Thursday, April 27, 2006

Which Gospels Do You Want—The Four In The Bible, Or The Ones Written By The Gnostics?

The National Geographic Society's exhibit in Washington, which contains artifacts of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas.

(Third Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on April 30, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24: 35-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2006]

Which gospels do you want? Which gospels do you want to use as the basis of your religious beliefs?

The ones that were inspired by the Holy Spirit? The ones that were written in the first century by the 4 men whose images adorn the back wall of our sanctuary: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

Or the ones that were written much later, by the so-called “Gnostics”? I’m talking here about writings like the Gospel of Judas (which has been in the news quite a bit recently); the Gospel of Thomas (made famous several years ago in the movie, Stigmata); the Gospel of Peter; and the Gospel of Philip. (Now please don’t be fooled: these Gnostic gospels weren’t actually written by the apostles themselves. Rather, Gnostic authors put the names of the apostles on their writings in order to deceive real Christians and lead them away from the true faith.)

At this time, let me say a brief word on Gnosticism itself, since people today are still buying into it! Case in point: Dan Brown, much celebrated author of The DaVinci Code. I hope you realize, all the so-called “deep insights” about Jesus and Christianity that he shares in this book are nothing more than ideas he ripped off from ancient Gnostic writings! They’re not new truths; they’re simply old lies!

The name itself—Gnosticism—comes from a Greek word (gnosis) meaning “knowledge”. Gnostics were people who considered themselves to be “in the know” with respect to the deep mysteries of God and the universe. They thought they were smarter and more spiritually enlightened than everyone else—which is one reason why the philosophy is still very popular today. In our pride, we like to think we know spiritual secrets that “ordinary men and women” don’t know.

In the early centuries of Christianity, the followers of Gnosticism were a lot like people in the contemporary New Age Movement. That is to say, they weren’t members of one single organization. Rather, they were people from many different groups who embraced similar ideas about life, God and salvation.

For example, the Gnostics did not believe that Jesus Christ was truly human (as genuine Christians did). To them, his humanity was merely an illusion. Consequently, in their view, Jesus did not experience death on the cross. He only appeared to die. As one author put it, his crucifixion was really a “cruci-fiction”.

Nor did they believe that Jesus was God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. To them he was an “aeon”—a created being who was on a level somewhere between God and humans.

Gnostics sometimes disagreed among themselves on particular issues, but nearly all of them agreed on this crucial point: physical matter is evil (and that includes the human body), but the human soul or spirit is good.

This explains why, in the Gospel of Judas, Judas is considered a hero for helping to get Jesus killed! As most newspaper articles mentioned a few weeks ago, in the Gospel of Judas Jesus says to his betrayer, “But you will exceed all [the others]. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

In other words, “Judas, by betraying me and getting me crucified you’ll be doing me a really big favor! You’ll be helping me to get rid of this evil body that I have. You’ll help to set my spirit free from this flesh that holds it in bondage.”

Now, when you stop and think about it, you have to admit, there’s something rather appealing about this particular Gnostic teaching. You see, if your body is truly bad, then it obviously doesn’t matter what you do with it. You can get drunk every day; you can have any kind of sex you want as often as you wish. When it comes to your flesh there are no rules you have to follow!

Sounds rather tempting, does it not? That’s why people like Dan Brown think it’s great!

This, of course, is exactly the opposite of what Matthew, Mark, Luke and John teach in their gospels. They teach that matter is good, not evil. In John 3:16, for example, Jesus doesn’t say, “For God so hated the world”; he says, “For God so loved the world.”

God doesn’t hate the material universe or consider it to be evil. After all, he’s the one who made it!

And he made it a moral universe, governed by laws and commandments. St. John says in today’s second reading, “Those who say, ‘I know [the Lord],’ but do not keep his commandments are liars, and the truth is not in them. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.”

A staunch Gnostic of the first century would wretch at a statement like that.

