Sunday, May 20, 2018

Confirmation and ‘Conformation’



(Pentecost 2018 (B): This homily was given on May 20, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 2: 1-11; Psalm 104; Galatians 5: 16-25; John 20: 19-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Pentecost 2018]


Confirmation/conformation

Each of those words has twelve letters, eleven of which are the same.  But the tiny change that we find in the second word—the change of the “i” in Confirmation to the “o” in conformation—makes a huge difference.  So much so that it actually takes a work of the Holy Spirit and transforms it into a work of Satan.

Confirmation, of course, is one of the seven sacraments.  As such, it’s one of the Holy Spirit’s greatest works.  It’s also our personal participation in the event of Pentecost, which we heard about in today’s first reading from Acts 2.  Pentecost, which occurred fifty days after Easter, was what you might call a spiritual “game changer”.  Prior to that event, the Apostles were weak and fearful, unsure of themselves and unsure of the truth.  After the Spirit descended on them, they were exactly the opposite.

And they were not only different as individual persons; they were also different from other persons (from other persons who had not been anointed with the Holy Spirit in the way that they had been).  That’s clear from today’s first reading.  When the people in Jerusalem on Pentecost Sunday heard the Apostles preaching and speaking in tongues, they took notice, did they not?  They said, in effect, “Hey, these guys are different!  Something’s happened to them!  Each of us hears them speaking in our own native language!”

The Catechism says this about Confirmation: “It is the sacrament which gives the Holy Spirit in order to root us more deeply in the divine filiation, incorporate us more firmly into Christ, strengthen our bond with the Church, associate us more closely with her mission, and help us bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds.”

We receive the Holy Spirit for the first time when we’re baptized.  Through the sacrament of Baptism original sin is taken away, we’re born again of water and the Spirit, and we receive sanctifying grace into our souls. 

So why do we receive the Spirit again? 

We receive this second outpouring of the Spirit in the sacrament of Confirmation to help us live out our baptismal commitment to Christ and his Church by “bear[ing] witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds”—as the Catechism tells us in that text I just quoted to you.

And this is where, for many young people who are being confirmed these days, Confirmation gets overshadowed.  It gets overshadowed, it gets usurped, by what I would call “conformation”—which is basically the desire to conform and be like everybody else (instead of trying to be the person that God wants you to be).

These young people need to hear and take seriously the words of St. Paul in Romans 12.  There the Apostle says this: “I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, your spiritual worship.  DO NOT CONFORM YOURSELVES TO THIS AGE, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect.”

“Do NOT conform to this age!”

“Don’t live your lives,” in other words, “in conformation to the ungodly ideas of the world in which you live.”

But many of our CONFIRMED young people are doing just that!  As Fr. Besse would say, they’re allowing the world to “squeeze them into its mold.”  This comes home to me every time one of our faithful teenagers (and thankfully we do have a number of them) says to me things like, “Fr. Ray, we had a discussion in class today about abortion, and I was the only one who said abortion is wrong.”  “Fr. Ray, I was talking with a group of my friends recently and they said that they all believe in gay marriage.”  “Fr. Ray, one of the other teens who works with me said he doesn’t see anything wrong with living together before marriage.”

And on and on it goes.

Now I could understand it if these faithful teenagers who come to me were going to school and working and hanging around with a bunch of atheists and devil worshippers, but most of the kids they’re talking about here are baptized—and confirmed—Catholics!

And yet, they believe all these things that are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That’s “conformation.”

The grace of Confirmation, my brothers and sisters, is the grace to live the Faith and defend the Faith and spread the Faith.  It’s a gift from Almighty God himself.  But it’s a gift that we have to freely accept and freely put to use.  Have you ever received a gift from another person that you haven’t ever used?  I have.  A number of times!

The gift is yours—you have it in your possession—but it doesn’t do you any good whatsoever, because you aren’t using it.

