Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Importance Of Imitating the Canaanite Woman

Robin Williams, 1951-2014.


(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 17, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I.  Read Matthew 15: 21-28.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2014]



“And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”

That was the final result of an encounter that Jesus had with a Canaanite woman one day during his earthly ministry.  We just heard about that encounter in today’s gospel story from Matthew 15.

The result is clear—crystal clear—because it’s explicitly stated.

But there were a number of decisions this Canaanite woman made along the way which led to the final result.  Those decisions are probably not so clear to us simply because they’re not explicitly listed in the text.
But they are there!

The reason I mention this in my homily today is because the final result—the deliverance of this woman’s daughter from the demon who was tormenting her—would not have occurred if these decisions had NOT been made!

Leave out one of them—any one of them—and her prayer for her daughter would NOT have been answered.

That means the last line of the story would not be the line I read to you a few moments ago.  The last line of the story would be, “And the woman’s daughter was not healed, but she continued to be troubled by this terrible demon.”

Or something along those lines.

So what were the decisions this woman made which resulted in her daughter’s deliverance and healing?

Well, first of all, she made the decision to believe that Jesus could help her.  And she probably made that decision because she had already made the prior decision to believe the things that people had told her about our Lord!

How did this woman know that Jesus had the power to work miracles?  Well, in all likelihood it was because people she was acquainted with—her relatives and friends perhaps—had witnessed to her, and had shared with her how Jesus had healed and delivered lots of other people in lots of other places.

She then made the decision to seek Jesus out: to pursue him and to find him.  It wasn’t enough to make the decision to believe that he could do something to help her and her daughter; she also had to make the decision to actually go to him to get the help she required!

Then she needed to make the decision to open her mouth and call out to our Lord.  Had she remained silent, in all likelihood, Jesus would have just continued to walk by and she might never have seen him again.

Then when he didn’t respond to her immediately, she had to decide to disregard his silence (as well as his subsequent remark about being sent only to the Jewish people and not to Gentiles like her).
 
After that she had to make the decision to continue to call out to our Lord.  At the same time she had to decide to disregard the annoyed (and rather insensitive) disciples who just wanted her to go away.

Notice that Jesus never told her to go away.

And she didn’t.  Rather, she kept on making the right decisions!

She obviously discerned that Jesus was more than just a descendant of King David, because we’re told that at that point “she came and did him homage” and she called him “Lord.”

She obviously decided that he was worthy of her worship.  But even at that point in the encounter she was tested when Jesus responded to her homage with his famous remark, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Some Scripture scholars insist that Jesus made this remark to the woman in a lighthearted way and with a smile on his face, with the intention of bringing her to a deeper level of faith.

That explanation actually does make a lot of sense, especially since the Greek word for dogs that’s used here means “pet dogs” and not “wild street dogs” (and it was the wild street dogs that were looked upon with disdain in ancient Israel).  But even so, there are times when you can say things like this to another person in a lighthearted way, and the person will still get offended and upset!  Just because you MAKE a remark in a lighthearted way doesn’t mean that the remark WILL BE RECEIVED in a lighthearted way!

This means that the Canaanite woman had to decide at that precise moment to disregard any negative emotions she might have been feeling toward Jesus after our Lord spoke these words to her!

She had to put those out of her mind; she had to banish them from her heart.  Then she had to decide to humble herself, and not give up, and express her faith one more time in the cleverest way she could: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

And THEN—FINALLY!—the Lord answered her prayer and said yes to her request.

Now I’m not sure if you were counting, but the fact of the matter is I just shared with you about a dozen decisions this woman made which were absolutely necessary for her to make in order to get her daughter healed.

The application of all this to us should be obvious:

When God doesn’t do what we think he should do, in the precise way and at the precise time that we think he should do it; when God doesn’t answer our prayers with an immediate “yes”; when things continue to go wrong even when we’re praying and trying to do everything right—it’s easy to throw in the towel (so to speak) and give up.

At those moments it would be good for us to remember this Canaanite woman—and to imitate her decisions:

Her decision to believe that Jesus could help her;
Her decision to believe the incredible things that others had told her about Jesus;
Her decision to seek Jesus out—to pursue him;
Her decision to call out to him, even though she initially experienced only silence in return;
Her decision to continue calling out to the Lord;
Her decision to disregard the discouraging voices of some of the people around her (who should have been encouraging her!);
Her decision to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ; her decision to humble herself; and her decision to continue to express her faith as well as she could!

