Sunday, September 03, 2017

Offering Your Body as a Living Sacrifice

My Uncle Mike and Aunt Carine

(Twenty-second Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 3, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Romans 12: 1-2; Matthew 16: 21-27.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here:Twenty-second Sunday 2017]

On Monday, August 21—the day after my retirement Mass and party—I went down to Maryland to see my aunt and uncle (as I’ve done for many years now during the third week of August).  This year, though, something was different: my uncle was in a nursing home recovering from a stroke he had suffered a few weeks before.  On Thursday the 24th they brought him home and placed him in hospice care.  It was difficult to see my uncle in that condition, even though he’s 87 and his health has been declining for quite some time.  He’s a retired Army Colonel and has always had a very commanding, engaging presence.  People have always loved to be around him.  But the stroke, combined with the dementia he was suffering from previously, has taken its toll—making it very difficult to communicate with him in any kind of meaningful way.  In fact, with the exception of my aunt, he doesn’t always know who people are—even people in his own family.

I’m sure many of you can relate.

But, through it all, my aunt has been amazing.  In fact, she’s the reason I’m mentioning this in my homily this morning.  Even though she’s 85 and not in great health herself, she was at that nursing home at least twice a day at her husband’s side—encouraging him and trying to communicate with him—in spite of the fact that he was often saying things that only he could understand.  And then, when they brought him home and my uncle got restless and disoriented at 2 or 3 a.m., she got up and went into the separate room (where they had placed the hospital bed) in order to comfort him and calm him down as only she could.  She did that every night that I was there—depriving herself of the sleep that she certainly needed.

It was a great witness to me of the truth of today’s second reading from Romans 12, where St. Paul says, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”

When we first hear a Scripture passage like that, we may think of the great saints and martyrs of the Church, who literally offered their bodies to the Lord in some special service or in martyrdom. And it certainly does apply to them!  But the text also applies to people like my aunt.  It applies, in other words, to people who make the sacrifices necessary to fulfill their vocations in life well (whether it be as a priest, or a religious, or a husband, or a wife, or a father, or a mother, or as a single person living for Christ in the world).

Scripture scholar William Barclay put it well when he said in in one of his books that St. Paul’s message to us in this verse is (and here I quote): “Take your body; take all the tasks that you have to do every day; take the ordinary work of the shop, the factory, the shipyard, the mine; and offer all that as an act of worship to God.”

That should be our daily intention as disciples of Jesus Christ.  

But if we’re going to do this, it means that we will have to think differently than most other people do!  Let’s face it, most people in the modern world don’t see their daily, ordinary, mundane tasks in such spiritual terms.  They’re just things that need to be done—period.  There is nothing spiritual about them.

Which is why St. Paul adds the next verse!  After he tells us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice to God, Paul says, “Do not conform yourself to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

Jesus said we’re supposed to live in the world, but not be “of the world.”  People who are of the world (or what Paul calls “this age”) would have said to my aunt, “Why bother going to see your husband in the nursing home twice a day?  He barely knows who you are; he hardly communicates with you or anyone else; and five minutes after you leave, he doesn’t even remember you were there!”

My aunt saw things differently.  Because she’s allowed her mind to be renewed by the truth of the gospel concerning marriage, she didn’t conform her behavior to the wisdom of “this age”; rather, she discerned that God’s will for her was that she go and visit my uncle every day—whether he remembered who she was or not.

If we want to do God’s will in our lives we have to allow the Lord to do this for us.  We have to allow the Lord to work on our minds and give us a different perspective on reality—different, at least, from the typical, worldly perspective that most people have.  Now we do that—we allow God to renew our minds—in 3 ways (I got these from Fr. Francis Martin): by thinking about holy things, by praying about holy things (the Bible can help us to do that) and by talking about holy things.

How often do you do you engage in those 3 activities?  If you’re like me, not often enough.

In this regard, the fact of the matter is we are all “works in progress.”  That is to say, none of us has a perfectly renewed mind at this moment.  And we never will on this side of the grave.

Think of Simon Peter.  The gospel passage we heard today from Matthew 16 follows the passage we heard last Sunday.  As you will recall, in that other reading Jesus asked his disciples the question, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter responded with his bold profession of faith, “You are the Messiah: the Son of the living God!”

Peter’s mind was renewed to the point where he saw Jesus differently than other people saw him—including, perhaps, some of his fellow apostles.

Most other people looked at Jesus and saw a really smart and powerful rabbi.  But that was all they saw!  Peter looked at Jesus and he saw something more!  He saw the deeper reality.  He saw the man that Israel had been waiting for for centuries—a man who had a unique and special relationship with God.

