Sunday, April 12, 2015

Miracles of Divine Mercy

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B): This homily was given on April 12, 2015, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Divine Mercy Sunday 2015]

Today is the Second Sunday of Easter—a day which has been known as “Divine Mercy Sunday” since 2000, the year that Pope John Paul II officially put the feast on the Church’s liturgical calendar.

Most of us are familiar with the origin of the Divine Mercy devotion, but for the few who might not be: In 1931, a young Polish nun, Sr. Faustina Kowalska, saw a vision of Jesus with two rays of light coming out of his heart.  Jesus told her to have a painting produced depicting the vision, and to have it signed, “Jesus, I trust in you!”

A replica of that image is here next to the pulpit this morning.  Normally we keep it next to the tabernacle.

Over the next 7 years, the Lord gave Faustina a number of private revelations concerning his merciful love.  These she recorded in a diary, as Jesus had instructed her to do.  Fr. George Kosicki—who was an authority on the Divine Mercy devotion—once said that through these revelations, “Jesus taught the young nun that his mercy is unlimited and available even to the greatest sinners.  He revealed special ways for people to respond to his mercy in their lives, and he gave her several promises for those who would trust his mercy and show mercy to others.”

Then, on April 30, 2000, Sr. Faustina became Saint Faustina when she was canonized by Pope John Paul II in Rome.  Looking back on it now, it was one saint canonizing another saint.

How appropriate!

On that note, during this past week I read a couple of online articles about the two miracles which led to Faustina being recognized as a saint.  Remember, strictly speaking, the Church doesn’t “make” saints.  Jesus is the one who “makes” a person a saint.  What the Church does is officially recognize the fact that this has already happened.  And as evidence that a certain person is actually there in the kingdom of heaven, the Church requires that two miracles be attributed to the person’s heavenly intercession.  Some Christians don’t believe that the saints in heaven pray for us here on earth.  Well, those people need to read the Book of Revelation, chapters 5, 6 and 8.  In those chapters we see angels, martyrs, and men who are called “elders” (in other words, we see angels and saints) praying for those of us here on earth—which is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches that they do!

And by the way, the Church is very tough about what she will accept as an official miracle.  For a miracle to be officially recognized, it has to be verified by a number of doctors, and they all have to agree that there’s no possible natural explanation for what’s occurred.  For example, in Lourdes (where the Blessed Mother appeared to St. Bernadette in 1858) there have been about 7,000 cases of unexplained cures, but only 69 of those have been officially recognized by the Church as “miraculous”.

In the case of Faustina, the first accepted miracle involved a woman from Massachusetts named Maureen Digan; the second involved a priest from Maryland, Fr. Ron Pytel.

Here’s how the miracles were described on the Divine Mercy web site:

Before the age of 15, Maureen Digan enjoyed a normal healthy life. Then she was struck down with a very serious, slowly progressive but terminal disease called lymphedema. This is a disease that does not respond to medication and does not go into remission. Within the next ten years Maureen had fifty operations and had lengthy confinements in the hospital of up to a year at a time. 

Friends and relations suggested she should pray and put her trust in God. But Maureen could not understand why God had allowed her to get this disease in the first place, and had lost her faith completely. Eventually her deteriorating condition would require the amputation of one leg.

One evening while Maureen was in the hospital her husband Bob watched a film on Divine Mercy and there he became convinced of the healing powers of intercession by Sr. Faustina. Bob persuaded Maureen and the doctors that she should go to the tomb of Sr. Faustina in Poland. Together with her husband, son, and Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC … they traveled to St. Faustina's tomb at the Shrine of The Divine Mercy outside Krakow, Poland. They arrived in Poland on March 23, 1981 and Maureen went to confession for the first time since she was a young girl.

At the tomb Maureen remembers saying "Okay, Faustina I came a long way, now do something." Innerly she heard Sr. Faustina say: "If you ask for my help, I will give it to you." Suddenly she thought she was losing her mind. All the pain seemed to drain out of her body and her swollen leg, which was due to be amputated shortly, went back to its normal size. When she returned to the USA she was examined by five independent doctors who came to the conclusion that she was completely healed. They had no medical explanation for the sudden healing of this incurable disease.

