Sunday, September 08, 2019

Legality and Morality

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 8, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 9:13-18b; Psalm 90:3-17; the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon; Luke 14:25-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2019]

What do the following things have in common (aside from the fact that they’re all evil)? 
  •          Slavery
  •          Segregation
  •          Abortion
  •          Producing pornography
  •          Physician-assisted suicide
  •          The Holocaust
  •          Prostitution
  •          Apartheid

The answer is: Somewhere in the world, at some time in the recent or distant past, all those things I just mentioned have been legal.

And some still are.

Slavery was legal in the United States until 1865.  In other countries it’s still legal.  The Civil Rights’ Movement in the 1960s happened because at the time segregation was legal in many of our southern states.  The Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.  Producing pornography is a legal, billion dollar industry in the United States and in most other places.  Seven states in our country have legalized physician-assisted suicide in recent years.  So has Washington, D.C.  Hitler legalized the Holocaust himself.  According to one organization that monitors such things, prostitution is legal in more than 70 countries in the world right now—and in our own state of Nevada.  Apartheid only ended in South Africa a couple of decades ago.

Many people in our country confuse legality with morality.  Thus they presume that if something becomes legal, it automatically becomes moral.  But that’s not the case, as these 8 examples illustrate quite clearly.  Slavery, segregation, abortion, producing pornography, physician-assisted suicide, the Holocaust, prostitution and apartheid are all immoral whether or not they’re legal in any country or every country.

Which brings us to today’s second reading, which is taken from one of the shortest books in the New Testament—St. Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

Philemon was a wealthy Colossian man who had become a believer in Christ through Paul’s missionary efforts. He was also a slave owner, like many other wealthy men of his time. Lest we forget, in the first century world slavery was pretty much a universal phenomenon.  In the Roman Empire it was certainly legal, and since Christians had no political influence at the time, men like St. Paul were in no position to change existing Roman laws.  The most someone like Paul could do in Colossians 4 and in Ephesians 6 was to tell masters to treat their slaves with fairness and with kindness, so hopefully Philemon treated his slaves with greater respect after his conversion.

But nonetheless he did own them.  

One of these slaves was a young man named Onesimus. Well at some point prior to the writing of this letter, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon—and he had taken some of his master’s “stuff” in the process! That made Onesimus a thief as well as a runaway slave.

But then he met St. Paul, who happily converted him to Christ. (Paul at the time was in prison.) The apostle then sent Onesimus back to Philemon; he sent the runaway slave back to his master—along with this letter.

He sent him back because of the existing civil law in the Roman Empire, but in the process he made clear that he wanted Philemon to freely make the choice to do what was morally right, and disregard what was legally permitted.

His message to the slave owner was basically, “Look, I could order you to do the right thing here and free Onesimus, since I’m your spiritual father: I’m the one who brought you to Christ. But I’m not going to do that. I want you to do the right thing of your own free will. I want you to choose to act virtuously here. So I’m honoring the law of the Roman Empire—unjust though it is—and I’m sending Onesimus back to you. But please understand that after he escaped from your service, I brought him to the faith. He’s also my spiritual child now. And if he’s my spiritual child and you’re my spiritual child that makes the two of you brothers: brothers in the Lord. So I ask you to receive him back as your brother and not as your slave. And if he owes you anything because of what he stole, charge it to me. As his father and as his friend, I’ll be more than happy to pay his bill.”

St. Paul understood that legality and morality are two different things in this fallen world of ours.  In a perfect world, of course, they would be the same.  Exactly the same!  In a perfect world without any sin in it, all of our civil laws would be rooted in the natural moral law (that’s the law we find, primarily, in the Ten Commandments).

But this world is far from perfect—as we see every election year when we go to the polls to vote for the people who want to be the makers of our laws.  And so, as Catholics—as Christians—the important question, the key question, the crucial question for us on Election Day should always be: Which candidate will best support the natural moral law in his or her legislative work?  In other words, which one will do the most to make what’s moral, legal?

And that’s the person we should vote for—always!

Sunday, September 01, 2019

The Irony of Humility

(Twenty-second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 1, 2019 St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 3:17-29; Psalm 68:4-11; Hebrews 5:18-24A; Luke 14:1, 7-14.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-second Sunday 2019

You could call it “the irony of humility” or “the irony about humility”.  The irony of humility is this:

  •          The more you consider yourself to be humble, the less humble you actually are. 
  •          The more you think that you’ve mastered the virtue of humility in your life, the less humility you actually have in your heart.

Thinking that you’re humble, my brothers and sisters, is really a manifestation of pride (which, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins!).  You might say that the person who thinks he’s humble is merely proud of his humility—although he misunderstands what humility actually is.

Jesus makes the importance of humility crystal clear in this gospel text we just heard from Luke 14, as does Sirach in our first reading when he says, My child, conduct your affairs with humility, and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.  Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.”