Well, that’s precisely the way many young people—and many not-so-young people—respond to the grace given to them at their confirmation.  They receive that grace into their souls, yes, but they don’t allow it to change them and strengthen them in the way the Apostles allowed the Spirit to change them and strengthen them at Pentecost.

Many of them don’t even go to church anymore!

We had almost 60 young people confirmed here in Westerly a couple of weeks ago.  I wonder how many of them have been to Mass since then.  I hope and pray they ALL have—but I definitely wouldn’t “bet the farm on it”.

I wouldn’t even bet half the farm.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that so many of our youth are depressed and confused these days?  I don’t think it is.  In today’s second reading from Galatians 5, St. Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” with “the fruits of the Spirit.”  The works of the flesh he mentions there are some of the activities that flow from a life of conformation: “Immorality, impurity, lust, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies and the like.”

The kinds of activities, in other words, that eventually lead to depression and confusion—and a lot of other bad things.

Then Paul mentions the fruits of the Holy Spirit, which, happily, are some of the realities which are found in the life of somebody who is living in the grace of his or her confirmation: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Confirmation/conformation: two similar words with two very different meanings, signifying two very different lifestyles that take people in two very different directions—both in this life and in eternity.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful on this Pentecost Sunday, that we will say yes to the grace of our confirmation every day, and no to the constant temptation we face to conform our lives to the world and its ways.  And may our young people follow our example and do the same thing.  This we ask through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ascension Thursday:'Mission Accomplished!'



(Ascension Thursday 2018: This homily was given on May 10, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 1: 1-14; Psalm 47: 2-9; Ephesians 1: 17-23; Matthew 28: 16-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Ascension Thursday 2018]


“Mission accomplished!”

Those words capture Jesus’ message to his heavenly Father (and to the world) on the day of his ascension 2,000 years ago.

The mission he had been given—the mission to reconcile the world to the Father—was, finally, completed.

Of course that overall mission of reconciliation with God the Father consisted of many smaller, daily missions that Jesus fulfilled.  Every day of his earthly ministry, in other words, Jesus did what his Father wanted him to do.  That was the focus of his life.  That was his purpose.  As he said in John 6: 38, “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of the one who sent me.” 

And doing his Father’s will involved service.  Service to others: service to his friends and even service to his enemies!  Jesus said, “The Son of Man has come to serve not to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Our Lord’s service included his preaching and teaching and healings and exorcisms.  And, on Good Friday, it involved his passion and death.

Applying this now to ourselves …

Each of us has an overall mission from God, just like Jesus did.  Ours, not surprisingly however, is a little different from his.  His overall mission was to reconcile the world to the heavenly Father.  Our overall mission on this earth, as the Baltimore Catechism puts it, is to “know God, and love God, and serve God.”

And we fulfill that overall mission by striving to do what Jesus did: by discerning how God wants us to serve him today, and then by carrying out that service—that daily mission—as best we can. 

This, incidentally, is one of the biggest keys to finding happiness, meaning and fulfillment in our lives.  As Catholic author Matthew Kelly puts it in one of his talks:

One of the things I think most people can spend their whole lives ignoring or their whole lives and never really discover, is that human beings are made for mission. You and I, we’re made for mission. We’re not made to be served. We're made to serve.  When we ignore [the fact that we’re made to serve others in this life], at best we get frustrated, [and] at worst we become really, really miserable … Because any time you use something for something that it wasn't intended for, something it wasn't created for, then it's like using a lawnmower as your dishwasher. It just isn't gonna work. You’re made for mission.  And what does that mean? It means that God has placed you on this earth for some specific reason, for some specific mission, and he wants you to carry out that mission. When we think of that, we [might say to ourselves], "Whoa, that's heavy, that’s big. How am I gonna work that out?" You work it out little by little. You work it out by taking the step that's in front of you today. You work it out by realizing, "OK, how can I serve other people today, even in small ways?" And the more we serve other people, the more our mission becomes clearer to us.


