Sunday, December 10, 2017

Dan Mattson and the Transformative Power of a Good Confession

Dan Mattson and his book

(Second Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 10, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8.)

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

Daniel Mattson is a 47-year-old man who has experienced same-sex attraction in varying degrees since he was 6-years-old.  He was baptized a Catholic, but during his youth his family left the Catholic Church and joined an evangelical Protestant community.  Not surprisingly, Dan eventually abandoned Christianity altogether.  In his autobiography, which I’m currently reading, he talks very candidly about how, over a number of years, he came to reject God, identify himself as gay, and adopt the gay lifestyle.  Clearly, he was looking for love and happiness in his life—and that was great.  Everyone does that!  However, because of his woundedness (a woundedness rooted in his past experiences), he was looking for that love and happiness in all the wrong places.  As he said in his book:
In my life, the seeds of my same-sex attraction are all clear to me: seeds sown with my neighbor when I was a boy, seeds of teasing and alienation from other boys, seeds of envy stemming from doubts about my body, seeds from gruff men and a father who sometimes intimidated and scared me, and seeds from rejection from women, as well as a mother who had an unhealthy and controlling attachment to me because of her own wounds.
Throw a large dose of pornography into the mix, and you have the formula for producing a very misguided and mixed-up young man.

That was Dan Mattson.

What led him back to God—and ultimately back to the Catholic Church—interestingly enough, was his experience of suffering: his experience of suffering after a couple of broken relationships (one with a man, the other with a woman).

In an attempt to help Dan deal with his pain, his Catholic godparents invited him to attend the national conference of Courage, which was being held that year on the campus of Villanova University.  Courage is a Catholic organization that provides pastoral care and support to men and women who experience same-sex attraction, but who have made the choice to live chaste lives by following the teachings of the Catholic Church.

His participation in that conference—and specifically in the opening Mass—is what changed his life.  As he said in his book, “Before the Mass began, I wasn’t a practicing Catholic.  But somewhere during the hour-long Mass, I decided to be reconciled with the Church.”

Of course, that meant he had to go to confession, which he did.  Listen now, to his description of that experience and what it meant to him:
I saw a priest who was free and walked up to him nervously. “Father,” I said, “I haven’t been to confession in over 30 years. I’m not sure what to do.”He guided me through the process with fatherly love and compassion. I told him everything. Everything, from the very beginning—all my moments of shame, all of my moments of addiction, all the furtive search for happiness in the dead ends of sexual pleasure. I poured out a lifetime of sin and sorrow in one liberating moment of emancipation and release.And then he raised his hand above my head and said the most glorious words anyone has ever said to me [the words of absolution].I had never felt so free, so liberated in all my life. These weren’t empty words; I experienced joy—abundant, ebullient, and overpowering joy—as he said those words. The words of the priests have power, given to them from Christ while he was still among us, after he was raised from the dead, a power unimaginable: the power to forgive sins. …As I left the priest to go back to my pew I knew truly that all of my sins had been forgiven, through the grace of Christ and power of the priest to forgive sins. I knew this just as surely as the Roman centurion who, on the day of Christ’s last breath on the Cross, as St. Matthew tells us, said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” I knew that here, at last, my sins had been forgiven.I went to bed with joy and peace in my heart, looking forward to the next day when I would finally be able to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
I tell you this story today for a reason.  Notice who’s back with us this morning: John the Baptist—John the Baptist, with his message of repentance.

John makes an appearance every Advent and every Lent in at least one of our Sunday gospel passages.  It doesn’t matter which cycle of readings we’re in—cycle A, cycle B or cycle C—John is always there preparing the way for Jesus.  That, of course, was his role in salvation history, as prophesied by Isaiah in today’s first reading, and reiterated by St. Mark in this gospel.

John was sent to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “make straight his paths.”

That means, quite simply, that if you want the Lord to have a “straight path” into your heart, if you want Jesus to be more fully present in your life, you need to heed the words of John the Baptist and repent of your sins.

There’s no other way.

That’s what Dan Mattson came to understand at that Mass during the Courage conference.

It’s also what St. Peter believed when he wrote today’s second reading.  It’s what moved him in that text to urge us to take advantage of God’s patience and to turn away from our sins now!  He wrote, “[The Lord] is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”  Later on he added, “Be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”

As eager as Dan Mattson was at that conference!

I also told Dan’s story today because it says something important to us about confession.  Confession is the normal way for Catholics to have their serious sins forgiven after Baptism.  It’s a great gift from God, through which we can respond to the call of John the Baptist to turn away from our sins.

And yet we can so easily neglect the gift or take it for granted, can’t we?  That’s the thought that came to me as I read Dan’s story the other day. 

