Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jesus: Perfectly Consistent



St. Isabel Church, Sanibel Island, Florida

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on January 31, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 4: 21-30.)

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


While I was visiting Jerry and Cathy Swerdlick in southern Florida last week, I contacted Fr. Chris Senk, the pastor of their parish on Sanibel Island—to let him know that I’d be willing to celebrate his 5pm Saturday vigil Mass if he wanted me to.

I had done that for him a couple of years ago when I was down there on vacation.

Fr. Senk said yes, and so I celebrated and preached at the 5pm liturgy at St. Isabel Church.  And it went very well.  I “inflicted” on them a homily I had “inflicted” on all of you three years ago, and I’m happy to say they were very receptive to the message (as many of you were when I gave it here).

Well, when Mass was over, I processed down the aisle and began to greet people in the vestibule of the church (as I do at St. Pius).  Nothing unusual about that—the only difference between there and here was that (aside from the Swerdlicks) I didn’t know anyone in the line.

Or so I thought.

As the last few people were coming out of the main part of the church I happened to look in that direction, and I saw a smiling face—a smiling face that nearly gave me a coronary!  Thank God my heart is in good health.  It was the last person on earth I expected to see at that moment: Bishop Tobin.  For a second I thought I was on that television show, “Undercover Boss”! 

Then I remembered that a couple of years ago the Bishop had written a column for our diocesan paper where he mentioned that when he goes on vacation he sometimes attends Mass “incognito”—in regular lay clothes—to get an idea of what you lay people are subjected to each week by us priests!

Well apparently I was the one “picked for evaluation” on this particular vacation.

But it did end well.  After I picked my jaw up off the floor, the Bishop came along in the line and greeted me very warmly.  With that smile still on his face, he said I had done a great job and that he was really proud of me.

Thanks be to God, because if he had been upset, he might have put me on the next boat to Cuba!

Which might have made some of you very happy!  I hope not—but it might have. 

And that’s my point.  I received a lot of positive feedback from the Bishop and from many of the parishioners I spoke to after Mass last Saturday.

But that’s not always the way it is!  There are times when a preacher proclaims the Word of God on a Saturday evening or on a Sunday morning at Mass, and he ends up getting a lot of negative, angry—and sometimes even hateful—feedback.

So he has to be prepared for it.

This truth, by the way, has a certain application to you lay people as well as to us clergy.  As lay people, you are called to bring the Gospel message into the marketplace in order to evangelize the culture.  But if you do that nowadays, you will have to stand up for things that many people in our culture currently reject, and you’ll have to stand against things that many people in our culture currently accept.  For example, you’ll have to stand up for the sanctity of human life and against attacks on innocent human life such as abortion and euthanasia; you’ll have to stand up for purity and against pornography; you have to stand up for traditional marriage and against so-called “gay marriage”; you’ll have to stand up for charity and against materialism (as Pope Francis is constantly reminding us).

And that will definitely make you unpopular among some.  Of course we can all take some consolation in the fact that whatever negative reactions we might experience from others when we defend the truth of the Gospel will probably not be as severe as the reaction Jesus experienced from the people of Nazareth in today’s gospel story!

I can certainly attest to that—since no one has ever tried to throw me off the edge of a cliff after hearing one of my homilies.

At least not yet!

And what was it that got these people so upset in the synagogue that day, as they listened to Jesus give his first “sermon”?

It was LOVE—specifically God’s love for people who are not Jewish.  That, believe it or not, was what enraged them!

Notice the two people Jesus mentioned in his talk, both of whom received special blessings from God: the Sidonian woman, whom the Lord saved from starvation (along with her son) through Elijah the prophet, and the Syrian army commander, Namaan, who was healed by God through the prophet Elisha.

Both were gentiles; that is to say, both were not Jewish.

Jesus used those examples for a reason.  He wanted to make clear to the people in the synagogue that God’s love extends to all human beings, not just to the Jews.

Here’s how Scripture scholar William Barclay described the situation: “What angered the people was the apparent compliment that Jesus paid to gentiles.  The Jews were so sure that they were God’s people that they utterly despised all others.  They believed that ‘God had created the gentiles to be fuel for the fires of hell.’  And here was this young Jesus, whom they all knew, preaching as if the gentiles were specifically favored by God.  It was beginning to dawn upon them that there were things in this new message the like of which they had never dreamed.”

