Sunday, November 29, 2020

‘Signs’—and the Coronavirus Pandemic

 


(First Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on November 29, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; Psalm 80:2-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Advent 2020]


The Five Man Electrical Band said it well in a song they released back in 1971—a song that went to number 3 on the Billboard Charts: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.”

In today’s gospel reading from Mark 13, Jesus talks about his second coming at the end of time.  He tells his disciples (and that includes all of us) to watch and to stay alert, because the exact moment of this event is hidden from our eyes.  Jesus says, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.”

But earlier in chapter 13 he makes it clear that, even though we can’t know when it will come, we can expect to see some visible signs that the end is near: earthquakes, wars, famines—and even religious deceptions.  

Now to some extent, signs like these are always around; they’re always present in the world.  They’re never entirely absent—and they never will be, until the end of time—although they might be more numerous during certain years and during certain periods of human history. This year, for example, we’ve had 30 named storms and 13 hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean alone!  That’s a record for one season.

But you could make the very strong case that even in the quietest of times—even when there are relatively few wars and natural disasters—the signs are literally all around us. 

Remember again the “prophetic” words of the Five Man Electrical Band: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.”

Let me give you some examples of what I mean: 

  • Have you read the obituary section of the newspaper today?  A lot of people I know read that section first (just to make sure their name isn’t in there!).  I mention this because every obituary—every death notice—is a sign!
  • Every hair that falls out of your scalp is a sign. 
  • Every lost job is a sign.
  • Every sickness is a sign.
  • Every broken relationship is a sign.
  • Graduating from high school or college is a sign.
  • Retirement is a sign.
  • A child who gets married or moves away from home is a sign.

In a remote sense, all these things are signs to us that Jesus is coming again at the end of time, because they are signs that this life is fragile and only temporary!

On that note, without a doubt the most noteworthy and far-reaching “sign” of the end that we’ve all experienced during the past year is the coronavirus pandemic.  And we’re still experiencing it! 

I say this because the virus has been teaching us a lot about how fragile and how brief our lives on this earth really are.

 

  •  It’s taught us, for example, that we’re not as in control of things as we might think we are.  You can do all the right things—take all the prescribed precautions—and still get sick.  Thus it’s taught us that we’re ultimately in God’s hands and not our own. 
  • The virus has taught us that life is a gift—but a very fragile gift: a gift that can very quickly be taken away.
  • It’s taught us that we do not have a lasting city on this earth.  Our true home is somewhere else.
  •  The virus has taught us not to make idols of the things of this world.  Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler, reminded people of this in something he posted on Instagram in early April, at the beginning of the lockdown.  Hulk is not best known for his wisdom, but this was rather profound.  He said, “God has taken away everything we worship.  God said, ‘You want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down civic centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don’t want to go to church and worship me, I will make it where you can’t go to a church.’”  At least one more could be added to Hogan’s list: “You want to worship sex, I’ll make it unsafe for you to come any closer than 6 feet to another person.”
  •  Finally, this virus has taught us that our relationship with the Lord needs to be the most important relationship of our life, because it’s only God who will be with us always—in every situation we experience.  And it’s God whom we will face at the end of it all.  But, as Jesus says in this gospel reading, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming.”  We do not know the day or the hour of our own death or of the end of the world, so we need to be ready ALWAYS!  That’s the bottom line.                                                           

The Five Man Electrical Band ended the refrain of their 1971 hit with the simple question, “Can’t you read the sign?”

Well, for all of us who know Jesus Christ and his Gospel, the decisive question isn’t “Can’t you read the sign?” it’s “WILL you read the signs—the signs given by the pandemic, and the other signs God gives you in this life?  WILL you choose to read them?” 

The signs are literally all around us.  They’re part of the fabric of life.  We all can read them; we all have that innate ability.  The real challenge is to make the choice to read them, and to reject the choice that many people make to ignore them completely.

