Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Lesson of Lazarus: First We Need to Be Raised Up—AND THEN WE NEED TO BE SET FREE!

The "fifth stained glass window" in St. Pius X Church.

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on April 6, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 11: 1-45.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2014]

For Lazarus to live a full and normal human life again, two things needed to happen to him: the first is obvious; the second, I would say, is not so obvious.  But it was equally necessary.
(And that second thing that needed to happen is illustrated beautifully in the fifth stained glass window in our church on the left side.)

The first thing that needed to happen for Lazarus to live a normal human life again, was that he needed to be brought back from the dead!

That, as I said a few moments ago, is obvious.  The man, after all, had been in the tomb for four days!

But, in and of itself, that was not sufficient.  As essential as it was for Lazarus to be raised up from the grave, that alone was not enough to enable him to live a normal human life again with his family and friends.

the man ALSO NEEDED TO BE SET FREE!  HE NEEDED TO BE SET FREE FROM THOSE BURIAL CLOTHS THAT HAD HIM TIED UP LIKE A MUMMY (as is illustrated so well in our stained glass window).

And Jesus addressed that issue at the very end of the story.  As we heard St. John tell us a few moments ago, “[Jesus] cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’  The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.  So Jesus said to them, ‘Untie him and let him go.’”

“Untie him and let him go.”

He couldn’t untie himself.  He needed help from others.

And, thankfully, he did receive that help and he was able to go home that day with his family.

The raising of Lazarus was a foreshadowing—a prefigurement—of the resurrection of Jesus at Easter.  It’s what theologians call a “type”—as the adults taking our Catechism class would tell you.

But here’s the important difference: When Lazarus was raised from the dead he came back to this mortal existence—which means that he had to experience physical death again—a second time—at some point after the events we heard about in this gospel reading.

But the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a resurrection to an eternal life where there is no physical death.  As St. Paul puts it in Romans 6: 9, “We know that Christ, once raised from the dead, will never die again; death has no more power over him.”

And THAT’S the resurrected life that we look forward to sharing in when our time on this earth is finally over.

But there’s another dimension to this miracle which goes back to what I said at the beginning of my homily, and it’s that dimension that I want to focus on this morning.

I said that for Lazarus to live a full and normal human life again, he first had to be raised from the dead, and then he had to be untied and set free.

And that, spiritually speaking, is exactly what needs to happen to us if we’re going to be the disciples—and saints—that the Lord calls us to be.

Last week I talked about the importance and power of the sacrament of Confession in my homily.  (Actually, since I quoted from Pope Francis so much, I suppose you could say that he preached on that subject last Sunday at St. Pius through me.)

Well you could say that, in a certain sense, what Jesus did for the physical body of Lazarus in today’s gospel, he does for the soul in the sacrament of Confession (especially the soul of a baptized person in the state of mortal sin).  As the Catechism puts it in paragraph 1468: “the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true ‘spiritual resurrection,’ restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God.”

A soul in the state of mortal sin is spiritually dead, as the body of Lazarus was physically dead.  And because of that fact—because a soul in mortal sin lacks sanctifying grace and is dead, spiritually—it needs to be “raised up” before anything else spiritually beneficial can happen to it (just like Lazarus’ body had to be raised up before it could experience anything that was physically beneficial).  For example, it would not have benefitted Lazarus in any way if his two sisters, Martha and Mary, had prepared a great meal for him while he was still in the grave!  Before that meal could benefit Lazarus physically, the man’s body needed to be restored to life.

Common sense, right?

But that’s not all that needed to happen!  Lazarus also (as I said a few moments ago) needed to be untied!  He needed to be “set free” from those burial bands and from that cloth which was wrapped around his face!  Only then could he make the trip home and enjoy that great meal with his family and friends.

Do you know what that means, my brothers and sisters?

It means that Confession alone is not enough!  It is necessary, yes—but it’s not sufficient to make us the disciples and saints that the Lord calls us to be.

For that to happen we also need to be set free!  We need to be set free from the sins we get forgiven for in Confession (and even the ones we get forgiven for outside of Confession).

I’ll give you one example today of what I’m talking about.

It’s no secret that viewing pornography on the internet—and the sin of self-abuse which often follows from that activity—is a growing problem in our society right now.

The sin of self-abuse is a serious sin which needs to be confessed—and, praise God, it very often is.  And I commend those who have the courage to confess it.  (I’m sure this is one of those sins Pope Francis was alluding to in that talk of his that I quoted from last week, when he spoke about the “shame” people sometimes feel after they commit certain sins.)

Well let’s be clear about it: Every time a person confesses that sin in Confession with true sorrow in their heart, God forgives it!  Even if the person commits the sin every single day and then repents in Confession every single day, the Lord will forgive that sin and spiritually raise that man or woman from the dead every single day.