Actually, for the men and women in the synagogue of Nazareth that day, the idea that God loved all people was nothing short of a nightmare!  And they tried to put an end to the nightmare by putting an end to Jesus, which, of course, they were unable to do.

And how did Jesus respond to this rejection?  Well, let me tell you how he did NOT respond: he did NOT respond by changing his message!  He did not respond by changing the Gospel!  We have no record of our Lord either recanting or contradicting this teaching he gave at the very beginning of his earthly ministry.  Not once did he ever deny the universality of God’s love.  Quite to the contrary, he vigorously affirmed it in places like John 3:16, in that passage where he said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”

Everyone in that text means EVERYBODY—Jew and gentile—without exception.

Jesus was consistent—perfectly consistent!  He was perfectly consistent in what he taught (which was the truth); he was perfectly consistent in the way he taught what he taught (he did it with love); and he was perfectly consistent in living what he taught.

The challenge for us is to be like Jesus—even when our boss isn’t watching.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Three Important Lessons on Prayer that We Learn From the Wedding at Cana



(Second Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on Sunday, January 17, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 2; 1-11.)

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



Today I will share with you three simple but very important lessons on prayer—lessons that we learn from this gospel story of the wedding at Cana.

Now the first thing that needs to be mentioned is that this story is not about prayer per se.  In fact, the word “prayer” is not found anywhere in the text.

But Mary in this scene intercedes with Jesus on behalf of a newly married couple—and making intercession is one of the things we do when we pray (specifically when we pray prayers of petition).

Which brings us to lesson number 1 from the story: Mary is a powerful intercessor, so we should ask her every day to pray for us and with us as we bring to God our needs.

The power of Mary’s prayers is evident in the very fact that Jesus takes action here and honors her request—a request she obviously made out of love and concern for these newlyweds.  As some of you probably know, wedding celebrations in the Middle East in the first century lasted for several days, and wine was considered an indispensable part of the festivities.  Consequently running out of wine would have been a humiliating situation for this bride and groom to have to deal with—what the Italians of today would call a “brutta figura”!

And Mary knew that.

Now the interesting thing here is that Jesus does not initially respond to the request with a yes, indicating that he had not originally planned to perform this miracle.  But even this witnesses to Mary’s intercessory power!  As it said in one commentary I read recently, “Jesus’ reply seems to indicate that although in principle it was not part of God’s plan for him to solve the problem the wedding feast had run into, our Lady’s request moves him to do precisely that.”  (The Navarre Bible: The Gospel of Saint John, page 61)

So if you haven’t been asking the Blessed Mother to pray for you and for your intentions, make sure you start—today.  The easiest way to tap into Mary’s intercessory power, of course, is to say a Rosary—or at least a decade of the Rosary—every day.

We all have time for at least one decade a day.  No excuses.

This brings us to the second lesson we learn from this story: Prayers do not need to be complicated to be effective.  Mary’s request here is very simple, is it not?  In fact, the request is not even explicit, it’s only implied.  Mary simply makes the need known to Jesus: “Son, they have no wine.”  Period!  The implication, of course, being “So please do something to rectify the situation.”

A simple statement with an implied request—but highly effective!

The fact that our prayers don’t need to be complicated really came home to me several years ago when I was listening to a talk by Charlie Osburn.  Charlie is a Catholic layman who’s a kind of travelling evangelist.  He goes around the country proclaiming the Gospel in parishes, and at conferences and the like.  He was a mediocre Catholic in his early years, but as an adult he experienced a deep conversion and really came alive in his faith.  Not surprisingly he was very excited about his relationship Jesus when he first had his conversion, and one of the things he felt called to do at the time was to visit the local nursing home to pray with the residents there—especially for healing.  (This was before the HIPAA laws restricted people’s visiting rights.)

So he would go from room, praying with people and praying over people—often with long, spontaneous, pious prayers which were sometimes in English and sometimes in tongues (the gift St. Paul speaks about in today’s second reading).

He did this a number of times over the course of several weeks, but he didn’t notice any dramatic changes in anybody.  Now I’m sure his prayers had many positive effects, but Charlie didn’t see those effects with his own two eyes, so he began to get discouraged.

Yet he still made his visits.  Well, one day when he was feeling very discouraged, he went into a room and found a relatively young woman there all curled up in the fetal position.  Her limbs were contorted, and she was non-communicative (she was either unable or unwilling to speak).

