Sunday, October 08, 2017

How to Minimize the Influence of ’Professor’ Hefner

The 'Professor'

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 8, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Philippians 4: 6-9.)

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

He only had a Bachelor of Arts degree from a university in Illinois, but he was a professor—of sorts.  In fact, you could say that he’s been the most influential professor in the United States of America in the last 50 years.  His students numbered in the millions when he was actively teaching, and that number continues to grow, even though he’s now dead—since his philosophy continues to influence (some would say “infect”) many individuals and institutions in our society.  It’s even infected some people in the Church since the 1960s—leading to those clergy sex-abuse scandals of the early 2000s.  He’s been called “a hero,” “an innovator,” “a cultural pioneer” and “an advocate for free speech, civil rights—and, of course, sexual license”.  But most of all, in my view at least, he was (and in some sense still is) a teacher, a professor. 

His name (in case you’re still wondering) is Hugh Hefner.

I call him a professor for a reason.  It’s because of what professors do.  Simply put, they “mold minds.”  That’s their job.  They train their students to think in a certain way.  Engineering professors, for example, train their students to think like engineers; law school professors train their students to think like lawyers; med school professors train their students to think like doctors.

Well the fact of the matter is that for the last 5 or 6 decades no one has influenced the thinking of more Americans than Mr. Hugh Hefner has!

That’s sad; that’s tragic—but I also believe it’s true.

So, apparently, does “Theology of the Body” expert Christopher West.  In an article he wrote a few days after Hefner’s death, West said this:
To understand the mind of Hugh Hefner is, in a way, to understand the mind of our culture. Hugh Hefner was one of the most successful “evangelists” of the modern era. His “gospel” has gone out across the globe and has had an enormous impact on the way we think about ourselves and the world. And those who call themselves Christians have been far from immune from this false gospel. I would venture to say that if the average believer in the western world spilled the contents of his or her mind on a table, thoughts and ideas about the body and sex would look a lot more like the vision Hugh Hefner promoted than, say, the “great mystery” of sexual love unfolded by John Paul II.

Hefner was one of the most vocal and active leaders in the sexual revolution that began in the 1960s—a revolution that has resulted in a sky-high divorce rate, more marital infidelity than ever before, broken families, the objectification of women, an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS—and even an increased rate of cancer (since the birth control pill is a group 1 carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization, which means that it’s “a known and probable cancer-causing agent to humans”).

Thank you so much, Professor Hefner!

This makes St. Paul’s message to us in today’s second reading all the more important—and all the more urgent.  There, in that text from Philippians 4, the apostle says this:
Finally, brothers and sisters,whatever is true, whatever is honorable,whatever is just, whatever is pure,whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,if there is any excellenceand if there is anything worthy of praise,think about these things.

Think about these things.

St. Paul rightly understood that if you “sow a thought” you will “reap an action”—as the old saying goes.  If you sow and cultivate angry thoughts, for example, your actions will reflect those thoughts, sooner or later.  By the same token, if you sow and cultivate prideful or envious or lustful thoughts, certain actions will naturally follow from those.  Every action begins with a thought.

So it should be obvious: If the majority of your thoughts are shaped by somebody like Mr. Hugh Hefner, sooner or later you’ll begin to act like him (at least to some extent).

The best way to prevent this from happening, of course, is to minimize Hefner’s influence on your thoughts and on your life.  In other words, the key is to stay out of this professor’s classroom as much as possible.

I say “as much as possible” because, unless you’re a Carthusian monk and live the life of a hermit, it’s almost impossible to stay out of Hefner’s classroom completely in 2017.  That’s because the Playboy philosophy of life has influenced almost everything in modern American culture: what young people are taught in schools (public schools, and, sad to say, even some Catholic schools); what we hear on the radio; what we see on television and in movies; what we read in novels and magazines; fashion; even sports (you can’t watch a football game these days without seeing scantily clad women in the stands or in the commercials).

Because our culture is so highly sexualized, most of us are not able to stay out of Hefner’s classroom completely.  But we can certainly MINIMIZE the amount of time we spend there—if we choose to!  And here I’m not just talking about avoiding pornography (although that’s definitely part of it). 

I’m also talking about making good choices concerning what we read, and listen to, and watch, and wear.  And I’m talking about making the decision to sit in “Jesus’ classroom” every day—especially by reading Scripture and other spiritual books and publications: reading materials that will nourish our faith and not undermine it, reading materials that will fill our minds with truth, not lies.

Because there’s a lot at stake in all this!  St. Paul told the Philippians to think thoughts that were honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious and worthy of praise because he knew that those thoughts would lead the Philippians to certain actions, and those actions would ultimately have eternal consequences.

