Sunday, January 14, 2018

What Jesus Saw in Peter; What Jesus Sees in Us

St. Peter

(Second Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 14, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Samuel 3: 3b-10, 19; 1 Corinthians 6: 13-20; John 1: 35-42.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday 2018]

Let me begin my homily today with a poem.  It’s entitled, “What Did You See?”

What did you see in me?
Lord, what did you see in me?
On the day you drove me to my knees,
Filled my bark with fish abundantly,
What did you see in me?

Did you see one who would thrice deny you,
Betray you out of fear?
Did you see a reed bending in the wind
When danger came too near?

Did you see my many stumbles?
Did you see my countless falls?
Did you see me turning away
Despite your constant calls?

Did you see my words of anger—
Thoughts tempting me to hate?
Did you see the taker of Satan’s part,
Turn, for a moment, from heaven’s gate?

Did you see that you would name as ‘Rock’
A man more like the shifting sand?
Did you see that I, being asked to follow
Would often refuse to take your hand?

Yes, Lord Jesus, these you saw,
And clearer still than I can know.
But ne’er did you abandon me,
Despite my wish at times to go.

You saw the cross, embraced it,
Gave your life upon the tree.
Healed, transformed, forgiven—
Your blood has made me free.

And so, dear Lord, I praise you,
In your endless love for me;
For in my deepest darkness,
You saw what I could be.

I wrote that poem about a year ago, as I was reflecting on the life of St. Peter.  Peter’s a biblical character that almost everyone can relate to—because he’s such a great representative of fallen humanity.  Prior to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, Peter had some moments of incredible brilliance, when he said and did the right thing—in some cases the best thing.  But he also had moments of abject failure (as the poem indicates), when his character flaws led him to say and do the wrong thing.  And it seems that Peter had the ability to go from one to the other in a matter of minutes.  At Caesarea Philippi, for example, he identified Jesus as the Messiah, and our Lord called him “blessed”; then a few minutes later he objected to the upcoming crucifixion of Jesus, and our Lord called him “Satan”.  At the Last Supper, he professed his loyalty to Jesus (“I will die for you, Lord!”); then, only a few hours later, he denied three times that he even knew Jesus!
And yet our Lord chose this man to be the leader of his apostles and the visible head of his Church here on earth!  I often wonder, later in his life did Peter ever ask the Lord that question in prayer: “What did you see?  Lord Jesus, what did you see in me?  You knew the kind of person I was: weak, impulsive, fearful.  On the day you gave me the name ‘Cephas’—‘Rock’ you knew that I was anything but a rock!  I was more like a reed swaying in the wind.  So why did you choose me and not one of the others?”
The last stanza of my poem I think gives us the answer to that question.  I put these words on Peter’s lips: “And so, dear Lord, I praise you, in your endless love for me; for in my deepest darkness, you saw what I could be.”
Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say that God has two images in his mind of each and every one of us: the image of the person we are right now (with all our sins, faults and weaknesses), and the image of the person he knows we can become if we allow his grace to change and transform us.  Interestingly enough Bishop Sheen always added the point that in the case of the Blessed Mother, there’s always been only one image in God’s mind.  Unlike us, she was perfect.  Because she was free from all sin, she was everything that God called her to be.
The rest of us are like Peter.
Catholic author Matthew Kelly talks a lot about striving to become “the best version of yourself.”  That, he says, should be the goal of every Christian’s life.  But, strictly speaking, it’s a goal that’s unattainable here on this earth, because we’re all sinners.  The only human person who was the BEST version of herself was our Blessed Mother—because she never committed a personal sin. 
And yet, if you strive for perfection, it is possible in this life to become a BETTER VERSION OF YOURSELF!  That’s a goal that everyone can reach.  It’s even possible to become a MUCH BETTER VERSION OF YOURSELF, which is what Peter and the other canonized saints of the Church became.
Today’s readings give us some insights on how to do this.  In the first reading, Samuel says to God, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
 If you want to be a better version of yourself, you need to listen to God as he speaks to you—especially through his Church—and you must make the effort to obey (neither of which is too popular these days.  Most people would rather talk than listen, and very few want to obey God—or anyone else in authority, for that matter).
Our second reading from 1 Corinthians 6 is about chastity and purity (two other unpopular things in the modern world).  St. Paul says, “The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord…. [So] avoid immorality….Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?...Therefore glorify God in your body.”
Here we’re reminded that becoming a better version of yourself involves fighting against your lower nature—and that’s a constant battle for most of us.  But it’s a battle worth fighting!  So we must never give up!
And finally in the gospel, Andrew and another disciple (probably John) begin to follow Jesus, and they spend most of the day with him.  The text says, “So they went and saw where Jesus was staying, and stayed with him that day.”  This is a reminder that if you want to be a better version of yourself, you have to spend some time—some quality time—with the Lord.  And you need to do it often!  Having a regular, daily prayer time, in other words, can’t be an option.  It needs to be a priority—along with Sunday Mass.
Peter, thanks be to God, did all these things.  He listened to Jesus, he obeyed Jesus, he fought against his lower nature (especially when it came to his temper), and he built his life on prayer and the Eucharist. And so, in spite of all his weaknesses and failures—that we see so clearly in the gospels—he eventually became a saint.
“And so, dear Lord, I praise you, in your endless love for me; for in my deepest darkness, you saw what I could be.”
God also sees what we can be, regardless of what our past has been, if we follow the example of Peter—the man who eventually became our first pope.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