Following the teaching of the real gospels is obviously much more difficult than following the teachings of Gnosticism, because it requires discipline, repentance and sacrifice. But, in the long run, it’s really much better. Trust me. Because if “matter” is really as bad as the Gnostics said it was (and as some contemporary New Agers still say it is), then it becomes almost impossible to argue against evils like the Holocaust and the terrorist attacks of 9/11!

You see, according to strict Gnostic principles, the Nazis did those 6 million Jews a big favor during the Second World War by setting them free from their evil bodies! Thus, they weren’t murderers; they were liberators! They did for the Jews (and for many others) what Judas did for Jesus (according to the Gospel of Judas).

The terrorists did the same for those who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

Do we really want to say that? Do we really want to rewrite history and call both the Nazis and the terrorists of 9/11 “liberators”?

I hope not. But we would be forced to, if we believed the Gnostic gospels. We would even be forced to say that suicide is morally good, since the person who takes his own life frees himself from his own evil body.

The real Jesus took on human flesh out of love, and he redeemed it through his resurrection. That’s the Good News! Jesus didn’t just come to save our souls from eternal death; he came to save “all” of us—body and soul—from eternal death! At 49 years of age, incidentally, that’s a thought that appeals to me more and more. I like the thought of getting back my thinning hair and my dark beard. I like the thought of having a transformed, glorified body without any middle-age aches and pains in it!

Notice in today’s resurrection story from Luke 24 how determined Jesus is to get his disciples to understand that his resurrected body is real! Even though he doesn’t need to eat (because his body is immortal), he does so anyway. He has a nice fish meal with his apostles, and he tells them to touch his body.

The Gnostics must have freaked out when they first read this story. It must have made them sick!

That’s why they felt so compelled to write their own fictitious accounts of Jesus’ life.

There are many other things I could say about the Gnostics, but I think I’ll leave that for future homilies—especially with the release of the film, The DaVinci Code, looming on the horizon.

So which gospels do you want? Which gospels do you want to use as the basis of your religious beliefs—the 4 we have in the Bible, or the Gnostic ones?

I would tell you my personal answer to that question, but at this point I really don’t think I need to.

I’ll only say that I hope and pray that your answer is the same as mine.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Michael Schiavo’s ‘Mercy Account’—And Ours

Michael Schiavo and Terri in November of 1990.

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B): This homily was given on April 23, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 John 5: 1-6; John 20: 19-31.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Second Sunday of Easter 2006]

Fr. Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life. You see him frequently on EWTN. In March of 2005 he was also on network television quite a bit, because he was the priest who ministered to the family of Terri Schiavo, as Terri was being publicly starved to death. He was interviewed many times by reporters in the mainstream media, in the midst of what can only be described as a “national horror show.”

A couple of weeks ago Fr. Pavone released an “open letter” to Michael Schiavo, Terri’s husband, on the one year anniversary of her passing. I’m sure some of you have read it, but for the benefit of those who haven’t, I’ll read it to you now:

A year ago this week, I stood by the bedside of the woman you married and promised to love in good times and bad, in sickness and health. She was enduring a very bad time, because she hadn’t been given food or drink in nearly two weeks. And you were the one insisting that she continue to be deprived of food and water, right up to her death. I watched her face for hours on end, right up to moments before her last breath. Her death was not peaceful, nor was it beautiful. If you saw her too, and noticed what her eyes were doing, you know that to describe her last agony as peaceful is a lie.

This week, tens of millions of Americans will remember those agonizing days last year, and will scratch their heads trying to figure out why you didn’t simply let Terri’s mom, dad, and siblings take care of her, as they were willing to do. They offered you, again and again, the option to simply let them care for Terri, without asking anything of you. But you refused and continued to insist that Terri’s feeding be stopped. She had no terminal illness. She was simply a disabled woman who needed extra care that you weren’t willing to give.