And that’s great!  But ask any serious Catholic who struggles with this problem, “Is that forgiveness of God enough for you?” and they will tell you in no uncertain terms, “No, it isn’t!”

And if you then say, “Well, what else do you want?” they will tell you without any hesitation whatsoever, “I want to be set free!  I want this habitual sin out of my life!  I want to be able to say no to this temptation!  I don’t want this ruining my marriage and my family anymore!”

They want what happened to Lazarus physically to happen to them spiritually.

And it’s interesting, the process of getting “untied” from this addiction and set free from it often does require the assistance of others (just like the help of other people was necessary to free Lazarus from his burial cloths).

Thankfully, there are good groups of people out there who are ready and able to lend the necessary assistance—groups like Covenant Eyes, which is the one I always recommend to people.  Covenant Eyes can be easily accessed on the internet.

Now, you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, I don’t struggle with that particular sin.”

Well, okay, maybe for you the troublesome sin that you commit over and over again and are having trouble getting free from is gossip, or foul language, or impatience, or lying, or laziness, or gluttony or anger—or something else.

We all have certain sins that we struggle with and need to be freed from.  This is one reason why daily prayer and frequent reception of the sacraments—as well as seeking the help of others—is so important.

Jesus gave Lazarus the gift of life and the gift of freedom on the day he raised his body from the dead.

“Untie him and let him go.”

Let’s pray today at this Mass that the Lord will give all of us those same two gifts where we need them the most: in the spiritual dimension of our lives.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

SIN AND SUFFERING: There’s no direct connection between them in THIS life, but there WILL BE a direct connection the next.

(Fourth Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 30, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 9:1-41.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Lent 2014]

There is no direct connection between them in THIS life, but there will be a direct connection in the next.

I’m talking here about sin and suffering.

At the time of Jesus, of course, the prevailing view among the Jewish people was that there is a clear and direct connection between a person’s bad behavior and whatever suffering they experience here on this earth.  This explains the reaction of the disciples at the very beginning of today’s gospel story from John 9.  They all walk past a man who was born blind, and they ask our Lord what they think is the obvious question:

“Who sinned?” –“Who sinned, this man or his parents, [such] that he was born blind?”

In their minds it was a simple case of cause and effect: this man’s personal sin (or the sin of his mother and father) was the cause, and his blindness was the direct and logical—and unavoidable—effect.
This, you will recall, was also the attitude of the three friends of Job, who came to “console him” after he lost his possessions, his health and most of his family in one single day!

Ostensibly they came to give Job some consolation in his suffering and pain, but for the most part all they ended up giving the poor man was a lot of grief, by telling him over and over again that he must have done something terribly wrong to bring this kind of tragic situation upon himself.

But the story makes it quite clear that Job was a devout and upright man who loved God deeply, and who consistently did the right thing in his life.

Perhaps the disciples of Jesus hadn’t read the book of Job in awhile.  Or perhaps they had forgotten one of the most important lessons of that book, namely, that sometimes good people suffer terribly—and not because of their sins!

Eventually, as we all know, the disciples would learn this particular lesson through Jesus himself, who suffered more than anyone else, even though he never committed a single sin in his entire life.

Now I’ve heard many homilies and talks on today’s gospel story over the years, and almost all of those homilies and talks have focused exclusively on the point I just made with you: that there’s no direct connection in this life between a person’s sin and their suffering—although it should be added that sometimes we can experience a particular suffering because we’ve committed a certain sin (for example, a person robs a bank, then gets caught and goes to jail.  He suffers in jail because of his sin; because he stole; because he violated the seventh commandment).
Yet, as was the case in today’s gospel for the man born blind, very often suffering comes to us for no apparent reason.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is; that’s the way it is during our earthly lives.

But that’s not the way it will be in eternity (and this is the point that I’ve very rarely heard made in other talks and homilies).  As I said at the very beginning of my homily this morning: There is no direct connection between sin and suffering in THIS life, but there will be a direct connection between them in the next!

And there—in eternity—no unforgiven sin can be ignored or hidden.  As St. Paul tells us in today’s second reading from Ephesians 5, “everything exposed by the light becomes visible” (and in the next life we will encounter the pure “light” of God’s presence and truth—a light which will expose any unrepented sins we may have on our soul, in addition to exposing all our good deeds and virtues).  The Lord said something similar to the prophet Samuel in today’s first reading when he said that we human beings see “the appearance” but he, the Lord, “looks into the heart.”

Of course the good news is that God has given us the means to deal with this situation.  Because of the sacrificial death and resurrection of his Son, we can receive forgiveness for any and every sin we commit after Baptism—right now, before we die—in and through the sacrament of Confession.

Now you might say, “But, Fr. Ray, we’ve heard you speak about Confession before—lots of times!  Are you going to do that AGAIN today?!”