And regarding the second miracle:

On Oct. 5, 1995, the Feast Day of St. Faustina (who was then a blessed), Fr. Ron Pytel and some friends gathered for prayer at Holy Rosary Church, which is also the Baltimore archdiocesan Shrine of The Divine Mercy. After a time of prayer for the healing of his [severely damaged] heart through Sr. Faustina's intercession, Fr. Ron venerated a relic of St. Faustina and collapsed. He felt paralyzed, but was completely at peace. A subsequent visit to his cardiologist showed that his heart had been healed. 

Although he was healed through St. Faustina's intercession, Fr. Ron is quick to point out that Jesus healed him. "I know in my heart that Faustina put in a word with Jesus, and His Heart touched mine. It's as simple as that," he explained.

After almost three years of examining Fr. Ron and his medical records, doctors and theologians from the Congregation for the Cause of Saints concluded an exhaustive investigation of the healing. And on Dec. 20, 1999, Pope John Paul II ordered publication of the fact of the healing as a miracle through Sr. Faustina's intercession, leading to her canonization on Mercy Sunday, April 30, in St. Peter's Square.

So today is a day to ask St. Faustina to pray in a special way for us: for the needs of the Church, for the needs of the world—and for our own personal needs.

Because miracles do happen!

But today we also need to remember that the greatest miracles of all are not the kind which led to St. Faustina’s canonization—as important and as spectacular as those were.

The greatest miracles of all are the ones to which Jesus points us in this gospel text we just heard from John, chapter 20.  The story begins on Easter Sunday in the Upper Room.  There Jesus appears to his apostles for the very first time after he’s been raised from the dead.  And what’s the first thing he does?  What’s the very first thing he does for them after his resurrection? 

He gives them power!  He gives them power to work miracles!  He gives them power to work the greatest and most important miracles of all.  He says, “Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

This is why we have a sacrament called “Penance” (also called “Reconciliation” or “Confession”).  It was all Jesus’ idea—on Easter Sunday!

As the Scriptures remind us, only God can forgive sins.  But God gave the power to human beings—specifically his priests—to be his instruments in bringing forgiveness to his people whenever they sin after Baptism.

Now it really shouldn’t surprise us that God uses human beings in this way, because Baptism is the first sacrament we receive which brings us the Lord’s forgiveness (it says that in Acts 2 and 22), and we’re always baptized by another person—another person whom God uses instrumentally at that moment to take our sins away.

So if I asked you, “What was the greatest and most important miracle that Maureen Digan experienced when she went to Poland back in 1981?” I hope you would not say, “Her healing from her physical illness”—because that would be wrong!

The greatest and most important miracle she experienced occurred when she went to confession for the first time since she was a young girl and had all her sins taken away!  That’s because, sooner or later, her body will break down and die—not of the disease she was cured of, but certainly of something else.  Maybe just because of old age.  But the sanctifying grace that she received into her soul when the priest absolved her in that confessional in Poland can last forever!

So the bottom line is this (and I’ll close with this thought):

Not everyone will experience a Divine Mercy miracle in their life like the ones Maureen Digan and Fr. Ron Pytel experienced in theirs. 

But everyone, without exception, can experience the most important Divine Mercy miracle of all: forgiveness.

And it’s great that everyone, without exception, can experience this miracle of forgiveness because everyone, without exception, needs to.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Jesus, True Manhood—and the Catholic Priesthood

(Holy Thursday 2015: This homily was given on April 2, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2015]

William Kilpatrick is a former psychology professor from Boston College.  In 2012 he wrote a book, published by Ignatius Press, entitled, Christianity, Islam and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West.

It’s an excellent book, and I highly recommend it.  But it’s also very disturbing and very unsettling.  A major part of his thesis is that Islam in its purest form is a huge threat to Western civilization as we know it, and to many of the freedoms that we hold dear. And yet, it’s a religion that’s growing in popularity in Europe and even here in the United States, especially among young men—many of whom are attracted to it because of its emphasis on war and aggression and fighting for a cause.  As Kilpatrick says:

War has a kind of mystical significance for men because it brings together all the elements that are important for establishing their masculinity: initiation, struggle, self-sacrifice, self-transcendence, love of comrades, and brotherhood.  The need for these is hardwired into men.  [He rightly notes that this is why guys tend to love to play sports.] For this reason, the jihad doesn’t have a recruitment problem: Islam has been highly successful in appealing to basic masculine psychology.  Not coincidentally, the progenitor of the current jihadist groups is called the Muslim Brotherhood.  (Christianity, Islam and Atheism, p. 166)

