Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Help Jesus ‘Light a Fire on the Earth’

Katie Ledecky (top) and Simone Biles

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 14, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2016]

How would you describe "a devout Catholic”?  What personal qualities, in your opinion, does a devout Catholic possess?

I don’t know how you would answer those questions, my brothers and sisters, but I can tell you with almost absolute certitude how most of the people in the mainstream media would answer them.

To most of the men and women who report the news in this country in 2016, “devout Catholics” have the following qualities:

1.    They say they’re Catholic.  And they have baptismal certificates to prove it—maybe even First Communion and Confirmation certificates as well!  Although many of them would have trouble getting sponsor certificates for themselves, since they don’t go to Mass every Sunday and holyday.

2.    They are devoted followers of Pope Francis (well, not the real Francis in Rome, but rather the imaginary Pope Francis that people in the liberal media have created: the Francis who “parrots” their liberal views).

3.    They are pro-Planned Parenthood and pro-abortion (although such “devout Catholics” will usually not call themselves those things.  They’ll insist that they are simply “pro-woman” and “pro-choice”—always refusing to identify what the choice is that they are for.)

4.    They are for saving the environment (which is a very good thing).  Unfortunately, however, they’re not normally as interested in saving the lives of unborn babies.

5.    They are against people (especially their fellow Christians) who want to follow their consciences when their consciences are telling them to obey a God-given law which contradicts a civil law.  But if the consciences of those people are telling them to disobey God in some way, these “devout Catholics” are all for that.

6.    They are for freedom—if you’re talking about the freedom to violate one of the Ten Commandments, especially the sixth (which has to do with sexual morality).  But amazingly, these same “devout” believers will turn against freedom when the subject is religion (more specifically, when the subject is Christianity).

7.    They describe themselves as “non-judgmental”—although they judge their fellow Christians all the time.

8.    They call themselves “open-minded”—although their minds are closed to the truth about many things.

9.    They claim to love everybody—although many of their fellow Catholics don’t feel a lot of love from them.

Please keep all this in mind the next time you hear somebody called “a devout Catholic”—or better yet “a Pope Francis Catholic”—by a reporter in the secular media.  Nine out of every ten times, this is the kind of person the reporter is talking about.

Which is why I often say that for the majority of the men and women in the media today the only “good” Catholic is a bad Catholic!

When Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” this is not what he meant.  When Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth” this is not the kind of discipleship he was talking about (although he certainly foresaw it!  He foresaw the fact that many of his professed followers would be lukewarm and half-hearted—because right after he made this statement about coming to light a fire on earth he added, “How I wish it were already blazing!”)

Is it blazing in us?  Is it blazing in us?

How convinced are we that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the cure for what ails the world?  (That’s another way to ask the same question.)

If we are truly convinced that Jesus Christ is the answer to what’s wrong with the world, then we will be passionate about living our faith in a radical way—like the REAL Pope Francis tells us to—even if some people don’t appreciate our efforts.  And you can be absolutely certain that there are some men and women out there who will not appreciate our efforts—at all!  Jesus says as much in this gospel reading, indicating that we shouldn’t even be surprised if the opposition comes from members of our own families.

The image that came to mind this week as I prayed about this was the image of a furnace.  That’s the kind of “fire” the Lord wants to find burning inside of us: the kind of fire that you find inside a furnace.  In most homes, as you know, the furnace is located down in the basement.  That means very few people who come into the house actually see it—and yet, the effects of the furnace are felt throughout the entire building.

Well, that’s the way it’s supposed to be with our Catholic faith.  We’re not supposed to be boisterous about it; we’re not supposed to ram it down other people’s throats.  Rather, it’s supposed to “burn” in the hidden recesses of our soul, and then effect everything in our life.  And I mean EVERYTHING!  As the light and heat from a furnace will make an entire house warm, so too the truth and love of the Gospel are supposed to guide everything in our life—everything from how we treat other people to our political views.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews obviously believed this when he wrote the words we heard in our second reading today.  There he said, “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.”  That’s just another way of saying, “Let Jesus—and the love and truth of his Gospel—guide and influence every aspect of your life.”

This is the challenge that faces all of us as professed disciples of Jesus Christ: the challenge to be devout Catholics in the TRUE SENSE of that term, by striving every day to be obedient to the teachings of Jesus and his Church. 

On that note, I read a great article online this past week about two athletes who’ve made big headlines in recent days because of their gold medal performances at the Olympic Games in Rio: gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky.