What Matters Most in this Life is not What You Know; What Matters Most in this Life is What You DO With What You Know

(Epiphany 2018: This homily was given on January 7, 2018, 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 2018]

Sarah and Amy go to the same medical school, attend the same classes, get the same grades and graduate the same year.  Sarah becomes a pro-life doctor; Amy becomes an abortionist.

Fred and Joe have been friends since they were in grammar school.  They are also computer geeks—and have been for many years.  Each majored in computer science in college and graduated with honors.  Fred now works for Microsoft; Joe is a hacker who spends most of his time breaking into databases and stealing people’s identities.

John and Bill both call the local bank on Monday afternoon.  They ask what time the bank will open on Tuesday.  John wants to know because he wants to cash a check and make a deposit; Bill asks because he’s planning a robbery.

Those, my brothers and sisters, are three examples of the point I want to make in this homily: What matters most in this life is not what you know; what matters most in this life is what you DO with what you know.

Sarah and Amy knew the same things.  They went to the same medical school and the same classes; they received the same grades and graduated the same year.  Sarah used the knowledge she gleaned from that experience to help and heal people; Amy used that same knowledge to kill babies.

Fred and Joe both became experts at programming and working with computers.  Fred put his knowledge to work at a big computer company; Joe put that same type of knowledge to work ripping people off and ruining them financially.

John and Bill both found out when the bank opened on Tuesday morning—but they wanted to use that knowledge in very different ways.  John wanted to make a legal deposit into the bank; Bill wanted to make an illegal withdrawal out of the bank!

What matters most is not what you know; what matters most is what you DO with what you know.

Here we see the difference between the Magi and Herod.  The Magi came to Jerusalem to obtain knowledge.  The Bible says they arrived in the city and wanted to know where the newborn king of the Jews was to be found.  Well, once Herod heard about these mysterious men from the East and whom they were looking for, he decided that he wanted the same bit of knowledge that the Magi wanted.  And he made that clear to them.  He said to the Magi, “Go and search diligently for the child.  [And] when you have found him bring me word.”

Both Herod and the Magi wanted to know the same piece of information—but they intended to do very different things with that knowledge, didn’t they?  The Magi wanted to know where the newborn king was so that they could honor him and give him gifts.  Herod wanted to know where the child was so that he could kill him.

