Sunday, March 18, 2018

What Will We Learn from our National Suffering?

Peggy Noonan

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 18, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Psalm 51: 3-15; Hebrews 5:7-9; John 12: 20-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2018]

What do all these people—John, Jane, Joe, Jim and Judy—have in common?
  • ·         John’s mother is diagnosed with cancer in April, and dies a year later.  He blames God and stops going to church.
  • ·         Jane asks God for something in prayer and doesn’t get it.  She gets angry, and proceeds to take out her anger on her husband, her children, and anyone else who happens to cross her path.
  • ·         Joe is sexually and emotionally abused by his parents, so he decides to shoot them.
  • ·         Jim has a big argument with his wife.  To forget his troubles he goes to the local casino and spends his entire paycheck after work.
  • ·         Judy feels rejected by her family, and her friends, and the other students at her school—and so she begins to live a very promiscuous lifestyle.

What do all these people have in common—aside from the fact that their names all begin with the letter J?

The answer is: They all learned DISOBEDIENCE from what they suffered.

Each of them suffered in a different way and for a different reason, but they all responded negatively—and sinfully—to what they experienced.

Jesus, not surprisingly, was different, as today’s second reading reminds us.  There the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us (and here I quote): “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered [he didn’t learn disobedience like John, Jane, Joe, Jim and Judy did; Jesus learned obedience]; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

This means that every time Jesus faced disappointment—or rejection—or opposition—or betrayal—or hatred in his earthly life, he said to his heavenly Father, “Thy will be done.”  He didn’t just do that in the Garden of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday night; he did it, in his heart, in every situation of his life.  And in that way—by obeying his Father in every difficult circumstance he faced—he learned obedience in his human nature.

In other words, he learned obedience by being obedient!  Which, when you think about it, is the opposite of the way we often learn to obey.  Because we’re weak and sinful human beings, we often learn obedience only after we suffer the consequences of our disobedience.  For example, how often have you done something wrong, suffered the consequences, and then said, “Well, that sure taught me a lesson!”?

That’s called learning obedience “the hard way”; that’s learning obedience by suffering the consequences of not obeying.

Of course, that’s much better than not learning obedience at all—or allowing the suffering to lead us to more disobedience (which is what sometimes happens, unfortunately).

This brings me to an excellent op-ed piece by Peggy Noonan that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks ago (just a few days after the Parkland, Florida school shootings).  The title of her article is, “The Parkland Massacre and the Air We Breathe.”  Her basic thesis is that every country in the world, including ours, creates a social and moral “atmosphere” in which people live and work and recreate and raise families.  Well in her view, sad to say, the social and moral atmosphere in America right now is toxic, especially to young people.

I agree with her.

She asks the question, “What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?”

She then answers the question by saying,
We have been swept by social, technological and cultural revolution.  The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing.  Fatherless sons.  Fatherless daughters, too.  Poor children with no one to love them.  The internet flourished.  Porn proliferated.  Drugs, legal and illegal.  Violent videogames, in which nameless people are eliminated and spattered all over the screen.… The abortion regime settled in, with its fierce, endless yet somehow casual talk about the right to end a life.  An increasingly violent entertainment culture—low, hypersexualized, full of anomie and weirdness, allergic to meaning and depth.  The old longing for integration gave way to a culture of accusation—you are a supremacist, a misogynist, you are guilty of privilege and defined by your color and class, we don’t let your sort speak here.

She then makes note of how all this evil “in the atmosphere” has affected young people.  She writes,
[I]t does not feel accidental that America is experiencing what appears to be a mental-health crisis, especially among the young. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported as many as 20% of children 3 to 17 have, in any given year, a mental or emotional illness. There is research indicating depression among teenagers is worsening. National Public Radio recently quoted a 2005 report asserting the percentage of prison inmates with serious mental illness rose from less than 1% in 1880 to 21% in 2005…. In the society we have created the past 40 years, you know we are not making fewer emotionally ill young people, but more.
She then singles out abortion specifically—and the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass a bill that would have banned most abortions after 20 weeks (shame on them!).  She mentions abortion as one those evils that has greatly poisoned the atmosphere for our young people, and contributed to their mental confusion and disregard for human life.  She says they see and read news reports about things like this Senate vote, and they think to themselves, “If the baby we don’t let live is unimportant, then I guess I am unimportant.  And you’re unimportant too.”