Here’s a guy—Dan Mattson—who did not take the gift for granted!  Here’s a guy who had his life transformed because (unlike many Catholics today) he made an honest—and thorough—confession of his sins in the sacrament.  He didn’t make excuses for what he had done; he didn’t hold anything back; he didn’t rationalize his sins away; he didn’t fail to confess something that he knew deep down inside he needed to confess.

He put it all out there!  He brought every serious sin he could possibly remember to Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior, through the priest—and Jesus took all those sins away, giving Dan a joy and a peace in his heart that he had never known before. 

John the Baptist would love it!  John the Baptist would highly approve.  John the Baptist would be greatly pleased.

Which brings us, at last, to the really important question of the day: Would he—would John the Baptist—be just as pleased with us when we go to confession?

Friday, December 08, 2017

Being Immaculate: An Experience for Mary, an Expectation for Us

(Immaculate Conception 2017: This homily was given on December 8, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

[For the audio versioon of this homily, click here: Immaculate Conception 2017]

If you look up the word “immaculate” in the dictionary, you’ll find definitions like these:
  • 1.    Having no stain or blemish.
  • 2.    Pure.
  • 3.    Undefiled.
  • 4.    Having or containing no flaw or error.
  • 5.    Spotlessly clean.
  • 6.    Correct or perfect in every way.

For our Blessed Mother Mary, being immaculate was an experience; for you and for me, being immaculate is an expectation.

And that’s the difference between Mary and us in a nutshell.

Her “immaculateness” began to be experienced at the moment she was conceived in the womb of her mother, St. Ann—which is the event we commemorate on this feast of the Immaculate Conception.  Remember, the Immaculate Conception does NOT refer to the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary—which is what many people mistakenly believe.  The event that led to Jesus’ virginal conception is called “the Annunciation.”

The Immaculate Conception prepared Mary for the Annunciation and for everything that came afterward, but the Immaculate Conception itself refers to Mary’s conception in the womb of her mother.  Here’s how Pope Pius IX defined the dogma: “the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin.”

But Mary’s immaculateness didn’t stop there.  It continued throughout her life and into eternity!  She said yes to God at every moment of her life and consequently never sinned.  She was, as the angel Gabriel said, “Full of grace.”  And so, all those definitions of “immaculate” that I listed a few minutes ago apply to her entire life, spiritually speaking: she had no stain or blemish (on her soul); she was pure, and undefiled, and without flaw, and spotless—and morally perfect!

Now this is something we can understand intellectually—that Mary was born without original sin and was free from sin throughout her entire life.  But that’s as far as we can go, because we don’t have an experience of “immaculateness” in our earthly lives that’s comparable to Mary’s. 

The closest we come to it is at the moment of our baptism, when original sin is taken away and we receive the gift of sanctifying grace into our soul.  But even then—even after we’re baptized—we still have to deal with concupiscence, which remains in us even after original sin is taken away.  Mary never had to deal with concupiscence because she never contracted original sin in the first place.

Concupiscence is the inclination to sin—the inclination to sin that we all experience every day.  It’s what St. John was alluding to when he wrote about “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”  It’s what St. Paul was getting at when he spoke of “the flesh” rebelling against “the spirit”.

Concupiscence is what got Matt Lauer and Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein into trouble recently.  Concupiscence is what makes it so easy for us to lie, and cheat. and steal, and swear and hold grudges—and make excuses for our sins.

This is why I said at the beginning of my homily that for our Blessed Mother Mary being immaculate was an experience (it was a spiritual condition she lived in), but for us it’s something different.  For us, being immaculate is an expectation (that is to say, it’s something we look forward to in faith!).

We won’t be immaculate in the sense that Mary was immaculate until we get to heaven and are finally purified of every sin and of every sinful desire.  In a sense, that’s the bad news.  But the good news is we can grow closer to that goal right now in this life, if we make our relationship with Jesus our top priority and repent of our sins often (yet another reason to go to confession on a regular basis).

The “collect”—the opening prayer—of today’s Mass said it perfectly.  It made reference both to Mary’s experience of being immaculate and our expectation of being made so.  We heard these words a few moments ago:
O God, who by the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin prepared a worthy dwelling for your Son, grant [that] … through her intercession, we, too, may be cleansed and admitted to your presence.
So today let our simple prayer be, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that our expectation of becoming immaculate like you will someday be fulfilled.  Amen.”

Sunday, December 03, 2017

’Watching Lessons’ from a ‘Watching Dog’

Summer at the front window: "He's back!"

(First Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 3, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 13: 33-37.)

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

What does Jesus mean when he tells us to “watch”—as he does in today’s gospel text from Mark 13?

What kind of “watching” is he talking about here?  Is it the kind of watching we do at a football game?  Or at a movie?  Or when we turn on the television set?

