Sunday, September 14, 2014

You Can Do a Lot of Good With a Cross.

(Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: This homily was given on September 15, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Numbers 21: 4b-9; John 3: 13-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Cross 2014]

You can do a lot of good with a cross.

That’s one of the most important lessons we learn from the feast we’re celebrating in the Church this weekend.

Think about it.  We’re here at Mass today because Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, DID SOMETHING GOOD WITH HIS CROSS.

And that’s the ONLY reason we’re here at Mass today!  Without the Cross, without the sacrificial death of Jesus, we would be (as St. Paul would say) “still in our sins.”  Without the Cross, there would be no redemption; without the Cross, there would have been no resurrection; without the Cross, there would be no hope!  This is why Jesus said to us in today’s gospel, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert [that’s a reference to the event we heard about in today’s first reading from Numbers 21], so must the Son of Man be lifted up [that’s a clear reference to the Cross], so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. … For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

It’s all summed up beautifully in the Preface of this Mass (which I’ll read at the altar in a few minutes) where it says, “For you [Father] placed the salvation of the human race on the wood of the Cross, so that, where death arose, life might again spring forth and the evil one, who conquered on a tree, might likewise on a tree be conquered.”

Because Jesus Christ did something good with his Cross, the world has been reconciled to God the Father.  Because Jesus Christ did something good with his Cross, we can be forgiven of our sins—if we sincerely repent.  Because Jesus Christ did something good with his Cross, we have the hope of living forever in the glorious and eternal kingdom of heaven.

Now the reason I mention all this today is to make the point that what’s true of Jesus Christ is also true of us, his disciples.  Just as Jesus did something good with his Cross, so too we, his disciples, can do good things with our crosses.

And that’s really good news, because we all have them!  There is no one on planet earth right now who is exempt from suffering and trial.  In this fallen world of ours, everyone has a cross to deal with!  In fact, I think it’s safe to say that in this fallen world of ours everyone has multiple crosses to deal with!  The problem is that many people don’t do anything positive with them!  They only passively endure their crosses; they don’t actively and deliberately use them for good, like Jesus did.

And that’s sad, especially since those crosses are going to be there for them, one way or the other.
So how exactly can we imitate Jesus and do good with the crosses we’re currently experiencing?

Well, one of the most important ways we can use them for good is to allow them to make us more empathetic and compassionate toward others who are suffering.

I’ve certainly tried to do that in dealing with Parkinson’s Disease.  Not that I didn’t try to be empathetic and compassionate before I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2010.  But since my diagnosis I know that I’m able to “connect” with suffering people and feel compassion for them at a much deeper level.

And that’s a good thing.

Another way to use our crosses for good is to allow them to make us more effective ministers of the Gospel.  

A woman I know was recently diagnosed with cancer, and is having a very difficult time dealing with it on the spiritual level as well as on the emotional level.  So one of the things I’ve done is to put her in contact with another woman I know who’s going through the same trial, but who’s dealing with it very well because of her deep faith.  This second woman will be able to help the first far more effectively than I ever could, because she’s experiencing the same cross that the first woman is experiencing—and because she’s willing to use her cross to help the other woman.

By the way, this is why I will sometimes will ask faithful parents in this parish who have lost children in the distant past to talk to other parents who have lost children more recently and who are really struggling to cope.  Those parents who have found strength and hope through their faith in dealing with the death of their child can help other grieving parents far better than I can.  But they have to be willing to use their terrible cross for good: by listening to those other parents in their pain, and by sharing with them the faith and hope that they’ve found in Jesus Christ.

Another good thing we can do with our crosses is to allow them to motivate us to re-set our priorities and grow in holiness.  