May this Advent be a time for us to read the signs God is giving to us, and to respond to those signs as the Lord wants us to: by giving our hearts more completely to Jesus, by being faithful to Mass, by receiving the Eucharist worthily, by getting to Confession, and by reaching out to those in need with the love of Christ.

And may God give us the grace to choose to do those things even after Advent is over—until the day that Jesus chooses to come for us.

 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

All Saints?


 

(Christ the King (A): This homily was given on the weekend of November 22, 2020 at St. Mary’s Church, Carolina, R.I., and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I., and St. Pius X, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 34:11-17; Psalm 23:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Matthew 25:31-46.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christ the King 2020]

 

One day many years ago, I stopped at a church in East Providence to make a holy hour.  I was on my day off.  When I walked into the church, I happened to notice that there were several pieces of poster board lining the inner walls of the building.  On each of them there were a dozen or so photographs—mostly of elderly people.  Since this was in November (a month when we’re especially encouraged to pray for the dead) I asked the woman who was there cleaning the church, “Are these the pictures of deceased parishioners?”  She said, “Yes.”  Now, in and of itself, putting up pictures of the deceased was a nice, loving gesture; but what tarnished it all was the heading on each poster.  Above the pictures were the words, “All Saints” in large letters.  Why was that a problem?  Because it implied that we know for an absolute fact that each person on the poster is now in heaven!  And we don’t know that, only God does.  We may have a confident hope about it, but that’s as far as we can go—unless the people in question get canonized by the Church.

“Fr. Ray, you’re nitpicking.”  No, I’m not.  First of all, a gesture like this (well-intentioned though it might be) ultimately gives birth to the idea that everyone goes to heaven, even unrepentant sinners.  That idea, by the way, is called apokatastasis, and it was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople in the mid-sixth century!  To believe that even unrepentant sinners are saved in the end is heresy. 

Secondly, calling all deceased people saints can very easily foster immorality.  How so?  Well, think about it for a moment, if someone really believes that all people go to heaven after death—no questions asked—that person might end up saying to himself, “Why should I bother praying?  Why should I go to Mass or Confession?  Why should I try to keep the Ten Commandments and reach out to those in need?  If everyone goes to heaven anyway, what does it matter?” 

It’s like saying to every player in the National Football League, “Guys, listen up.  At the end of the year, we intend to give every single one of you a Super Bowl ring, and a winner’s check.  It doesn’t matter if your team is 15-1 or 1-15 during the regular season; it doesn’t matter how well you play as an individual; it doesn’t even matter if you break all the rules—when it’s over, we’ll declare you all winners.”  Now I ask you, my brothers and sisters, if that’s what they were told by the commissioner before the season began, how hard do you think those players would play during the year?  What kind of effort would they put forth on the field each Sunday?  Let me tell you: if I were one of those players, I’d say to myself, “What’s the point in lifting weights, doing wind sprints, practicing plays, and letting my body get beat up for the next six months?  I’ll just take it easy, do whatever I feel like doing, and pick up my ring and check in February.”  Along these lines, here’s something Bishop Sheen wrote many years ago:

There would be no fun in playing games unless there were a chance to lose.  There would be no zest in battle if crowns of merit rested suspended over those who do not fight.  There would be no interest in drama if the characters were puppets.  And there would be no point to life unless there were great and eternal destinies at stake, in which we may say Aye or Nay to our eternal salvation. (Preface to Religion, page 129.)

Today we live in a world where many people—especially many young people—DO think that life is dull and meaningless!  That’s why some of them despair and why some go so far as to commit suicide.  I wonder: is part of the cause of this our desire to make things too easy for them?  Some of us don’t want to offend our youth, so we never talk to them about hell, we never tell them there’s something at stake in the way they live their lives on this earth.  We convey to them the idea that God is a big creampuff in the sky, and that heaven is guaranteed; consequently they come away with the notion that life is meaningless—that it doesn’t matter how they live, or even if they choose to live.