I speak to you today on behalf of the tens of millions of Americans who still wonder why. I speak to you today to express their anger, their dismay, their outraged astonishment at your behavior in the midst of this tragedy. Most people will wonder about these questions in silence, but as one of only a few people who were eyewitnesses to Terri’s dehydration, I have to speak.

I have spoken to you before, not in person, but through mass media. Before Terri’s feeding tube was removed for the last time, I appealed to you with respect, asking you not to continue on the road you were pursuing, urging you to reconsider your decisions, in the light of the damage you were doing. I invited you to talk. But you did not respond.

Then, after Terri died, I called her death a killing, and I called you a murderer because you knew—as we all did—that ceasing to feed Terri would kill her. We watched, but you had the power to save her. Her life was in your hands, but you threw it away, with the willing cooperation of attorneys and judges who were as heartless as you were. Some have demanded that I apologize to you for calling you a murderer. Not only will I not apologize, I will repeat it again. Your decision to have Terri dehydrated to death was a decision to kill her. It doesn’t matter if Judge Greer said it was legal. No judge, no court, no power on earth can legitimize what you did. It makes no difference if what you did was legal in the eyes of men; it was murder in the eyes of God and of millions of your fellow Americans and countless more around the world. You are the one who owes all of us an apology.

Your actions offend us. Not only have you killed Terri and deeply wounded her family, but you have disgraced our nation, betrayed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and undermined the principles that hold us together as a civilized society. You have offended those who struggle on a daily basis to care for loved ones who are dying, and who sometimes have to make the very legitimate decision to discontinue futile treatment. You have offended them by trying to confuse Terri’s circumstances with theirs. Terri’s case was not one of judging treatment to be worthless—which is sometimes the case; rather, it was about judging a life to be worthless, which is never the case.

You have made your mark on history, but sadly, it is an ugly stain. In the name of millions around the world, I call on you today to embrace a life of repentance, and to ask forgiveness from the Lord, who holds the lives of each of us in His hands.

Fr. Frank Pavone

One of the terrible “talents” we have as fallen human beings is the talent of rationalizing our evil behavior. That is to say, we can come up with some very clever reasons for doing things that are objectively reprehensible! In the 19th century, for example, some Americans tried to justify slavery by claiming that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites; the Nazis attempted to justify the Holocaust by saying that the master Aryan race needed to be purified; the people at Planned Parenthood attempted to justify abortion, when it first became legal 33 years ago, by claiming that the “cluster of cells” in the womb wasn’t really human. But then the science of genetics proved that it was human. Of course, that still didn’t stop them. At that point they simply modified their rationalization, claiming that it’s a matter of “choice” and “rights” and “freedom”.

And now, in the aftermath of Terri Schiavo’s tragic death, people are trying to legitimize the murder of the handicapped and the terminally ill by an appeal to “compassion” and “love” and “dignity”.

We human beings are a versatile and creative lot, aren’t we? In our selfishness and greed, we can rationalize just about anything!

And yet, in the midst of all this sin and rationalizing, mercy is still available—even to the worst of sinners; even to the Michael Schiavos of this world. Today, on Divine Mercy Sunday, that’s a message we all need to hear—and internalize—and pass on.

Fr. Pavone tried to pass it on to Michael Schiavo in that letter he wrote to him a few weeks ago. Granted, it’s not a very uplifting or consoling or sympathetic note. His words there are unambiguous and uncompromising! But in the end he makes it very clear to Mr. Schiavo that, in spite of all he did last year to secure his own wife’s death, he’s not beyond the hope of salvation. Mercy and redemption are still possible for him—as long as he still has breath in his lungs and blood flowing through his veins.

The same is true for all of us. And that’s very good news, because to one extent or another we ALL need mercy. Lots of it!

Thus it should come as no surprise that mercy was the last gift Jesus gave before he died, and the first gift he gave after he rose from the dead.

Did you realize that?