Thankfully, the Lord intervened through a dream and Herod never found out where Jesus was.  Although, that didn’t stop Herod from doing evil.  He used the knowledge he had gotten from the scribes and chief priests about where the Messiah was to be born (namely Bethlehem), and he had all the boys in that town 2-years-old and under killed.

Herod had a bad habit of using his knowledge for despicable purposes.

He was not a nice guy.

What matters most in this life is not what you know; what matters most in this life is what you DO with what you know.

We are called as Catholic Christians to use the knowledge we have for good and not for evil.  Always!  We’re called to be like that medical doctor, Sarah, whom I spoke about at the beginning of my homily.  As I noted earlier, she used the scientific knowledge she received in medical school to bring health and healing to other people; Amy, her abortionist classmate, did the exact opposite.

It’s people like Amy, by the way, who often accuse the Catholic Church of being anti-science.  But that’s a lie.  The Church is not against science!  What the Church is against is using scientific knowledge for evil purposes—like killing an innocent child in its mother’s womb, or destroying human beings in order to get their stem cells to do research, or creating human life in a petri dish.

The Magi, as I’ve said in homilies before, were men of faith and science!  That’s important to remember.  They were probably from Persia (which is modern-day Iran) and they were highly educated—in philosophy, in medicine and in the natural sciences.  And they didn’t waste all that knowledge they had accumulated over the years.  As the Christmas story in Matthew makes clear, they used it to do something good—something very good.  They used their knowledge (primitive though it might be by our standards) to find the newborn king of the Jews and give him the honor that he deserved.

In that, they are great role models for all doctors and scientists and researchers today.

And for the rest of us as well.

It’s not what you know; it’s what you DO with what you know.

May the Lord, by his saving grace, help us to do what’s right and just and good and holy in every situation of our lives.  Amen.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Why the Church Calls Mary the ‘Mother of God’

(Mary, the Mother of God 2018: This homily was given on January 1, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 16-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Mary, the Mother of God 2018]

Calling Mary the “Mother of God” confuses some people.  Actually it confuses a lot of people!  They say, “How can God have a mother?  To say that Mary is God’s mother implies that she existed before God did—which makes no sense and is clearly wrong.  God is the one who gives existence to everyone—and to everything.”

This, of course, is a complete misunderstanding of what the Church means when she calls Mary the Mother of God.  What the Church is actually telling us in that title is something very important about Jesus and his identity.  It’s telling us that Jesus was (and is) a divine Person.  Yes, he had a human nature as well as a divine nature, but he was a divine Person: the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who took on human flesh in the womb of the Blessed Mother.

So, on Christmas day, Mary did not give birth to a human person; rather, she gave birth to a divine Person: a divine Person who had both a divine and a human nature!  Therefore, in that sense, she can rightly be called the “Mother of God.”

In fact, you could call Mary the “earthly Mother of a divine Person” and it would mean the same thing.

When I was a student at Providence College in the late 1970s, I was taking a theology exam one day that had several true or false questions on it.  One of those questions was this one: Jesus was a fully human person.  True or false?  I said, “True”—which, of course, was wrong.  And it shocked me when I got the test back, because I didn’t fully understand the theological distinction at the time.  Now the interesting thing is, if the statement had been: Jesus was fully human.  True or false? then the right answer would have been “True”, since, as Scripture says, Jesus was a man like us in all things but sin.

“Fully human”—yes!  “A fully human person”—no!

Ever since I got that exam question wrong I’ve never forgotten this teaching and this truth.  But it’s easy to do.  In fact, recently I was previewing some of the videos that we’re going to use in our Bible study on the Gospel of Mark, and I discovered that on one of them the presenter—a woman who has an advanced degree in theology—refers to Jesus as a human person 3 or 4 times!

She, of all people, should know better!

So it’s a common mistake.