This is one reason why more people need to read the Bible—specifically passages in the New Testament like the one we heard a few moments ago from Matthew 25.  This, of course, is the famous scene of the Last Judgment, where Jesus comes in glory to separate the sheep from the goats.  From this passage alone it’s crystal clear that what we do and don’t do on this earth has consequences—eternal consequences!  “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”  But this is not the only text of Scripture in which we’re urged to live our faith in very practical, radical ways.  In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “Unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of God.”  Then we have Hebrews 12:14 where the sacred author tells us to “Strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord.”  Those are just two of many other New Testament passages which convey this truth to us.

In this homily I’ve said that calling all deceased people “saints” can lead to the mistaken idea that unrepentant sinners go to heaven, and that it can foster immorality.  But there is one other important reason why we should never do it: it ultimately harms the souls in purgatory—the very ones who need our help!  Why?  Because if we buy into the idea that everyone who dies goes immediately into God’s eternal Kingdom, then we won’t pray for the dead, and the souls in purgatory will suffer the consequences.  They won’t benefit from our prayers, because we won’t offer any.  We’ll mistakenly believe they aren’t necessary.

Here we need to be reminded of something St. Bonaventure, the great Franciscan saint, once said: “Do you wish to prove your love towards your dead?  Do you wish to send them a most precious help and golden key to heaven?  [Then] receive communion often for the repose of their souls.”

I said at the beginning that putting up pictures of the deceased during the month of November was a nice, loving gesture on the part of the priests and parishioners of that church in East Providence, but that calling them “All Saints” tarnished their effort.  Of course, if they ever decide to put up pictures of the deceased in the future, there is one, simple thing they could do to remove the tarnish: they could change the title on each poster from “All Saints” to “All Souls.”  That would make it theologically correct, and it would encourage people to pray daily for the souls of all the faithful departed.  Not only that, it would also make some of the men and women on the posters (the ones who are in purgatory right now) extremely grateful and extremely happy.

 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Seize the Day!




(Thirty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 14, 2020 at St. Mary’s Church, Carolina, R.I., and St. James Chapel, Charlestown, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Psalm 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-third Sunday 2020]


It's an interesting combination of readings that we have at Mass this weekend.  After hearing them, a person might legitimately ask, “What’s the connection?  How are these three passages related to one another?  Are they related in any way?”  The first text from Proverbs 31 concerns a wife, while the second from 1 Thessalonians 5 is clearly about the end of the world.  How are they connected?  Now some of the husbands in the congregation might have an opinion about that; but fear not, ladies, I promise I won’t go there.  And then we have this gospel text from Matthew 25 about used gifts and squandered gifts.  How does that passage relate to the other two?  Is it possible to find a common thread—a common theme—which unites them all?  Such was the problem I faced as I prepared this homily.  Thankfully the answer finally came to me.   It came to me in the form of an old saying and an old song.  The old saying is: “Carpe diem,” which, as many of us know, is Latin for “Seize the day.”  The song I thought of was popular back in the late 1980s (I’m dating myself now!).  It’s called, “The Living Years,” and it was sung by a group known as Mike and the Mechanics.  The song expresses the sadness and regret of a young man who had a less-than-perfect relationship with his father, and who missed his opportunity to make peace.  Listen to some of the words:

 

Every generation

 Blames the one before

And all of their frustrations

Come beating on your door.

 

I know that I’m a prisoner

To all my father held so dear

I know that I’m a hostage

To all his hopes and fears

I just wish I could have told him in the living years

 

Crumpled bits of paper

Filled with imperfect thought

Stilted conversations

I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got

 

You say you just don’t see it,

He says it’s perfect sense.

You just can’t get agreement

In this present tense.

We all talk a different language,

Talking in defense.

 

So we open up a quarrel,

Between the present and the past.

We only sacrifice the future,

It’s the bitterness that lasts.

 

So don’t yield to the fortunes

You sometimes see as fate,

It may have a new perspective

On a different day.

 

Say it loud,

Say it clear,

You can listen as well as you hear.

It’s too late when we die,

To admit we don’t see eye to eye.