While hanging on the cross, he offered mercy to his murderers when he said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

Shortly thereafter, he pardoned the good thief and said to him, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

And then, after he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, he appeared to his apostles in the upper room, and the first thing he did was to give them the power to forgive sins in his name. He gave them power, in other words, to be instruments and dispensers of his mercy. He said—as we heard a few moments ago in our Gospel reading—“Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”

Because Jesus “came . . . by blood,” as St. John reminds us in today’s second reading, we have lots of mercy available to us. In fact, we have all the mercy at our disposal that we will ever need!

It’s as if Jesus—by his passion, death and resurrection—has set up for each and every one of us a “mercy account” at his “spiritual bank”: an account that never runs out; an account that we can never exhaust no matter what we do!

Can you imagine having an account at one of our local banks that never ran out? For some of you who constantly overdraw on your checking account, it would be a dream come true!

Of course, none of that would matter if you never made a withdrawal, would it?

Having a bottomless bank account would be absolutely, positively useless, if you never took any money out of it.

And so it is with mercy.

Mercy is available to everyone—including Michael Schiavo, who murdered his own disabled wife. But that “bottomless bank account” of mercy does none of us any good, unless we access it through repentance; and, when necessary, through the sacrament of Confession.

Lord Jesus, merciful and glorious Savior, today we pray for Michael Schiavo, that he will do some much needed “spiritual banking” in the very near future. And we also pray for ourselves and for one another, that we will have the good sense to do the very same thing whenever we need to.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter and Good Friday: Inseparable

(Easter 2006: This homily was given on April 16, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Romans 6: 3-11; John 20: 1-9.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2006]

What did you do on Good Friday?

How did you commemorate the Lord’s passion and death?

What did you do to enter into the spirit of the day?

Did you do anything?

Or was it business as usual?

You might think those are strange questions to ask on Easter Sunday, but I can assure you they aren’t.

That’s because Easter only has meaning in light of what happened on Good Friday. Or to put it another way, Easter only makes sense, if we understand and appreciate the deep meaning of our Lord's passion and death.

Easter is about life and joy; Good Friday is about death and sacrifice. We want life and joy (that’s why churches tend to be filled at Easter); we don’t like death and sacrifice (which is why those same churches are relatively empty on Good Friday). But Jesus teaches us that we can’t have the former without the latter. We can’t have life—specifically eternal life—without dying to our selfishness and sin through baptism and a life of faith.

It’s impossible.

We can’t even have a fulfilling earthly life if we’re not willing to “die” and sacrifice—although many people nowadays trick themselves into thinking that they can! Of course, the irony is that they end up empty and miserable—even if they’re rich and successful in the eyes of the world.

I’ll give you one contemporary example of what I mean. The other night, as I was flipping through the channels with my TV remote (as we men love to do), I caught part of a new show on the Bravo network called, “The Real Housewives of Orange County.” Quite frankly, it made me thankful for the gift of celibacy!

This is a “reality show” that’s obviously trying to capitalize on the popularity of two other programs, “Desperate Housewives” and “Laguna Beach”.

The women in it are all rich (you don’t live in homes like they live in unless you make a 7-figure salary); they’re all relatively attractive; they all have lots of leisure time. And they’re all—to one extent or another—bored and unhappy!

Take Jo, for instance. She’s not even married to Slade, the man she’s living with (which means that this show should actually be entitled “The Real Housewives and Live-ins of Orange County”!)

Slade has two young children from two previous relationships, who are currently living with him and Jo.

Jo is upset with Slade because his devotion to her definitely isn’t total: he still goes out when he’s at work during the day and has close relationships with other young women. And Slade’s upset with Jo, because she wants to go out every night and party with her female friends, and doesn’t want to spend any quality time with his two children.

The bottom line is that neither one wants to make any serious personal sacrifices for the other. In effect, they each want a perpetual Easter without any Good Fridays. They want a loving relationship without any self-denial or personal discipline.

Well all I can say is “Good luck, Slade and Jo—because you’ll definitely need it!”

