Sunday, February 19, 2017

Loving Your Enemies: What It Means and What It Does NOT Mean

The nine shooting victims

(Seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 19, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 38-48.)

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

On June 17, 2015 a 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study class at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.  There he shot and killed nine innocent people—all African Americans—in a sick, demented attempt to start a race war.  Most of you remember the tragedy, I’m sure.  It was all over the news when it happened. 

Dylann Roof has expressed no remorse for what he did on that June night two years ago.  From all external indications, he remains a bitter and hate-filled man, as he sits in prison awaiting his execution.  Just last month a jury recommended the death penalty for Roof, and a judge sentenced him to die by lethal injection.

The sentence has yet to be carried out.      

Now what’s really amazing is this: In stark contrast to Roof’s hatred and bitterness is the love and forgiveness that some relatives of the victims have expressed since these killings took place.  In fact, just a few days after the murders, family members had the opportunity to speak directly to Roof and tell him whatever they wanted to tell him.  Here are some of the things that were said on that occasion …

Nadine Collier, the daughter of one of the victims said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious away from me. I will never get to talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you, and have mercy on your soul. … You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. If God forgives you, I forgive you.”

The sister of another victim said, “That was my sister, and I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. For me, I’m a work in progress. And I acknowledge that I am very angry. But one thing that [my sister] always enjoined in our family … is she taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating, so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”

The granddaughter of one of those killed said, “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof—everyone’s plea for your soul—is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win.”

Finally, the relative of another victim, when asked about the message she would want Dylann Roof to hear, stated: “I would just like him to know that, to say the same thing that was just said: I forgive him and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”

Now I’m not sure what passage of Scripture they were studying at that South Carolina church right before this tragedy occurred, but it would have been fitting if it had been the text we just heard as our gospel reading this morning—especially the part where Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”

This, of course, is one of the most difficult commandments of Jesus to obey in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives.  We all know that—by experience!  It’s difficult for us because we all share a human nature that’s tainted by original sin.  Consequently, our first instinct as human beings is to hate and curse our enemies, not love them.  But loving them is certainly possible—as the four people I just mentioned made clear to Dylann Roof by the things they said to him just a few days after he murdered their loved ones.

But it was hard!  One of them made that fact crystal clear when she said that she was “very angry” and that she was “a work in progress” with respect to forgiveness.

God bless her for her honesty.

But the important thing to note is that she was moving in the right direction by making the effort (that is to say, the choice, the decision) to deal with her anger, and love this man who had so brutally killed her sister.

Here we get a few important insights about what it means (and what it does not mean) to love your enemies.

First of all, to love your enemies is a choice, it’s not a feeling; it’s a decision, it’s not an emotion.  “Liking” is an emotion: we all have certain people whom we like more than others.  And there’s nothing wrong with that; that’s normal human behavior. 

“Loving” is different.  Loving, in the sense that Jesus uses the term here, means (in the words of Scripture scholar William Barclay) “unconquerable benevolence, invincible goodwill.”  In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Barclay says this: “If we regard a person with agape [the Greek word for love that’s used in this text], it means that no matter what that person does to us, no matter how he treats us, no matter if he insults us or injures us or grieves us, we will never allow any bitterness against him to invade our hearts, but will regard him with that unconquerable benevolence which will seek nothing but his highest good.”

That’s a key insight, because it reminds us that it’s possible to have “unconquerable benevolence” and “invincible goodwill” toward everyone—even toward people we dislike.  Make no mistake about it, my brothers and sisters, the four people whom I quoted a few moments ago do not like Dylann Roof and what he stands for; they probably have had very few (if any) good feelings about him or toward him.  But, by the grace of God, they have made the decision to desire what’s best for him—his “highest good,” as Barclay would say.  That’s especially evident in the comment of the last woman, who said, “I forgive [Dylann Roof] and my family forgives him. But we would like him to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters most: Christ. So that He can change him and change your ways, so no matter what happens to you, you’ll be okay.”

