Sunday, July 25, 2021

Soggy Fish Sandwiches?


 

Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 25, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read 2 Kings 4: 42-44; Psalm 145: 10-18; Ephesians 4: 1-6; John 6: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2021]

 

The late Fr. Benedict Groeschel used to refer to it—disdainfully—as “the soggy fish sandwich theory.”  This, he said, is the way some modern Scripture scholars try to explain away the miracle story we just heard from John 6: the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.  Since these professors do not believe that miracles are possible, they theorize that many of the people who came to hear Jesus that day already had bread and fish with them! And once they saw the disciples passing out the five loaves and the two fish that they had been given (in other words, once they saw the disciples sharing their food in this way), they decided to do the same thing.  And so the miracle was NOT that the loaves and fishes literally multiplied; the miracle was that the people who had bread and fish SHARED with the people who didn’t have any!  Everyone then ate to their heart’s content—and, amazingly, they still had some soggy fish sandwiches left over.  Fr. Groeschel usually ended his reflection on this subject by saying, “It makes me sick.”  Needless to say, he did not buy into the soggy fish sandwich theory!

The problem here is that even though these Scripture scholars claim to be believers, they have a preconceived prejudice against the supernatural.  In other words, if they can’t explain it in purely human terms, then (according to them) it could not have possibly happened.  And there are many people in the world today who have this attitude.  All of them, by the way, could take a lesson from one of the greatest scientists who ever lived—Albert Einstein.  One day many years ago Einstein was visited by a young priest from New York named Charles McTague.  They sat down in his office, and Einstein proceeded to tell Fr. McTague that he wanted to talk to him about (of all things) the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Eucharist.  It seems that Einstein was fascinated by the idea of a substance that you can’t see; a substance that has no shape or size or color.  (“A substance with no accidents,” as we say in theology.)  As many of us know, the Church teaches that at the consecration of the Mass the substance of the bread and wine becomes the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, even though the accidents (in other words, the physical qualities) of the bread and wine remain.  Finally, at the end of the conversation, Einstein said to the priest, “Please send me any books in German that you can find that tell me about the Holy Eucharist.”  And that’s what Fr. McTague did.

Now what I find most interesting about this story is the fact that Einstein was open to the possibility of the supernatural.  He didn’t say, “My mind is the measure of all things, and if I can’t explain something using my scientific categories, then it doesn’t exist.”  His attitude was, “Maybe there’s something to it.  Maybe it’s true.  And if that’s the case, then I need to be open to this truth, even it’s beyond the categories of physical science.”

Perhaps Einstein would not have been surprised by the story that a parishioner once told me about an experience he had in Okinawa back in the 1940s, during the Second World War.  The parishioner said, “Two of my friends and I were walking on the beach in Okinawa one Sunday morning, and we came across a small, flat-bottomed boat; so we decided to take it for a ride.  Well, we had only been out for about five minutes, when a big storm hit.  We tried to paddle back to the shore but we couldn’t make it.  We thought for sure that we were going to die.  My friends were crying, but I was praying!  I prayed the Act of Contrition, the Our Father, and the Hail Mary.  We were tossed around in that storm for several hours.  Finally, at one point, I looked up, and I saw this large blue light near the boat.  My friends didn’t see it, but I did.  I had a strong sense that it was the Blessed Mother watching over us.  Then, all of a sudden, a boat appeared behind the light, and we were rescued. 

“Afterward, I spoke to the captain of the ship.  I said, ‘How did you find us in that horrible storm?’  The captain said, ‘Well, I spotted a strange, blue light off in the distance.  I decided to follow that light, and I ended up at your boat.’”

Was it the Blessed Mother?  Could it possibly have been the Blessed Mother?  Could it possibly have been a supernatural event?  If we believe in the “soggy fish sandwich theory” of the gospel story we just heard, then we will say, “No way; it’s impossible; it was just a stroke of good luck; it was just a coincidence.”  Personally, given the fact that I hate soggy fish sandwiches, I am of a different opinion.  I hope and pray that you are too. 

 

Sunday, July 04, 2021

What Would Our Founding Fathers Say?

 



(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 4, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 2:2-5; Psalm 123:1-4; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourteenth Sunday 2021]

 

What would our Founding Fathers say?

If they could be resurrected to this life for a brief period of time, and could survey the current state of affairs in the country they helped to establish, what do you think their reaction would be?

Unfortunately, we can’t know the answer to that question with absolute certainty.  We can’t know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, exactly what they would say in the face of contemporary American culture.

But we can certainly venture a guess!—based on the things they DID say and write more than 200 years ago.