Now the reason I mention all of this tonight is because one of the major factors contributing to this phenomenon of young men (even young Christian men) going over to Islam is what William Kilpatrick calls “the feminization of Christianity”.  And it’s not only among those who are pushing for things like a female Catholic priesthood (which, of course, is never going to happen)!  In using that expression—“the feminization of Christianity”—Kilpatrick is rightly noting that there’s a general perception out there in Western culture that Christianity is a religion for women, and that real men don’t love and follow Jesus, because Jesus Christ was (for lack of a better term) a wimp!  And real men don’t love and follow wimps!

Now that perception is wrong on many levels (I don’t think the money-changers in the Temple, for example, would have said that Jesus was a wimp!); but nevertheless the perception is very common today.  Listen once again to Kilpatrick’s words:

Of the men who do go to church, a good many are there because of their wives.  Many men, especially young single men, stay away from church because they consider it unmanly.  They feel that religion, and particularly Christianity, is somehow feminine and that men who are attracted to religion are somewhat effeminate.  A study conducted by Lewis M. Terman and Catherine Cox Miles in the mid-1930s showed that clergy and seminarians tended to score low on a masculinity scale, whereas men who scored high showed little or no interest in religion.  One can only imagine how Christian clergy would score on the scale today.  (Christianity, Islam and Atheism, p. 167)

St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy (who was a young priest) gave a pretty good description of what a Christian man—and especially an ordained priest—should be like.  Needless to say, St. Paul’s version of manhood is a lot different than the oppressive version promoted by radical Islam—but it’s also different from the “wimpy” version of manhood advocated today by many mainline Christians (and even by many Catholics).  St. Paul says, “Man of God that you are … seek after integrity, faith, love, steadfastness, and a gentle spirit.  Fight the good fight of faith.  Take firm hold on the everlasting life to which you were called when, in the presence of many witnesses, you made your noble profession of faith. … I charge you to keep God’s command without blame or reproach until our Lord Jesus Christ shall appear.”

True manhood, according to St. Paul, is marked by things like faith, integrity, consistency, commitment, and sacrificial love.  It’s not the machoism of the world—which is what you find, unfortunately, in the distorted idea of masculinity embraced by many Muslim men: men who treat women like their own private property and their own personal playthings.  That’s why practices like female genital mutilation are so common in Islamic countries.

Nor is it the “milquetoast version” of manhood that you find all too often in Christianity these days.

All of this should help us to realize why sharing our faith with others, and why supporting traditional marriage, and why fostering vocations—good, solid vocations—to the priesthood are so important for all of us to do.  If we don’t do those things and promote the type of manhood that St. Paul talks about in 1st Timothy, then another type of manhood—specifically the one promoted by Islam—will no doubt fill the vacuum.

And that will be disastrous for the Western world—and especially for women in the Western world.

Our ultimate and primary model for true manhood, of course, is Jesus himself.  During Holy Week we reflect on all that he did to save us.  Think of how committed Jesus was to carrying out the mission his heavenly Father gave him.  Think of what a pillar of strength he was in the face of intense violence and suffering.  He was all those things St. Paul mentions in 1st Timothy—and more.  He even washed the feet of the men who would either abandon him or deny him or betray him within a few short hours.

And he gave those men his own Body and Blood to consume for their spiritual nourishment.

You want to talk about integrity?  You want to talk about commitment?  You want to talk about sacrificial love?  You want to talk about being a real man?

Then talk about Jesus!  Not about Buddha, or Confucius, or Muhammad—or anyone else.

True manhood—true and perfect manhood—is found in Jesus Christ.

And it’s reflected, to a greater or lesser extent, in all good fathers—natural and spiritual.

On the third Sunday of June every year we pray primarily for all of you natural fathers.  Today, on this Holy Thursday night—when we commemorate the institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist at the Last Supper—we pray for all spiritual fathers (all bishops and priests), that they will be true Godly men—the kind of Godly men that St. Paul and St. Timothy would be proud of; the kind of Godly men who will give their lives to promote the truth that will preserve Western culture; the kind of Godly men who will attract other Godly men to give their lives in service to the Lord as priests; the kind of Godly men who will live and talk and act like Jesus Christ—and help to save the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Holy Week ‘Priorities’

(Palm Sunday 2015 (B): This homily was given on March 29, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Philippians 2: 6-11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2015]

In my brief Palm Sunday homily this year I’d like to take you back almost 40 days to Ash Wednesday, and remind you of the “word” I shared with you that day at Mass.  As many of you know, every year since 2010 I’ve asked the Lord to give me a “theme word” for Lent to share with you on Ash Wednesday—a word that could help to focus and guide you—and me—(all of us) in our Lenten disciplines.