Some people were upset with Mel Gibson a couple of years ago, because in his movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” he portrayed the resurrection of Jesus only in a very brief scene at the end of the film. There Jesus stands up in the tomb on Easter Sunday, with the marks of the crucifixion on his hands, and walks out.

It’s the only reference to the resurrection that Gibson makes in the entire movie.

I think he did that for a very good reason. He understood the mindset of “Orange County” (which is the mindset of many Americans these days). He understood it because for many years he himself embraced it—and he nearly fell into despair because he did.

Mel wanted the world to understand the importance of the cross and the fact that the cross and the resurrection are connected. Yes, Jesus rose from the dead—but that was only after he offered his life in loving sacrifice for our sins!

And we needed him to do this. The fact is, you could never atone for your own sins—as I could never atone for mine! We’re finite human beings, and our actions have only relative value. We can’t possibly heal the rift between ourselves and an all-holy God who is infinite and perfect.

Only a God-man could do that. And he did—by dying for us on that cross. He was a man like us, and so he could represent us before the Father; but he was also God, which means that his sacrifice had infinite value. It made possible the forgiveness of every sin—and it made possible eternal life for every sinner!

As Isaiah the prophet put it, “By his wounds we are healed.”

This is what we celebrate today as a Church. It’s what Easter is all about.

This means that if we’re faithful to Jesus here on this earth, we have the hope of living forever with him in a life that’s far, far better than this one. And the good news is we can all be faithful in the future if we want to be, regardless of what our past has been like. In fact, for some of us, all that’s required to move from a condition of unfaithfulness to a condition of faithfulness is a simple stroll into one of those reconciliation rooms, followed by an honest, thorough confession.

I’ll conclude my homily today with a little story that shows how important it is that we leave this life in a condition of faithfulness (which is simply another way of saying ‘in the state of grace’). This story also illustrates the close connection between the suffering of Good Friday and the new life of Easter Sunday—and at the same time it makes clear just how much Jesus Christ loves each and every one of us. The story was written by C.S. Lewis, and it’s found at the very end of The Silver Chair, which is the 6th book in his Chronicles of Narnia series.

One of the good and faithful kings of Narnia, King Caspian, has died at a ripe old age. Two children from our world, Eustace and Jill, are present for his funeral. The ceremony begins, but in the middle of it—while the funeral music is still playing—Aslan, the powerful Lion who represents Jesus in these books, magically transports the children to “his country”. (It was Aslan, you will recall, who, just like Jesus, died and rose from the dead to save sinners in another book of the Narnia series, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”)

Aslan brings Eustace and Jill to a beautiful stream in his country, and when the children look down into the shallow water of the stream they suddenly see the dead King Caspian lying there on his back, with the water flowing over him. And they begin to weep—as does Aslan—as we all weep when someone we love dies.

But then the Lion tells Eustace to go and pluck a thorn out of a nearby thicket. At this point I’ll read from the book itself and let C.S. Lewis tell you the ending:

Eustace obeyed. The thorn was a foot long and sharp as a [sword].

“Drive it into my paw, Son of Adam,” said Aslan, holding up his right fore-paw and spreading out the great pad toward Eustace.

“Must I?” said Eustace.

“Yes,” said Aslan.

Then Eustace set his teeth and drove the thorn into the Lion’s pad. And there came out a great drop of blood, redder than all the redness that you have ever seen or imagined. And it splashed into the stream over the dead body of the King. At the same moment the doleful music stopped. And the dead King began to be changed. His white beard turned to gray, and from gray to yellow, and got shorter and vanished altogether; and his sunken cheeks grew round and fresh, and the wrinkles were smoothed, and his eyes opened, and his eyes and lips both laughed, and suddenly he leaped up and stood before them—a very young man, or a boy. (But Jill couldn’t say which, because of people having no particular ages in Aslan’s country. . . .) And he rushed to Aslan and flung his arms as far as they would go round the huge neck; and he gave Aslan the strong kisses of a King, and Aslan gave him the wild kisses of a Lion.