The article (which, not surprisingly, came from a Catholic news source) focused on the fact that both of these young women are practicing Catholics who are quite open about the important role that faith plays in their lives.  Lidecky was quoted as saying, “My Catholic faith is very important to me.  It always has been and it always will be.  It is part of who I am and I feel comfortable practicing my faith.  It helps me put things in perspective.”

She also mentioned that she says a Hail Mary before every race, while Simone Biles talked about her devotion to St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes.

Well, all I can say after watching these two women perform in the last seven days is that the Blessed Mother and St. Sebastian did a really good job praying for them!  Their performances were nothing short of spectacular!

My prayer is that they will continue to keep Jesus and their Catholicism at the center of their lives in the future—in the midst of all the fame and all the public acclaim that they’re sure to experience after the Olympics are over and they come back home to the United States.

If they can do that—if they can continue to live as devout Catholics (devout not in the eyes of the mainstream media, but rather devout in the eyes of God)—then they will be able to have a positive influence on others (especially on young athletes), and in their own way they will help Jesus to “light a fire on the earth”—a fire of faith, a fire of hope, a fire of love.

Which is the same kind of influence that Jesus wants to have on other people in this world through you and through me.

And he will, if we let him.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Battle between Faith and Fear

(Nineteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on August 7, 2016, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Hebrews 11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Nineteenth Sunday 2016]

The other day I came across the following poem.  It’s entitled, “The Battle,” and it goes like this:

Faith and fear,
Soldiers ever obedient and loyal,
Locked in raging combat,
Across the heart’s hidden battlefield.
Each seeks the advantage required
To control the fickle mind,
Burdened as it is with the wretched curse,
Of one man’s failed stand;
But graced now and forever,
By another’s blood-stained Royal Road.
At stake in this crimson-colored clash
Of generals supreme,
Is dominion over all that matters—
In time,
But not in time alone.
Thus the volleys will go on,
The combat unabated,
Until the war’s wearied host at last surrenders—
In happiness or horror—
To his conqueror eternal.

Most people would say that the opposite of faith is unbelief—and from one perspective they’d be right.  It is.  To have faith in God you obviously need to believe that he exists.  So if you lack faith, you lack belief in a Supreme Being.  But from another perspective you could say that the opposite of faith is fear.  Here I’m not talking about the good and healthy fear we have in our lives: the fear that leads us to avoid evil things that can hurt us; rather, I’m talking about the kind of fear that can lead us into sin and undermine our relationship with God.  This is the fear, for example, of not being loved and accepted by other people—which is a fear that can lead us to compromise our morals, to do things that we otherwise would not do.  I ask you, how many young women have had sex with their boyfriends because they thought that if they didn’t, their boyfriends would leave them?

That’s fear at work.

This bad fear is also the fear of not having enough (which can lead us to steal or cheat on our taxes).  It’s the fear of losing what we already do have (which can lead us to become greedy and materialistic).  It’s the fear of not being appreciated (which can lead us to put other people down so that we can look good to our peers).  It’s the fear of being lonely and of losing friends (which can lead us to form unhealthy friendships).  It’s the fear of being taken advantage of (which can lead us to take advantage of others “before they take advantage of us”—sort of a “do unto others before they do unto you” mentality).  It’s the fear of not getting something we think we deserve (which can lead to envy).

And on and on the list goes!

These are the fears that are at the root of most of the sins people commit in their lives—even people of faith (although very often those fears are not clearly recognized, even by people who believe).  Which is why that poem says that faith and fear are “locked in raging combat across the heart’s hidden battlefield.”

Whether we are aware of it or not, my brothers and sisters, this is the core battle of life!  Faith and fear do battle in our hearts at every moment of every day, each seeking (as the poem says) “the advantage required to control our fickle mind(s)” burdened as they are “with the wretched curse of one man’s failed stand”—in other words with the residual effects of the sin of Adam: original sin.  You see, even after original sin is removed in the sacrament of Baptism, a certain inclination to sin remains in us.  We call this inclination—this weakness—“concupiscence”.  This is why at one moment we can be very strong and very faithful, and in the very next moment extremely weak and completely unfaithful.