Charlie then uttered one of the shortest and least-enthusiastic prayers he ever said in his life.  He said, “Well Lord, if you can do anything to help this dear sister, please do it—in the name of Jesus.  Amen.”

And he walked out.

A couple of months later he was giving a talk at a local parish, and when the talk was over a rather attractive woman suddenly ran up to him very excitedly, threw her arms around his neck, gave him a big kiss on the cheek and said, “Charlie, do you remember me?!!!”

As I recall the story, Charlie’s wife was standing close by, and Charlie shouted, “No ma’am I do not remember you!”  Then he turned to his wife and said, “Honestly, dear, I’ve never seen this woman before in my life!”

But he had seen her before—he just didn’t recognize her!  She was the woman he had prayed over that day in the nursing home.

Obviously she believed that his prayer had been instrumental in bringing her the healing she needed.

It was a very simple prayer that Charlie had uttered; it was an uncomplicated prayer—similar in those respects to the one Mary spoke to Jesus during the wedding at Cana.

And it was effective—just like Mary’s was.

This brings us to the final lesson on intercessory prayer that we learn from this story, which is that Almighty God has made some things in this life conditional.  This means that if we don’t ask the Lord for those things—those conditional favors—we will not receive them.  Mary asked her divine Son to do something to help these newlyweds avoid a potentially humiliating situation at their wedding feast—and Jesus took action.  Had she not made that request, we have no reason to believe that Jesus would have performed this particular miracle.  Mary’s intercession was key—as was the obedience of the stewards.  Had they not followed Jesus’ instruction to fill the six stone jars with water, there would have been no wine even with Mary’s intercession!

I think there’s an insight here as to why the prayers of holy people are so powerful: they ask—but they also obey God in their own personal lives.  And so, because they add their obedience to their intercession, they end up receiving many of those favors that God has designated as “conditional”—for themselves and for others.

Mary is a powerful intercessor; prayers do not need to be complicated to be effective; and God has made some things in this life conditional—three lessons on intercessory prayer that we learn from the wedding at Cana.  Let me end now by inviting you to join me in putting these lessons into practice.  Let’s now lift up all of our needs, and concerns, and burdens to the Lord, seeking our Blessed Mother’s powerful intercession as we say together …

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.  Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Most Important Day of Your Life

St. Louis
1215-1270


(Baptism of the Lord (C): This homily was given on January 10, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Titus 2: 11-14; 3: 4-7; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22; John 3.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2016]



What has been the most important day of your life thus far (leaving aside the day you were physically born into the world)?

If someone asked you that question, how would you respond?

What has been the most important day of your life thus far?

I can tell you with almost complete certitude how King Louis IX of France would have answered that question, had you posed it to him when he was walking around on planet earth back in the 13th century.

He would not have said it was the day that he got married.

He would not have said it was the day that he and his wife had their first child—or any one of their other 10 children.

He would not have said it was the day that he became the king of France in the Cathedral of Reims.

He would have said—without any hesitation whatsoever—that it was the day when he received the sacrament of Baptism!

In fact, for all practical purposes he did say that when he was once asked why he signed everything “Louis of Poissy” and not “Louis IX, King of France” (which would have been the traditional way for him to sign letters and documents as king).

He answered by saying that Poissy was where he was baptized.  Then he added, “I think more of the place where I was baptized than of Reims Cathedral where I was crowned.  It is a greater thing to be a child of God than to be the ruler of a Kingdom. This last I shall lose at death but the other will be my passport to an everlasting glory.”

I guess it won’t surprise you to know that Louis IX of France is now known to the world as “St. Louis.”  (I wonder how many people in Missouri know that!)  He’s one of the few earthly rulers in history to be canonized a saint by the Church.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a few leaders like this in our world today?

St. Louis, pray for us—and for our world leaders.

So how would you answer that question … What has been the most important day of your life thus far?

In all honesty, there was a time when I’m quite certain I would not have said it was the day I was baptized!  That’s because I have often been guilty of taking this first and foundational sacrament for granted.

And I suspect many of you have as well.

So why is Baptism so important?

Well, very simply it’s because without the grace of Baptism in your soul—which is the grace that Jesus won for us by his passion, death and resurrection—you can’t get into heaven!  As our Lord said to Nicodemus, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

“Water and Spirit” signifies Baptism.

And this is what we mean when we say that Baptism takes away original sin.  Original sin, remember, is not like the personal sins we commit every day and then confess in the confessional.  Original sin is actually the lack of something: the lack of sanctifying grace!  Original sin means that we come into this world without sanctifying grace in our souls.