This is something I saw happen to my father during the final year of his life.  My dad, as many of you know, died of cancer back in 1971.  What you probably don’t know about him is that he tended to be a workaholic for most of his life.  That’s the way he was raised.  He loved my mom, my sister and me and we knew that—but he was almost always on the go.  In fact, he had a very close friend from Pawcatuck that he served with in the Navy named John Sylvia.  Some of you might have known John; he was married to Tina Trumpetto.  Our families were very close, and several times a year we would make the “long trip” from Barrington to Pawcatuck to visit.  (And it was a lot longer back then, because Route 95 wasn’t finished yet.)

Well, years after my father was gone my mom said to me, “Do you know how tough it was at times to get your father to take a break from whatever project he was working on and make that trip to John and Tina’s house?  Do you realize that John had to have something lined up for your dad to do when he was there: something for him to paint or fix or build?  Your father wouldn’t go just to relax; he’d only go if he could do some work for John while he was there.”

Well, thankfully, during his final year on earth, my father’s perspective on things changed for the better.  His cross of cancer motivated him to re-prioritize a lot of things in his life and to make the effort to grow in holiness.  Consequently he finally learned to relax and slow down and enjoy his life and his family.  He was no longer consumed with the insatiable desire to work, and my sister and I were the prime beneficiaries, since he spent a lot more time with us.

And, at the same time, he grew much stronger in his faith!  Prior to his diagnosis my father went to Mass every Sunday and holy day, but during most of the final year of his life he went to Mass every day.

I guess you could say that my dad used his cross to teach himself some of life’s most important lessons—which is something else we can do with ours.

And that’s a great blessing for us—and for the people around us—when it happens.

Two other ways we can use our crosses (and these are the last ones I’ll mention this morning) are as sacrifices that we can offer up in reparation for our sins, and as offered-up sufferings designed to bring blessings into our own lives and into the lives of others.

The Catechism tells us in paragraph 2487: “Every offense committed against justice and truth entails the duty of reparation, even if its author has been forgiven.”  That’s the concept that stands behind the penance given in Confession.  When the priest gives us absolution in the confessional, we are forgiven for all the sins we’ve confessed and repented of.  We’re forgiven totally and completely!  But that’s not the end of the story.  We still have the obligation to make reparation (to make amends) for those forgiven sins.  And one of the ways to do that is by offering up to the Lord our personal sufferings—our personal crosses—in union with his.

We can also use our crosses by offering our sufferings up as St. Paul indicated that he did in his life.  In Colossians 1 Paul said, “Even now I find my joy in the sufferings I endure for you.  For in my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”

Remember when the nuns told you to “offer it up”?

Well they were right!  Just as St. Paul understood that the Colossian people were being blessed because he was offering up his sufferings—his crosses—for them (in union with the sufferings of Christ), so too did those nuns understand that our offered-up sufferings today can bring special blessings and graces into our own lives and into the lives of the people we love and pray for.

The truth still applies.

Yes, my brothers and sisters, you can do a lot of good—an awful lot of good—with a cross!

Jesus knew that—and he made the choice to use his Cross to save us and to save the world.

By the help of his powerful grace, may we make the choice to use our crosses—every day—for our own good, and for the good of many other people.  Amen.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Love and Conflict

Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur in "When the Game Stands Tall."

The real Bob Ladouceur.

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on September 7, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2014]

“When the Game Stands Tall” is a recently released movie that stars Jim Caviezel.  (He’s the man who played Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”; he’s also one of the stars of the current TV series, “Person of Interest”.)

In this film—which is based on a true story—Caviezel plays a high school football coach and theology teacher named Bob Ladouceur.  From 1979 to 2012, Bob Ladouceur was the head coach at De La Salle, a Catholic high school located in Concord, California.  Year in and year out, his teams were ranked among the best in the entire country.  Not surprisingly, several future NFL stars played at De La Salle under Coach Ladouceur—among them Amani Toomer (who played for the New York Giants) and Aaron Taylor (who played for my team, the Green Bay Packers).