This, my brothers and sisters, is the corporate, national suffering we’re experiencing in our country at the present time, the latest example of which is the Parkland school shooting.  Peggy Noonan’s article explains it well.

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, learned obedience from what he suffered.  Will we, as a nation, learn obedience from this national suffering we’re currently experiencing?  Will the trials that we’re presently going through bring a significant number of our citizens back to God and his truth?  Or will those trials lead to more disobedience and more rebellion?

I and many others are convinced that the future of the United States (and in some sense the future of the entire world) rests on how we, as a nation, answer those questions.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

The Ten Commandments and the Natural Law—18 Years Later

Moses with the Ten Commandments on the Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.

(Third Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 3, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 20: 1-17; Psalm 19: 8-11; 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2018]

What am I?  (Try to answer that question for yourself as you listen to this …)

Chances are you’ve never even heard of me, but I’ve been around since the dawn of creation.  I first dwelt in Adam and Eve, and since then I’ve been engraved in the soul of each human person—although not everyone has followed my dictates.  Amazingly, nearly everybody believed in me until a few hundred years ago.  The Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle certainly did; so did Cicero, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.  Thomas Jefferson even began the Declaration of Independence by making a reference to some of my truths.  So, as you can see, it’s not only Christians who have followed my precepts over the years.  Pagans, Deists, and many others of various cultures and religious backgrounds have recognized my existence and wisely given me a hearing.  And I’ve responded by giving them guidance, order, and peace.  But please take note: nowadays, if you wish to be considered politically correct, you’d be well advised either to ridicule me, or to ignore me completely.  Learn from the experience of Clarence Thomas.  In 1991, he was nominated by President George Bush to serve on your Supreme Court.  Earlier in his legal career, Judge Thomas had publicly expressed great esteem for me.  A fatal mistake, according to some of your liberal senators.  They attacked him viciously for this during his senate confirmation hearings, and he was nearly rejected.  Believe it or not, I was almost as troublesome for him as Anita Hill!  And yet, my friends, if you and your culture want to survive, you had better start listening to me, because I’m your only hope!  Without me, you each become your own ruler, and that’s the formula for anarchy and disaster.  You’re already seeing the consequences of leaving me out of your lives.  Why do you think there’s so much violence in your society?  Why are your young people senselessly killing one another with growing frequency?  It’s because they’ve been taught to reject me!  It’s because they’re consciously ignoring one of my most important precepts!

So—what am I?

I’m the “natural law.” 

The natural law is the law of God which a person can discern by human reason alone, apart from any special revelation from the Lord.  Until a few hundred years ago, almost everyone believed in it (at least implicitly), but now very few do.  Thomas Jefferson was referring to this law when he wrote the now famous line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”—in other words, “These truths should be clear to anyone who is thinking properly: the truth that all people are created equal, and that they have certain rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  These truths are not known because they’ve been revealed by a particular religion.  They are, in a certain sense, written on the heart of every human person.  Thus, even pagans who are using their faculty of reason properly will admit that these things are true.  They will also tell you that killing and stealing and coveting your neighbor’s wife are wrong.” 

This should help us to understand why the Founding Fathers of our country—who believed in the separation of Church and state—had no problem with teaching the Ten Commandments in public schools and displaying them in public places.  They rightly understood that the Ten Commandments did not promote the establishment of any particular religion; they were simply the expression of some of the primary tenets of the natural law!  This, by the way, is precisely what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us in paragraph 1955: “The natural law states the first and essential precepts which govern the moral life. . . . Its principal precepts are expressed in the Decalogue [i.e., the Ten Commandments].”

This means that it would have been possible to figure out the Ten Commandments, even if God had never formally given them to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  Let me now demonstrate this to you, by showing the rational basis of the Decalogue.  The first commandment, as we heard a few moments ago in that text from Exodus 20, is this: “I, the Lord, am your God . . . You shall not have other gods besides me.”  The existence of God (the fact upon which this commandment is based) can be discerned by reason alone.  You don’t need the Bible, or any special revelation from the Lord to figure out that he exists.  Just by looking around at the world, people over the centuries have come to the reasonable conclusion that there’s a Supreme Intelligence behind it all.  In this regard, the writer of the Book of Wisdom said that God’s creation is like a great work of art, and that only a foolish person would fail to see a great Artist behind it.  Listen to Wisdom 13:1—“For all men were by nature foolish, who were in ignorance of God, and who from the good things seen did not succeed in knowing him who is, and from studying the works did not discern the artisan.”  St. Paul said something very similar in Romans 1:20—“Since the creation of the world, invisible realities, God’s eternal power and divinity, have become visible, recognized through the things he made.”