Now, contrary to popular belief, the genuinely humble person does not think less of himself than he should.  That’s a very common misunderstanding.  Thinking less of yourself than you should is called “having a poor self-image”—and that’s not what the Lord wants for us.  Quite oppositely, the genuinely humble person DOES think of himself as he should—because he knows and accepts the full truth about himself!  The genuinely humble person knows, for example, that he’s created in the image and likeness of God, and as such has a dignity and value beyond anything else in the material universe.  He also understands that God loves him just as he is—but too much to let him stay that way!

The genuinely humble person knows that he’s been given gifts—that he’s been blessed in special and unique ways by God—and that everything that’s truly good in his life and in his heart comes ultimately from the Lord.  So he gives God (and not himself) the glory for all of it.  And, at the very same time, the genuinely humble person sees himself as a wretched sinner: a sinner who needs reconciliation with God every single day!  He knows that he can’t save himself by his good deeds; he knows that he can’t earn God’s forgiveness by his own power; and so every day he makes the tax collector’s prayer his own: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 

Thus the truly humble person would never make the mistake of taking the place of prominence at the banquet table that Jesus talks about in this gospel text.  He’d know better.

I came across a great quote of Mother Teresa’s this past week about humility.  Mother Teresa said, “If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.”

Whenever I read a quote like that, I realize how far I have to go to achieve genuine humility in my own life.  But that’s to be expected, because growing in humility is a lifelong process: a process which will only stop when we go before the Lord at the end of our earthly lives and see ourselves in God’s perfect light. Then, and only then, will we see his greatness and our weakness with perfect clarity.

Now if ever, in the future, you are tempted to think otherwise; if ever, in the future, you are tempted to think that you no longer need to be part of this process—that you no longer need to grow in the virtue of humility in your life—my suggestion is to get yourself a copy of the Litany of Humility and read it.  Read it slowly; read it carefully; think about what you’re saying.  That should help to cure you of your pride very quickly.

Without a doubt, this is one of the most difficult and challenging prayers that’s ever been written.  In all honesty, because of my own pride, I have a very hard time praying it from my heart.  Interestingly enough, it was written in the early 20th century by Cardinal Merry del Val—who was the Vatican Secretary of State under Pope St. Pius X.  I’ll conclude my homily today by reading the prayer to you.  Some of you know it, I’m sure.  By the way, if you do know it, I would respectfully ask you not to pray it out loud along with me today.  Just listen.  Just listen carefully to the words:

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

If you can say that prayer—and truly mean it!—it’s a sign that you’re on the right road in your life.  And that’s great!  Praise God for his grace at work within you!  But then don’t make the mistake—the catastrophic mistake—of thinking you’ve reached the goal of becoming a genuinely humble person, because (as I said at the beginning of my homily) the minute—the second—you think you’re humble, you’re not!

That’s the irony of humility.  It’s also the truth.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

So Great a Cloud of Witnesses!

St. John Neumann

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (c): This homily was given on August 18, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 38:4-10; Psalm 40:2-18; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2019]

In the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, the author mentions Abraham, Sarah, and several other Old Testament saints.  He then begins chapter 12 with the words we heard in today’s second reading: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .” 

So great a cloud of witnesses.  All the saints, Old Testament and New, are present in that unseen cloud.  They are praying for us, and cheering us on, so that we will do what it says in that text: so that we will repent of our sins and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus; so that we will persevere in faith even in the midst of our trials and sufferings; so that we will be open to the many graces and blessings the Lord wishes to give us in our lives.

I was reminded of all this in a powerful way one night a number of years ago, as I watched a most fascinating story on the Learning Channel.  (By the way, please keep that in mind.  This story that I’m about to tell you was on the Learning Channel—not EWTN!)  I tuned in to the program after it had already started, but I quickly realized that what I was seeing in front of me on the television screen was the reenactment of a real event, something that supposedly happened about 25 years ago in the city of Philadelphia.   

It all began with a little boy lying in a hospital bed in a coma.  In the room with him were his doctor, his parents, and a priest.  The priest reached into his pocket at one point and gave the parents a holy card with St. John Neumann’s picture on it.  (John Neumann was the Bishop of Philadelphia in the middle of the 19th century.  He was canonized by the Church in 1977.  Some people confuse him with John Henry Newman, who will be canonized on October 13th of this year.  But they are two different people.) 

In addition the holy card, the priest also gave the boy’s parents a medal with Neumann’s picture on it.  I should mention at this point that, when all of this happened, the mother was a person of faith, but the father was not.  In fact, when the priest gave them the card and the medal, the father said angrily, “What good will these do my son?” 

After a few seconds, though, he apologized to the priest and took the two gifts. 

Well, a few days later the doctor gave the parents the bad news they had dreaded: their son only had a few hours or a few days to live.  The parents were devastated, of course, and they decided that they would take shifts and stay with their son around the clock until he died.  They didn’t want him to be left alone, and they certainly didn’t want him to die alone. 

At one point during one of her visits, the mother woke up from a deep sleep, and she saw a little boy standing next to her son’s bed.  He had a cap on his head and a ball in his hand.  He was looking at her son and smiling.  The boy never spoke to her, but he motioned to the mother with his arm, indicating that he wanted her to follow him.  So she did.  He led her out of the room and down the hall to the entrance of another room.  But before the mother had the chance to go inside, the doctor came along and began talking with her.  When she turned back to look for the boy he was gone.