 

And then this final, terribly sad verse:

 

I wasn’t there that morning

When my father passed away.

I didn’t get to tell him

All the things I had to say.

I think I caught his spirit later that same year;

I’m sure I heard his echo in my baby’s newborn tears,

I just wish I could have told him in the living years.

 

That’s young man failed to “seize the day.”  He didn’t appreciate the gift his father was, until his father was gone and it was too late.  “When one finds a worthy wife,” the author of Proverbs tells us today, “her value is far beyond pearls.  Her husband . . . has an unfailing prize.  She brings him good, and not evil all the days of her life. . . . She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.”  Sadly, I have heard some husbands extol their wives in glowing terms like these—but only AFTER their wives had died!  When their wives were alive, you never would have known this was how they felt—and neither would their wives have known!  Of course, in all fairness, the same can be said of some wives with respect to their deceased husbands.  My mom always told my sister and me, “Do for others when they’re alive.  Don’t make the mistake of waiting until they’re gone.” 

She was right. 

 

·         We are to “seize the day” and express our love, and thanks, and kindness to one another NOW (meaning as soon as possible!). 

·         We’re to be mindful of the poor and needy NOW!

·         We’re to seek reconciliation with our enemies NOW!

·         We’re to seek reconciliation with God by making a good confession NOW!

·         We’re to visit our sick relatives and friends NOW!

Why? 

Because (as our second reading reminds us) there may not be a tomorrow for us or for anyone else!  “You yourselves know,’ St. Paul says, ‘that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.”  The official Day of the Lord will occur at the end of time; but for those of us who don’t survive until then, our own personal “Day of the Lord” will occur on the day we take our last breath.

The Lord has given us many gifts (including the gift of time), as the man in today’s gospel parable gave sums of money to his three servants.  (Here, at last, is the connection with the gospel.)  The Lord expects us to “seize the day” and use these gifts for his honor and glory, for the good of our neighbor, and to achieve reconciliation with him and with others.  In the parable, the difference between the first two servants and the third was this: the third thought it was enough to have the gift.  He didn’t think it was necessary to use it.  But it was!

If the young man in that song, “The Living Years,” had opened his mouth and used his talents and gifts to achieve reconciliation with his father, his song would have had a very different ending—a happy ending.  It would have concluded something like this:

 

I wasn’t there that morning when my father passed away,

But I had already told him all the things I had to say.

Saying I was sorry wasn’t easy through the tears,

But I’m so grateful that I told him in the living years.

By the grace of God which we receive today in the Holy Eucharist, may all of us “seize the day.”

 

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Live Like You Were Dying

"St. Francis in Prayer" by Caravaggio (1571-1610)


 (Thirty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on November 9, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 63:2-8; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirty-second Sunday 2020]

 

“Live Like You Were Dying” is a song by country music singer Tim McGraw, that came out back in 2004.  It eventually went to number 1 and won the Grammy Award that year for the Best Country Song.  It tells the story of a man, in his early 40s, who gets diagnosed with a terminal illness.  When the man is later asked about what he did in response to hearing this bad news about his physical health, he answers first by listing three things he did that were obviously on his “bucket list”.  He says, “I went skydiving; I went Rocky Mountain climbing; I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.”

But then he says these things, which are far more important:

“And I loved deeper; and I spoke sweeter; and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying. …I was finally the husband that most of the time I wasn’t, and I became a friend a friend would like to have. …I finally read the Good Book, and I took a good, long, hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again.”

And he ends it all with the classic line: “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”

Live like you were dying.

That’s exactly what I believe the Lord is telling us today in this gospel parable from Matthew 25: Make sure you live like you were dying.  In other words, make sure you’re living your life with an awareness that someday it will end, and that you’ll then be called upon to (as the Bible says) “render an account” for what you did—and for what you didn’t do—during your time on planet earth. 