As the old saying goes (part of which I quoted a few minutes ago):
Sow a thought, reap an action;Sow an action, reap a habit;Sow a habit, reap a character;Sow a character, reap a destiny.
Lord Jesus, help us to say no to the mind-molding efforts of Hugh Hefner, which we still have to deal with each and every day even though he’s dead.  And, at the same time, give us the grace and determination to sow the right thoughts in our minds each and every day, so that we will reap a destiny—an eternal destiny—with you.  Amen.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Importance of Avoiding ‘Cheap Talk’

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 1, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 21: 28-32.)

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

Talk is cheap.

Many of us (probably most of us) have heard that saying before.  I don’t know its origin, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was first used many years ago after someone read the gospel passage we just heard—this text from Matthew 21.

Because this is certainly one of the messages we get from the parable Jesus tells us here about the man with two sons.  When the man told his first son to go and work in his vineyard, the boy responded negatively.  He said, “Forget it, Daddy-O, I’ve got better things to do with my time.”

But afterward he had second thoughts, and went.

Then the man asked his other son, who said, “Right away, Pops, anything for you.”

But he never went. 

His talk was cheap—very cheap.  In fact, his word was basically worth nothing.

And you can’t get any “cheaper” than that.

Which brings me to the controversy that’s going on right now in the National Football League, concerning players who are kneeling or sitting for the National Anthem at the beginning of games—ostensibly to protest the oppression that some African-Americans feel in this country from whites, and the mistreatment of some blacks by certain members of the law enforcement community.

Now I’m not sure where you stand on this issue.  There’s no official “Catholic position” on it; it’s one of those matters that good Catholics are free to disagree on.

Personally, I think it’s disrespectful.  But that’s just my opinion.  I’m always careful in my homily to distinguish between official Church teaching and my own personal views.  Personally, I think there are better ways to address this problem.  You might disagree, and that’s certainly your prerogative.

But, regardless of what side of the issue each of us falls on, there’s one question we should ALL have for these professional football players:

What are you DOING about it?  What are you doing, PERSONALLY, to improve race relations in this country?  What are you doing to make the relationship between black young people and the police better in the city where you are blessed to play professional football? 

You see, these players—by taking a knee or sitting down or not coming out on the field for the National Anthem—are actually speaking.  They’re speaking, they’re making a statement—a clear and definite statement of protest—with their bodies.

But, as we learn from this gospel parable, TALK IS CHEAP—even when it’s that type of talk!

It means nothing, unless it’s followed by action.

And the thing is, these players are in a great position to take action and make a positive impact in the area of race relations, since their popularity usually crosses racial and ethnic lines.  For example, Patriot fans don’t like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski because they’re white; they don’t like Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty because they’re black.

They like those guys because they’re New England Patriots!

It doesn’t matter what the color of their skin is!

(Not to most people, anyway.)

These great athletes can make a difference—a very positive difference—if they choose to act in constructive ways off the football field and in their local communities.

Maybe Angela Tafone from our parish could help them.  Maybe Angela could meet with every team in the National Football League in the near future and explain to them the importance of action: the importance doing what you’re able to do to help other people in this life.

I thought of this after I received an email from Angela earlier this week.  She’s now a freshman at Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire.  Here’s what she wrote:

Hi, Father.
College is going well; you are in my daily prayers.  I joined the campus ministry club on campus.  A couple of Saturdays ago, we did a service day at the Ann Marie house, which is a home for families in poverty.  I got to play with the children, which was a great experience for me, being able to help others and help those families.  Afterwards, I felt rewarded that I had done the right thing, by putting a smile on the kids’ faces and being a good Christian—especially this one girl I was playing with.  She was happy even though she doesn't have a home.  Afterwards, I felt grateful that I helped these families by just making them happy and that we were there to help. I wanted to share my experience with you.  Figured you would like to hear this.  I'll be back in Westerly for Columbus Day weekend.

When it comes to Christian charity, young Angela Tafone is avoiding “cheap talk.”  In other words, she’s putting the words she speaks with her mouth about loving her neighbor as herself into action.  Consequently she’s making a positive difference in the lives of people in need in Nashua, New Hampshire.

God bless her!

May the Lord give us the grace to do that for the people he puts in our lives, and may he give those protesting NFL players the knowledge and desire they need to act in ways that will bring blacks and whites together in this country, and not tear them apart.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Importance of Developing a Divine Perspective on Reality

Kermit the Frog also likes to look out the window when he flies.  Here I think he's looking for Sesame Street.

(Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 24, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 55: 6-9; Philippians 1: 20-27; Matthew 20: 1-16a.)