But we do have a power—in Jesus Christ—to overcome all these ungodly fears and to live our lives in faithfulness and love.  And that’s good news!  As the poem puts it, we’ve been “graced now and forever by another’s (that is to say, by Jesus’s) blood-stained Royal Road” (in other words, by his passion, death—and subsequent resurrection).  As Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”

I mention all this today specifically because of our second reading, which is taken from the 11th chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews.  Hebrews 11 begins with a brief definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Then it goes on to mention a number of Old Testament saints, beginning with Abraham.  Think, for a moment, of the fears Abraham had to deal with during his life.  This passage says that when the Lord called him, Abraham left his homeland “not knowing where he was to go”.  Can you imagine doing that?  It’s one thing to leave your home willingly, so that you can travel to a destination of your choice.  It’s quite another to leave your home and your past life and not have a clue as to where you’re going to end up!  So Abraham certainly had to face the fear of the unknown.  And even though the Bible says he left his homeland with all his possessions, he must have been concerned about thieves stealing those things somewhere along the way (remember there were no police to call for protection back then when you travelled; he couldn’t dial 911 on his cellphone!)—which means he had to deal with one of the fears I mentioned earlier: the fear of losing what you have.  And if you’re battling the fear of losing what you have, you’re probably also dealing with the fear of not having enough—of not having enough for your own needs and the needs of the people you’re responsible for.

Those were just some of the fears Abraham had to face during his life—and especially during his travels.  But, more often than not, this man allowed his faith to conquer his fear, which is why St. Paul refers to Abraham in Romans 4 as “our father”—our father in faith.

The other Old Testament saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 also lived in faith most of the time.  Although they all had their moments when fear won out.  Take David, for example—he’s mentioned in verse 32 of this chapter.  Faith conquered fear in David on the day he went up against Goliath with a slingshot and a few little stones.  But fear conquered faith in him on the day that he committed adultery with a woman named Bathsheba, and on the day that he had her husband, Uriah, murdered on the battlefield.  It was the fear of not having something that he thought he deserved (in this case, the fear of not having someONE that he thought he deserved!).

What are the fears that you are battling in your life right now?  We all have them.  Some of them—specifically the ones that keep us away from harmful people and harmful things—are good fears.  I’m not talking about those!  I’m talking about the fears I mentioned at the beginning: the ones that can lead us into sin.

I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on that question: What are the fears I’m battling in my life right now?  Because if we can come to recognize the fears that are troubling us, we might be able to get at the roots of the sins in our lives—and get rid of them for good.

Remember, there’s a lot at stake here.  Recall the last part of the poem:

“At stake in this crimson-colored clash of generals supreme (in other words, this continuous battle in our hearts between faith and fear),
Is dominion over all that matters—
In time,
But not in time alone.
Thus the volleys will go on,
The combat unabated,
Until the war’s wearied host (that’s you and me—that’s each of us) at last surrenders—
In happiness or horror—
To his conqueror eternal.

You see, in the end, my brothers and sisters, either faith will win the ultimate victory in us, or fear will win out.  One of those two “generals” will be our personal “conqueror”—and the consequences of that conqueror’s victory will be eternal.

So, make sure that FAITH wins the ultimate victory in your life.  Make sure that faith is your eternal conqueror.  I certainly want faith to be mine!  That’s why I pray a lot, and receive the Eucharist often, and go to confession frequently, and read Scripture daily—and even write some things about faith from time to time.

Like the poem you just heard about in this homily.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Make Sure that You’re Planning FAR ENOUGH Ahead

(Eighteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 31, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 12: 13-21.)

[For the audio version of this homily,click here: Eighteenth Sunday 2016]

We’re often told that we should “Plan ahead.”

“You should plan ahead for your child’s education.”
“You should plan ahead for your medical care.”
“You should plan ahead for emergencies.”
“You should plan ahead for a hurricane.”
“You should plan ahead for your retirement.”

Planning ahead is normally a good thing—a very good thing.  It’s something we’re commended for.  It’s a sign of the fact that we’re taking personal responsibility for our lives.  It’s also an act (or a series of actions) through which we exercise a very important virtue: the virtue of prudence.  Given the uncertainties of life on planet earth, it’s prudent for a person to plan ahead.  Planning ahead can even be a moral mandate in certain circumstances.  Children, for example, need parents who will plan ahead for them in a responsible manner—especially when they’re very young.  That’s why many parents set up college funds for their children right after birth!  Given the ridiculous costs associated with getting a college education these days (and it’s probably only going to get worse), good parents know they need to plan ahead for their children NOW—not 18 years down the road. 