The blood of the savior of Narnia—that had been shed on the Stone Table many years before—had the power to raise King Caspian to eternal life.

That, of course, is a fictitious story.

But it’s based on a true one!—the one we recall today.

Lord Jesus Christ, risen and glorious Savior, help us all to BELIEVE! And help us always to LIVE like we believe!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Good Friday 2006: Outdoor Stations of the Cross

Each year, on Good Friday, we pray the Stations of the Cross at 14 locations between School and Cross Streets here in Westerly. Members of the community take turns carrying a large wooden cross.
It is an opportunity for us to give a public witness to our Catholic faith, and to meditate on the sufferings our Lord and Savior endured for us.
Many thanks to Elaine Chicoria for providing these great pictures from this year's event!

(Click on images to enlarge.)

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.
Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

An Unsettling Experience During Stations Of The Cross

Jackie Boy celebrating his most recent birthday.

(Holy Thursday 2006: This homily was given on April 13, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2006]

It was one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve ever had in my life.

It occurred a couple of weeks ago, on a Tuesday night. Some of you were there, although I think it’s safe to say that none of you noticed anything unusual taking place. But I did.

It was 6:05, and I had just finished saying the opening prayer of the Stations of the Cross from this pulpit.

I immediately moved down into the center aisle of the church, and faced the first station.

When the initial verse of “At the Cross Her Station Keeping” was finished, I began in the customary fashion. I said, “The first station, Jesus is condemned to death. We adore you O Christ, and we praise you.”

Those in attendance genuflected and gave the usual response: “Because, by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.”

I then proceeded to read a brief meditation from the stations’ booklet, recounting how Pontius Pilate “washed his hands” on Good Friday and condemned our Lord to death by crucifixion. When I was finished, the people in the congregation began to recite their prayer of response.

That’s when it happened.

I looked up from my booklet, and all of a sudden I caught sight of little 4-year-old Jack Carey, standing 5 feet away from me in the first pew. Now I know Jack pretty well. His mother, Deb, is my cook. She brings Jack (or, as his friends call him, “Jackie-boy”) to the rectory all the time. He plays in my kitchen quite often. If I have a free moment on a given afternoon, you might even find me playing a game with him, or drawing a picture with him at the kitchen table.

I see Jack several times a week. But I have never, ever seen him like this. When I first spotted him during stations, what struck me was the fact that he was standing perfectly still (that, in and of itself, is pretty unusual for a 4-year-old!). He was facing me, and he wasn’t moving a muscle. He was like a statue!

And he was staring at me such that when I began to look at him, our eyes immediately made contact. Now, under normal circumstances, Jackie-boy would have given me a really quick smile, and then would have turned away. But that’s not what happened on this particular occasion. Even after our eyes had made contact, he continued to stand there without moving, looking at me—looking into my eyes—with an expression that can only be described with one word: AWE!

He was staring at me with a look of AWE in his eyes.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: “Man, you must have loved it, Fr. Ray! That must have stoked the fire of your ego big time!”

No, it did not!

I was serious about what I said at the beginning of my homily: this was a very unsettling experience—one of the most unsettling that I’ve ever had!

Because, as that boy stared into my eyes with awe written all over his face, 3 thoughts went through my head almost simultaneously.

The first concerned the dignity and power of the priesthood. We know how the world has reacted with horror (and rightly so) to the stories of clerical misconduct that have become public, especially since 2002. But, as bad as this situation has been, the world’s reaction to it has been a sign of something positive. It’s been a sign of the fact that even world people—even materialistic, hedonistic unbelievers—implicitly recognize the dignity of the priestly office!

Let’s face it, this type of sinful, evil behavior happens in every segment of our culture; but it’s especially heinous when a priest is involved. That’s because a priest, by virtue of his ordination, is different from everyone else in one very important respect (and even worldly people implicitly recognize it). He is—in the words of Catholic author George Weigel—“a living icon of the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ”.