To desire that the person who murdered your loved one, someone near and dear to you—to desire that such a person repent and go to heaven someday: that’s love!  That’s Christian, agape love.  That’s the kind of love Jesus is talking about here in this text.

It doesn’t mean you pretend that the evil your enemy did never happened.  It doesn’t mean you have to be “best buddies” with him or her from now on.  It doesn’t mean you have to dispense with justice and punishment—not at all!  Believe it or not, sometimes agape love requires those things.  As Barclay put it, “If we regard a person with invincible goodwill, it will often mean that we must punish him, that we must restrain him, that we must discipline him, that we must protect him against himself.”

Of course, it will be remedial punishment, not vengeful punishment—but it will be punishment nonetheless.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “The real test of the Christian is not how much he loves his friends, but how much he loves his enemies.”

Since that’s the case, I think it’s safe to say that the four grieving relatives quoted in this homily are currently passing the “test”—with flying colors!  In the midst of a situation in which it would be very easy for them to hate their enemy, they’ve chosen to love him with agape love.  As far as I’m concerned, they all deserve “As” on the exam.

By the grace of God that we receive at this Mass, may we make the choice to follow their example in our lives.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

How to be a ‘Salty’ Catholic

Stephanie and Brian Packer and their four children

(Fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 5, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 13-16.)

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

She’s definitely a “salty” lady.

Her name is Stephanie Packer.  She’s a 34-year-old Catholic woman who lives in Santa Ana, California with her husband and four children.  She’s also dying.  She was diagnosed in 2012 with scleroderma, an autoimmune condition that was attacking her lungs.  Her doctors told her she had only three years to live.  Well, given the fact that she received that diagnosis four—almost five—years ago now, the doctors were obviously wrong.  But Stephanie continues to struggle physically, and needs very specialized treatment for her illness.  For example, in June of last year (just after California’s law permitting physician-assisted suicide went into effect) Stephanie’s medical team recommended that she be treated with chemotherapy for a period of time.  At first the people at the insurance company agreed to pay for the chemo, but then they refused.  However, they did tell her that they were more than willing to pay for something else: a lethal dose of suicide pills—at the bargain basement price of $1.20. 

Maybe they were hoping that she was one of those women who just can’t resist a sale.

Stephanie, not surprisingly, was horrified!  She later said, “It was like someone hit me in the gut.  The most cost-effective solution was now assisted suicide.”

My brothers and sisters, this is why I and so many others have said that this so-called “right-to-die” movement, spearheaded by groups like Compassion & Choices (which used to call itself the Hemlock Society) is a sham.  It’s a lie—because the right-to-die very quickly becomes the DUTY-to-die!

Always and everywhere—you can count on it!

That’s what the agents at the insurance company were saying to Stephanie, was it not?  “Listen, lady, you’re a burden on the system.  You have the duty to get out of the way and let us treat the sick people out there who have at least some hope of recovering from their illnesses.  If you really care about other people, Stephanie, then you’ll save them some money and do yourself in.  Even your family will appreciate it, because you’ll no longer be a burden to them—and they’ll only be out a dollar and twenty cents!”

Many of you will remember Brittany Maynard.  She was the 29-year-old woman with terminal brain cancer who killed herself in 2014 out in Oregon (where physician-assisted suicide was already legal).  She was hailed in the secular media all over the country because she exercised her “right to die on her own terms.”  As Stephanie Packer accurately stated, “It glamorized suicide as a heroic event.”

Well that incident inspired Stephanie to go public with her story and to become an advocate for the elderly, the terminally ill, and others who are potential victims of this evil.  Her story has been covered by media outlets like CNN, NPR and The Washington Post.  This past November she even testified before the state senators of New Jersey, asking them to reject the proposed Aid in Dying for the Terminally Ill Act, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide in that state.

She’s received a lot of positive feedback for her efforts—but a lot of persecution as well.  So has her husband, whose life was actually threatened after her NPR interview.

But through it all, as I indicated at the beginning of my homily, Stephanie Packer has been a “salty” lady—a very salty lady.