Now since everybody here has a perfect memory and always remembers everything that I say from the pulpit, I’m sure I could point to any one of you right now and you would be able to tell me immediately what this year’s word was—but I won’t do that.

So you can breathe a sigh of relief!

The word, of course, was “priorities”—which was a great theme word for Lent, I think, because the purpose of this holy season (at least in part) is to motivate us to re-prioritize our lives through prayer and fasting and works of charity.

As I said back on Ash Wednesday: “The three traditional disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting and almsgiving—are supposed to help us change or at least modify our priorities, so that we’re more concerned with the things that really matter, namely, loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and loving our neighbor as we love ourself.”

But that word, “priorities” has a special relevance for this upcoming week—Holy Week—the most important 7 days of the Church’s Liturgical Year.  Remember, my brothers and sisters, without the events of the very first Holy Week 2,000 years ago—the events we just heard about in Mark’s Passion account, as well as the events of Easter Sunday—we would have no hope of eternal salvation.  None!  As St. Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless.  You are still in your sins, and those who have fallen asleep in Christ are the deadest of the dead.”

So today we should thank God from the very bottom of our hearts that he made all of us HIS PRIORITY on those 7 days back in the first century.

Because that’s exactly what he did.

In this regard, the word “priority” did not appear in today’s second reading from Philippians 2.  But it could have—because it was implicitly there in the text.  St. Paul’s message in that reading was that the Son of God chose to make each and every one of us such a priority for himself that he was willing to become obedient even unto death—death on a cross.

To sum it all up: We were redeemed by the blood of Christ, who made us his priority during the first Holy Week.

Which leads to the obvious question: Will we make HIM our priority during this Holy Week?

Or will we allow other things—other unnecessary things—to get in the way?

Each of us, believe it or not, will answer those questions by what we choose to do or not do in our free and leisure time during the next 7 days.

For those who do choose to make Jesus and their relationship with him their first priority from now until Easter Sunday, let me now go over the Holy Week schedule here at St. Pius:

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we will have morning Mass, as usual, at 7am.  We will have Eucharistic Adoration all day on Tuesday.  We will have Stations of the Cross at 6:05 on Tuesday after Benediction.  We will have Morning Prayer Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the regular Mass times.  And, most important, we will have the Liturgies of the Triduum on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper will be at 7pm on Thursday, followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the church hall until 11pm.  On Friday we will have the celebration of the Lord’s Passion at 7pm, and Stations of the Cross twice: once outside at noon (weather permitting), and then at 3pm here in church.  And finally, we will have the first Mass of Easter—the Easter Vigil Liturgy—at 7:30pm on Holy Saturday night.  Masses on Easter Sunday will be at the normal Sunday times: 7, 8:30 and 10:30am.

It’s my prayer at this Mass that our participation in at least some of these ceremonies and services will be a sign—a special and a visible sign—that we desire to make Jesus Christ and our relationship with him our number 1 priority—and not just during Holy Week, but every single day of the year.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Learning Obedience from What We Suffer

Stuart Scott

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 22, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12: 20-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2015]

Stuart Scott was a sportscaster and anchor on the ESPN television network.  He was definitely a familiar face to anybody who watched SportsCenter on a regular basis during the last decade.

In 2007, he had what was supposed to be routine surgery to remove his appendix.  However later on, when the doctors tested the tissue they had removed during the operation, they discovered that it was cancerous.  For the next seven years Scott battled the disease courageously, and for the most part he continued to work at ESPN—however, on January 4th of this year he passed away from cancer at the young age of 49, leaving behind a wife and two children.

But before he died he wrote a book—a book that was co-authored by a man named Larry Plath.  The book is entitled (appropriately enough), “Every Day I Fight.”