But Bob Ladouceur’s most impressive football accomplishment occurred from 1992 to 2004 when he coached his teams to an incredible, unbelievable, ABSOLUTELY ASTOUNDING 151 straight victories—by far the longest winning streak for any football team (high school, college or pro) in history!

The movie begins, ironically enough, as the streak is about to come to an end.  Ladouceur is leading his team from the locker room onto the field for the state championship game (which would end up being the last of his 151 victories), and a reporter comes up to him with a microphone to do a quick interview.  At one point as they’re walking along the reporter says, “So, [Coach] how long do you think you can keep the streak alive?”

That was what the reporter was interested in; that’s what most fans were interested in.

Ladouceur answers by saying, without any hesitation whatsoever, “The streak was never our goal.”

And that’s what’s so interesting about this story.  It’s evident from the very beginning that Bob Ladouceur’s focus was never primarily on winning (although he certainly enjoyed the experience of winning!  Who doesn’t?).  

His primary focus was on teaching his players THE TRUTH—in particular the truth that St. Paul speaks of in today’s second reading from Romans 13 when he says, “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law.”

This is why, when Jim Caviezel was asked in a recent interview what made Bob Ladouceur’s football program so special at De La Salle, he answered with one word: “Love.”

And here Caviezel was talking about real love—not the flimsy, superficial, emotional version of love that our culture glorifies at the present time, but the real deal.

It becomes clear in the movie that this was is Ladouceur never went on to coach at a higher level, even though he received job offers from Stanford University and other places.

He believed he could have the greatest influence on young men of high school age.  He believed that he could teach them to love one another with the selfless, forgiving, self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ more effectively than he could teach young men of college age or in professional football.

So he sacrificed the big bucks in order to teach teenagers how to love and how to live.  He did that in his theology class; he did it on the football field—and he did it by his own personal example of self-sacrifice.

All of which makes for a really good story: a really good story which also happens to be true!

Needless to say, I highly recommend this movie!  So do many other people, including basketball Hall-of-Famer Jerry West, who said (and here I quote), “I would recommend this movie to all parents who have kids participating in sports—regardless of what level.”

Which includes almost every parent I know.  Very few young people these days do NOT participate in sports.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this text about love from Romans 13 is paired up with this gospel reading from Matthew, chapter 18—because it, too, is about real love (although interestingly enough the word “love” is not found anywhere in the reading).

The gospel is specifically about dealing with interpersonal conflict—something the De La Salle players had to learn to do, especially after they lost a few games!

But that’s to be expected, because in this imperfect world love and conflict are not mutually exclusive realities.  In fact, we sometimes have our deepest conflicts with the people we love the most!

As the old saying goes, “You always hurt the one you love.”

Jesus says here: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” 

That statement, believe it or not, is really challenging our love: our love of neighbor.  

Jesus is actually saying to us here: “When you have a conflict with a brother or sister that’s rooted in their sin, do you LOVE that person enough to go directly to him or her to try to work things out and get reconciled?”

Many do not love in that way, as we all know.  They have a problem with their boss—they get mistreated by him—and they talk to everyone else about it except their boss; they have a problem with their pastor, and they talk to everyone else about it except their pastor; they have a problem with a relative, and they talk about it with all their relatives—except the one they actually have the conflict with!

Jesus goes on to say: “If [you do go to your brother and] he does not listen, take one or two others along with you … If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”

That’s another statement which challenges our love.  

Jesus is saying to us: “When you have a conflict with another person that’s rooted in their sin, and you try to work it out with them directly but nothing positive happens, do you LOVE them enough to persevere in your efforts at reconciliation by getting appropriate help from other people?”

Or do you throw in the towel and give up?

As Catholic Christians, we’re never supposed to give up; we’re never supposed to “close the door” entirely on a relationship (unless, of course, it’s a sinful relationship!).