I can’t helped but think that Robin Williams (God rest his soul) would have dealt with his trial very differently if he had imitated this Canaanite woman in his struggle with depression.  

Now let’s be clear about it, persevering faith doesn’t necessarily prevent a person from becoming clinically depressed.  (I’m sure we’ve all known people of deep faith who have suffered with depression.)

But having a persevering does affect how a person deals with the situation.
 
That’s because persevering faith gives a person a perspective on life that no therapy or medication can give (although very often therapy and medication are also necessary to deal with the problem).

I was reminded of this when I read an article a few days ago on the Lifeteen website—an article that I shared with the teenagers at youth group this past Thursday.  It was written by a Catholic young man named Thomas Grant, who has struggled with depression for many years.  In the article Thomas said that a key moment for him in overcoming his silence about what he was going through occurred when he had a conversation with a priest who helped him to understand that (and here I quote Thomas): “I am not depression.  I am the son of the King.  Even in darkness, he carries me.”

That’s the bigger perspective that faith in Jesus Christ gives to a person.  And that’s why Thomas gives this advice to other young people at the end of his article:

If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or thoughts of self-harm or suicide, talk to an adult you can trust that is close to you. Speak with your youth minister, your parents, your priest. They can help steer you in the right directions. It may involve counseling and that’s okay. It may involve some lifestyle changes and that is okay. Jesus walks with us through all of that. Even in our darkest moments, Christ is there, calling us out of silence and into life.
You deserve that. Never let anyone tell you any differently. You were made for life.

Whether he realizes it or not, Thomas Grant is dealing successfully with his depression because he is imitating the Canaanite woman in her persevering and unwavering faith.

May God help all of us to do the same thing and follow the example of this great woman—even if we’re blessed to be perfectly healthy at the present time.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Feast of Mary’s Assumption: A Time To REFOCUS



(Assumption 2014: This homily was given on August 15, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 1: 39-46.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Assumption 2014]



Refocus.

That’s not a word that we normally associate with Mary’s Assumption into heaven.

But I think we should!

We celebrate this feast on the 15th of August—which means that summer, sad to say, is now more than half over.

For most people summer is an enjoyable time, given the fact that the weather is usually a lot more pleasant than it is in January and February.  For many people it’s also a restful time, a time for them to get their physical and emotional “batteries recharged,” so to speak; although for some others it can be a season of great stress—especially on those days when they have more than one social event scheduled!

That’s happened to me more than a few times this summer.

But for almost everybody living in our fast-paced society right now the summer can also be a very DISTRACTING TIME!

All those enjoyable, restful—and stressful—things can, unfortunately, get in the way of our relationship with the Lord.

And so the Church gives us this feast in the middle of August: a feast that can help us to REFOCUS our attention on God and on those things that are most important in life.

Let me give you a few examples.

The feast of the Assumption, first of all, reminds us of our mortality.  It reminds us that we’re not here forever; that, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, we do not have on this earth “a lasting city.”
 
We can sometimes forget that—even in the winter.

The Assumption marked the terminal point of our Blessed Mother’s earthly life; although the Church leaves open the question of whether Mary physically died or simply “fell asleep” before she was taken, body and soul, into heaven.  In the official teaching of the Church, given to us by Pope Pius XII in 1950, it says, “when the course of her earthly life was finished [notice there’s no specific mention of death there], [Mary] was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.”

So the Assumption focuses us on the fact that our lives on this planet will have a terminal point and that we should live them accordingly.

It reminds me of a saying I once heard: Live every day as if it were your last—and one day you’ll be right.

This brings us to the second truth that the Feast of the Assumption focuses us on (or rather refocuses us on), namely, that the goal of this life is heaven!

Mary has already reached the goal.  We celebrate that fact at this Mass.  As she now is, so all those men and women who die in the state of grace will someday be.  For us, however, the sequence of events will be a little different.

That’s important to mention.  Our Blessed Mother already has her glorified body in the kingdom of her divine Son.  Those of us who die in the state of grace and whose souls go to heaven (either immediately after death or after being purified in purgatory) will have to wait until the end of time to receive our risen bodies.

That’s one big difference between Mary and us.

But the goal for everybody—Mary and us—is (or at least is supposed to be) the same.
 
Another truth this feast refocuses us on is that our physical bodies are holy.  They’re holy because they’ve been redeemed by Jesus Christ, and are made to live forever in heaven in their glorified state.