No, I’m not.

I’m going to give that job to Pope Francis!

The Holy Father gave a great teaching on the importance of Confession at his Wednesday audience on the 19th of February this year.

I’ll close my homily today by quoting a few of the things he said in his brief address that day.

At the beginning he spoke about the “why” of the sacrament.  He said:

“The forgiveness of our sins is not something we can give ourselves.  I cannot say: I forgive my sins.  Forgiveness is asked for, is asked of another, and in Confession we ask for forgiveness from Jesus.  Forgiveness is not the fruit of our own efforts but rather a gift, it is a gift of the Holy Spirit who fills us with the wellspring of mercy and of grace that flows unceasingly from the open heart of the Crucified and Risen Christ.”

He then confronted the common objection that all we need to do is tell our sins to God:

“One might say: I confess only to God.  Yes, you can say to God ‘forgive me’ and say your sins, but our sins are also committed against the brethren, and against the Church.  That is why it is necessary to ask pardon of the Church, and of the brethren in the person of the priest.”

The Pope knows that some—perhaps many—stay away from confession out of shame and embarrassment, even though they know deep down inside that they need it.  He addressed that issue too:

“’But Father, I am ashamed ...’.  Shame is also good, it is healthy to feel a little shame, because being ashamed is salutary.  In my country when a person feels no shame, we say that he is ‘shameless.’... But shame too does good, because it makes us more humble, and the priest receives this confession with love and tenderness and forgives us on God’s behalf.”

The Pope even mentioned how beneficial Confession is from a purely natural, psychological point of view:

“Also from a human point of view, in order to unburden oneself, it is good to talk with a brother and tell the priest these things which are weighing so much on my heart.  And one feels that one is unburdening oneself before God, with the Church, with his brother.  Do not be afraid of Confession!  When one is in line to go to Confession, one feels all these things, even shame, but then when one finishes Confession one leaves free, grand, beautiful, forgiven … happy. This is the beauty of Confession!”

Finally, like every good preacher, our Holy Father encouraged personal reflection and issued a challenge:

“I would like to ask you — but don’t say it aloud, everyone respond in his heart: when was the last time you made your confession?  Everyone think about it ... Two days, two weeks, two years, twenty years, forty years?  Everyone count, everyone say ‘when was the last time I went to confession?’.  And if much time has passed, do not lose another day.  Go, the priest will be good.  Jesus is there, and Jesus is more benevolent than priests, Jesus receives you, he receives you with so much love.  Be courageous and go to Confession!”

Remember, my brothers and sisters, that there will be a direct connection between our personal sins on this earth and whatever suffering we may experience in the next life—either the temporary suffering of purgatory, or the eternal suffering of hell.  But the good news is that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, in and through the sacrament of Confession, breaks that connection!

And the really, really good news is this: with respect to those sins that we repent of and confess, Jesus breaks the connection forever!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

She Left Her Water Jar . . .

(Third Sunday of Lent (A): This homily was given on March 23, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 4: 5-42.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2014]

“The woman left her water jar . . . “

You might say that that’s a very small detail in a very long gospel story, but I also consider it to be a very important detail (so important, in fact, that I’m going to build my entire homily today around it!).

“The woman left her water jar . . . “

Now why did she do that?  From one perspective, at least, it makes no sense.  This Samaritan woman had come to Jacob’s well to obtain some water, presumably for her daily needs.  Lest we forget, people couldn’t just “turn on the faucet” back then.  They first had to find fresh water somewhere (which wasn’t always easy).  Then they had to carry that water in some type of container back to their home or to wherever they intended to drink it or use it (which also wasn’t easy).

So what this woman intended to do—get the water she needed for her daily life—was very important.

But then she met Jesus, and her priorities changed!

And that’s the point I want to drive home in this homily: her encounter with Jesus Christ, her personal interaction with the Savior of the world, was so transforming that this extremely high priority in her life (obtaining water for her needs) suddenly became a secondary priority—which, I believe is precisely why St. John mentions this otherwise “small detail” when he tells the story.

All of a sudden, getting water from that well and bringing it back home was not so urgent.  It could wait.  It could wait while she proclaimed the message about Jesus to her fellow Samaritans.
And what’s really interesting is that her encounter with Jesus was not initially a pleasant one.  In fact, it was anything but pleasant!  Our Lord tells her, in effect, that she’s spiritually way off-base in her ideas, and that she’s an adulteress several times over! 

But, to her great credit, she doesn’t get angry and she doesn’t walk away; nor she does she close herself off from the truth.  Rather, she accepts the truth that she hears from the mouth of our Lord and she responds to it in faith.

In that, she should be a great role model for all Catholics.  How many Catholics hear the truth proclaimed to them (for example, in a particular homily)—the truth that convicts them of their sin—and then get angry at the priest, tune him out, and refuse to change their lives?