And, as I indicated earlier, we need this grace in our souls if we want to be able to pass through the pearly gates when we die!

Sanctifying grace: Do not leave earth (that is to say, die) without it!

St. Paul said it perfectly in today’s second reading from Titus 3 when he wrote, “God saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”

Notice that Paul says there that through Baptism we become heirs in hope of eternal life.  “In hope” means that it’s not a done deal and it’s not magic!  We receive sanctifying grace into our souls at Baptism, but we can lose it.  We lose sanctifying grace if we commit a mortal sin.

Which is why the Lord gave us the sacrament of Penance!  Confession restores what mortal sin takes away.

Of course, it also needs to be mentioned that when a person is baptized after attaining the age of reason, the sacrament also takes away all their personal sins as well as the temporal punishment due those sins. 

That’s a tremendous gift of mercy—as anyone will tell you who’s been baptized as an adult!  This means that, when a person makes his first confession sometime after his baptism as an adult, he only has to confess what he’s done SINCE THE DAY HE WAS BAPTIZED!  Everything before that was forgiven at the baptismal font.

We had a teenage girl baptized here at St. Pius a couple of weeks ago, and after the ceremony I told her that at that moment she was the holiest person in the church building.

Because she was!

The early Fathers of the Church used to say that, when he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, Jesus “sanctified the waters”.  In other words, Jesus didn’t need to be baptized, because he had no sin.  He received the baptism of John (which had no power to forgive sin in and of itself) to give us an example.  He did it as a sign of what he wanted his followers to do after his resurrection, and as a sign of the fact that the Christian sacrament of Baptism would have the power to forgive any sin and every sin!

Furthermore, as it says in paragraph 1265 of the Catechism, “Baptism not only purifies from all sins, but also makes the neophyte ‘a new creature,’ an adopted son of God, who has become a ‘partaker of the divine nature,’ member of Christ and co-heir with him, and a temple of the Holy Spirit.”

It also makes us a member of the Church; it imprints an indelible spiritual mark on our soul; it gives us a share in the royal priesthood of Jesus Christ; and it opens us to the possibility of receiving the other sacraments.

These are the things that King Louis IX knew and understood—and this is why he said that the day of his baptism was far more important than the day he was crowned the King of France.

Let me now conclude by asking you to do something.

Do you know the date of your baptism?  Mine was May 5, 1957.

If you don’t know the date of yours, then do some research and find out when it was.

That’s your homework assignment.

And then make a resolution to celebrate the anniversary of that event each and every year!  Resolve to do something special on the anniversary of the day when you were “born again of water and Spirit”—just like you do something special on the anniversary of your physical birth each year.

And make that resolution even if you’re one of those people who doesn’t do anything special on your physical birthday.

I’m happy to say that lots of people all over the world celebrate the anniversary of my baptism every year.  I think they call it “Cinco de Mayo”.

How nice of them to have that annual celebration in my honor!

But, remember, the anniversary day of your baptism is also worth celebrating—even if the rest of the world doesn’t celebrate it.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Science and the Case for God



(Epiphany 2016: This homily was given on January 3, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)

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


“Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God”

That was the title of an article by Eric Metaxas that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Christmas Day 2014.  He begins it by saying, “In 1966 Time magazine ran a cover story asking: Is God Dead?  Many have accepted the cultural narrative that he’s obsolete—that as science progresses, there is less need for a ‘God’ to explain the universe.  Yet it turns out that the rumors of God’s death were premature.  More amazing is that the relatively recent case for his existence comes from a surprising place—science itself.”

Metaxas then mentions astronomer Carl Sagan, who said (also in 1966) that he believed there were just two important requirements that needed to be met for a planet to support life: the right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star.

Which means that there would be about a septillion planets in the universe capable of supporting life!  (Septillion, incidentally, is 1 followed by 24 zeros!)

The only problem is, Dr. Sagan was wrong.  Sagan thought there were only two conditions that needed to be met for a planet to support life, but since 1966 scientists have discovered many others.  As Metaxas said in his article:  “Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart.  Without a massive planet like Jupiter nearby, whose gravity will draw away asteroids, a thousand times as many would hit the Earth’s surface.  The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.”

In fact, according to the laws of probability, my brothers and sisters, even we shouldn’t be here.