Yes, we may have to step back from the relationship for a time and avoid the other person’s company because all our attempts at reconciliation have been rejected—which is basically what Jesus means here when he says that after all these other overtures fail we should treat the person “like a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

But at the same time we must continue to pray and to hope for a positive change—and be open to any future opportunities for reconciliation that might present themselves.

That’s real love.  That’s the kind of real, Christ-centered love that Bob Ladouceur tried to teach to his football players at De La Salle High School for more than thirty years.  And if you listen to what many of his former players say about him and about the positive impact he had on their lives, it seems that to a great extent he succeeded.

Of course the big challenge for all of us—for those former players and for you and for me—is to infuse this kind of love into our lives every day.

If you’re like me and like the rest of the human race, you sometimes succeed and you sometimes fail.

But that’s why we’re here at Mass, is it not?  (Or at least it should be why we’re here!)

We’re not here because we love others perfectly; we’re here (hopefully) because we want to love others more perfectly in the future than we have in the past.

Lord Jesus, help us to do that by the power of your grace each and every day, so that we and all those we are called to love will WIN—not 151 straight football games—but rather the one and only prize that really matters: ETERNAL LIFE WITH YOU!  Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Importance Of Imitating the Canaanite Woman

Robin Williams, 1951-2014.

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on August 17, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I.  Read Matthew 15: 21-28.)

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

“And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.”

That was the final result of an encounter that Jesus had with a Canaanite woman one day during his earthly ministry.  We just heard about that encounter in today’s gospel story from Matthew 15.

The result is clear—crystal clear—because it’s explicitly stated.

But there were a number of decisions this Canaanite woman made along the way which led to the final result.  Those decisions are probably not so clear to us simply because they’re not explicitly listed in the text.
But they are there!

The reason I mention this in my homily today is because the final result—the deliverance of this woman’s daughter from the demon who was tormenting her—would not have occurred if these decisions had NOT been made!

Leave out one of them—any one of them—and her prayer for her daughter would NOT have been answered.

That means the last line of the story would not be the line I read to you a few moments ago.  The last line of the story would be, “And the woman’s daughter was not healed, but she continued to be troubled by this terrible demon.”

Or something along those lines.

So what were the decisions this woman made which resulted in her daughter’s deliverance and healing?

Well, first of all, she made the decision to believe that Jesus could help her.  And she probably made that decision because she had already made the prior decision to believe the things that people had told her about our Lord!

How did this woman know that Jesus had the power to work miracles?  Well, in all likelihood it was because people she was acquainted with—her relatives and friends perhaps—had witnessed to her, and had shared with her how Jesus had healed and delivered lots of other people in lots of other places.

She then made the decision to seek Jesus out: to pursue him and to find him.  It wasn’t enough to make the decision to believe that he could do something to help her and her daughter; she also had to make the decision to actually go to him to get the help she required!

Then she needed to make the decision to open her mouth and call out to our Lord.  Had she remained silent, in all likelihood, Jesus would have just continued to walk by and she might never have seen him again.

Then when he didn’t respond to her immediately, she had to decide to disregard his silence (as well as his subsequent remark about being sent only to the Jewish people and not to Gentiles like her).
After that she had to make the decision to continue to call out to our Lord.  At the same time she had to decide to disregard the annoyed (and rather insensitive) disciples who just wanted her to go away.

Notice that Jesus never told her to go away.

And she didn’t.  Rather, she kept on making the right decisions!

She obviously discerned that Jesus was more than just a descendant of King David, because we’re told that at that point “she came and did him homage” and she called him “Lord.”

She obviously decided that he was worthy of her worship.  But even at that point in the encounter she was tested when Jesus responded to her homage with his famous remark, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”

Some Scripture scholars insist that Jesus made this remark to the woman in a lighthearted way and with a smile on his face, with the intention of bringing her to a deeper level of faith.