So I ask you, if planning ahead is such a good thing, why was Jesus so critical of the man in today’s gospel parable—this wealthy man who had an abundant harvest?  Shouldn’t the guy have been commended for working so hard?  Shouldn’t Jesus have praised him for being so industrious, and for doing such a great job of planning ahead? 

After all, it sounds like he was set for life!  He didn’t even need an IRA or 401(k)—or to buy any gold from Lear Capital!

So what was the problem?

Well, believe it or not, I don’t think the issue for Jesus was that the man had planned ahead—I don’t think that was the problem at all.  I believe the problem that Jesus had with this man was that the guy hadn’t planned far enough ahead!  He was planning ahead for the next 40 or 50 years—or for however long he expected to live in this world, but his existence was not going to come to an end with his physical death.  After his death—which came a lot sooner than he expected—he was going to have to face Almighty God in judgment, and after being judged by the Lord he was going to face eternity.  And from what Jesus says here it doesn’t sound like this man was ready for those experiences, since his life was ruled by greed and not by charity.  He was rich in worldly treasure but not rich in what matters to God.

The lesson here for us is simple.  The Lord is saying to each of us today, “Yes, make sure that you plan ahead in all the ways that you need to plan ahead in your earthly life, but in the process always make sure that you are planning far enough ahead.”

In other words, we need to make sure that we’re always planning ahead for God’s merciful judgment—so that, whenever it comes (today or many years from now) we will be ready.

And how, exactly, do we do that?  How do we plan ahead for judgment?

We plan ahead, first of all, by striving to grow in our relationship with the Lord every day (something Fr. Najim has been talking a lot about in recent weeks).  We plan ahead by taking our Catholic Faith seriously and by applying it to every aspect of our lives—including our conduct at home and at work, and including our political views.  We plan ahead by loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, by practicing forgiveness, and by being concerned for those less fortunate than we are (something the rich man in this parable was not).

And we plan ahead by repenting when we fail in these areas—which we all do at times.  On that note, do you remember my “Mercy Equation” that I shared with you when the Jubilee Year of Mercy began last December?

Recognition + Repentance = Reception.

That equation has an application in this context. 

If we recognize our sins (and the fact that Jesus died for them), and then sincerely repent of those sins we will receive mercy from the Lord.

And receiving that mercy is an absolute necessity if we want to plan ahead properly for God’s judgment—that is to say, if we want to go to heaven.

I’ve often said, if we want to live life successfully forwards (which I think we all do), then we need to think backwards.  In other words, we have to begin by thinking about the goal we want to attain, and then reflect back on the steps we need to take to get to that goal from wherever we’re at right now.

Which is the principle that should guide every decision we make in this life—including the decision to repent of our sins.  We should ask ourself, “Is this decision going to bring me one step closer to my goal (which is heaven, of course), or will it take me down another road to another place—a place where I definitely don’t want to go?

The rich man in this parable didn’t think of that question when he made the decision to greedily store up his harvest for himself and forget about everyone else.

That night, when he took his final breath and met the Lord face-to-face, I’m sure he wished he had done otherwise.

He planned ahead for a lot of things.  Unfortunately, however, he failed to plan ahead for the most important thing of all, the judgment of God.

He planned ahead, but he didn’t plan far enough ahead.

My prayer at this Mass is that each and every one of us in this church today will learn from the rich man’s mistake.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Prayers that are Answered; Prayers that are ‘Fulfilled’

(Seventeenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 24, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 18: 20-32; Luke 11: 1-13.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventeenth Sunday 2016]

Was Abraham’s prayer answered?

He prayed for the people of Sodom in today’s first reading, asking the Lord to spare the city in spite of the great wickedness and evil that was present there.  But, as we all know, the place eventually got “torched”: fire and brimstone came down from heaven at God’s command and annihilated the city—as well as everyone who lived there.

Now some might read the story of these events in Genesis 18 and 19 and say that Abraham’s prayer—his intercessory prayer for God’s mercy—was not answered.

But I would disagree with that.  I would say that God did in fact answer Abraham’s prayer, even though the intention of that prayer (the saving of Sodom) was not fulfilled.

You see, there’s a difference between a prayer that’s answered and a prayer that has its intention “fulfilled.”

In this we can learn something about the intercessory prayers that we offer up for people each and every day—especially the prayers we offer up for the conversion of members of our own families.