So God’s existence can be established by reason alone.  And once his existence is recognized, my brothers and sisters, certain things reasonably follow: he should be worshipped, and all false gods must be rejected (commandment #1).  His name should be honored and not used rashly in oaths or spoken as a curse word (commandment #2).  If God exists, and he is the source of all we have and are, then it’s reasonable to set aside one day a week to praise, worship and thank him in a special way (commandment #3).  If God is our ultimate authority, he is to be respected as such, and so are all those human beings who share in his authority [e.g., parents, clergy, civil officials, teachers and employers] (commandment #4).  If God is the creator of every human person, then it is wrong to rob an innocent human being of the life which God gave him as a gift (commandment #5).  It’s also wrong to take things from others which don’t belong to you (commandment #7) or to misrepresent the truth (commandment #8).  If God has designed the sexual act to be an expression of total self-giving and for the continuation of the human race (two facts which can be discerned by reason alone), then it’s wrong for such activity to take place outside of a permanent, exclusive, lifelong marital relationship (commandment #6).  Consequently, it’s also wrong to want to sever a marital relationship to satisfy your own disordered sexual desires (commandment #9).  And since stealing from others is wrong, so is cultivating the desire to have what doesn’t belong to you (commandment #10).

You know what the sad irony is, my brothers and sisters?  What I just said to you about the rational basis of the Decalogue would make more sense to some ancient, pagan philosophers than it would to many contemporary Christians!  That’s how far our culture has distanced itself from the natural law.  One of the obvious challenges we will face in the new millennium is the challenge to bring this idea back, and to help others understand it properly.  Because without an acceptance of the natural law, we have no common basis of morality; consequently, the culture of death will continue to grow in our midst.  Incidents like the tragedy at Columbine High School will happen with ever-greater frequency. 

Now before I close today I’ll share with you a little secret.  The homily you just heard—this homily on the natural law and the Ten Commandments that I just preached to you—was not prepared by me during this past week.  I prepared this homily and I gave this homily from this very pulpit 18 YEARS AGO—in the year 2000!  When I came across it on my computer a few weeks ago—just a few days after the Parkland, Florida school shooting—I said, “My goodness!  How I wish I had been wrong!  How I wish I had been wrong about the terrible consequences that come from rejecting the natural law and the Ten Commandments.”

But I wasn’t wrong.

And the sad reality is that our culture, morally speaking, has decayed even further in the last 18 years!  Think about it: things like gay marriage, and the normalization of homosexuality and transgenderism—those things weren’t even on the radar screen back in the year 2000.

Can our culture be saved from total collapse at this point?  Of course it can.  But it ain’t gonna happen with a magic wand!  For our culture to be saved, people like us need to believe in the Ten Commandments, and live the Ten Commandments, and teach others the Ten Commandments—and the natural law.  We need to bring back the truth.

If enough people do that, then the good news is that 18 years from now (if I’m still around) I’ll be able to give another homily on the natural law and the Ten Commandments with a much happier ending.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

People Often Ask More of Others than They Ask of Themselves; God Asks Much More of Himself than He Asks of Us

A still from the 1980's anti-drug ad

(Second Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 25, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 22: 1-18; Psalm 116; Romans 8: 31-34; Matthew 9: 2-10.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Lent 2018]

I’m sure some of you will remember this anti-drug public service ad from television in the 1980s: 

It begins with the shot of a teenage boy in his bedroom.  The boy is reclining on his bed, with headphones on, happily listening to his stereo.  His father then barges into the room, obviously angry, with a box in his hand—a box that has various types of drug paraphernalia in it.  Dad turns off the stereo and says to the boy, “This yours?”  He replies, “No.”  His dad says, “Your mother said she found it in your closet.”  The boy suddenly gets really nervous, and starts to stumble over his words as he desperately tries to maintain his innocence.  Dad, of course, isn’t buying any of it.  Finally the father says, angrily, “Answer me!  Who taught you to do this stuff?”  His son shouts out, “YOU, ALRIGHT?  I LEARNED IT FROM WATCHING YOU!”

The ad ends with the announcer saying, “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.”

