Sunday, August 02, 2020

What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress . . . or Covid-19?

Jerry Sittser

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 2, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 55:1-3; Psalm 145:8-18; Romans 8:35-39; Matthew 14:13-21.)

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

In his book, They Shall Be Comforted, Fr. Joseph Nolan, who taught theology at Boston College for many years, writes about a man named Jerry Sittser, who lost his wife, mother and daughter in a horrible car accident.

I thought of Jerry as I prepared for this homily, because I think he's someone who has come to understand deeply the words of St. Paul in today's second reading from Romans 8: “What will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword?  No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.”

Not surprisingly, after he lost these three people who were so close to him, Jerry received many letters of condolence and support from concerned friends and loved ones.  Often these letters contained the idea that what happened to him was grossly unfair and horribly unjust.  Jerry struggled with this idea for some time, but he finally came to this conclusion:

Over time I began to be bothered by the assumption that I had a right to complete fairness.  Granted, I did not deserve to lose three members of my family.  But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place. . . . Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths; but I did not deserve their presence in my life, either.  On the face of it, living in a perfectly fair world appeals to me.  But deeper reflection makes me wonder.  In such a world I might never experience tragedy; but neither would I experience grace, especially the grace God gave me in the form of three wonderful people whom I lost. . . . So, God spare us a lifetime of fairness!  To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world with absolute fairness.  A fair world might make things nice for us, but only as nice as we are.  We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied.  A world with grace will give us more than we deserve.  It will give us life, even in our suffering.

This is what St. Paul is telling us when he says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The only thing that separates us from Christ and his love is mortal sin.  And, praise God, that doesn’t have to be a permanent separation!  That can be dealt with very quickly and very effectively in the sacrament of Reconciliation—if we have the good sense to go to confession when we need to go and have the opportunity.  (Here at St. Pius, of course, we have the opportunity every Wednesday afternoon at 5pm and every Saturday afternoon at 3:30pm—or anytime by appointment.) 

But other than that—other than when we’re in the state of mortal sin—every situation we face in this life is an occasion where God's grace can bring forth good fruit.  Jerry Sittser, in the midst of his pain, has experienced this truth personally.  Through Christ he has conquered, by allowing the Lord's grace to sustain him—and enlighten him—in his hour of need. 

He’s experienced a true victory here—a spiritual victory over the confusion and the anger and the despair that would threaten any one of us, if we lost three loved ones in such a sudden and tragic way.

Applying this now to ourselves and to our common experience since mid-March.  Here’s an interesting question: If St. Paul were physically present in our world today, would he add one more item to his list in verse 35?  Would he say, “What will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or the sword—or Covid-19?”

He might.  He certainly could.  The coronavirus would definitely be a valid addition to his question!

Sadly, I’m sure there are many Christians in the world right now who have turned away from the Lord since this pandemic began: people who have allowed their anguish and their distress to either weaken or destroy their faith.

And that’s a tragedy.

But others, thanks be to God, have responded in exactly the opposite way.  They haven’t allowed this terrible virus to separate them from Christ and his love, rather they’ve used this situation as an opportunity to grow in their relationship with the Lord, and in their relationships with other people—especially, in many cases, the members of their own families.

And many have rearranged their priorities as well—something that Pope Francis suggested in an address he gave on March 27, at the very beginning of the crisis.  Addressing God at one point in his talk, the pope said that “it is not the time of your judgment, [Lord], but of our judgment: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others."

Those who have followed that advice since late March, and who’ve drawn closer to the Lord and others, have experienced victory in their lives—the same victory St. Paul talks about in this text: victory over anguish and distress and anger and fear—and all those forces that threaten to drag us down as human beings (even when we’re not in a crisis!).  And they’ve experienced this victory even if they’ve had the virus and died from it.  Yes, the virus defeated them physically, but it could not—and did not—defeat them spiritually.

And since our souls and not our mortal bodies will live on forever, in the end the spiritual victories we win in our lives will be the ones that will matter the most.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

You say/God says

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 26, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12; Psalm 119; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52.)