But it’s clear from today’s gospel story that Peter’s mind was not completely renewed, because when Jesus began to talk about the kind of messiah he would be—a suffering messiah—Peter said what a typical Jewish person of his time would have said: “Oh no, Jesus, not you!  Everyone knows the Messiah is going to be a great and powerful leader who will bring back the glory days of Israel.  He’s not supposed to suffer; he’s supposed to conquer.”

To which Jesus responded, “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re an obstacle to me.  You’re not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.”

Thanks be to God, Peter eventually got it right.  It took him a while—and a few other falls—but he finally had his mind renewed on this point.

Which was one of the major reasons why he eventually offered his body in the ultimate sacrifice of martyrdom.  He was martyred in Rome by the Emperor Nero in what is now St. Peter’s Square.

We will probably not be asked to make that kind of sacrifice ourselves, but all of us will be called to make sacrifices like the one my aunt has made in her life.  We will be called to “offer our bodies to God” by doing hard things, difficult things, unpleasant things—in order to love others and to live our vocations well.

May we be as successful in our self-offering efforts as my aunt has been in hers.  

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Retirement Mass Homily of Fr. Raymond Suriani—St. Pius X Church, August 20, 2017

(Left to Right) Fr. Najim, Bishop Tobin, Me, Deacon Fran, Deacon Costa

Elaine Laurenzo and I after the Mass 

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Retirement Mass Homily]

I want to begin by publicly thanking Bishop Tobin for being here with us today.  Bishop, it means a lot to me to have you present for this celebration.

You know, Bishop Tobin did not send me to St. Pius, Bishop Gelineau did back in 1988.  But Bishop Tobin allowed me to remain here as pastor longer than many bishops would have, and he even gave me the option of staying here after my “retirement,” which I am deeply grateful for.  And all of this after my Green Bay Packers beat his Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl!

Wow!  That’s incredible!

If I had been in his shoes, I would have sent me to Siberia—immediately!

It just shows that he’s a much better man than I am.

I also want to thank Fr. Najim for being the driving force behind this day and this celebration.  When he first proposed the idea, I said I wouldn’t object to having “a little something” in my honor.  Well now I know that, even though we agree on matters of faith and morals, we have different definitions of the word “little”!

But I am grateful to him—especially since we’re raising money here for our school, which has always been near and dear to my heart.

Finally, I want to thank the members of the committee who did all the work behind the scenes, and anyone else who helped in any way, like the choir and Knights.  I don’t know who you all are—but God knows.  May he reward you for your charity and kindness.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched an old video: a video that I had taped off the local cable channel back in 1990, less than 2 years after I had come to St. Pius.  It was a video of that year’s Mt. Carmel procession.  It brought back a lot of great memories.

And, as I watched it, I realized how much has changed since then in Westerly and in the world—even in terms of the hairstyles!  Most of the younger girls who were there had that 80s “big hair” look; the younger guys had their “mullets.”  I had a black beard and dark hair—and, of course, a lot more of it!

But most of all I noticed the number of people—the large number of people—who marched that day and who are no longer with us—starting with my mom and Fr. Najim’s mom—who walked together and who prayed the Rosary together in that procession.

I had forgotten that.  It was probably the last event of that type that my mother ever participated in.  She died of cancer on October 1st of that year.

It’s my prayer that she and Mrs. Naj are now marching together in another place, along with Fr. Dean Perri’s dad and all the others in that video who have since gone home to the Lord.

A lot has changed since September of 1988, when I moved into the house at 44 Elm St. and became the assistant pastor of St. Pius X Church under Fr. Joseph Besse.

But some things have NOT changed—and for these I praise God; for these I am especially grateful today.

One thing that has not changed is that St. Pius X Parish is still a “spiritual powerhouse”—to coin an expression from Bishop Tobin.  Those words of today’s first reading, “my house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples” apply in a special way to this place.  There are many people in this parish (and in this community) who have the faith and perseverance of the Canaanite woman in today’s gospel.  I noticed that when I first came to Westerly.  I also noticed that there’s a cultural support to the faith here that you don’t find in too many places.  I am still amazed, for example, at how many people drive by this church every day and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads.  I see it all the time.  You don’t observe that kind of behavior in most other towns.  Even many of the “unchurched” and disconnected people here often have a remnant of the faith that they cling to—even if it’s just a brown scapular that they received at a Mt. Carmel procession one year and now have hanging on the rear view mirror of their car.