In the theology of the Eastern Church, an icon is a sacred image through which people encounter the mystery that the image portrays.

By virtue of his ordination, a priest is an icon of Christ because, when he administers the sacraments, he acts “in persona Christ” (“in the person of Christ”). That is to say, Christ works directly through him to touch his people.

Consequently, it is Christ who, through the priest, consecrates bread and wine and changes them into his Body and Blood; it is Christ who absolves you through the priest in the sacrament of Confession; it is Christ who anoints you through the priest before major surgery—or on your deathbed—in the sacrament of Anointing.

That was my first thought: the dignity and power of the priesthood that I am blessed to share in through the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The second thought that came to me that Tuesday night followed directly from this one. I thought of what I am called to be as an ordained priest of Jesus Christ: HOLY!

I am called to love as Christ loved—selflessly;

I am called to serve as Christ served in today’s Gospel and throughout his earthly ministry—by “washing the feet” of others;

I’m called to follow the example of St. Paul and to “hand on to you” the full truth of the Gospel message without compromise, by the way I preach and teach, and by the way I live;

I’m called to be merciful and forgiving and pure of heart.

In a word, I’m called to be perfect as Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest, was perfect!

But I’m not.

And that was my third and final thought as I looked into young Jack’s eyes that night: I am called to be perfect—but I’m not.

And that’s why it was such an unsettling experience!

I do take some consolation in the fact that after several seconds of staring at me with a look of awe, little Jackie-boy finally turned his head a little, gave me that impish grin of his, and then went back to being his normal self.

That took the pressure off—at least for the moment.

But my real consolation comes from the fact that he prayed for me that night.

How do I know that?

Because his parents have told me that he prays for me every night. In fact, I have the privilege of being the very first person on his prayer list—every single evening. I even beat mom and dad!

I’m honored. Perhaps through his prayers—and through yours—I will move a little bit closer than I am right now to the priestly ideal of perfection.

And this, incidentally, is not only the best thing you can do for me; it’s also the best thing you can do for yourselves and for the universal Church.

That’s because, as our own St. Pius X said so many years ago, “A holy priest makes holy people.”

Do you want to be holy? Do you want to be saints? Then pray for me and for all priests. Every day. Like Jackie-boy.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

What does Jesus mean when he says, ‘Whoever LOVES HIS LIFE loses it, and whoever HATES HIS LIFE IN THIS WORLD will preserve it for eternal life’?

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on April 2, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 12: 20-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2006]

“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

It’s a strange statement, isn’t it?

What exactly is Jesus getting at here?

I mean . . . It almost sounds as if he’s saying that this earthly life is bad!

But isn’t this earthly life a gift from God?

Aren’t we supposed to be grateful for it?

Aren’t we supposed to treasure it and be good stewards of it—taking care of our physical and emotional health and not abusing our bodies in any way?

The interesting thing is, Jesus would answer all those questions with a resounding Yes: yes, this life is a gift from God; yes, we should be grateful for it; yes, we should treasure it and be good stewards of it. But then he would add, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

And Jesus would know that in giving us this answer he would not be contradicting himself!

How can that be?

Well, perhaps I can clarify the matter somewhat by paraphrasing this troublesome text for you. (I trust the Lord won’t mind me doing this. If, perchance, a lightening bolt should strike me in two seconds, you’ll know I was wrong!)

Here’s the paraphrase: Jesus said, “The person who lives his earthly life as if it were his only life, will not experience eternal life in heaven; but the person who values his life in this world less than he values eternal life, will experience eternal life in heaven.”

Let me now compare this paraphrase with the text itself.

When Jesus says, “Whoever loves his life loses it,” he is not implying that we should detest the natural life that God has given us on this planet. Not at all! Rather, he’s warning us not to act as if this life is the only life there is! He’s reminding us that this life only has relative value.

Do you believe that? Do you REALLY believe that?