That explanation actually does make a lot of sense, especially since the Greek word for dogs that’s used here means “pet dogs” and not “wild street dogs” (and it was the wild street dogs that were looked upon with disdain in ancient Israel).  But even so, there are times when you can say things like this to another person in a lighthearted way, and the person will still get offended and upset!  Just because you MAKE a remark in a lighthearted way doesn’t mean that the remark WILL BE RECEIVED in a lighthearted way!

This means that the Canaanite woman had to decide at that precise moment to disregard any negative emotions she might have been feeling toward Jesus after our Lord spoke these words to her!

She had to put those out of her mind; she had to banish them from her heart.  Then she had to decide to humble herself, and not give up, and express her faith one more time in the cleverest way she could: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”

And THEN—FINALLY!—the Lord answered her prayer and said yes to her request.

Now I’m not sure if you were counting, but the fact of the matter is I just shared with you about a dozen decisions this woman made which were absolutely necessary for her to make in order to get her daughter healed.

The application of all this to us should be obvious:

When God doesn’t do what we think he should do, in the precise way and at the precise time that we think he should do it; when God doesn’t answer our prayers with an immediate “yes”; when things continue to go wrong even when we’re praying and trying to do everything right—it’s easy to throw in the towel (so to speak) and give up.

At those moments it would be good for us to remember this Canaanite woman—and to imitate her decisions:

Her decision to believe that Jesus could help her;
Her decision to believe the incredible things that others had told her about Jesus;
Her decision to seek Jesus out—to pursue him;
Her decision to call out to him, even though she initially experienced only silence in return;
Her decision to continue calling out to the Lord;
Her decision to disregard the discouraging voices of some of the people around her (who should have been encouraging her!);
Her decision to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ; her decision to humble herself; and her decision to continue to express her faith as well as she could!

I can’t helped but think that Robin Williams (God rest his soul) would have dealt with his trial very differently if he had imitated this Canaanite woman in his struggle with depression.  

Now let’s be clear about it, persevering faith doesn’t necessarily prevent a person from becoming clinically depressed.  (I’m sure we’ve all known people of deep faith who have suffered with depression.)

But having a persevering does affect how a person deals with the situation.
That’s because persevering faith gives a person a perspective on life that no therapy or medication can give (although very often therapy and medication are also necessary to deal with the problem).

I was reminded of this when I read an article a few days ago on the Lifeteen website—an article that I shared with the teenagers at youth group this past Thursday.  It was written by a Catholic young man named Thomas Grant, who has struggled with depression for many years.  In the article Thomas said that a key moment for him in overcoming his silence about what he was going through occurred when he had a conversation with a priest who helped him to understand that (and here I quote Thomas): “I am not depression.  I am the son of the King.  Even in darkness, he carries me.”

That’s the bigger perspective that faith in Jesus Christ gives to a person.  And that’s why Thomas gives this advice to other young people at the end of his article:

If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or thoughts of self-harm or suicide, talk to an adult you can trust that is close to you. Speak with your youth minister, your parents, your priest. They can help steer you in the right directions. It may involve counseling and that’s okay. It may involve some lifestyle changes and that is okay. Jesus walks with us through all of that. Even in our darkest moments, Christ is there, calling us out of silence and into life.
You deserve that. Never let anyone tell you any differently. You were made for life.

Whether he realizes it or not, Thomas Grant is dealing successfully with his depression because he is imitating the Canaanite woman in her persevering and unwavering faith.

May God help all of us to do the same thing and follow the example of this great woman—even if we’re blessed to be perfectly healthy at the present time.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Feast of Mary’s Assumption: A Time To REFOCUS

(Assumption 2014: This homily was given on August 15, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 1: 39-46.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Assumption 2014]


That’s not a word that we normally associate with Mary’s Assumption into heaven.

But I think we should!

We celebrate this feast on the 15th of August—which means that summer, sad to say, is now more than half over.