Nor should the universe itself!  As Metaxas wrote, “Astrophysicists now know that the values of the four fundamental forces—gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ nuclear forces—were determined less than one millionth of a second after the big bang.  Alter any one value and the universe could not exist.”  He later continued, “The odds against the universe existing are so heart-stoppingly astronomical that the notion that it all ‘just happened’ defies common sense.  It would be like tossing a coin and having it come up heads 10 quintillion times in a row.”

He concludes by quoting some contemporary scholars like Dr. John Lennox of Oxford, who has said, “The more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator … gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.”

I’m sure that all of this does not come as a surprise to many of you.  It’s exactly what you, as believers, would expect.  Well, it wouldn’t have been surprising to the Magi either—these mysterious men who paid a visit to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago and brought him special gifts.

It would not have surprised them because they were men of faith and at the same time men of science.  They were also the very first non-Jews to adore Jesus Christ.  In that sense, they prefigured all those Gentiles—all those non-Jews like us—who would worship Jesus in future generations. 

In this we are reminded of the fact that our Lord came into this world to save everybody—Jew and Gentile alike.

They came “from the east” according to St. Matthew’s Gospel.  Now that covers a lot of ground—literally; but in all likelihood they came from ancient Persia, an area of land now known to the world as Iran. 

They are not identified as “kings” in the Bible—at least not directly.  That idea comes from today’s responsorial psalm—Psalm 72—part of which says, “The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute.  All kings shall pay him homage, all nations shall serve him.”

This prophecy predicts that even non-Jews (and non-Jewish leaders) will pay homage to the Messiah when he comes.  And since the Magi (as I said a few moments ago) were the very first non-Jews to adore the Savior, many believe that this prophecy was fulfilled in them when they visited the baby Jesus after his birth. 

But that doesn’t mean they were kings themselves, and they probably weren’t.

However, in all likelihood, the Magi were the teachers of kings—the teachers of the kings of Persia.  They took on that role in their country because they were so highly educated.  They were skilled in philosophy, in medicine, and in the natural sciences. 

They were also star-gazers, who mixed a little science with a little astrological superstition.  But that’s understandable, since this was an era of human history when most people believed in astrology.

Obviously their scientific knowledge was primitive by 21st century standards.  However there was one very important truth that they understood which many of our sophisticated 21st century men and women do not understand (or perhaps don’t want to understand!).  The Magi understood that science and religion ARE NOT NATURAL ENEMIES!

You young people, most especially, need to hear this, because at some point in the future you will probably be taught in school that religion and science are irreconcilable enemies—and that’s a lie!

The Magi were learned men who saw no contradiction whatsoever between their scientific study of the universe, and the truths of Jewish biblical prophecy!  In that sense, they were men of science AND men of religion!

Today, of course, the implication is that you have to choose to live in one camp or the other.  Either you have to say, “I’m a religious person, so I reject modern science”; or you have to say, “I’m a rational, scientific person who rejects anything rooted in religion.”

To this, the Catholic Church says no!  The Church says this is a false dichotomy.  The Church says that when it comes to religion and science, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and!

As Catholics, therefore, we should say yes to good theology (like the theology we find in the Catechism), and yes to good science!

On the other hand, we should say no to bad theology (theology, in other words, that’s not compatible with Church teaching), just as we should say no to bad science!

That last point, incidentally, is the real crux of the issue.  The Church is often portrayed as the enemy of scientific inquiry, but what she’s really the enemy of is BAD SCIENCE: science, in other words, that’s used to destroy human life; science that undermines the dignity of the human person.

That’s what the Catholic Church is against—and that’s what every Catholic should be against.

Let me conclude now by coming back to Eric Metaxas’ article.  The key point to remember about it is that the data of modern science—when looked at objectively—points to the existence of an intelligent Creator (not an impersonal “force” like we see in the Star Wars movies).

But that still leaves one issue unresolved: Has he revealed himself?  Has this awesome, powerful, intelligent Creator revealed himself and his will to us mere mortals?

As Catholics we say, “Yes, he has!  He’s revealed himself most completely in Christ and in the teachings of Christ, as witnessed to in places like the Bible, and the Catechism, and the sacraments.”

And the good news is, if we follow the message given to us in places like the Bible and the Catechism, that message will do for us what the star did for the Magi 2,000 years ago: it will guide us to the Creator—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—only this time not in a manger in Bethlehem, but rather in a kingdom that will last forever.