I dare say, it happens a lot.  I know I’ve even done that a few times in my own life.

The Samaritan woman—at least on this occasion—did not close herself off from the truth of the word of God that came to her through Jesus.

And that courageous acceptance of the truth (even when it hurt!) changed her priorities—and her entire life!

This, then, is one of the signs of a living faith.  This is one of the external signs that we’ve really met the Lord in a personal way in our life: our priorities get readjusted, sometimes radically so.

  • Faithfulness to Mass all of a sudden becomes more of a priority for us than getting an extra hour of sleep on a Sunday morning.  It becomes more of a priority than participation in a sport or some other social activity that we like.  And it becomes that kind of a priority even when we’re on vacation!
  • Daily prayer becomes more of a priority than reading the newspaper, or the latest bestseller—or watching our favorite television program.
  • Working at making our family holy and loving becomes more of a priority than making more money than we really need.
  • Working at forgiveness and reconciliation becomes more of a priority than working for more “stuff.”
  • Going to confession becomes more of a priority than going out to dinner or a movie.
  • Helping the poor and needy becomes more of a priority than buying a lot of extra things that we really don’t need.
  • Standing up for the sanctity of human life becomes more of a priority than standing up for the protection of animals (although, as St. Francis of Assisi would remind us, the latter is certainly not a bad thing).
  • Learning about God and our Catholic faith becomes more of a priority than learning a lot of useless information on Facebook.
Those are just some of the priorities that surface in a person who truly knows the Lord.

I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I was on vacation.  Fr. Brian Sistare and I went to Orlando, Florida, just before Lent began.  It was either “go to a warm place” or “go skiing,” and we decided to “go warm”—for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s lived in New England this winter.

And we got the most out of our time down south: we went to SeaWorld; we went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom; we went to Busch Gardens; we went to an Orlando Magic game; we went to an Atlanta Braves pre-season baseball game; we played mini-golf at least a dozen times (Fr. Brian loves to try to beat me in mini-golf.  Thankfully he failed most of the time on this trip!). 

We even got to see Sr. Dorothy Sayers.  Many of you will remember Sr. Dorothy.  When I first came to St. Pius in 1988, she was the principal of our school.  Now she runs a huge Catholic grammar and middle school in Orlando.  It was great to see her after so many years.

The reason I mention all this today is because of what happened on Saturday (the day we went to Busch Gardens).  Busch Gardens is located in Tampa—about an hour and a half away from where we were staying in Orlando.

We found out on Friday that we could take a shuttle bus on Saturday morning—for free—from SeaWorld in Orlando to Busch Gardens.  Well, that sounded a lot better to us than driving for an hour or more in heavy traffic and then paying an exorbitant fee to park our rental car.  So we decided to take advantage of the free ride.

The only issue was what to do about Mass and our holy hour.  You see, on every other day of our vacation, we had gotten up when felt like it (which usually wasn’t very early!).  Then we had celebrated Mass, made a holy hour, and gone off for the day.

In that order.

But the shuttle to Busch Gardens was only available once, at a relatively early hour of the morning.  There were no later buses for us to take.

So I said to Fr. Brian on Friday night, “Look, so that we don’t have to rush around to get to the shuttle tomorrow morning, why don’t we just celebrate Mass and make our holy hour at the end of the day when we get back from Tampa?  That would be so much easier.”
Well, Fr. Brian objected; he didn’t like that idea.  And his reason for objecting was simple.  He said to me, in effect, “You know, the Lord deserves the best hours of our day, not the leftovers!”

I said, “Um.  You’ve got a good point there.  You’re right.”

That meant, of course, that we had to get up an awful lot earlier than either of us wanted to get up while on vacation!

But priorities are priorities.

Now I’ve known Fr. Brian for about twenty years.  Had he gone to Orlando two decades ago, when he was living what might be called “a rather worldly lifestyle” as a college student at U.R.I., I sincerely doubt that it would have been a priority for him to receive the Eucharist and make a holy hour every day.

I could be wrong about that, but somehow I think that way back then sleeping in, taking it easy—and a few other things—would have trumped getting up extra early to pray and adore Jesus Christ!

But priorities change—sometimes a lot—when you actually meet the Lord in your life.

As the Samaritan woman and Fr. Brian would tell you, the “water jars” get left behind.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is a very good thing.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Parish Mission 2014

Fr. John Larson of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception led us in our parish Lenten mission this year on the Divine Mercy. To listen to Fr. Larson's talks, click on the links below.

Sunday Gospel and Homily: Click here

Talk 1 (Divine Mercy: History and Devotion): Click here

Talk 2 (Forgiveness): Click here

Talk 3 (Eucharist): Click here