She didn’t think much of the occurrence—until it happened again.  The boy led her to the very same room, but this time, just before she entered it, her husband came running up and told her that their son was dying.  They ran back into his room—joining the doctor and the priest—and they watched as their son stopped breathing, and all the machines monitoring the boy’s vital signs went to zero. 

Not surprisingly, the parents began to cry; the doctor and the priest looked at each other with tears in their eyes.  But then—all of a sudden—the boy started breathing again, and the numbers on the machines went back to normal!

Shortly thereafter he opened his eyes, smiled at his mother, and got up—like he had just awakened from an afternoon nap!  The doctor, of course, was flabbergasted and had no medical explanation for the event. 

Later, when the boy was talking with his parents, he said, “Mommy, you have to meet my new friend. His name is Johnny.  We’ve been playing together and having so much fun.”  The mother thought the boy must have been dreaming when he was in the coma. 

At that point the father gave the holy card back to the priest and said, “Thank you, Father.  Thank you so much.”  The mother then noticed that there was a second picture on the back of the card.  She said, “Father, may I see that?”  When she looked at it, she gasped!  She said, “Father, whose picture is this?”  The priest replied, “Oh, that’s a picture of St. John Neumann when he was a little boy.” 

The woman said, “That’s the child I’ve been seeing next to my son’s bed!”  The son then caught a glimpse of the card and said, “Mommy, that’s my new friend Johnny that I was telling you about!” 

The woman suddenly remembered that the boy had twice tried to lead her into another hospital room.  So she immediately got up and went to the room with her husband and son.  There she was astonished to find her father, whom she had not seen in many years.  Apparently he had done something decades earlier which had deeply offended her, and he had had no contact with her since.  Now he was dying of cancer.  He said to her, “I’ve been praying that somehow I would get to see you before I died, so that I could ask you to forgive me for what I did.”

And so the story ended with a beautiful moment of reconciliation between father and daughter.

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses . . .”

As that story illustrates so beautifully, St. John Neumann is in that cloud.  So is our Blessed Mother.  So are Abraham and Sarah.  So are all those people who have left this life and gone to heaven.  Needless to say, it’s a very BIG cloud!  As believers, we should look to that cloud often, and we should look to that cloud with confidence, saying, “All you holy men and women, all you saints of God, pray for us—that we will love God and others as you did, that we will be open to God’s many gifts as you were, that we will live in faith and persevere in faith as you did, so that someday we will join you—all of you—forever—in that glorious cloud of heaven.  Amen.”

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Solemnity of the Assumption and the Dignity of Motherhood

(Solemnity of the Assumption 2019: This homily was given on August 15, 2019 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Revelation 11:19a; 12: 1-10; Luke 1: 39-56.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Assumption 2019]

As we honor the Blessed Mother on this Solemnity of her Assumption, we are reminded in a special way of the importance and dignity of motherhood.

At the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body did not decompose in any tomb.  The Catholic Church authoritatively teaches that at the end of her life, Mary was assumed—body and soul—into heaven.  That’s the dogma that stands behind today’s feast.

Mary was given this special privilege because of her great holiness, but we must always remember that her holiness was inseparable from her motherhood.  She didn’t live a perfectly sinless and holy life in a vacuum somewhere; she lived a perfectly sinless and holy life as a wife and as a mother.  Recall how Mary was portrayed in our first reading today from Revelation 12: she was portrayed as the mother of the Savior: the Son “destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod.”

And in today’s Gospel we hear her beautiful words in the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior . . . “ 

What was Mary talking about there?  In what was she rejoicing?

she was rejoicing in Her motherhood!  In the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, she was rejoicing at the news God had just given her through the angel Gabriel at the Annunciation.

Our world today does not have a deep appreciation for motherhood.  Want some proof of that assertion?  Talk to a woman who’s had several children!  Ask her how some of her friends and family members reacted to the news of her later pregnancies:  “What?  Again?  Another one?  Are you crazy?”

Those of you who are mothers with several children, please hear me this morning: You don’t have to apologize to anybody!  Our culture needs to apologize to you!

The truth is, we live in a world right now where many people are trying to come up with clever new ways to kill human life in its earliest stages: new kinds of chemical contraceptives, new ways to perform abortions, new ways to tamper with frozen human embryos (embryos, by the way, which should never be “created” in petri dishes to begin with!)

This is why the world hates mothers who generously give life: they prick consciences!  Those who embrace the culture of selfishness and death are deeply troubled by those who witness powerfully to the culture of life in their own families—and by the size of their families.

May Mary, our Blessed Mother, intercede in a special way today for all those women who generously give life.  May they achieve holiness in the same way that Mary did—in and through their motherhood.  And may their children be holy as well, so that, with them, they will someday rejoice forever in God’s kingdom—as Mary now rejoices eternally with her divine Son.