This, incidentally, is why sins of impurity and violence are so wrong: we’re using something which was made for heaven (our body) to put us on the road to hell!

Thankfully the sacrament of Confession is always available to put us back on the right road.

Finally, this feast refocuses us on the fact that we need Jesus Christ in our lives, and that we need to make every effort to stay connected to him (regardless of what season of the year it is!).

Mary did not save herself; she was saved by her divine Son.  (Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters don’t think we believe that, but we do!)

In her Magnificat (which we heard in our gospel reading a few moments ago) Mary says, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my Spirit rejoices in God, MY SAVIOR.”  The Lord saved our Blessed Mother by preserving her from original sin in that event we call “the Immaculate Conception”.  

He saves us in a different way: by delivering us from original sin, as well as from our personal sins.

But then Mary went on to nurture her relationship with the Lord by living a sinless life of perfect love and perfect virtue: a life which was rooted in prayer.  In other words, she always maintained a close and intimate connection with her God.

This means our Blessed Mother never, ever got “distracted” spiritually in the summer—or winter—or spring—or fall for that matter!

What about us?

How has your prayer life been lately?  How has your Mass attendance been this summer?  Have you taken a “vacation from God” (even a little one)?  Have you been to Confession if you’ve needed to go?  Have you been to Eucharistic Adoration recently?  Has the Bible been on your summer reading list?  Have you maintained your connection with Jesus since the warm weather set in?

Today is a day for all of us to make the personal commitment to “refocus” to the extent that we need to: the commitment to refocus our attention on the things that really matter in this life.

Mary, of course, had no need to refocus, simply because she was always focused—PERFECTLY focused!

May her prayers from heaven help us all to be more like her, not only during the summer months but throughout the entire year.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

What You Have Increases As You GIVE



(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 3, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 14: 13-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourteenth Sunday 2014]




 What you have increases as you give.

What you have increases as you take.

The first of those two statements is always true spiritually, and sometimes it’s even true materially.

The second is always true materially, but it’s rarely true spiritually.

I hope you were able to follow all that!

The second (“What you have increases as you take”) is the principle by which many people (perhaps even most people) live their lives in our materialistic world.

The first (“What you have increases as you give”) is the principle by which true followers of Jesus Christ try to live their lives in the very same materialistic world. 

This timeless Christian truth about giving is something we see illustrated beautifully in the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish that we heard in today’s gospel reading from Matthew, chapter 14.

Here the disciples present Jesus with five loaves and two fishes, and they tell him that this is all they have to feed a crowd of more than 5,000 people.  But St. John in his account of the story tells us that the disciples actually obtained these loaves and fish from a little boy who happened to be there that day.

This little boy gave what he could---he gave the little that he had to give—and two good things happened to him.  First of all, he got more food to eat himself!  He came to Jesus with two fish that he probably intended to eat that evening.  But for all we know this boy might have been extremely hungry and he might have wanted to eat four or five fish!  Well, once Jesus worked his miracle, he could have as many fish as he wanted!

And he did have as many fish—and loaves—as he desired.  So did everyone else!  We know that because at the very end of the story we are told that they all ate “and were satisfied.”

So this boy definitely experienced a material blessing.

But, even more importantly, he was blessed spiritually through his act of giving.

Let me make that clear to you by asking this question: What do you think happened to this little boy’s faith as he watched Jesus perform this miracle?  He knew what Jesus had started out with, and he saw that very small amount of food multiply right before his eyes!

That must have sent his personal faith into the stratosphere!

That must have increased his personal faith a hundredfold!

Whatever faith he already had increased as he gave—as did the amount of food that was available to him, personally, for supper!

So he experienced a blessing on the spiritual level (which always happens when we give our time or talent or treasure to God or to others with the right disposition of heart); and he also received the added bonus of a material blessing (which sometimes happens when we give).

I was moved to preach this message in my homily this Sunday because of two recent events here at St. Pius.  The first was the Steubenville East Youth Conference that occurred two weekends ago at U.R.I.

Each year that conference helps young people from Westerly and Pawcatuck (and many other places) to have a personal encounter with Jesus Christ: an encounter that often transforms their lives and either gets them on (or keeps them on) the road to heaven.

We’ve published some of the personal testimonies of the teens from our group in the bulletin each of the last two Sundays. 