That exchange between a father and his son illustrates a sad truth of this fallen world: People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

The father in that ad wanted his son to avoid drug abuse in his life—and that was great!  All good parents should have that desire for their children.  The problem was he expected more of his son than he expected of himself.  He held his child to a high standard—a very high moral standard.  But he refused to apply that very same standard to his own life. 

And his son called him on it—which is exactly what he should have done! 

People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

This is something that we can all be guilty of from time to time.  We can have one set of expectations for our civil leaders, our religious leaders, our parents, our children, our siblings, our coworkers, etc., and another set of expectations—a much lower set of expectations—for ourselves.  Think, for example, of the many Catholic parents in this parish (and in every parish) who faithfully drop their children off for religious education classes every week, but who never come to Sunday Mass.  These parents ask their children to take their religion seriously, but they don’t do that themselves.  If they did, they’d never, ever miss Mass!

People often ask more of others than they do of themselves.

God, not surprisingly, is exactly the opposite—as today’s first reading from Genesis 22 makes crystal clear.  Here the Lord puts the patriarch Abraham to the test, asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, on Mt. Moriah.  Now, because we’re reading about this event 4,000 years after it actually happened, we know that God never intended to have Abraham kill his child; the test was about Abraham’s willingness to ‘let go’ and trust in the Lord.  God said to him, in effect, “Abraham, are you willing to let go of your son, Isaac?  He’s the child of the promise.  You waited 100 years to have him.  You love him deeply; you treasure him and the special bond you have with him more than anything else that you have in this life.  So, are you willing to let it all go?  Are you willing to let go of what’s most precious to you in this life and trust totally in me?”

Abraham was willing, thanks be to God—which is why we call him “our father in faith.”  His faith is supposed to be a model for ours.

This was certainly a teaching moment for Abraham—a very powerful and memorable teaching moment.  Through this very difficult test Abraham learned that God—the one, true God—was not like the false gods of the pagan world, like Molech, who demanded child sacrifice.  The one, true God made it clear to Abraham that he would never ask a man or woman to do such a thing.  He would never ask them to give up a child in that way.

BUT, OF COURSE, HE DID ASK IT OF HIMSELF!  Did you realize that?  What God would not ask of Abraham (or of any one of us), he asked—he demanded!—of himself.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” the Gospel of John tells us.  Or, as today’s second reading from Romans 8 puts it, “[God] … did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all.”   That’s the good news!  So God’s message to us today is, “You don’t need to offer your children in sacrifice to me, because I’ve already offered my Son, Jesus Christ, in sacrifice for you—for the forgiveness of your sins; so that you might have eternal life.

The passion and death of Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the prophetic words of Abraham in this story.  What do I mean by that?  Well, we’re told in this text that when Abraham was walking up the mountain with Isaac, his son said to him, “Father, here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  Abraham responded, “My son, God will provide the lamb.” 

Poor Abraham.  He probably responded as he did because he really didn’t know what to say.  Perhaps he said it because he was “hoping against hope” that God would, even at the last second, tell him he didn’t have to go through with the sacrifice.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

But there was a spiritual depth to Abraham’s response that he wasn’t aware of at the time.  Yes, God did supply the lamb that day to save Isaac—true enough; but that was only a foreshadowing of the Lamb the Lord would supply many hundreds of years later—his divine Son, Jesus Christ: the Lamb of God, whose passion and death would take away the sins of the world.

So the bottom line is this:

We human beings, in our weakness, often ask more of others than we do of ourselves.

God, on the other hand, by sending his Son into this world to suffer and die for our sins, has asked infinitely more of himself than he will ever ask of you or of me—or of any other human person.

And for that, my brothers and sisters, we should all be infinitely grateful!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Lesson on the Love of God from 'The 15:17 to Paris'

From left to right: Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone

(First Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on February 18, 2018 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 9: 8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Lent 2018]

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone have known each other for most of their lives.  They met when they were students at Freedom Christian School in Fair Oaks, California (near Sacramento).  Unfortunately they misbehaved quite a bit during their years at the school, and consequently each of them spent a great deal of time in the principal’s office.  But they all turned out okay, and after graduating from high school all three ended up joining different branches of the military.   In August of 2015, the three friends decided to meet in Europe for a little reunion and a well-deserved vacation.  It was during the course of that vacation—on August 21 to be exact—that these three American servicemen got on a train in Amsterdam that was bound for Paris.  They expected to have a relaxing, uneventful trip—but, as you know if you’ve seen the new Clint Eastwood-directed movie, The 15:17 to Paris, that’s not what they got!  What they got was a confrontation with a 25-year-old Moroccan terrorist, who had an assault rifle and nearly 300 rounds of ammunition on him.