I gave a retreat on spiritual fatherhood recently to the seminarians of the Diocese of Springfield, and in one of the talks I made note of the fact that every parish has its “core”.  The core is made up of those people who really love God and the Church and who want to be nourished with the truth of the gospel.  They’re hungry for it.  Every parish has a core, but not every parish has a core as large and as diverse as this one has.

And it’s been that way for a long time.

That hasn’t changed.

Neither has the fact that St. Pius is a seedbed for vocations! In the last 25 years we’ve been blessed to have many young people (and some not-so-young people!) from our community say yes to Jesus’ call to serve him in the priesthood, the diaconate and religious life.  It’s been an incredible grace from God, and I feel so humbled and so blessed to have been a small part of it.  And the grace continues!  We have a number of young people who are discerning the call right now as we speak—in addition to Joe Brodeur and Zach Sexton who are already in formation—and I praise God for that!  It’s an amazing phenomenon, to say the least.  Some people, I’m sure, think I pressure young people into these vocations, but I can assure you I do not!  In fact, I don’t even discuss the subject with them unless they want to talk about it.  My philosophy for ministry to youth has always been very simple: You help them meet and experience Jesus Christ; you teach them the truth of the Gospel with clarity and conviction (in other words, you don’t water it down in any way); you teach them that the most important thing in this life is to do the will of God; and you try to be a good example to them.  And even if you’re a very poor and imperfect example like I am, in most cases those young people will figure things out for themselves.  They’ll come to see that Jesus Christ is worth investing your life in—and they’ll hear the call, without any prompting from me or anyone else.

And then they’ll get the support they need from the people of our parish and school—which is so necessary and important!  You tell the people of St. Pius that you’re thinking of being a priest or religious, and most of them are genuinely happy for you.  That’s not the case everywhere.

This is a “nurturing environment” for vocations.  That’s why our summer seminarians always come back to visit us!  They come back because they know they’re supported—and prayed for—here.  In fact, once a seminarian has a summer assignment at St. Pius, we pray for him as a parish family at every single Sunday Mass until he’s ordained to the priesthood.  And they appreciate that.

I want to conclude today by making it clear that I haven’t said all that can be said, simply because there’s far too much to say.  I could talk, for example, about the wisdom I learned here in the last 29 years from great priests like Fr. Besse and Msgr. Struck.  I could talk about the great men and women on staff at the church and the school whom I’ve been privileged to work with—most of whom have “gone the extra mile” for me and for the people they serve.  I could talk about the incredible charity of the people of St.  Pius: how this is a community that takes the corporal works of mercy seriously; how whenever I’ve asked for money for something we’ve needed, I’ve gotten it—and then some!

It’s been 29 years of great graces and blessings.  Yes, there have been difficult times (lots of them); yes, there have been tragic moments along the way (especially the tragic deaths of some young people).  But, knowing what I know now, would I do it all again?

In a heartbeat!

Let me summarize it all by saying these 2 things:

Number 1: I’m really glad I’m Italian.

And, number 2: I’m really glad I was young in 1988—because they told me at the time that Bishop Gelineau wanted a young, Italian priest to replace Fr. Santilli at St. Pius X Parish in Westerly, and I fit the bill!

I have been greatly blessed to be part of what Almighty God has done here in the last 3 decades, and I’m thrilled—and deeply grateful—that now, in my retirement, I can still be part of it.

May God bless you all.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The ‘Transfiguration Moment’ at Dunkirk

(Transfiguration (A): This homily was given on August 6, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 17: 1-9.)

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

Some of you have probably seen the newly-released movie, Dunkirk.  It’s based on a very important—and in some ways decisive—event that took place in the early days of the Second World War. 

It happened in late May and early June of 1940.  Having already captured Belgium and the Netherlands, the Nazis were making their way through France in what Winston Churchill called “a colossal military disaster”.  By late May they had most of the Allied force—about 400,000 men—trapped near the town of Dunkirk on the coast of northern France.  (Remember, this was more than a year before the United States entered the war.)  Had the Nazis attacked right away, when they first had the opportunity to do so, World War II might have ended rather quickly and quite differently.  As one article I read recently put it:
To the south and east the Nazis pressed. To the north and west stood the sea. Not an enviable position for any army. If those men were forced to surrender, Britain would’ve been easy pickings for Germany. World War II might’ve ended with a swift German victory, and Western Europe would’ve been a massive enclave of Nazi power.
Getting those troops across the English Channel quickly was imperative.  But how do you that when you have 400,000 to transport?  What followed was what Churchill (who was not the most religious guy on the planet) later called “a miracle of deliverance.”  Many believers would say that it was God’s response to the prayers that were offered all over Britain after King George VI called for a national day of prayer to take place on Sunday, May 26.