Here’s what one of them said after the weekend.  Happily this person’s experience is quite typical:

“Receiving the Eucharist at Mass and during adoration is the most intimate encounter with God. Each time I come to Steubenville I strengthen my relationship with God. This year, I realized how much I love adoration. I learned to appreciate each aspect of the Mass. This year has been one of the toughest years of my life and that’s when I lost touch with God. I need Him now more than ever. I think after Steubenville everyone should set goals for themselves. My main goals are to attend adoration at least once a week, go to confession once a month, and find more time to pray. Each Steubenville conference I attend I learn something new about my faith. Steubenville shouldn’t end on Sunday. It should be a beginning…”

That’s the transforming power of Steubenville East.

But the only reason our teens are able to participate in this event at all is because so many people around them are willing to “give”: their parents; the adults who give of their time to be chaperones (and who usually pay their own way for the retreat); the generous people of this parish—and beyond this parish—who donate the tee shirts and who help those teenagers who need financial assistance; the Knights of Columbus who help us with fundraisers; and those who pray and offer special sacrifices for the success of the weekend.

Many individuals share their time and/or their talent and/or their treasure to make this experience a positive one for our young people—and in the process (whether they realize it or not) they, as well as our teenagers, are blessed by God.

And that’s the point I want to emphasize here.

Now some of them might not understand that fact until they get to heaven.  There God will show them exactly how their Steubenville “giving” helped to bring many young people to Christ and to eternal salvation.

Then he’ll proceed to give them a higher place in his kingdom because of their generosity.

That’s because in the Christian life what you have increases as you give.

The same principle I believe applies to many of the men and women who gave so generously to the special collection we had last Sunday for the fire alarm and emergency lighting system here in our church.

That was the second “recent event” that led me to preach on this particular topic this weekend.

In all honesty, I must tell you that I was overwhelmed by the incredibly positive response to this need.  I’ll probably have a final total for you next Sunday.  I don’t have one now because donations, thankfully, are still trickling in.

It’s obvious to me that many of our parishioners—and even a few who are not parishioners!—made a great sacrifice in giving what they gave.

They will be rewarded materially (as we all will) with a safer building in which to worship our God.  And that’s great.

But even more importantly, they will be rewarded spiritually on the Day of Judgment—and ETERNALLY thereafter.

Once again, that’s because what you have increases as you give.

This truth, by the way, doesn’t just apply to donations of time, talent and treasure.

I need to mention that before I close this morning.

It also applies to realities like love and mercy and forgiveness.

Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.”  In other words, “If you want to experience more mercy yourself, then show mercy—give mercy—to other people.”

Jesus said, “Forgive and you will be forgiven.”  That is to say, “If you want to be forgiven for your own sins, give forgiveness to the people who have sinned against you.”

“Give and it will be given back to you.”

Those simple words of Jesus express a principle that we encounter, in one form or another, throughout the Bible—not just in the miracle of the loaves and fish.

So obviously it’s extremely important.

May God help us all to be faithful to that principle by being good “givers,” today and every day.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

How Much Do You Treasure ‘The Treasure’?

"The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field ..."


(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 27, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 13: 44-52.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2014]


How much do you treasure “The Treasure”?

Jesus says to us in today’s gospel, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Here, of course, we need to make a very important distinction.  The distinction is between the value of a treasure, and the value a particular person puts on that treasure.

Those are two very different things.

A treasure might be very valuable in and of itself—that is to say, it might be worth a great deal (objectively speaking)—however that treasure might not be worth very much to you on a personal level.  For example, if you had 2 $100 Red Sox tickets with you today and you said to me, “Fr. Ray, would you like to buy them?” I might say yes—IF this were the summer of 2013; since in the summer of 2013 Red Sox tickets, in my mind, were actually worth something.

But, as we all know, this is the summer of 2014, and this summer, in my humble opinion at least, Red Sox tickets aren’t worth the value of the paper they’re printed on!

I say that with great sadness in my heart as a Red Sox fan.

Now some of you might disagree with my assessment of the value of Red Sox tickets in 2014, and that’s fine.  In fact, that kind of disagreement is to be expected, because, as I indicated a few moments ago, there can be (and very often is) a big difference between the objective value of a treasure, and the value that you and I, as individuals, put on that treasure.

And so it is with the kingdom of God.  In its fullness, the kingdom of God will be present only in heaven.  But, as Pope Benedict says in one of his books, the kingdom of God is already present to some extent whenever and wherever Jesus Christ is enthroned as Lord.  Or, to put it another way, the kingdom of God is present whenever and wherever Jesus Christ rules!