So, what is your mission today?

Think about that.  Pray about that at this Mass—especially after Communion.

If you’re on your way to school or work, that’s part of it—although it can’t end there.

On this Ascension Thursday we pray for the grace and the ability to discern and carry out our missions every day, so that when we meet the heavenly Father at the end of our lives we will be able to say to him what Jesus said to him on the first Ascension Thursday: “Mission accomplished!”

Sunday, May 06, 2018

’Love’ and ‘Approval’ are NOT Synonyms!



(Sixth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on May 6, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 10: 25-48; Psalm 98: 1-4; 1 John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday of Easter 2018]


In modern-day America, love and approval are synonyms.  They basically mean the same thing.  Now please don’t misunderstand me here; I’m not saying that love and approval actually are synonyms.  What I’m saying is that they’ve become synonymous in the minds of many Americans today (maybe even the majority)—although most of them are probably not aware of it.

Jesus talks about love—real, genuine love—in today’s gospel.  St. John does the same thing in today’s second reading.  To love another human being is “to desire the good” for that person, and then to do what you can to help the person attain that good in his or her life.  Which explains why Jesus Christ came to this earth 2,000 years ago and died on the cross!  It was out of this kind of love: “Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down his life for his friends.”  Jesus Christ loved us and so he wanted us to experience the greatest “good” that we could possibly experience as human beings, namely heaven!  But he also knew that we couldn’t merit and attain that eternal life on our own.  So he did what only a God-man could do.  He made the ultimate sacrifice of love, so that through his eternal merits we could attain the ultimate good: unending life in his kingdom.

St. John summarizes it perfectly in today’s second reading when he says, “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him.  In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”

God loves every human person, and he demonstrated that fact by sending his Son to die for us all.  But at the same time God does not APPROVE of everything that we do in our lives.  That’s because we’re all sinners who commit sins every day.  (I hope this is not a revelation to anyone; it certainly shouldn’t be.)  He approves of some of the things we do, for sure: acts of kindness, mercy, forgiveness, etc.  But not everything.  This is clear from today’s gospel reading when Jesus says, “IF you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love.”  Well, if that statement is true (and we know it is, since Jesus said it!), then so is the opposite true: “If you DON’T keep my commandments, you will NOT remain in my love.”

Obviously Jesus does not approve of sin—ours or anyone else’s.

Nor are we supposed to approve of sin!  That message comes through in the very next paragraph of the text when Jesus says, “Love one another as I love you.”  Jesus loves us—he desires the good (the best!) for us—but he does not say “Amen” either to the sins that we commit in our lives or the sins that others commit in their lives.

And neither should we—if we want to love as he loved.

Does this make sense to you?

It should.

But if it does, I hope you understand something.  I hope you understand that YOU ARE IN THE MINORITY RIGHT NOW IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA—AND IN MUCH OF THE WESTERN, INDUSTRIALIZED, TECHNOLOGICALLY-DRIVEN WORLD!

As I said at the beginning of my homily, in the minds of all-too-many Americans today love and approval are synonyms.  That means if you say you love somebody, you MUST approve of EVERYTHING they do!  That includes the sins they commit in their lives.

And it you don’t believe me, just read the newspaper or watch the evening news.

In 21st century America, if you don’t approve of abortion, for example, then many people will say that you hate women.  That’s why a lot good pro-life organizations have been labeled “hate groups”.  If you don’t approve of homosexual activity, then you hate homosexuals.  If you support securing the border with Mexico and don’t approve of illegal immigration, then you hate immigrants.  If you don’t approve of people mutilating themselves and taking potentially harmful drugs in order to deal with their gender dysphoria, then you hate transgendered people.

