the heavenly Father gave his “best” to his Son.  He shared his divine life in its fullness with him.  As the Catechism says in paragraph 246 (and here I quote):  “The Father has, through generation, given to the only-begotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father.”

The Son, in turn, came to this earth 2,000 years ago, was born of the Virgin Mary, and gave his “best” to all of us.  He did that by suffering and dying for us on the cross, and by giving us a living memorial of that event in the Holy Eucharist. 

The Eucharist is, therefore, the best the Lord has to give: it’s his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

May the Lord help us to appreciate this gift more and more each time we come to Mass.

Jesus ties it all together in this gospel text we just heard from John 6 when he says, “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

The Father gave his best to his only begotten Son in eternity; the Son gives his best to us in the Holy Eucharist, and we fathers are supposed to give the same thing—our best—to our children.

That’s why I said a few moments ago that an earthly father’s love for his children is supposed to be “Eucharistic.”

And so, dads, when you receive Communion today, ask for that grace.  Say, “Lord Jesus, you gave your very best to me when you died on the cross for my salvation, and you continue to give your best to me by coming to me in the Holy Eucharist.  By the grace I receive in this sacrament today, help me to give my best—my very best—to the children you’ve entrusted to my care.  Amen.”

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Aaron Hernandez and the Misuse of Religion

(Trinity Sunday 2017 (A): This homily was given on June 11, 2017, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 3: 16-18.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Trinity Sunday 2017]

John 3: 16

That’s a biblical reference which even many non-Christians know, because for years people have held up signs at professional sporting events with “John 3: 16” written on them in very large print.

I mention this this morning because the very first line of today’s gospel text is none other than John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

This is a line of Scripture that we should always associate with hope and life, not despair and death.  But, unfortunately, some have done the latter since April 19 of this year.  That was the day that former NFL star Aaron Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence for murder, killed himself in his prison cell.  However, before he committed suicide by hanging himself with a bedsheet, he wrote “John 3: 16” on his forehead with red ink and on the wall of his cell with blood.

Exactly why he did it, no one knows.  Joseph Price, a professor of religious studies at Whittier College, said (and here I quote), “it might have been ‘an ultimate protest,’ a final act of defiance to use such an affirming verse at the culmination of such a violent life.”

Others have gone so far as to call it “an act of faith”—although if it was an act of faith it was definitely a perverse and misguided one, because in his teaching Jesus Christ always connected faith and love to obedience: “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”  One of those commandments, of course, is “Thou shalt not kill,” which forbids you to murder other people—or yourself!

But in either case—whether it was an act of defiance or a misguided and perverse act of faith—Aaron Hernandez’s suicide was yet another example of something we’ve seen far too much of in recent years: THE MISUSE OF RELIGION.

Religious beliefs that are rooted in truth move people to love God and one another.  They give birth to what we refer to as “the fruits of the Holy Spirit”:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness and self-control.  And because of that, religious beliefs rooted in truth are, without question, the most powerful force for good that we have in the world—despite what atheists will tell you.

But religious beliefs that are rooted in lies and half-truths can be used (and are often used) to motivate people in the opposite way—as we see with the radical Islamic terrorists who are wreaking havoc all over the world at the present time.

Atheists, of course, will say the problem here is “religion”.  They’ll tell you that religion itself is bad because it motivates some believers to do horrific things.  But that’s wrong.  The fact that the misuse of religion motivates some people to do morally heinous acts actually is an indication that religion itself—that is to say, true religion—is good.  You see, when something really good is perverted and becomes bad, it doesn’t just become “a little bit bad,” it becomes really bad—really, REALLY bad!

The best example of this is the devil himself.  Remember, the angel who eventually became the devil was created “good” by God.  He didn’t start off as Satan.  His name at his creation was Lucifer (which means “Light-bearer”), and he was one of the most brilliant and powerful angels the Lord made.  Consequently, when he rebelled and was thrown out of heaven by St. Michael, he didn’t just become a bad angel who had fallen from grace—he became the worst angel of all, and the leader of all the lesser angels who followed him into rebellion.

So don’t buy into the lie that religion itself is the problem.    

And, by the way, if an atheist ever does tell you that religion is (and always has been) responsible for most of the evils—and especially the murders—in the world, advise him not to keep score.  Because if he does, he’ll lose!  In the last century, for example, the most horrific atrocities against innocent human life were not committed by Christians, or Jews—or even Muslims.  In the 20th century the most evil mass murderers were either atheists or ex-Christian pagans. 

Here are three of them: Hitler, Stalin and Mao-tse Tung.

Millions—actually it’s more accurate to say tens of millions—died because of the actions of those three scoundrels alone.

Religion is not the problem, but its misuse is.  Here we have to be honest enough to admit that in the past 2,000 years some Catholics and other Christians have also been guilty of this.  They’ve twisted the message of Jesus and his Church for their own political or financial gain, or to try to justify some immoral activity that they were involved in.

By the grace of God, may we never be guilty of that kind of misuse in our lives.

I’ll leave you today with the words of a saint—Pope St. John Paul II—who addressed this issue a number of times during his long pontificate.  Too bad more people didn’t listen.  The world would be a much better place today if they had.  For example, in an address he gave to a group of Muslims in Syria way back in 1979, our former Holy Father said this:
It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction.

And then in 1998 (almost 20 years later) the pope gave a similar message to a group of Muslim leaders in Nigeria.  He said:
Religion can be misused, and it is surely the duty of religious leaders to guard against this. Above all, whenever violence is done in the name of religion, we must make it clear to everyone that in such instances we are not dealing with true religion. For the Almighty cannot tolerate the destruction of his own image in his children.

St. John Paul II pray for us and pray for our world, that this destruction will finally come to an end, and that true religion and its fruits will ultimately prevail.  Amen.