Now the reason I mention this today is because I saw Larry Plath interviewed last week on television, and one of the things he said about Stuart Scott during that interview really struck me.  You know, it always strengthens my faith when I hear people in a secular environment echoing the truths of the Bible and our Catholic religion (especially when they do it without realizing that they’re doing it!).

And so it was here. 

In today’s second reading the author of the Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”

Well Larry Plath said something very similar about Stuart Scott with respect to his battle with cancer.  In fact Scott also said it himself.  He said that his suffering had taught him some very important lessons that he might not otherwise have learned in his life.

Let me quote now Larry Plath’s words in the interview.  He said:

"There was an element of wisdom that came [to Stuart Scott].  He learned patience as a result of cancer.  I mean, that’s the paradox—right?  [Stuart] says in the book that the paradox is that cancer just might make you the man you always wanted to be."

The sportscaster who was interviewing Larry Plath responded to that remark by saying, “Unbelievable.”  I think he said that because he was well aware of the fact that many people in our world today just get angry and bitter when they experience a cross like cancer.  They rebel against God in the face of their pain, such that they actually end up learning “disobedience from what they suffer!”

And even when people do respond positively to their sufferings with a greater obedience to God, that obedience sometimes comes after a period of disobedience.  For example, how often have you seen people come back to the practice of their Catholic faith after somebody in their family dies?

It happens all the time.  These men and women are living lives of disobedience to God, but suddenly their suffering “wakes them up” (so to speak) spiritually.

And that’s great!  Praise God that they’ve seen the light.  They’ve learned obedience to the Third Commandment (“Keep holy the sabbath day”) through their suffering—and that’s wonderful!  We should rejoice whenever that kind of learning takes place.  Better late than never! 

But this is where we differ from Jesus.  When we sinful human beings learn obedience from what we suffer, we often learn it after some disobedience; whereas Jesus, because he was perfect, learned obedience through obedience—always!  In other words, in every situation of suffering in which he found himself (like the Garden of Gethsemane), he said the same thing: “Thy will be done.”

He never said, “My will be done.”

We see this illustrated beautifully in today’s gospel text when Jesus says (in reference to his upcoming passion and death), “I am troubled now.  Yet what should I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”

“He learned obedience from what he suffered.”

What have you learned through your suffering?

That’s a good question to reflect on during this last full week of Lent.

I did that myself in preparation for this homily, and I came to realize that I’ve learned a lot of things—a lot of good things—through my experience of having Parkinson’s Disease.  That doesn’t mean I’m happy that I’ve got it!  (Don’t misunderstand me here!)  It just means that I am aware of certain blessings that I’ve experienced in the midst of it all.  For example:

  • ·         I’ve learned to be more empathetic (and hopefully more compassionate) in dealing with the sick and the elderly.
  • ·         I’ve learned to rely on God more.
  • ·         I’ve learned to put more trust in him.
  • ·         I’ve learned to take the power of prayer more seriously (since I believe that I’m doing as well as I’m doing in large part because so many people—even some people I don’t know—are praying for me every day!).
  • ·         I’ve learned how important it is to focus on what I have, not what I don’t have; and I’ve learned to be more grateful for the health and abilities that I do still possess.
  • ·         I’ve learned once again not to put all my hopes in this earthly life, because this mortal life is very fragile (a lot more fragile than you think it is when you’re young and healthy).
  • ·         And I’ve learned that God is in control, and that I am not (even in those areas of life where I always thought I was in control).

Those are just some of the positive lessons I’ve learned from the otherwise negative experience of having this disease.  And that has made me more obedient to the Lord.

At least sometimes it has.  Unfortunately I have had those moments when I’ve allowed things like anger and frustration and impatience to get in the way of my obedience.  Usually that happens when I’m trying to do something “really difficult” like buttoning a shirt or turning the page of a book or cutting a piece of meat at dinner—all those fine motor activities that you never give a second thought to when you’re healthy, but which become really big issues when you have a neuro-muscular disorder like Parkinson’s.

My point in sharing this with you today is that learning obedience through suffering is an ongoing process—for all of us.

But it’s worth the effort.

As Stuart Scott made clear, the sufferings of this life do have the potential of changing us for the better.  They can make us, as he said, into the people we’ve always wanted to be.

For a Christian, that means they have the potential to help us become what Matthew Kelly calls, “the best possible versions of ourselves.”

Or, as the Church would say, “Saints.”