For example:

Here’s a great quote from John Adams, the second President of the United States: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Based on that remark, I think President Adams would say to us, “The Constitution is failing you right now in the United States, because you’ve allowed yourselves to become another kind of people.  To a great extent, your culture is no longer moral or religious.”

Here’s one from Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence: “[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.  Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.”

I think Mr. Rush would say to us today, “Have you noticed that there’s a lot of ‘mischief’ in your society right now—mischief which is often sanctioned and promoted by some of your most highly-educated, anti-religious citizens?  That’s not a coincidence.”

Here’s one from John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court: “The Bible is the best of all books, for it is the word of God and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and in the next.  Continue therefore to read it and to regulate your life by its precepts.”

Can you imagine what Chief Justice Jay would say about the current attempt to remove all references to God from the public life of our country?  He’d probably say, “That’s the biggest mistake you could possibly make, America.”

And finally there are these two from George Washington (you all know who he was): “Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society”; and “It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible.”

In 2021, George would probably say, “Two hundred years ago I told you it was impossible to govern properly without reference to God and the Scriptures, but you obviously didn’t believe me.  Good luck trying to do it another way.”

I think all these Founding Fathers would highly approve of the 3 Scripture readings that God has given us on this Independence Day weekend.  They would find them most appropriate, given the current state of affairs in our nation.  For example, you could very easily make the case that the United States right now is on the verge of a kind of internal collapse just like the Kingdom of Judah was on the verge of collapse for its infidelity at the time of Ezekiel, the prophet.  As we heard in today’s first reading, they were “a rebellious house.”

And when you think of all the prophetic people that God has sent to us Americans in recent decades, calling us to reform, calling us to turn away from materialism and hedonism and all the manifestations of the culture of death—people like St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and a host of lesser voices; when you think of all these prophetic souls and how they have been—and still are—ridiculed in popular culture and in our nation’s universities, you can’t help but think of the way Jesus was treated by the people of his own hometown of Nazareth 2,000 years ago.  As we heard in today’s gospel reading, “they took offense at him.”  They tuned him out and refused to believe his message because they thought he was too “ordinary.”  To use the modern lingo, Jesus wasn’t “woke” enough for them, so they decided to “cancel” him out.

But notice there were consequences to their disbelief.  Mark tells us that because of their lack of faith, Jesus was not able to do for the people of his hometown what he wanted to do for them! 

The evangelist wrote, “So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying hands on them.  He was amazed at their lack of faith.”

The people of Nazareth couldn’t have it both ways, and neither can we as citizens of this great nation.  If we want God’s blessings in abundance—blessings like peace and justice— then we need to take him and his word seriously.  It’s that simple.  Chief Justice John Jay understood that truth 200 years ago, as did most of our other Founding Fathers.

We need to re-learn it in our generation.

Thankfully, God does promise us sufficient grace in today’s second reading to deal with whatever will come in the future for our country.  We can take some consolation in this: the Lord will be there to help those who are faithful to him no matter what happens.  His words to St. Paul in this text from 2 Corinthians 12 are also spoken to us as individuals: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

In the meantime, if we truly love our country, we should pray every day for the conversion of more of our citizens.  (That’s because good Christians—at least in my view—make the best citizens.)  We should also work for positive change in our nation as best we can by promoting virtue and actively opposing vice.  And we should resolve in future elections to support only those men and women who actually believe in the principles our Founding Fathers believed in—starting with the right to life, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

I will close my homily now with a prayer for our nation that I found a while back online.  As I pray these words out loud, I invite you to join me in praying them in your heart:

 God our Father,

Giver of life, we entrust the United States of America to your loving care.

You are the rock upon which this nation was founded.

You alone are the true source of our cherished rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Reclaim this land for your glory, and dwell among your people.

Send your Spirit to touch the hearts of our nation’s leaders.

Open their minds to the great worth of human life and the responsibilities that accompany human freedom.

Remind your people that true happiness is rooted in seeking and doing your will.

Through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, Patroness of our land, grant us the courage to reject the culture of death.  Lead us into a new era of life.

We ask all this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

‘The Three P Approach’ to Situations of Tragic Death

 


(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on June 27, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Wisdom 1:13-15; 2:23-24; Psalm 30:2-13; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Matthew 5:22-43.)

 [For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2021]


  • What do you say to a mother and father who recently lost a child in a terrible car accident?
  • What do you say to a mother and father whose 4-month-old son died (something that happened here in our community just a couple of weeks ago)?
  • What do you say to a young person whose father or mother or spouse recently died of cancer or a heart attack while in the prime of their life?
  • What do you say to a parent whose child committed suicide?

 

My brothers and sisters, these questions I just asked all involve situations of tragic death.