Now I suppose that requires a bit of an explanation.  So here it is …

In today’s gospel reading from Matthew 5 Jesus tells us that we are to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.  To be the light of the world is to allow the truth and love of Jesus Christ to shine through us by our good works—by the kind of activities that Isaiah speaks about in our first reading: feeding the hungry, sheltering the oppressed, clothing the naked, not turning our backs on our own, etc.

That’s clear enough.

But what does it mean to be like “salt”?

Well, remember that Jesus said this back in first century Israel, and, as Scripture scholar N.T. Wright reminds us in his commentary on Matthew, salt had one “main function” in the first century world: to keep things “from going bad”.  It wasn’t to make food taste better (although I’m sure it did!).  The main use of salt back then was as a preservative.  Remember, there weren’t any refrigerators or freezers in Israel in the first century.  There weren’t even any iceboxes!

So when I say that Stephanie Packer is a “salty” lady, I’m saying that she’s a woman who’s doing her best to see that things don’t “go bad” here in the United States through the further legalization of physician-assisted suicide.  And may God bless her for her efforts—and for her willingness to suffer persecution in order to spread the message!

If only we had had more doctors—and citizens like Stephanie—in our country back in 1973: men and women who were willing to come forward and take a public stand in order to preserve the right-to-life of the unborn.  Abortion would never have become legal in this country!  But, unfortunately, there weren’t enough “salty” people around at the time, and so our nation “went bad” (so to speak) on that issue in the Roe v. Wade decision.

And that’s the way it’s been with so many of the controversial moral issues of recent decades, such as pornography and euthanasia and so-called “gay marriage.”

Many sins have now become socially-acceptable activities here in the United States of America, because (to use the image of Jesus in this gospel) the “salt” of many Christians has “lost its taste.”  Consequently, we’ve failed to preserve many of the virtues and good laws that once made our nation great.

I think the Lord is telling us today that it’s time to bring back the salt!  Physically speaking, of course, doctors tell us to avoid salt because it raises blood pressure, but in the spiritual dimension “salt” is just what the doctor has ordered!  (That’s Doctor Jesus, the divine physician.)

And it all begins at home, in our families (at least it’s supposed to!).  Parents tell me all the time that they worry about their children’s future; that, in effect, they don’t want to see their children “go bad.”

Praise God for that.  Every Christian parent should have that desire for his or her children.

But for children not to “go bad,” parents need to making the effort every day to be as “salty” as possible—teaching them, in other words, what it means to be a follower of Christ by their words and even more importantly by their deeds (which is what Stephanie Packer is doing for her four children with respect to the issue of physician-assisted suicide).

So parents, when you sit down for dinner with your children in the future and they say to you, “Mom, dad—please pass the salt” try to hear that, not only as a request for the small container at the other end of the table with the white stuff in it, but also as a plea: a plea for you to be the best Catholic—the saltiest Catholic—that you can possibly be, so that they will learn from you how to be the saltiest Catholics that they can possibly be.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Beatitudes: Jesus’ Prescription for Happiness

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 29, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 5: 1-12.)

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

“Latest Happiness Index Reveals American Happiness at All-Time Low”

That was the headline of a brief article that I found recently on the Harris Poll’s web site.  It was published on July 8th of last year.  The article was about their annual survey on the happiness level of the citizens of our nation.  The people at Harris call it the “Happiness Index”.  Well, as the headline indicates, this past year’s results were not very encouraging.  According to the poll only 31% of Americans are very happy at the present time—which is an all-time low, but not all that different from previous years.  Since Harris began doing this back in 2008, their Happiness Index has consistently been in the low-to-mid 30s.  Now that’s bad enough, but according to this article, the number of truly happy people might actually be even smaller.  That’s because the pollsters believe that many people “may overstate how happy they really are.”

How can this be?  How can this be with all the possessions we have?  How can this be with all the comforts we have?  How can this be with all the educational and recreational opportunities we have?  How can this be with all the technology we have?