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

The meditation I will share with you in my homily today I received via email a number of years ago.  I share it this morning for two reasons.  First of all, it makes reference to a very important verse in today’s second reading (which is taken from chapter 8 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans).  The verse I’m talking about is verse 28, which is rendered as follows: “Brothers and sisters: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

All things!  Not some things; not many things; not most things—but ALL things!

Notice he didn’t say that everything we experience in this life is good.  Paul would never have said that.  He was a realist.  Rather, he said that in some mysterious way all the experiences we have in this life—the good, the bad, the happy, the sad, the exhilarating, the discouraging, the disappointing, the depressing—ALL OF THEM—will work together for our spiritual benefit, if our love for God is genuine and we’re striving to do the Lord’s will in our lives. 

So that’s the first and primary reason I’m sharing this meditation today: because it mentions Romans 8:28.  But I’m also sharing it for another reason: because I think it’s a powerful testimony to the importance of reading the Bible.  If we read God's Word on a regular basis—and believe what we read—it will make a monumental difference in our lives.  As this reflection indicates, the benefits will be physical and psychological, as well as spiritual.

For lack of a better title, you might choose to call this meditation “You say/God says”

You say, "It's impossible."
God says, "What's impossible for human beings is possible for me."  (That’s based on Luke 18:27)

You say, "I'm too tired."
God says, "I will give you rest."  (Matthew 11:28)

You say, "I can't do it."
God says, "You can do all things through Christ."  (Philippians 4:13)

You say, "I'm always worried and frustrated."
God says, "Cast all your cares on me."  (1 Peter 5:7)

You say, "I feel all alone."
God says, "I will never forsake you or abandon you." (Hebrews 13:5)

You say, "I'm not smart enough."
God says, "I . . . shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute."  (Luke 21:15)

You say, "I'm afraid."
God says, "I have not given you a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and love and self-control." 
(2 Timothy 1:7)

You say, "I can't figure things out."
God says, "I will direct your steps if you trust me."  (Proverbs 3:5-6)

You say, "I can't go on."
God says, "My grace is sufficient for you."  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

You say, "Nobody loves me."
God says, "I have loved you with an everlasting love."  (Jeremiah 31:3)

You say, "I don't have enough faith."
God says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you can move mountains."  (Matthew 17:20)

You say, "I can't be forgiven."
God says, "Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool."  (Isaiah 1:18)

And finally:
You say, "Nothing good can possibly come out of my trials and sufferings and mistakes."
God says, "If you truly love me, everything in your life will work together for good, and that includes your trials, your sufferings and your mistakes."  (Romans 8:28)

I should add here that even our sins can work for our good in this life—if we repent of those sins, and learn from those sins, and then strive to grow in holiness each and every day.

To accent the importance of his message, Jesus often ended his sermons by saying, "Whoever has ears ought to hear."  (Cf. Matthew 13:9)  Today I end my homily with similar words: "Whoever has problems (and who doesn't?!) ought to read the Bible every day, to find out what God says."

Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Kingdom of God: It’s Present Wherever and Whenever Jesus Rules!

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

(Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 19, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom:12-13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:24-43.)

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

“The kingdom of God”—a biblical concept which is very important and VERY CONFUSING!

Let me illustrate the confusion with a couple of questions.  Question #1: Is the kingdom of God something that is inside of us, or is it something that’s outside of us?  I ask that because in Luke 17:21 Jesus explicitly says, “The kingdom of God is within you”; but then in John 18:36 he seems to contradict himself by saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

Very confusing.

Question #2: Is the kingdom of God something that we can experience NOW on this earth, or is it something we can only experience AFTER WE DIE?  The answer to that one is not immediately obvious, because in Matthew 10:7 Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (as if it is something we can experience right now!); but then, in Matthew 25, in the scene of the Last Judgment, Jesus says to those who are saved, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world”—as if the kingdom is something totally different from what we experience here on earth.

Very confusing.