For most people summer is an enjoyable time, given the fact that the weather is usually a lot more pleasant than it is in January and February.  For many people it’s also a restful time, a time for them to get their physical and emotional “batteries recharged,” so to speak; although for some others it can be a season of great stress—especially on those days when they have more than one social event scheduled!

That’s happened to me more than a few times this summer.

But for almost everybody living in our fast-paced society right now the summer can also be a very DISTRACTING TIME!

All those enjoyable, restful—and stressful—things can, unfortunately, get in the way of our relationship with the Lord.

And so the Church gives us this feast in the middle of August: a feast that can help us to REFOCUS our attention on God and on those things that are most important in life.

Let me give you a few examples.

The feast of the Assumption, first of all, reminds us of our mortality.  It reminds us that we’re not here forever; that, as the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, we do not have on this earth “a lasting city.”
We can sometimes forget that—even in the winter.

The Assumption marked the terminal point of our Blessed Mother’s earthly life; although the Church leaves open the question of whether Mary physically died or simply “fell asleep” before she was taken, body and soul, into heaven.  In the official teaching of the Church, given to us by Pope Pius XII in 1950, it says, “when the course of her earthly life was finished [notice there’s no specific mention of death there], [Mary] was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory.”

So the Assumption focuses us on the fact that our lives on this planet will have a terminal point and that we should live them accordingly.

It reminds me of a saying I once heard: Live every day as if it were your last—and one day you’ll be right.

This brings us to the second truth that the Feast of the Assumption focuses us on (or rather refocuses us on), namely, that the goal of this life is heaven!

Mary has already reached the goal.  We celebrate that fact at this Mass.  As she now is, so all those men and women who die in the state of grace will someday be.  For us, however, the sequence of events will be a little different.

That’s important to mention.  Our Blessed Mother already has her glorified body in the kingdom of her divine Son.  Those of us who die in the state of grace and whose souls go to heaven (either immediately after death or after being purified in purgatory) will have to wait until the end of time to receive our risen bodies.

That’s one big difference between Mary and us.

But the goal for everybody—Mary and us—is (or at least is supposed to be) the same.
Another truth this feast refocuses us on is that our physical bodies are holy.  They’re holy because they’ve been redeemed by Jesus Christ, and are made to live forever in heaven in their glorified state.

This, incidentally, is why sins of impurity and violence are so wrong: we’re using something which was made for heaven (our body) to put us on the road to hell!

Thankfully the sacrament of Confession is always available to put us back on the right road.

Finally, this feast refocuses us on the fact that we need Jesus Christ in our lives, and that we need to make every effort to stay connected to him (regardless of what season of the year it is!).

Mary did not save herself; she was saved by her divine Son.  (Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters don’t think we believe that, but we do!)

In her Magnificat (which we heard in our gospel reading a few moments ago) Mary says, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my Spirit rejoices in God, MY SAVIOR.”  The Lord saved our Blessed Mother by preserving her from original sin in that event we call “the Immaculate Conception”.  

He saves us in a different way: by delivering us from original sin, as well as from our personal sins.

But then Mary went on to nurture her relationship with the Lord by living a sinless life of perfect love and perfect virtue: a life which was rooted in prayer.  In other words, she always maintained a close and intimate connection with her God.

This means our Blessed Mother never, ever got “distracted” spiritually in the summer—or winter—or spring—or fall for that matter!

What about us?

How has your prayer life been lately?  How has your Mass attendance been this summer?  Have you taken a “vacation from God” (even a little one)?  Have you been to Confession if you’ve needed to go?  Have you been to Eucharistic Adoration recently?  Has the Bible been on your summer reading list?  Have you maintained your connection with Jesus since the warm weather set in?

Today is a day for all of us to make the personal commitment to “refocus” to the extent that we need to: the commitment to refocus our attention on the things that really matter in this life.

Mary, of course, had no need to refocus, simply because she was always focused—PERFECTLY focused!

May her prayers from heaven help us all to be more like her, not only during the summer months but throughout the entire year.