I share this with you today because it reminds us of the dignity and power of our Blessed Mother!  Of all the women who’ve lived on planet earth since the fall of Adam and Eve, Mary was the one the heavenly Father chose to bring a divine Person—his divine Son—into this world.  The Father also entrusted Mary (and Joseph) with the task of raising his Son: the task of nurturing him and protecting him and educating him.  Remember, because Jesus had a human nature he could grow, as Scripture tells us, “in wisdom and age and grace before God and men.”

Mary was largely responsible for that growth and progress of Jesus in his human nature.

Now the good news is, because we’re Mary’s adopted children, she will also assist us in our growth and progress in the faith, if we seek her prayers and help.  That’s why it’s so good to begin each year by focusing on Mary.  Our primary goal on January 1 every year should not be to get rid of the 10 pounds we put on during the month of December (although that would probably be a good idea!).  Our primary goal on January 1 should be to grow and progress spiritually during the next 52 weeks, and become better disciples of Jesus Christ.

So today we begin the new year of 2018 by seeking that grace through the powerful intercession of our Blessed Mother as we say one Hail Mary together:  Hail Mary …

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Importance of Communication in Family Life

A still from the XFINITY commercial.

(Holy Family 2017 (B): This homily was given on December 31, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 15: 1-6; 21: 1-3; Hebrews 11: 8-19; Luke 2: 22-40.)

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

“Ah, dinner—throughout history the one meal when we come together, break bread, share our day, and connect as a family.”  That’s the opening line of an XFINITY commercial that I’m sure many of you have seen in recent weeks.  It’s rather amusing.  It begins with shots of four families from the distant past sitting around their dinner tables, talking with one another and obviously enjoying each other’s company.  Then the scene shifts to a modern-day dinner table, with a dad and his two children sitting there in total silence.  That’s because dad and sis are totally focused on their smartphones and junior is doing something on his tablet.

Well, in comes mom, who sees what’s going on—and what’s not going on!—and she proceeds to pull out her smartphone and use the appropriate app to cut off the WiFi!  That, of course, gets everybody’s attention very quickly!  The daughter says, “Hey!”  Mom responds, “I paused it.” She then sits down and says, “So how is everyone?”

And that’s how the commercial ends.

I’m sure at least some of you can identify with that scene.  Perhaps to a certain extent all of us can.  It’s one of the ironies of the modern world, isn’t it?  The technology we have, that was supposed to make communication with other people better, has, in many cases, actually resulted in less face-to-face communication between living persons.  I mean, why go and visit somebody if you can just text or tweet or email them?  And that type of convenience—which on the one hand is a great blessing—has also caused many people to experience greater isolation and loneliness in their lives.   

And one of the casualties of all this is the nuclear family.  That’s why I like that XFINITY commercial so much!  The scene in that commercial is the scene in many American homes these days.  It may not always happen at the dinner table, but in one way or another everyone in the family can easily be drawn into their own little “techie-world”—shutting out everyone else (and everything else) in the process!

In the commercial, mom saves the day!  (Mom’s often do.)  Dad, unfortunately, dropped the ball.  He should have been the one engaging his children in conversation first, while mom was finishing the cooking, but he was too busy playing around with his favorite app on his cellphone.  He was as disconnected as his kids were.  Thanks be to God, mom hit the “pause button” and made sure that everyone got re-connected.

I mention this today because this weekend we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family: Jesus, Mary and Joseph—who remind us, like that commercial does, that communication is key in family life.  And here I mean not only communication with each other, but also communication with God.