At least 3 extraordinary things occurred in the days surrounding that day of prayer.  First of all, the German army, acting on orders from Hitler, stopped about 18 miles outside of Dunkirk and delayed their attack, giving the Allies the time they needed to begin an evacuation.

Secondly, four days after this so-called “Halt Order” from Hitler was given, a terrible storm developed over Flanders, grounding the German Luftwaffe and giving the Allies more time.

And thirdly, even though there was terrible weather nearby, the English Channel in the area around Dunkirk was incredibly calm—which it almost never is.  One eyewitness said it was as “smooth as a millpond.”  This enabled ordinary people in their pleasure boats and small commercial fishing vessels to help in the rescue effort.  They were able to get close to the beaches (where the big, military vessels couldn’t go) and to save tens of thousands of men who otherwise would not have been evacuated before the Germans moved in.

British military leaders were hoping they could rescue 45,000 of the 400,000 soldiers trapped at Dunkirk, but amazingly more than 330,000 made it to safety in England.

Many, including Churchill, called it a “miracle”.  I prefer to call it a “transfiguration moment.”  A transfiguration moment occurs when we believe that God has manifested his presence to us in a special and powerful way—a moment when it becomes clear that God is real, and alive, and with us.

King George certainly saw these events at Dunkirk from that perspective, as did many others in England—thus June 9, 1940 was proclaimed a Day of National Thanksgiving in the country.  One British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, said it well.  It stated that “the prayers of the nation were answered”, and that “the God of hosts himself had supported the valiant men of the British Expeditionary Force.”

Now the interesting thing about this transfiguration moment is that it occurred in the middle of a war!  The context of the experience was decidedly negative.  The original transfiguration experience, on the other hand—the one we heard about in today’s gospel reading from Matthew 17—was glorious!  It happened on a mountaintop, in an atmosphere of faith and love and holiness.  It was so glorious, in fact, that Simon Peter wanted to pitch camp there and stay a while!  He didn’t want it to end!

But not all transfiguration moments are like that.  Some are—and we should thank God when they happen (as they do for many teenagers throughout the country at the Steubenville youth conferences every summer.  That’s one reason we go.). 

But many are not so positive.  I have known many people, for example, who have experienced God’s presence and strength and consolation after they’ve lost a loved one or after they’ve gone through some other serious trial in their life.

For them, those moments, although painful and difficult, have been transfiguration moments—the same type of transfiguration moments that many of those Allied soldiers experienced as they were crossing the calm English Channel to safety in late May and early June of 1940.

In conclusion now, let me make this final point:

It is possible to experience a transfiguration moment and not be aware of it until many months or even many years have passed.  But once we become aware of one, it’s important that we never forget it, because there will be difficult times in the future when the memory of that transfiguration moment will give us the strength and the encouragement we need to remain faithful.

Jesus gave his disciples a little glimpse of his glory on Mt. Tabor so that they would have something to hang onto when almost everyone else turned against him on Good Friday.  I’m sure that when the soldiers of Dunkirk (the ones who are still alive) are having a difficult or frustrating day in their old age (most are probably in their 90s now) their minds go back to the day 77 years ago, when they had their own Mt. Tabor experience on the sea between France and England—and they draw strength from that memory.

That’s the power of a transfiguration moment when it’s recognized—and remembered—by a person of faith.

May God help us to know that same power in our lives.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

How ALL Things Work for Good for Those Who Love God

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 30, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Romans 8: 28-30.)

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

“Brothers and sisters: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

St. Paul tells us that in today’s second reading from Romans 8.

But, how can this be true?  Realistically, how is this possible, given all the evil that’s present in the world?

  • ·         How, for example, can experiencing hatred work for someone’s good?  (In other words, how can anything good come out of something as evil as hatred?)
  • ·         How can experiencing envy work for someone’s good?
  • ·         How can being lied about, or being in prison, or being a slave, or being torn away from your father, or almost being murdered by people in your own family: how can any of these things work for a person’s good—even if the person loves Almighty God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength?

For the answer to those questions, my brothers and sisters, we need to go to Joseph.  No, not Joseph, the foster father of Jesus, but rather Joseph, the Patriarch—one of the twelve sons of Jacob—whose story is told to us in the Old Testament Book of Genesis.

I say that we need to go to Joseph because he experienced every single one of those evils I just mentioned: hatred, envy, slavery, prison, etc.