But in spite of all the confusion, this is a biblical concept that we need to try to understand—because according to Jesus Christ the kingdom of God (whatever it is!) is extremely important!

We know this simply because Jesus preached about the kingdom all the time!  He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t want us to take it seriously.  Believe it or not, in just the 4 canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) the expression “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” is used about 50 times (I know that because I made a quick count in preparation for this homily!).  In today’s gospel alone, Jesus mentions it 3 times, using 3 analogies to drive home his message.

My purpose in this homily is to give you one key insight that can help you to make sense of this Gospel reading from Matthew 13 and every other passage of the New Testament where the kingdom of God is mentioned—including the ones that seem to contradict one another.  The insight comes from our former Holy Father, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and it can be found in chapter 3 of his book, Jesus of Nazareth.

I’ll paraphrase it in this way (which should be fairly easy to remember): According to the former Holy Father, the kingdom of God is present wherever and whenever Jesus is enthroned as Lord.

The kingdom of God is present, in other words, wherever and whenever Jesus rules!

Think back, now, to the questions I posed at the beginning of my homily.

Question #1: Is the kingdom of God something that is inside of us, or is it something that’s outside of us? 

Pope Emeritus Benedict would say “It’s not an either/or situation.  Both can be true.  The kingdom can be inside of us and outside of us at the same time!”—which is precisely why Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you,” and “My kingdom is not of this world.”

You see, whenever Jesus is ruling our inner thoughts and attitudes, the kingdom is present.  Whenever we decide, by the grace of God, to forgive another person; whenever we choose to be patient or compassionate or pure; whenever we say no to sin and yes to what’s right, the kingdom of God is, in a very real sense, present within us!

But, of course, none of us is perfect.  So even though the kingdom is present within us whenever we resist sin and practice virtue, it will never be fully present inside us—or outside us for that matter—as long as we’re in this world.  That’s why Jesus’ second statement, “My kingdom is not of this world” is also true!

The fullness of the kingdom of God will only be experienced in heaven, simply because that’s the place where Jesus “rules” completely!  In heaven, there is no sin.  Jesus truly is the Lord of all that happens and the Lord of everyone who’s there.

So, is the kingdom of God something that we can experience NOW on this earth, or is it something we can only experience AFTER WE DIE? 

That was the second question, and, once again our former Holy Father would say to us, “It’s not either/or; it’s both/and.  Because of the nature of the kingdom, both can be true.  Whenever we make Jesus Lord of a particular situation in our lives and do what he wants us to do, we experience a little bit of his kingdom.  Right here, right now.  But, once again, the fullness of that kingdom will only become a reality for us in heaven, where there’s no sin or death, and where Jesus is Lord completely.”

All of this is implied, believe it or not, in that simple phrase “thy kingdom come” in the Lord’s Prayer.  We’re saying, “Lord, may your kingdom be present inside of me—in my thoughts and in my heart; may it be present outside of me in my words and acts of love and service.  Help me, through my attitudes and choices, to experience your kingdom right now to the extent that I can; and prepare me for that glorious moment when I will experience the fullness of your kingdom in heaven.”  With those 3 little words—“thy kingdom come”—we’re implying all those things.  Let’s keep that in mind when we pray the Our Father later at this Mass, and whenever we pray it publicly or privately in the future.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

The Loss of Childhood Innocence and What We Can Do About It

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on July 5, 2020 at Watch Hill Chapel, Watch Hill, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145:1-14; Romans 8:9-15; Matthew 11:25-30.)

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

Life is Beautiful is an Academy Award winning movie that was released back in 1997.  Pope John Paul II saw it at the time in a private screening, and it quickly became one of his favorite films.  The story itself is set in Italy, just before and during the Second World War. 