So, to the extent that Jesus is ruling our thoughts, words and actions—to the extent, in other words, that we place a high value on “The Treasure” that is Jesus Christ and his Gospel—to that extent the kingdom of God is already present “in us” (as Jesus himself indicated in Luke 17: 21).

But some people, sad to say, won’t like it when the kingdom manifests itself in this way!  And this is something we need to be prepared for.  If we really treasure “The Treasure” by taking our Catholic faith seriously and trying to live it, we will face opposition.

And sometimes the opposition will come from other Christians who should treasure “The Treasure” as much as we do—but who don’t!

This came home to me in a powerful way a couple of weeks ago when a woman I know sent me the following email about her recent experience at work.  Now before I read it to you let me say that this woman is one of the kindest people I know.  She is quiet and respectful and what most people would call “a very good person.”

But here’s what she said in her letter:

Fr. Ray,

I had my yearly evaluation at work this week. … At the end there is always a question where the supervisor has to identify a weakness that the employee will have to improve on before the next year’s evaluation.  Fair enough … we all have weaknesses.

[Well] I was blindsided by what my boss identified as my areas of weakness.  He told me that my “Catholic values and high morals” were my weaknesses.  He said many of my values are “opposed” with those of other employees.

What???

[Her boss, by the way, is Catholic and active in his parish!]

I pressed the issue with him and ended up having three meetings with him and our Assistant Program Director to get these off the “weakness” category, because I wasn’t going to sign it with those listed as weaknesses.  Their points, to be honest, were really off the mark and I pointed out their errors to them.  However, they stuck to their opinions and disagreed with me.

They eventually conceded and took them off the weakness list, but it seems that I am going to be under observation and I should ”take care” not to proselytize (which I don’t do anyway.  Just being a Catholic these days is suspect, isn’t it?)

You know in Scripture how it says they will “drag you into court”?  Well, that is what it felt like.  I had to defend myself and my basic rights in the workplace.  I am not an “in your face Catholic” at work, and I am very accepting of everyone else at work—including their beliefs or lack of any beliefs at all.  However my beliefs, values and morals are routinely stepped on without me saying anything in response (most of the time—sometimes there is no choice but to respond).

At the end my boss said, “Well, it’s not that your Catholic values and high morals are necessarily bad things, it’s just that they are opposed to many of the values here. …”

I remember a time in any workplace when it used to be a good thing to have “high morals.”

For the record, I think this woman handled the situation very well.  There are definitely times when God calls us to turn the other cheek when we’ve been offended, but there are other times when his will for us does include some legitimate self-defense (we learn that from the example of Jesus himself in the gospels, as I mentioned in a homily I gave several months ago).

This, I would say, was one of those situations that called for the latter—for some legitimate, verbal self-defense—and I give this woman credit for doing it very respectfully.

I’m not sure that I would have been so nice.

I probably would have said to the boss, “WOULD YOU BE HAPPIER, SIR, IF I WERE A THIEF OR AN AXE MURDERER?!!!  WOULD YOU LIKE THAT?  WOULD THAT GET ME A RAISE AND A BIG PROMOTION?!!!  WOULD THAT MAKE ME YOUR ‘EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH’?!!!”

And then I’d have to go to confession for losing my temper!

How much do you treasure “The Treasure”?

As much as this woman does?

Do you treasure it enough to be willing to suffer an unjust evaluation at work like she did?  Or to lose out on a promotion at work that you rightly deserve?

Do you treasure it enough to stand up for what’s right in school when almost all of your classmates are voicing their support for what’s wrong?

Do you treasure it enough to be willing to lose a few friends, or to endure some opposition from members of your own family?

Do you treasure it enough to be willing to be called names (names that you don’t deserve to be called: “bigot”; “homophobe”; “narrow-minded”; “anti-woman”; “anti-American”)?

Hear, once again, the words of Jesus: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

Before I close I think it’s important to note that there have been many Christians in recent decades who have lived this message of Jesus in its ULTIMATE SENSE!  They have “sold all that they’ve had” in the sense that they have literally given up their physical lives for the Lord and his Gospel.  You know, many people think that the majority of Christian martyrs died way back in the first century at the hands of Roman emperors like Nero.  But that’s not true!  The truth is that there were more martyrs for Jesus Christ in the 20th century than there were in the previous 19 centuries of Christian history COMBINED!!!

These martyrs treasured “The Treasure” with their whole heart—and they lived their lives accordingly.

May Almighty God help each and every one of us to do the same.