Shouldn’t we be the happiest people on earth?
Shouldn’t we be the happiest people in the history of the world?

Yes, we should be.

But we obviously aren’t.

If Jesus were standing here this morning instead of yours truly, I think he would tell us there’s a reason for this; it’s not a coincidence.  There’s a reason why the Happiness Index in America is so low right now in spite of all the blessings and opportunities we have in our country.

I believe that Jesus would say it’s because not enough Americans believe that the Beatitudes are what he told us they are—namely, the keys to true and lasting happiness. Each beatitude you will notice begins with the word “Blessed.” That word in the original Greek text of Matthew’s gospel is “makarios.”  Makarios can be translated by the English word “blessed” (as it is here), but it can also be translated by the English word “Happy.” And in some versions of the Bible it is. In those versions, the first beatitude reads, “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

And the others begin in the same way.

The Beatitudes are the attitudes that keep us on the road to eternal life—which is why they have the power to bring us happiness.  But we need to be clear about it: this is not the superficial kind of happiness that depends on circumstances (which is the kind of happiness that Patriots’ fans have right now and Packers’ fans don’t!).  That kind of happiness comes and goes, depending on what’s going on in your life (and whether or not your favorite football team won its last game!).

The happiness that comes from embracing and living the Beatitudes is different.  The happiness that comes from embracing and living the Beatitudes is a happiness—a kind of peace, really—that dwells at the very core of your being, which means that it can exist—and persist—even in the midst of great sorrow.

Which is very good news.

So Jesus says, “Happy will you be if you are poor in spirit.”  In other words, happy will you be if you know you need God and then put him first in your life, because in doing that you will be on the road to heaven—even if from time to time you experience a few bumps in the road here on earth.

Happy will you be when you mourn: when you mourn, first of all, for your own personal sins—because your mourning will lead you to repentance.  And happy will you be when you mourn in the midst of the “bumps in the road” you experience, because those sufferings will bring you closer to Christ, and when you “offer them up” (as the nuns used to tell us to do) you'll draw down many blessings into your own life and into the lives of others.

Happy will you be if you are meek—in other words, if you humbly accept God's will in your life with serenity and confidence.

Happy will you be if your first goal in this life is to be holy, and not rich or famous.

Happy will you be if you are merciful and forgiving.  Unforgiveness will not destroy you, and God will be merciful to you in your own life.

Happy will you be if you are single-hearted and if you serve God for the right reasons and not for selfish motives.

Happy will you be if you work to establish the peace that Jesus came to this earth to give: peace in your family, peace in your place of employment, peace wherever you happen to be.

Happy will you be even in the midst of persecution, because you'll realize that you're sharing in the Cross of Christ, which means that in heaven you'll share more fully in the fruits of the Lord's resurrection!

The Happiness Index in America that I spoke about at the beginning of my homily will only improve significantly, I believe, if more people begin to embrace—and live—Jesus’ prescription for happiness, as expressed in these Beatitudes.  If the majority of Americans continue to base their happiness on the ever-changing circumstances of their lives (like whether or not their favorite football team wins), then the percentage of happy people among us will probably stay where it’s been in every Harris Poll since 2008: somewhere between 31 and 35 percent.  Because in all likelihood that’s about the percentage of the population that’s not dealing with difficult circumstances at any given time.  For example, I’ll bet if I took a survey today on how many of you are dealing with difficult circumstances in your lives right now, at least 7 out of every 10 of you would raise your hands.

So obviously it’s a mistake to try to find lasting happiness—lasting beatitude—in the things and in the circumstances of this earthly life.  If you do that, you’ll be crying 7 out of every 10 days!

The happiness—the beatitude—that endures comes from Jesus Christ, and is rooted in his words to us in today’s gospel.

And so we pray this morning: Lord, may your Beatitudes become our attitudes, and may we inspire others to make your Beatitudes their attitudes, so that we will all experience a measure of beatitude here on this earth, and eternal beatitude someday with you in your heavenly kingdom.  Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

In the Christian Life, What’s Most Important is What You Take with You, Not What You Leave Behind

(Third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 22, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 4: 12-23.)