Every death of someone we love is sad, but some situations of death (like the ones in the 4 questions I just mentioned) have the added dimension of being tragedies.

We usually say, “I’m sorry” in such circumstances, and that’s okay.  We should say that we’re sorry and offer our sincere condolences to all those who are grieving deeply over the loss of a loved one.

But then what?

What can we do to ease the pain and confusion these men and women are experiencing as they struggle to make sense of something that on the surface appears to be senseless?

Well, the bad news is that we can never take all the pain away, no matter how hard we try.  Even if we do and say all the “right things,” the person who’s dealing with the tragedy will still have to face a cross of suffering.

We might wish that we could wave a magic wand and make everything better, but we can’t.

Which is not to say that we’re helpless and can’t do anything!  We can’t make everything perfect for them—that’s true; but it is possible for us to be instruments that God uses to help them bear their cross more effectively and experience some inner healing in their lives.

That much is within our power.

Based on my 35 years of helping people face tragedies in their lives as an ordained priest, I would advise “the Three P Approach” in these situations.  The “Three Ps” stand for presence, perspective and prayer.

When you’re trying to help a friend cope with a tragic death, take this “Three P Approach” and I believe you’ll help them as much as you can.

The first “P” there stands for presenceyour presence.  That is so important for those who are grieving.  And this is precisely where many people fail.  They sometimes stay away from those who have recently experienced a tragic death, because they feel awkward and don’t know what to say.

Well, join the club, because I don’t always know what to say, either.

But I go to these families, because I know that my being there is important to them and gives them support—even more than my words do!

In fact, if you surveyed all the people I’ve ministered to in the midst of tragedy and said to them, “What did Fr. Ray say to you when he came to your house—or to the hospital—or to the nursing home—after your loved one died?” I’m confident that 95% of them couldn’t tell you anything I said!

But they’ll remember that I was there!  They’ll remember that I was there to be with them in one of the most difficult moments of their lives.

And they’ll remember that you were there.

You really don’t have to say anything—at least initially.  In fact, sometimes it’s better when you don’t say anything. 

My father died of cancer when I was 14.  For me, it was a terrible tragedy—he was only 46-years-old.  That night my good friend Frank Chianese came over.  He spent the night at our house.

Now I couldn’t tell you one single thing that Frank said to me when he was there that night of September 10, 1971.

Not one single thing.

But I definitely DO remember that he was there!  Obviously, at that point his presence was much more important to me than his words were. 

Notice that Jesus Christ was always with people in the midst of their suffering.  Today’s gospel story is just one example of Jesus being present to people in pain.

That’s an example we should all strive to follow.

Of course, eventually words do become important—usually long after the funeral is over.  Here we have to be careful not to become preachy or to oversimplify matters, because if we do we will probably come across as harsh and insensitive.

But speak we should—gently and respectfully doing our best to help the hurting person find the right perspective (this is the second P of the Three P Approach).

Today’s first reading can be a big help in this regard.  In fact, I often refer to this passage of Scripture at the funeral Masses of those who have died in tragic circumstances.

Let’s face it, when their loved ones die tragically, many people tend to blame God, as if God were “the Dealer of Death”!  But that’s the wrong perspective to have, because it’s just not true.  God is (as we say in the Nicene Creed every Sunday) “the Lord and giver of life”; he’s not the Dealer of Death!

Physical death came into the world when sin came into the world.  It was not a part of God’s original plan for the human race. As it says here, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. . . . God formed man to be imperishable. . . . But by the envy of the devil death entered the world.”

God allows us to experience physical death—yes—but he’s also provided the remedy for physical death through his Son, Jesus Christ: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him may not die but may have eternal life.”

Through words like these, spoken always in gentleness and love, we need to do our best to help victims of tragedy find the right perspective on God and on their situation.

We need to help them understand that God is their friend, not their enemy—and that it’s in him (and only in him) that they have hope of seeing their deceased loved one again.

Which brings us to the last P of the Three P Approach: Prayer.  Presence and perspective are both important and necessary—but prayer is the source of the power that makes those first two “Ps” effective.

The Mass, of course, is the most powerful prayer of all.  This means that it’s appropriate to have Masses said, not only for those who have died, but also for those who are still alive and grieving.  Or, at the very least, we should remember them when we’re here at Mass—and especially when we go back to our pews to pray after Communion.

Outside of the Mass, any prayer will do.  We could even take one of the psalms in the Old Testament and turn it into a prayer for a friend who is suffering in this way.  Look at the last stanza of today’s responsorial psalm.  It reads, “Hear, O Lord, and have pity on me; O Lord, be my helper.  You changed my mourning into dancing.” 