Notice that all ten virgins in this story were invited to the wedding feast—just like all the people of the world are invited to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb of God in heaven.  But only five had oil in their lamps; only five were ready to meet the bridegroom when he arrived.  The “oil” there can be seen as a symbol of “sanctifying grace”: the grace that Jesus won for us by his passion, death and resurrection; the grace that makes us pleasing to God; the grace we need in our souls in order to pass through the pearly gates of heaven!

And the analogy holds given the fact that in the story the oil was not transferrable!  That’s a very important detail.  The wise virgins were not able to share their oil with the foolish ones.  Each of them was personally responsible for the condition of her own lamp.

And so it is with us and our souls.  As Professor William Barclay put it in his commentary on Matthew, “There are certain things we must win or acquire for ourselves, for we cannot borrow them from others.”

This is why confession is so important.  We receive sanctifying grace into our soul through baptism, but we can lose it through mortal sin.  The ordinary way to get it back is through the sacrament of Reconciliation.

When was the last time you went?

Now what I really like about Tim McGraw’s song is that it indicates that the main character—the man in his 40s with the terminal illness—has lived a better and a more fulfilled life since his diagnosis.  That’s why he says, “Someday I hope you [too] get the chance to live like you were dying.”

He’s not wishing evil on us there; what he’s doing is expressing his hope for us!  He’s expressing the hope that we will experience the same kind of transformation in our lives that he’s experienced in his.  From all that he says in the song, it’s clear that he’s been transformed in his relationships with other people (“And I loved deeper; and I spoke sweeter; and I gave forgiveness that I’d been denying. …I was finally the husband that most of the time I wasn’t, and I became a friend a friend would like to have.”); he’s been transformed in his relationship with God (“I finally read the Good Book”); he’s even been transformed with respect to his sins and failings (“I took a good, long, hard look at what I’d do if I could do it all again.”)

The implication is that he would do some things differently.

His terminal disease has made him aware of his own mortality—and that’s a good thing (as I hopefully have already made clear in this homily)!  It’s a good thing because it’s reality!  The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we do not have on this earth a lasting city.  That’s a fact.  Life is short.  And if you don’t believe me, just ask an elderly person.  (“Father Ray I celebrated my 95th birthday last week.  Where did the years go?”—I’ve heard elderly people say that kind of thing lots of times over the years) 

But we can easily fall into the trap of thinking that we do have a lasting city here—and that way of thinking can lead us to ignore God, and delay our repentance, and have the wrong set of priorities in life.

Like the man in this song did before his diagnosis.

The great saints, praise God, never fell into the trap.  They avoided it.  They avoided it because of how they looked at things.

In this regard, there’s a wonderful painting of St. Francis of Assisi by Caravaggio, the Italian artist of the late 16th century.  Perhaps some of you have seen it.  The title of the painting is, “St. Francis in Prayer,” and it shows the saint kneeling prayerfully, with his attention riveted on the object that he’s holding in his hands.

And what is the object he’s holding?

A cross?  No. 

A Bible?  No.

It’s a skull!  A human skull!

St. Francis is holding a human skull gently—you might even say “lovingly”—in his hands as he prays and meditates.  Which isn’t surprising, because apparently he had a skull in his possession and would sometimes bring it with him to the breakfast table so that his fellow friars could meditate on it too!

And St. Francis was not unusual among the great saints of the Church.  Many of them, believe it or not, kept skulls in their bedrooms or on their desks, which is why you will often see them in the portraits of canonized saints.

So why did they do this?  Were they obsessed with death?

No!  Quite oppositely, they were obsessed with life—eternal life—the eternal life that Jesus had died on the cross to give them.  They did not want to miss out on that life for anything; they didn’t want to be like the five foolish virgins in this parable!  So they kept this symbol of death around: a human skull.  They kept it around to remind them that they needed to be ready for that moment of death always, since, as Jesus says here, none of us knows the day or the hour when the Lord will come for us. 

And, in the process of doing this, these holy men and women lived fulfilled and joyful—albeit sometimes difficult—lives.

They lived like they were dying—even when they were in good physical health—and because of that they now live forever in a place where there is no death.

A place where we will also be someday, if we follow their example.