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

Several years ago Randy Travis came out with a song entitled, “Three Wooden Crosses.”  It’s about three people who die in a tragic bus accident while on their way down to Mexico.  I’m sure many of you have heard it.  The refrain to that song has these lines in it: “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you.  It’s what you leave behind you when you go.”

Now from one perspective I would say that Randy Travis is absolutely correct.

But from another perspective I would say the exact opposite is true.  In fact, from a distinctively Christian point of view, I would say that what’s most important is what you take with you, and not what you leave behind.

This is an insight we get in the New Testament, in passages like the one we just heard as today’s gospel reading.  Here, in Matthew 4, Jesus calls four men to be his apostles—his full-time, fully-committed followers: Peter and Andrew and James and John.

He calls, and they follow—immediately, without any hesitation (probably because they had already encountered Jesus at least one time previously).

Think of all they left behind in responding to the words of Jesus as they did.  They left behind their fishing businesses; they left behind their families (although I’m sure they made arrangements for them to be provided and cared for).  They left behind their friendships, their possessions, their homes.  As Peter said to Jesus later on in Matthew 19, “We have left everything to follow you!”

Obviously they left behind a great deal.

But what did they take with them?  They left behind some very important relationships and parts of their lives, that’s true, but what did they take with them when they began to accompany Jesus that day?

Very simply, they took with them A DESIRE—A HOLY DESIRE!  They took with them a desire to follow Jesus faithfully and to do his perfect and holy will in their lives!

In other words, they took with them the desire to do what’s most important in life!  Now, as we all know, this desire that they had—the desire to do God’s will—did not always prevail in them.  They were weak human beings just like the rest of us.  Sometimes this desire was overridden by things like fear (as was the case for Simon Peter on Holy Thursday when he denied Jesus 3 times) or doubt (as was the case for Thomas after the resurrection)—but it was always present to some extent.  And eventually it became the driving force in their lives.

That’s why they’re all canonized saints!  They took with them the desire to do God’s will when Jesus called them away from their fishing businesses, they lived with that desire in their hearts until they died (most by martyrdom), they produced good fruit in the process, and they took that good fruit with them into the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

There’s a great line in the Book of Revelation that says this beautifully.  It reads, “Happy are the dead who die in the Lord!  Yes, they shall find rest from their labors, for their good works accompany them.”  (Rev. 14:13)

The saints—that is to say, all those who are saved—take their good works with them when they leave this life, and those good works reap from God an eternal reward.

What’s ultimately most important is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.

This is certainly something we all need to be aware of.  But it’s also something that we need to share with others—especially, I dare say, people we know who are in public life.  I say that because their tendency these days is to reverse this truth—with potentially disastrous consequences.  Their tendency these days is to focus on what they leave behind, not on what they take with them.  Have you noticed that?  Have you noticed how many of our politicians and other public figures are focused on—some would say “obsessed with”—their “legacies”?  They’re consumed with the desire to be recognized for their worldly achievements, and with the desire to be written about favorably in history books in future generations.  That’s the driving force in their lives of public service.  And the tragic irony is that many of these public figures have promoted evils like abortion and euthanasia and “same sex marriage”—which means that even though they may be leaving behind what they consider to be a great legacy, what they’re actually taking with them is a lot of sinful behavior—sinful behavior that they will someday have to answer for.

That’s why we need to pray for our president and for all those who hold public office—every day!

So in conclusion I invite you to ponder this question during the coming week.  It’s really one of the most important questions you will ever reflect on in your life:

If I died today, what would I take with me?  What would be in my “spiritual luggage” (so to speak)?

Hopefully we will come to the realization that if we died today we would take with us the same kind of desire and good works that Peter and Andrew and James and John took with them when they left this earthly life 2,000 years ago. 

And if, perchance, we don’t come to that realization, hopefully we will get to confession in the very near future, and begin repacking our bags.