You could pray that line for a friend who’s just experienced a tragic death in his family by asking the Lord to fulfill those words in your friend’s life: “O Lord, have pity on my friend; be his helper; change his mourning into dancing; give him peace and joy again in his life.”

Presence, perspective, prayer: the Three P Approach to situations of tragic death.

Now that we all know this approach, I would say that God expects us to put it into practice to the best of our ability. 

He will be counting on us—and so will many of our suffering friends. 

Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Faith/our faith and the Holy Eucharist




(Corpus Christi 2021 (B): This homily was given on June 6, 2021 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-18; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26.)

[For the audio version of this homily, Corpus Christi 2021]

 

A Catholic bishop was doing missionary work in a foreign country.  One day he was having a conversation with a well-educated Muslim man.  The Muslim said to him, “I don’t understand your Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist.  How is it possible for ordinary bread and wine to change and become the Body and Blood of Christ?  It seems impossible.”

The bishop paused for a few seconds to collect his thoughts; then he responded, “You were very small when you were born—but you didn’t stay that way, did you?  You physically grew because in a certain sense your body 'changed' the food you ate into flesh and blood.  Well, if your own body can transform bread and wine into flesh and blood, then so can God!  In fact, the Lord can do it far more easily.”

The Muslim then shot back, “But how is it possible for Jesus to be wholly and entirely present in such a little host?”

The bishop answered, “Look, for a moment, at the landscape before you, and think how much smaller your eye is in comparison to it.  And yet, within your very small eye is an image of that vast countryside.  Isn’t it possible for God to do in reality what is done in us by way of likeness or image?”

Finally, the Muslim said, “But how is it possible for the same Body of Christ to be present at the same time in all your churches and in every consecrated host?”

The bishop responded, “Nothing is impossible with God—and that answer ought to be enough for us.  But the physical world also gives us an insight into this phenomenon.

Take a mirror, for example, and throw it onto a hard floor.  It will immediately break into many pieces.  But, amazingly, each piece of that broken mirror can carry the same image that the whole mirror formerly reproduced.  Likewise, the very same Jesus reproduces himself in each consecrated host—not as a mere likeness, but in reality.  Thus he is truly present—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity—in every one of them.”

When we pause to reflect on the Holy Eucharist—which Catholics all over the world are doing on this Corpus Christi Sunday—we must always make a very important distinction: it’s the distinction between “The Faith” (capital T and capital F) and “our faith” (lowercase o and lowercase f).  What the bishop shared with that inquisitive Muslim man was “The Faith.”  With the help of some very good analogies, the bishop made clear to him exactly what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about this sacrament.  When Jesus said, for example (as we heard in today’s Gospel), “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” the Catholic Church maintains that Jesus meant exactly what he said!  He wasn’t speaking symbolically or metaphorically, as some of our Protestant brothers and sisters believe.  And the Catholic position is certainly verified in Scripture passages like John 6, where Jesus speaks very clearly and very realistically about the Eucharist: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.’… ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Did this Muslim man become a believer after his conversation with the bishop?  We don’t know—but, quite frankly, he probably did not!  The bishop’s very good analogies—his excellent efforts to explain The Faith—probably didn’t bring this man to a personal belief in Christ and in the Eucharist (at least not right away).  This is why I said that when it comes to this sacrament, we must always distinguish between “The Faith” and “our faith” (i.e., our personal faith).

For a Catholic, of course, the two should be identical: what the Church officially teaches about the Eucharist in the Catechism should be exactly what we personally believe in our own heart.  Our personal faith should be The Faith.  But it might not be!  In fact, the polls indicate that it’s actually quite common these days for members of the Church to reject at least some aspects of Catholic Eucharistic teaching.  And they usually manifest their rejection in their actions.  Catholics, for example, who receive the Eucharist at weddings and funerals down at Christ Episcopal Church (and at other Protestant churches), clearly do not fully embrace Catholic teaching on the Eucharist.  Catholics who come to Communion after missing Mass on a Sunday or Holy Day without good reason—and without going to Confession first—clearly do not fully embrace the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.  Catholics who need to have their marriages validated and who still come to Communion do not fully embrace the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.  Catholics who fornicate, masturbate, contracept, or commit some other mortal sin, and come to Communion without repenting and going to Confession first do not fully accept the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.

My simple prayer at this Mass is that this situation will change where it needs to change—here in our community and throughout the world—because the graces of the Eucharist are awesome and many.  But those graces become operative within us only to the extent that we accept the Church’s teaching and act accordingly.  Or, to put it another way, if we want all the blessings that come with receiving Holy Communion, “The Faith” must be our faith.