The answer, of course, is no.

Jesus is talking here about something a lot deeper: something which involves our eyes, for sure—but not only our eyes.  For Jesus, “watching” involves everything about us: all our thoughts, and words, and actions.  It involves our entire personhood.

To “watch” in the sense that Jesus uses the term in this Scripture passage means “to prepare yourself for a personal encounter—a personal encounter with the living God that will definitely happen, although you don’t know when.”

In speaking to us here about his second coming at the end of the world, Jesus says, “Watch, therefore: you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrow, or in the morning.  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “Prepare yourself!  Prepare yourself for the ultimate encounter with me that every human being will have, either at the end of time (if you live that long), or at the moment of your physical death (if you don’t happen to survive until the end of time).  And do everything possible to remain in that state of preparedness—always!”

This past Monday we had a funeral Mass here at St. Pius for a 51-year-old man who died suddenly and tragically at work.  I’m sure many of you know the story.  When that man woke up on the morning of November 20, 2017, he didn’t know that the “Lord of the house” was coming for him that day.

But the Lord did come.

You never know.

That’s why “watching”—that’s why being prepared to meet the Lord whenever he does choose to come—is so important.

Let me share with you now a few insights on how to be a good “watcher” courtesy of one of the very best “watchers” I know: the pastor’s dog!  Yes, you heard me correctly: one of the best “watchers” I know is Fr. Najim’s golden doodle, whose name is Summer.  So you might want to entitle this homily: “Watching Lessons from a Watching Dog”—although in Summer’s case she doesn’t watch for Jesus, she watches for her master (who’s at the center of her universe, as Jesus is supposed to be at the center of ours).

Her watching, first of all, is constant—as Jesus said ours is supposed to be.  When Fr. Najim is not around, Summer is always waiting (and usually looking) for him to return.  In fact, when he comes over to church for Mass in the morning, she’ll very often take a seat on the couch in his office and stare out the front widow—totally motionless—waiting for him to come out the front door of the church and back to the rectory.  And she’ll stay there for the entire Mass!  I’ve tried on several occasions to coax her away from the window—to no avail.  She’ll just turn her head to look at me, and then turn right back to window.

Wouldn’t it be great if we “watched” for the Lord in our lives with that same kind of devotion? 

For Summer, Fr. Najim is number 1, no doubt about it.  She likes me—and the rectory staff—and the children at the school—and pretty much everybody else.  But, in her eyes there is no one like her master!  For her, he’s in another category entirely—just like the Lord is supposed to be in his own category for us!  Jesus said we’re to love God (and only God) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  He’s to be first in our lives.  And yet, how often do other people and other things (like sports) take first place?

If we want to be a good “watcher”, we have to follow Summer’s example and put our master—our heavenly Master—where he belongs on our priority list. 

And we have to be attentive to him and his word—as Summer is attentive to Fr. Najim and his word.  I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that in a room full of people, Fr. Najim is the one she will acknowledge first and listen to!  Yes, she’ll eventually make the rounds to try to get everyone in the place to pet her and give her some affection, but when her master is present, he gets her attention before anyone else does.

And that’s the way it should be!  Just as when Jesus is present with us here at Mass (in word and in sacrament), he deserves our attention—our full and undivided attention!  And yet, how often are we thinking about other things when we’re here (what we’re going to do after Mass; what we did before Mass; how much more Christmas shopping we have to do; what we’re going to have for lunch)?

Summer doesn’t get distracted in the presence of her master; we need to pray not to get distracted in the presence of ours.

Now this is not to say that the relationship Summer has with her master is perfect.  It’s far from it.  Without getting into all the colorful details, let me simply say that there have been times when Fr. Najim’s golden doodle has needed to “repent” (as much as dogs can) for something she did when her master wasn’t looking!  On more than one occasion I’ve seen her walking around the rectory with her tail between her legs.

But, thankfully, her master has always forgiven her for her transgressions.

Our divine Master will also forgive us for ours, if we repent—as hopefully we all will during this season of Advent, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Remember: to “watch” means to prepare yourself for a personal encounter with the living God at the end of your life or at the end of time—whichever comes first.  Well, since we’re all sinners, being forgiven for your sins is essential to that preparation process.  It’s not optional!

It can’t be.

Which brings us to the biggest difference between Summer and us with respect to “watching”—and I’ll conclude with this thought:

The “watching” Summer does in her life is done by nature, by instinct.  Her daily vigil at the window; her devotion to Fr. Najim; her attentiveness to his words; her “repentance” for her “sins”—these are all instinctual responses.  And that’s fine, because she’s a dog.

But for you and for me, watching is a decision—a personal decision—a personal decision, rooted in grace, for which we are responsible before God.