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

When I flew down to Maryland to celebrate my uncle’s funeral Mass two weeks ago, I had a window seat on the airplane.  And so, once we were in the air for a few minutes, I did what I normally do after a few minutes in the window seat: I looked out and tried to figure out where we were (what we were flying over)—and especially where Westerly was.  (I wanted to give you all a little wave.)  Now sometimes I can do that: sometimes I’m able to pick out certain landmarks from the air and tell you exactly what city or town is down below.  I’m able to do that mostly when I’m flying south and we pass over Westerly early in the flight.  But I find that almost impossible to do when I’m flying into Providence.  That’s because the world looks so different from “up there”!  Things that we see “down here” every day take on a different look when our perspective changes from “the horizontal” to “the vertical”.

Which should help us to understand the Lord’s message to us in today’s first reading from Isaiah 55, where he says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

In other words, God’s perspective on the world, from his vantage point heaven, is a lot different from our perspective on the world from our vantage point here on earth!

  • ·         God sees the whole picture; we don’t.
  • ·         God sees how everything in this life—including our sin and our suffering—can work for our good, if we allow it to.  We don’t see that, most of the time.
  • ·         God sees the reality—and the horror—of sin.  We don’t always—which is why we sin.

The challenge of this life (or at least one of the challenges of this life) is to try to see reality from God’s perspective—to the extent that we can on this side of the grave.

Like St. Paul did.  In today’s second reading, for example, from Philippians 1, Paul actually talks about his future physical death as something positive.  He does that because he knows, by faith, that his death will bring him to God.  St. Paul had a divine perspective on dying—as well as a divine perspective on living.  He says there, “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain.  If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.  And I do not know which I shall choose. … I long to be with Christ, for that is far better.  Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”

One way to test whether or not you are developing a divine perspective on things is to ask yourself this question:  In today’s gospel reading, who were the blessed ones?  Who were the real winners in this parable that Jesus tells?  Was it the workers who got the reward for doing next to nothing?  Was it the workers who came in the final hour of the day and did the least amount of work?

No!  Someone with a divine perspective would say that the truly blessed ones here were the ones who worked the longest, the ones who worked the entire day from dawn to dusk.

He’d say that because those who worked all day fulfilled their purpose better and more completely than the others did!  Notice that all the men who were hired that day were “laborers”.  That was their call; that was their purpose: to work in the landowner’s vineyard and bring him good fruit.  The ones who started at dawn did that for the longest period of time—and brought in a lot of great fruit; those who came on board at the very end spent most of their day bored and wasting time and consequently brought in very little good fruit.

Obviously, of course, this parable is a metaphor for life, reminding us that even those who convert on their deathbeds can be saved.

But those who convert at the end will often say, regretfully, “How I wasted all those years!” 

When they say that, they’re right.  For all those previous years they failed to achieve their true purpose: to know, to love and to serve the Lord.  And even though they will go to heaven at the end of it all, the fact that they waited until the 11th hour will probably effect the depth of the beatitude that they will experience there.  Remember, Jesus does distinguish between “the least” and “the greatest” in his Father’s eternal kingdom.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

Coming to see reality from God’s perspective—that is to say, understanding the Lord’s ways and thoughts—is an ongoing process.  No one—including St. Paul—has understood the Lord’s ways and thoughts completely during their time on this earth.  That’s because as human beings we are finite and sinful creatures, while God is infinite and sinless. 

And so, because we don’t see everything the way that God sees it, certain trials and sufferings trouble us.  They trouble us because they don’t make sense from our narrow, human perspective:
  • ·         Why did God allow those two recent hurricanes to do so much damage to the property of so many people in so many different places?
  • ·         Why did God allow that school in Mexico to collapse and kill 19 children during earthquake last week?
  • ·         Why does God allow the killing of the innocent to continue in our world through abortion and euthanasia and genocide?
  • ·         Why did God allow me to get gout last week?  The night I came back from our pilgrimage to Ireland my left big toe began to hurt like it’s never hurt before.  The doctor told me it was gout—which prompted me to turn to God and say, “Lord, I don’t get it.  I go on this pilgrimage to get healed, and I end up getting another cross!  There’s something wrong with this picture, Lord!  That makes no sense.”

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,” says the Lord.

It’s easy to trust God when you understand the “why” of something; it’s much harder to trust God when you don’t understand the “why”.

Today we should pray for the grace to do both.

I want to close today with a meditation that I’m sure many of you have heard before.  But it bears repeating here, because it reminds us that God is always at work—even in the chaos and confusion of our lives.  The meditation compares the events of this life to the threads of a weaving.  As most of you know, if you look at a weaving from the underside, it looks messy: there’s no pattern to it; threads are hanging from it; it’s not attractive at all.  It’s only when you look at the weaving from the other side (the upper side) that you see how all those different threads have blended together to form a beautiful work of art.

It reminds us that when, by the grace of God, we get to heaven, our vision will finally be perfected, and God’s thoughts and ways will be our thoughts and ways—forever:

My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.

Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.

Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned

He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Offering Your Body as a Living Sacrifice

My Uncle Mike and Aunt Carine

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

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

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

I’m sure many of you can relate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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