About halfway through the film, the main character, a Jewish Italian waiter named Guido, and his young son, Joshua, are taken away to a concentration camp.  The remainder of the movie deals with Guido’s many attempts (some of which are quite funny) to shield his son from the horrible reality of the situation they’re in.  For example, when they’re on their way to the camp, Guido tells Joshua that his dad once took him on a “trip” like this, and that if he stays quiet, and doesn’t cry and obeys all the rules, he will win points.  And when he accumulates 1,000 points, he will win the first prize: a real tank that he can ride on.  Little Joshua believes what his father tells him; consequently for the remainder of the movie he thinks he’s a participant in a game rather than a prisoner in a death camp.

It’s a great story!  It’s a great story of a man who loves his son so much that he wants to protect the boy’s innocence—at almost any cost.  Guido doesn’t want his precious child to be wounded and corrupted by the evil that’s literally all around him, and so he does whatever he can to shield him from it.

We need more men and women today who have this same protective attitude toward young people, many of whom are having their innocence stolen from them at a very young age: through what they’re exposed to on television, on the internet, in movies, in popular music, in school, sometimes (tragically) in church, through their friends—and, sad to say, even sometimes by what they’re exposed to in their own families!  As Judie Brown, the president of the American Life League, has said in an article she wrote (and here I quote):
On a daily basis, we see the innocence of children eroded. Television, Internet articles, and social media combine to allow children to enter a world of sexualization [and, I would add, a world of violence] at an earlier age – and adults and parents just seem to accept this. Indeed, even some embrace it and welcome it into their schools and their homes. When will we realize the damage we are doing? When will we say enough is enough?

She goes on in that same article to talk about an America’s Got Talent program that she and her husband had recently watched—a program in which a 12-year-old boy proceeded to come on stage, tell dirty jokes, and then get a standing ovation from many of those in attendance.  She wrote:
What's wrong with this picture? A 12-year-old child shocking only some and sending an audience of hundreds to its feet is perhaps a tiny peek into the culture we live in today.
Unfortunately, because our culture is what it is at the present time, it’s nearly impossible to completely preserve a child’s innocence—unless, of course, you lock that child up for the first 18 years of his or her life (which, incidentally, I am not advocating!).  My point here is that even the best parents and teachers and priests and friends can’t shield a young person from every negative influence that’s out there right now.

Although we can do some things to limit what children are exposed to (like restricting their internet access).

And we MUST do these things if we really love our young people--because their relationship with Almighty God hangs in the balance (both their relationship with him here on this earth, AND their relationship with him in eternity)!  You see, Jesus makes a connection in the Bible between childlike innocence and openness to God.  For example, in today’s gospel text from Matthew 11 our Lord says,
I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,for although you have hidden these thingsfrom the wise and the learnedyou have revealed them to little ones.Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.
Then later, in chapter 18 of Matthew, Jesus says these famous words:
Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
According to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, innocence and openness are closely connected in the spiritual realm—which is precisely why these assaults on the innocence of children are so prevalent today!  They’re not coincidental.  They’re part of Satan’s strategy: his 21st century strategy against the human race.  The devil knows that the more innocent a person is—that is to say, the less influenced and corrupted a person is by evil—the more open that person will be to God’s transforming grace.  So he’s desperately trying to destroy innocence in as many people as possible as early on as possible, in order to gain a foothold in their lives.

Because he knows that if he can gain a foothold—and keep it—he can eventually take their souls.

Which is always his ultimate goal.

So what about those who have completely lost their innocence in this way—is there any hope for them?  And how about the rest of us who’ve been negatively affected by the day-to-day evil we’ve encountered in our lives?  Is there any hope for us to be more open to God?

Thankfully the answer to both those questions is yes!

Here’s where the beauty and power of the sacrament of Reconciliation come into the picture.

Confession, unfortunately, cannot restore every aspect of childhood innocence.  That’s the bad news.  You can’t go back in time and start all over again. 

But the good news is that confession can restore the most important aspect of childhood innocence, namely, SANCTIFYING GRACE: that’s the grace that makes us pleasing to God; it’s the grace that makes us open to God; and, most important of all, it’s the grace that makes us ready for heaven!

So if you’ve lost your innocence to any extent whatsoever, make sure you get to confession SOON—and have your innocence restored, to the extent that it can be restored in this life.