Abraham’s desire in this story—you might say his “deepest prayer”—was that at least 10 people in the city of Sodom would respond to the grace of God in a positive way—by repenting of their sins and resolving to live in a state of righteousness before the Lord.  Now he no doubt wanted the whole city to repent and get right with God, but he had been in Sodom long enough to know that that wasn’t likely to happen.  So he engaged in a brief dialogue with the Lord, getting him to agree that if he could find just 10 innocent people in Sodom he’d spare everybody else.

So Abraham’s prayer was answered—God’s powerful and merciful grace was offered to all the citizens of the city—but, unfortunately, less than 10 of them allowed that saving grace to transform their lives. 

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The lesson here is that when we pray for the conversion of other people—our relatives, our friends, even people we don’t know—God always offers those individuals the grace they need to say yes to him and change their lives.

In that sense, he always “answers” our prayers.

But, like the people of Sodom, the men and women we pray for can say no to that grace.  And, sadly, they often do.  There’s a principle that you learn when you study theology: “Grace perfects nature.”  Grace doesn’t negate or override nature.  And so, because God gave us a free will as a part of our human nature, his grace will never “force” us to do anything.  It may prompt us to do or say certain things; it may inspire us to do or say certain things, but the grace of God will never overpower the precious gift of freedom that our Creator has given us.

I know a 25-year-old young man who has parents who have been have been on their knees for years, praying that he’ll get serious about life and start practicing his Catholic faith again.  (This a very typical situation that I’m sure many of you can identify with.)  We’ll call this young man John (although that’s not his real name).  Now I am absolutely certain that every single time John’s parents have said a prayer for him God sent that boy a special grace.  In that sense, the Lord has answered ALL their prayers.  But for a long time, just like the people of Sodom, John said no to the grace he was given—until the last few months, when he’s finally begun to say yes to God’s grace and move in a positive direction.  One big reason for the change is that the Lord brought a really nice girl into his life who’s motivating him to be more accountable and more responsible.  It’s like the boy Bishop Sheen wrote about in one of his books.  Sheen wrote, “[This young man] would not comb his hair, wash behind his ears, clean his fingernails, or come to the table with clean clothes.  And when he went out the door, he always slammed it.  [But then] one day he came down, hair combed, clean clothes, hands well-washed, and clean behind the ears.  And when he went out the door, he closed it gently.  His parents could not understand it.  They had begged, coaxed, pleaded, and bribed to no avail. [What they did not realize was] he had met Suzie.”

This is why I tell parents, “If you are praying for your son’s or daughter’s conversion to the faith, or for their return to the faith, make sure that you ask the Lord in your prayer time every day to send your child a good, Catholic friend—or several of them!  Like or not, the fact of the matter is that young people today will very often listen to their friends before they listen to their parents.  That’s not a good thing, but it is the way it is.  It’s reality.  So go with reality!  If your child strikes up a friendship with another young person who is Catholic, caring and moral, then that young person will probably do your work for you.  He or she will motivate your child and challenge your child in a way that your child will probably be open to and responsive to—which will make it much more likely that your child will say yes to the grace God is offering him or her in response to your prayers.”

One of the reasons why many of the people of Sodom did not say yes to God’s grace was because the culture there was so corrupt.  Practically speaking, this means that, if you were a person living in Sodom at the time of Abraham, in all likelihood ALL your friends (or at least the vast majority of them) were corrupt.  That’s a reasonable presumption given the fact that there weren’t even 10 righteous people in the entire place.  With all those negative influences, it’s obvious that repentance and conversion were highly unlikely—even among those who otherwise would have been open to change.  And so, in spite of the prayer of a great saint like Abraham, the grace that God offered out of his great mercy was rejected.

His prayer was answered, but its intention was not fulfilled.

We’re living in a culture right now that in many ways is exactly like the culture of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah: hedonistic, violent and ungodly.  This is the culture our young people are growing up in: almost everything they see and hear during the course of their day is pointing them away from God.  Thankfully, however, they do have one very big advantage: they have more opportunities—many more opportunities—to find good, godly friends than the people of Sodom did just before their city was destroyed.  The experience of John and his new girlfriend makes that fact crystal clear.

Which, of course, is great news.

But we need to pray—faithfully and persistently (as Jesus indicates we should in today’s gospel)—that the Lord will help our young people TO FIND good and godly friends and TO BE INFLUENCED by those friends in a positive way.

Then our prayer will be answered like Abraham’s was (because God’s grace will be given), and the intention of our prayer will in all likelihood be fulfilled (which Abraham’s intention for Sodom was not) because the person we love and are praying for WILL say yes to God’s grace and change their life for the better.