May the Lord help us, therefore, to make that decision, today and every day.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Many Benefits of Gratitude

Dr. Emmons and his books

(Thanksgiving 2017: This homily was given on November 23, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 17: 11-19.)

(No audio available for this homily.)

His name is Robert Emmons.  He’s a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology.  I mention him this Thanksgiving morning because Professor Emmons has spent the better part of his professional career researching the subject of gratitude (what it is; why it’s important; how to cultivate it in our lives, etc.), and his work is so well-respected that some people have gone so far as to call him “the world’s leading scientific expert” on the subject.

After studying more than 1,000 people of various ages (from 8 to 80), Dr. Emmons has reached the conclusion that giving thanks is beneficial in many different ways.  He puts the benefits he’s discovered into three separate categories: physical, psychological and social.  He says that, physically speaking, people who cultivate gratitude in their lives …
  • ·         Have stronger immune systems
  • ·         Are less bothered by aches and pains
  • ·         Tend to have lower blood pressure
  • ·         Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • ·         Sleep longer and feel more refreshed when they wake up

Psychologically they …
  • ·         Have higher levels of positive emotions
  • ·         Are more alert, alive and awake
  • ·         Experience more joy and pleasure
  • ·         Have more optimism and happiness

Socially they …
  • ·         Are more helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • ·         Are more forgiving
  • ·         Are more outgoing
  • ·         Feel less lonely and isolated

To all of that, of course, we, as Catholics, would add that thanksgiving also has spiritual benefits.  Aside from that fact that it strengthens our bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ, gratitude also makes our relationship with God stronger—and it opens us up to the many blessings that he wants to give us in our lives.  Case in point: the healed leper in today’s gospel reading from Luke 17.  After he comes back to Jesus and thanks him, our Lord gives him a blessing that the other nine did not receive: the grace of salvation—which in the grand scheme of things was a much more important blessing than his physical healing was!

Had he not expressed his gratitude as he did, he would not have received that special—and necessary—gift.

Dr. Emmons goes on to say that genuine gratitude has two components, both of which (not coincidentally) we see in this healed leper and in his response to Jesus.  The first is an affirmation of goodness.  When we’re truly grateful, we’re implicitly affirming the fact that goodness exists in the world (which, unfortunately, isn’t as obvious as it used to be!  And, if you don’t believe me, just watch the news or read a newspaper.  There’s a lot of bad stuff going on out there these days.).

In going back to Jesus to give thanks, this healed leper was affirming the goodness he had experienced through our Lord when he was healed.

The second component of gratitude according to Dr. Emmons is the recognition that the good things we’ve experienced and are grateful for have come from outside of ourselves.  He says (and here I quote): “True gratitude involves a humble dependence on others: We acknowledge that other people—or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset [which, of course, we are!]—gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

In the case of the healed leper, he acknowledged another person (a divine person) and he acknowledged a “higher power” (God himself) to be the source of the gift he had received.

And he did those two things at the very same time (since Jesus was—and is—a divine Person, God himself, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity made man).

So, obviously, if we want to reap the many benefits of gratitude in our own lives, we’ve got to cultivate an “attitude of gratitude” within ourselves—which requires some discipline and effort.  In his writings, Dr. Emmons offers some practical suggestions on how to do this, two of which I’ll mention today. 

The first is to keep a “Gratitude Journal.”  He writes: “Establish a daily practice in which you remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits, and good things you enjoy.  [Set] aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life.”

That, of course, is something we can do every day even if we don’t keep a journal.

Which brings us to his second suggestion, which is to make a vow to take some time every day to give thanks.  He says, “Research shows that making an oath to perform a behavior increases the likelihood that the action will be executed.  Therefore, write your own gratitude vow, which could be as simple as ‘I vow to count my blessings every day,’ and post it somewhere where you will be reminded of it every day.”

Those are two very simple—and very helpful—suggestions that can be incorporated into our life simply by following them during our personal prayer time.  We talk about the importance of praying every day.  Well, one of the things we should always do when we pray is to spend some time thanking the Lord for his many blessings.  In that sense, every day should be a “thanksgiving day” for Christians!

Let me end my homily this morning by saying this: It’s great to hear someone from the secular world like Dr. Emmons talking about the good things that can come into our lives from giving thanks.

But the fact of the matter is, my brothers and sisters, the Catholic Church has been doing that for 2,000 years!  We’re often told that the Catholic Church needs to “get with it”—that the Church needs to “catch up with the world.”  But this is yet another example of how untrue that is!  This is yet another example of the fact that it’s actually the world that needs to catch up with the Church!

Which means that when we do sit down to thank the Lord for our blessings each day, one of the first things we should thank him for—and one of the most important things we should thank him for—is that we’re Catholic!