If you do, then I would say that you’re probably in the minority right now—at least here in the United States (and in most other places in the western world). From my observation, people who currently live in western, technological societies like ours tend to be extremely passionate about activities like making money, getting ahead in the workplace, buying lots of stuff, and having a good time. That’s where their focus is. God, morality, spirituality—if they’re in the mix at all—tend to get put on the back burner. And if you don’t believe me, just ask our religious education director, Chris Magowan. She’s heard every excuse in the book in the last couple of years as to why students can’t fulfill their basic CCD obligations. And we don’t ask that much of them! For many—even here in our own community—anything and everything comes before Jesus. That’s just the way it is.

“Whoever loves his life loses it.”

In the same way, I think we all know of men and women who are also extremely passionate about their physical health—who wouldn’t miss a workout at the gym, who get all kinds of plastic surgery, and who are incredibly strict about their diets—but who almost totally neglect their souls. If you ask them about reps, calories, or good plastic surgeons, they can go on for hours; if you ask them about the last time they went to Mass or Confession, or the last time they read Scripture or prayed seriously, they scratch their heads. You might as well be talking a foreign language.

“Whoever loves his life loses it.”

Within reason, of course, it’s good to be concerned about our earthly needs and our physical well-being. It’s good to eat properly, and exercise regularly, and get a yearly physical. To use a biblical image, it’s good to take care of our “temples”—our temples of the Holy Spirit.

But when we start to act as if this life is the only one, chances are we will make too much of the physical, and miss out on our ultimate spiritual goal, which is heaven.

The new Catechism says it well. In paragraph 2288 it says that “life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.”

But then, in the very next paragraph, it reminds us that the “life of the body” is not an “absolute value”. If we do make it an absolute value, then we end up embracing what the Catechism calls “the cult of the body,” where we idolize physical perfection and become willing to sacrifice everything for its sake.

So you want to know why we have a steroid problem in the sports world right now? You want to know why so many women—and men—experience eating disorders these days?

It’s because we live in a society where the “cult of the body” is literally everywhere!

Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

From everything I’ve just shared with you, the meaning of the word “hate” in this passage should be now clear: it doesn’t mean “to detest”; rather, it means to “value to a lesser extent”. As I expressed it in my paraphrase a few moments ago: “the person who values his life in this world less than he values eternal life, will experience eternal life in heaven.”

This means that nothing else—absolutely nothing else—should be more important to us than getting into God’s eternal kingdom after we die! Saving our own soul, in other words, should be our top priority while we’re living on this earth!

Does that sound a little selfish to you? Perhaps it does, but it shouldn’t! In fact, it’s not selfish in the least! Because if my greatest concern is to get to heaven, then I will make every effort to live a life of charity—and mercy—and compassion: the kind of life that will keep me united to Christ; the kind of life that will get me through the Pearly Gates someday! And you—and everyone else—will benefit greatly from my kindness and generosity!

This, of course, is the meaning of life as the old Baltimore Catechism defined it, in answer to the question, “Why did God make me?”—“He made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next.”

I asked a teenager a few weeks ago to tell me what the meaning of life is, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” He’s not alone. Many adults nowadays would do the same thing.

And that’s a very big part of the problem! Let’s face it, if you don’t know—and believe—that the goal of this earthly existence is heaven, you’ll probably value your earthly life too much. That is to say, you’ll value it much more than you value eternal life.

And we all know what Jesus said about that!

One more point needs to be made concerning this line of Scripture, and I’ll conclude with this thought: Jesus said these important and challenging words less than 7 days before his crucifixion and death. This means that he first spoke them, and then he went out and lived them! And this is verified for us in the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12, where we are told “For the sake of the glory that lay before him [in other words, because of the goal he wanted to attain, namely heaven], Jesus endured the cross, heedless of its shame.” (Hebrews 12: 2)

We’ve been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because our Lord valued heaven more than his mortal life here on earth.

But we will only be saved and end up in heaven ourselves, if we follow Jesus’ example, and put our values in that same order.