Several people tried to stop the man when he initially attempted to take over the train, but they failed to do so.  Finally, when he had the opportunity, Spencer Stone jumped up out of his seat and ran down the aisle toward the terrorist, who immediately pointed his gun at Stone to shoot him.  However, the gun (by the grace of God) jammed, and Stone was able to tackle the man.  Then, with the help of his two friends and some others, he disarmed the terrorist and knocked him out.

They then tied him up and handed him over to the French authorities.

It’s hard to know how many lives these three brave men saved that day on that train from Amsterdam to Paris, but, in all likelihood it was a lot—given the fact that this guy had all those rounds of ammo on him!  And so it’s not surprising that the President of France awarded Stone, Sadler and Skarlatos that country’s highest decoration shortly after the event on the train took place, making them “Knights of the Legion of Honor”.

Of course, they were also hailed as heroes back here in the United States—and rightly so!

I mention this today because I think the sacrifice that these three servicemen made back in August of 2015 on that train to Paris, can help us to appreciate the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us 2,000 years ago on the cross of Mt. Calvary.

Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone put their lives on the line to save other people—men and women and children whom they didn’t even know.  That was awesome.  But they also did what they did for themselves; they did what they did in order to save their own lives.  There was a personal motive as well as a sacrificial motive to their heroic actions that day.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  The fact that they wanted to save themselves is a good thing; it doesn’t diminish what they did in any way, shape or form.  However, what it does do is to ELEVATE what Jesus Christ did for us by his incarnation, passion and death.  Jesus, remember, didn’t come into this world for himself and for his own personal gain.  He didn’t need to take on human flesh.  He didn’t need the spiritual benefits of his passion and death.  He didn’t need to have his sins forgiven (because he didn’t have any).  He didn’t need to be redeemed.  He didn’t need salvation.

Jesus had no “personal motive.”

Everything that he did in his earthly life; everything that he did in his 3 year ministry; everything that he did on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, he did totally and completely—100 percent—for us!   St. Peter says it perfectly in today’s second reading when he writes, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.”

In that verse, of course, Jesus is “the righteous” and we are “the unrighteous”.  St. Peter is reminding us here that Jesus had nothing to gain in his divine personhood by being born into this world of the Virgin Mary and suffering and dying on the cross.  The “righteous one”, after all, was (and is) God, and God has no needs.  Jesus Christ did what he did out of pure, selfless love—for you, for me, for every human person.  Peter makes that clear in this verse.

The love of God is something that we should reflect on often in our lives, but especially during this holy season of Lent.  So I’ll close my homily today by giving you a suggestion on how to do that during the next 40 or so days.  First, go to the movies!  If you want to meditate deeply on the love of God this Lent, go to the movies sometime in the near future and see that film, The 15:17 to Paris.  It’s playing right now at Regal Cinemas in Stonington.  By the way, the really interesting thing about this movie is that Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and Spencer Stone play themselves in it!  Director Clint Eastwood wanted historical accuracy in the film, so he basically had the three soldiers re-enact the event on camera with some actors.  That means the way it’s depicted on the screen is the way these three men remember it happening.

In that sense, at least, it’s not “just a movie”.

Then, when you’re finished watching the film, spend some time in prayer—either in a quiet place at home or maybe at the adoration chapel at Immaculate.  And during that prayer time think about what you saw in the movie: how these three men risked their lives to save themselves and the other passengers on that train—especially Spencer Stone, who would have certainly been killed if the terrorist’s gun hadn’t jammed like it did.  Imagine how grateful you would have been to him and his two friends for the great things they had done for you, to save your earthly life.

Then spend some time (some quality time) thinking about Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, and the even GREATER things—the perfectly selfless things—he did for you, to save you from sin and Satan and eternal death, and to give you the kingdom of heaven for an inheritance!  You might want to read one of the Passion stories in the gospels to help you in this regard.

If you do this meditation well, you will definitely end up grateful.  You will be deeply grateful for the sacrificial love of the three servicemen in the film—but you will be ETERNALLY GRATEFUL for the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior.

Which, of course, is exactly what you should be.