If you don’t approve of certain sins—certain socially-acceptable sins—you are immediately called “a hater” in 2018.  Now that’s an illogical position to hold—hatred does NOT necessarily follow from disapproval—but an awful lot of people have bought into the lie that it does.  And many of those who’ve bought into the lie are teaching your children and grandchildren in schools and universities all over this country.

This really hit home with me one day a couple of years ago when a college student came to see me at the rectory.  (I mentioned this incident in a homily I gave at the time.  Some of you may remember it.)

This young man came to see me because he was struggling with his faith.  He said to me, “Fr. Ray, I’m not sure I want to be Catholic anymore.”

I said, “Why not?”

“Well,” he said, “my family all goes to church; and I did too, when I was in high school.  But when I went away to college I became friendly with some people who are gay, and I know that as Catholics we’re supposed to hate gays.  But I don’t hate these people; I like them.”

I said, “As Catholics, we’re not supposed to hate anybody.  We may not approve of some of the things they do; but even then, as the old saying goes, we’re supposed to ‘love the sinner, and hate the sin’.”

We talked for a while longer.  I tried to explain the teaching of the Church—that it’s not a sin to experience same-sex attraction; that the sin comes with certain actions that follow from the attraction (something he should have already known since he had come to my youth group when he was in high school).  I also reminded him that so-called ‘straight’ people can commit sins that are equally serious if they act on their sexual impulses in the wrong way.  I even said to him, “I know people who experience same-sex attraction—and I don’t hate them.  In fact, I consider some of them to be my friends.  Now if they’re committing a serious sin and I find out about it I certainly don’t approve of it.  (I don’t approve of anyone’s sin, including my own!)  But I definitely don’t hate them—or anyone else for that matter.”

Well, he still had some difficulty getting his mind around this idea of loving the sinner and hating the sin, so I finally said to him, “Let me ask you a question.  Do your parents love you?”

He said, “Of course they do.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Well,’ I said, ‘do your parents approve of everything you do?”

He smiled a little, and said, “No.”

I said, “Then they must hate you!  You’re saying to me that Catholics hate gays because they disapprove of some of the things that gay people do.  Well, according to that logic, your parents must hate you, because they sometimes disapprove of some of the things that you do.”

At that point, I think a ‘light bulb’ finally got turned on, and he left with a promise to reflect on what I had said.

That young man, my brothers and sisters, is not alone in his perspective.  In fact, I would say that many (maybe even most) college students right now approach contemporary moral issues with the same erroneous ideas about love and hatred in their minds that this young man had in his.

And so I have a homework assignment for you.  (Fr. Najim gave you one last week, so I’ll give you one today.) 

It’s very simple, but very important.  Recall the core idea of today’s homily, which can be expressed in one line: “Love” and “approval” are not synonyms; neither are “hatred” and “disapproval”.

Your assignment is to remember that fact and then to share it with others, especially your children and your grandchildren—who need to know it (and believe it!) long before they go to college.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Mercy—and Justice

St. Faustina and the Divine Mercy image


(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B): This homily was given on April 8, 2018, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Acts 4: 32-35; Psalm 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 John 5: 1-6; John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Divine Mercy Sunday 2018]


Getting it is easy;
Giving it is what’s difficult.
But if you don’t give it,
In the end you don’t get it.

I’m talking here about God’s mercy.  (What else do you talk about on Divine Mercy Sunday?)

Getting God’s mercy is easy—just ask Thomas the Apostle.  Jesus forgave him for his sin of disbelief the moment he repented and said those famous words, “My Lord and my God!”  Thomas didn’t have to beg Jesus, or bargain with Jesus, or grovel in the dirt before our Lord agreed to show him mercy.  All Thomas needed to do was to express his repentance in some way, and forgiveness was his.