Most of us, I’m sure, know at least the basic outline of his story, but for the benefit of the few who might not …

Joseph was the eleventh of Jacob’s twelve sons: the child of his father’s “old age,” as the Bible puts it.  But, even though he was number eleven on the birthday list of the sons of Jacob, Joseph was number one in his father’s heart.  And Jacob made that abundantly clear to everyone, especially when he gave Joseph a special tunic to wear.  (Some of you may remember the musical that was named for that event: “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”)

Joseph’s older brothers hated and envied him for the relationship he had with his dad—so much so that they actually hatched a plot to kill their brother, throw his dead body into a cistern, and then tell his dad that he had been eaten by wild animals.  Thankfully they thought better of that plan, and decided instead to sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites who happened to be passing by one day on their way down to Egypt.

There Joseph became the slave of Pharaoh’s chief steward, a man named Potiphar, whose wife thought that Joseph was kinda cute.  So she tried to seduce him—several times!  (See what interesting stories you can find in the Bible!  Yet another reason to read the Scriptures!)

Anyhow, when she failed to have her way with Joseph, Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of sexually assaulting her, and had him thrown into jail—where he remained until the day he was asked to interpret a dream for Pharaoh.  The dream, according to Joseph, predicted seven years of bountiful harvests which would be followed by seven years of famine.  Pharaoh accepted the interpretation, and proceeded to make Joseph the number two man in the entire nation of Egypt!  He then put him in charge of stockpiling food for the next seven years, so that there would be enough food to last for the seven lean years.

And Joseph did it.  He did it so well, in fact, that people from outside of Egypt came to him to get food during those seven lean years, since the famine wasn’t just affecting the Egyptians.

Well guess who showed up one day looking to buy some grain.  That’s right: his ten older brothers.  They didn’t recognize him, but he sure recognized them!  It was the perfect chance for some “payback”; it was the perfect opportunity for Joseph to finally get his revenge—to get revenge for all those things I mentioned at the beginning of my homily: the hatred, the envy, the attempted murder, the slavery, the prison, the lying, the separation from the father he loved so deeply and who so deeply loved him.

But that’s not what Joseph did.  Yes, he did put his brothers to the test a couple of times, but in the end he forgave them and revealed himself to them.  And when he did reveal his identity, he said something that makes it clear that he believed this truth which St. Paul expressed so beautifully in Romans 8:28: that ALL THINGS work together for good, for those who love God.  Listen to these words from Genesis 45:

“Come closer to me,” Joseph told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.  But now do not be distressed, and do not be angry with yourselves for having sold me here.  It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.  The famine has been in the land for two years now, and for five more years cultivation will yield no harvest.  God, therefore, sent me on ahead of you to ensure for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.  So it was not really you but God who had me come here; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”
“It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you.”  Joseph could see beyond all the evil he had experienced to the good that God had brought out of that evil.  Now please do not misunderstand.  He wasn’t happy about the evil—he wasn’t thrilled that he hadn’t seen his dad in years or that he had been a prisoner and a slave—but he was able to see how even those injustices and sufferings and trials had worked together for his good—and not only for his good, but also for the good of many other people, both in and out of Egypt.

“We know that ALL things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Notice it does not say there that everything that happens to God-loving people is good—because it’s not true.  Joseph (and many others) have shown us that sometimes very bad things happen to godly people.  But by God’s grace even those bad things can work for a godly person’s ultimate benefit, and for the ultimate benefit of many others.

This even applies, believe it or not, to our sins—if we repent of them, confess them and turn away from them.

St. Paul has shown us that.  After his conversion he used his forgiven sins for good, by talking about them when he was trying to encourage other people to seek God’s mercy—especially those who might have thought that they were beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness.  In First Timothy 1, for example, he wrote:
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, that he has made me his servant and judged me faithful.  I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance; but because I did not know what I was doing in my unbelief, I have been treated mercifully, and the grace of our Lord has been granted me in overflowing measure, along with the faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.  You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Of these I myself am the worst.  But on that very account I was dealt with mercifully, so that in me, as an extreme case, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, and that I might be an example to those who would later have faith in him.
“That I might be an example …”  That was Paul’s way of saying, “If God can forgive me for all I did in my past life, he can forgive anybody—including you.”

“For those who love God ALL things work for good.”

This is a truth, my brothers and sisters, that many of us don’t reflect on often enough—so I invite you to do that sometime during this coming week.  When you have fifteen or twenty minutes of time (and we all do), sit down in a quiet place (maybe a church or a room at home) and reflect on the significant events of your life (the good ones, the bad ones—even the painful ones), and ask the Lord to help you to see how all these experiences have worked for your good, and for the good of those with whom you share your life.

And when God does help you to see those good things—those gifts—those blessings—please do remember to thank him.