On that note, can you imagine what a dinner at the home of the Holy Family was like?  One thing’s for sure: they never forgot to say grace!  But, aside from that, can you imagine what they talked about during their meal together?  I’m reasonably certain that, like most of us, they talked about the things they had experienced during the course of the day.  Joseph probably talked about whatever he was working on with Jesus in his carpentry shop.  Mary in all likelihood talked about whatever project she was working on in the house.  They probably talked about current events in Palestine and in the Roman Empire.  And, because the Lord was at the center of each of their lives, I’m absolutely positive that they spoke quite often about their faith, including the events we heard about in today’s Scripture readings: about Abraham—and the promises God had made to him—and how God had fulfilled those promises in the past—and how God was continuing to fulfill those promises in the present moment.  I’m sure Mary and Joseph talked to their Son about the day they brought him into the Temple when he was an infant, and what Simeon and Anna had said, and what that meant for all of them in the future.

Communication is key in family life.  It always has been.  In fact, as you will recall, when Jesus was 12 his parents unknowingly left him behind in Jerusalem and lost him for 3 days.  That distressing event happened, sadly, because of a miscommunication.  Mary and Joseph “didn’t get the memo”, so to speak.  And even when Jesus tried to explain to them why he had stayed behind, they didn’t understand.  In Luke 2: 49 Jesus says to his mother and foster father, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  Then, in verse 50, St. Luke writes, “But they did not understand what he said to them.”

Even Jesus, Mary and Joseph had to work at their communication with one another.  They were not exempt from the challenge.  Actually, the challenge was probably even greater for Joseph and our Blessed Mother, because they had to try to communicate effectively with a child who also happened to be God.

And we think we have it tough?

Let me conclude now with a few suggestions for you parents on how to improve communication in your family.  There are many good suggestions you can also find online (some at good Catholic websites); these are a few more that I came up with the other day:
  1. Follow the mom’s example in that commercial and designate special times (for instance, during meals) when all the members of your family will disconnect from their technological gizmos so that they can be fully present to one another.  If you have to, download an app so you can turn off the WiFi—like that mother did.
  2. Take your children to Mass.  But, in addition to that, pray with your children at home—starting when they’re very young and more open to spiritual things—and ask them beforehand what (and whom) they want to pray for.  This is something that could easily be done at the dinner table just before grace.  Every family member could mention one person or situation they want to pray for that day.  This is definitely a great way to open up dialogue with your children during the meal, but it also has an added benefit: it helps you to keep tabs on what’s going on in your children’s lives.  And that’s always a good thing!  For example, if something bad happened to one of your son’s friends on a particular day at school, your son will probably want to pray for that friend at dinner that evening.  Then, of course, you can ask him to fill in the details during the meal and tell you “the rest of the story” (as Paul Harvey would say).
  3. From a very young age, encourage your children to ask you questions—about anything, but especially about moral and spiritual issues.  Because if you don’t give them answers to their questions and concerns about these important matters, the world will!  And, if you’re a good Catholic, you probably won’t like the answers the world gives them—at all!
  4.  Finally, if you want better communication in your family, don’t lie!  (This one applies to both parents and children.)  Lying destroys communication, because the basis of all genuine communication is truthfulness.  If you and I, for example, are going to communicate effectively, I need to be confident about the fact that you’re telling me things that are true, and you need to have that same confidence about me.  If we can’t trust one another’s words, our communication is over before it starts!I tell teenagers, “You want to ruin your relationship with your parents?  Lie to them—and then keep on lying to them.  After a while, they won’t believe a thing that you say to them—even when you’re telling them the truth.  And it will take a long time for you to win back their trust, so that you can communicate with them effectively again.  So don’t lie.  It’s not worth it.”
Let me end my homily now with a prayer to the Holy Family that was written by Pope Francis.  I say it today for all the families represented here at Mass this morning:

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 
in you we contemplate 
the splendor of true love; 
to you we turn with trust. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, 
grant that our families too 
may be places of communion and prayer, 
authentic schools of the Gospel 
and small domestic churches. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, 
may [our] families never again experience 
violence, rejection and division; 
may all who have been hurt or scandalized 
find ready comfort and healing. 

Holy Family of Nazareth, 
make us once more mindful 
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family, 
and its beauty in God’s plan. 

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, 
graciously hear our prayer.