This is the core message of Divine Mercy Sunday: that every sin can be forgiven; that every sinner can be saved; that God’s mercy (as today’s responsorial psalm reminds us) “endures forever”.  This is also the message St. Faustina gave to the world through her diary.  There she wrote about the private revelations she received from Jesus about God’s mercy during a seven year period, beginning in 1931.  One of those revelations included a vision of Jesus with two rays of light coming out of his heart.  Jesus asked her to have a painting done replicating the vision, and to have it signed with the words, “Jesus, I trust in you.”  We, of course, have a copy of that painting here in our church where the tabernacle used to be.

But it’s not only important to receive mercy (like Thomas the Apostle did); it’s also important (and necessary!) to extend mercy to others—which is the hard part.  As I said at the beginning of my homily, “getting” mercy is easy; “giving” mercy is much more difficult.  But in spite of the fact that it’s difficult, it’s not optional—at least according to Jesus.  In fact, if we don’t show mercy to others (or at least make the effort to do so in our lives), we will cut ourselves off from the mercy God wants to give us.  As I said at the beginning, “If you don’t give it, in the end you don’t get it.”  Jesus himself said as much in Matthew, chapter 6.  There, immediately after he gave us the Lord’s Prayer, he said, “If you forgive others, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.”

Notice, out of all the petitions in the Our Father—“Thy kingdom come”; “Thy will be done”; “Give us this day our daily bread”; etc.—Jesus went back to and reiterated just one.

The one about forgiveness: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

That must mean it’s EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!!!

Of course, it’s also important for us to remember in this context that practicing forgiveness and mercy does not mean that we should totally ignore or dispense with justice.

In fact, sometimes dispensing with justice is the most unmerciful thing you can do for a person—and for the people in that person’s life.  I came across a great example of this just the other day on the web site of the Washington Post.  There was an article there about a 20-year-old man from Texas named Eric Couch.  Maybe some of you know the story.  On June 13, 2013, when he was 16-years-of-age, Eric Couch killed 4 people just outside of Ft. Worth, Texas, when he plowed his father’s Ford F-350 pickup truck into a group of men and women on the side of the road who were trying to help a stranded motorist.  He seriously injured some others who were there, one of whom is now paralyzed and can communicate only by blinking.

Oh, and did I mention that Couch was drunk at the time? His lawyers claimed he was suffering from something they call “affluenza”—supposedly a condition which made him incapable of telling right from wrong because of his parents’ wealth.

The judge’s sentence?  Probation—a probation which Couch violated two years later by drinking and then fleeing the country with his mother!  The two fled after a video appeared online of Couch consuming alcohol.  He was eventually caught, taken back to the United States and sentenced—to just two years in prison (or, as the Washington Post article put it, 180 days “for each of the four people he killed” in 2013).  He was released a couple of days ago.

Only two years in prison for consuming alcohol as a minor, killing 4 people while driving recklessly and intoxicated, violating parole, fleeing the country illegally and causing an international incident.

There are some who would call that “mercy.”  Personally, I’d call that “stupidity”—in this case, “judicial stupidity”.  Letting this young man off so easily and not giving him the time or opportunity to work on his addiction and other personal issues was NOT merciful!  It would have been merciful if, in June of 2013, they had said to Couch, “Yes, we’ll give you the opportunity to change your life for the better since you’re a minor, but in your present condition you’re a danger to yourself and to everyone else in society.  Consequently, we need to remove you from society for an extended period of time so that you can deal with your demons and give us a valid reason to allow you to return to a normal way of life.  If not, you’ll have to remain incarcerated.”

That would have been the most merciful thing they could have done for this troubled young man—and for the people in his life.

There’s a beautiful prayer that was written by St. Faustina that has this line in it: “Help me, O Lord, that my ears may be merciful, so that I give heed to my neighbors’ needs and not be indifferent to their pains and moanings.”  Sometimes our neighbors need our mercy in the form of compassion, patience and understanding, but there are other times when our neighbors need our mercy in the form of “tough love.”  Eric Couch has needed the latter since 2013.  I hope and pray that someday he finally receives it—for his own sake, and for the sake of everyone else who shares the highway with him in the future.