Sunday, September 17, 2006

Three Lessons I’ve Learned From Fr. Francis J. Giudice

(This homily was given on September 17, 2006, at Immaculate Conception Church, Westerly, R.I., at a Mass celebrating Fr. Francis J. Giudice’s 50th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. Read James 2: 14-18; Mark 8: 27-35.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fr. Giudice's 50th]

The celebrant of this Mass told me that I have 9 minutes to say what I have to say.

You think after all these years he’d know me better than that!

However, since this is his special day I will do my best to accommodate him—but I’m not making any promises!

When I prayed about what I would say to all of you this afternoon, I soon realized that it’s impossible to adequately summarize 50 years of service to the Lord in one single homily—even if that homily were 99 minutes long!

So I decided to take a different approach. I decided that I would try to capture the essentials of Fr. Giudice’s priestly ministry by sharing with you 3 lessons that he has taught me in the years that I’ve known him. That, incidentally, covers most of his priesthood, since I first met Father at Holy Angels Church in Barrington when I was only 5 years old. If you care to know how long ago that was, you’ll have to do the math yourself. I’ll only tell you that next year I will hit the big “five-o”!

But I have to do something else first, lest you end up with the wrong impression of Fr. Ray Suriani. Before I tell you the 3 very important lessons I have learned from the Reverend Francis J. Giudice, I feel compelled to share with you 3 lessons which I have NOT learned from this man. You’ll understand why I’m doing this in a few seconds.

Lesson number 1 that I definitely did not learn from Fr. Frank Giudice: How to drive a car!

Three years ago Father’s nephew, Richard Giudice, was so proud that he had helped his uncle secure a great deal on a beautiful, brand new, jet black Toyota. Two months later I was counseling Richard so that he wouldn’t have a nervous breakdown: “Fr. Ray, have you seen what he’s done to that car?!!!” Since that time I have given a special name to Fr. Giudice’s little vehicle. I call it, affectionately, “the Demolition Derby-mobile”, because that’s exactly where it looks like it’s been!

Another lesson that I am happy to say I did not learn from this man: How to clean my room!

Before Father retired as rector of the Cathedral, he invited me to his quarters to see if I wanted any of his books. He didn’t want to take all of them with him when he retired. When I walked in I looked around and I remember thinking to myself, “So this is what Hiroshima looked like after the bomb!”

Which brings me to the 3rd lesson that I did not learn from Father Francis J. Giudice: How to operate the St. Pius X Rectory alarm system at 44 Elm St!

If any of you own a police scanner, and hear that the alarm is going off at St. Pius Rectory early some morning don’t be too concerned. We’re probably not being robbed. Odds are Fr. Giudice has just walked out the front door without turning the alarm off! He didn’t turn it off, because he didn’t hear it! Once the police come (after getting my secretary and maintenance man and half the town of Westerly out of bed!) everything will be okay!

Well, enough of that. On now to the important part: the 3 lessons that Fr. Giudice has taught me in the years I’ve been blessed to know him. Providentially, those lessons are reflected in today’s Scripture readings from the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Lesson #1: He’s worth it. Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is worth it: he’s worth investing your life in!

By the grace of Almighty God, Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi realized that Jesus was the one that he and all of Israel had been waiting for. And so he said to our Lord, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” His understanding of Jesus’ messiahship, of course, wasn’t perfect—and for that he got rebuked by our Lord a few moments later. But in spite of his imperfect understanding—and in spite of his later sins—Peter continued to believe that Jesus was the one! He continued to believe that Jesus was the Messiah who was worth investing your life in. And he was right.

Fr. Giudice has taught me that same lesson from the very earliest days of his priesthood. As most of you know, I was his altar boy at Holy Angels in Barrington in the early to mid 1960s. Believe it or not, back then I looked up to him—literally as well as figuratively speaking. And there was a good reason for that: he was a happy priest—a visibly happy priest—who clearly loved what he was doing. Even as a small child I picked that up. He understood the importance of his ministry; he found deep personal fulfillment in bringing Jesus Christ to people in word and sacrament. Even as a little boy I could tell that Fr. Giudice was someone who really believed in the very depths of his heart that Jesus Christ was worth investing your life in.

And 20 years later, after I was ordained a priest myself, I found out that he was right—just like Simon Peter was right.

The second lesson Fr. Giudice taught me is the very same one that St. James taught the world in the second chapter of his biblical letter—part of which we heard in our second reading this afternoon: Faith without works is dead.

Anyone who knows Fr. Giudice, knows how much he cares for the poor and those in need. His faith is clearly evident in the many loving, charitable works he does on their behalf. It’s not a coincidence that he was the first Vicar for Community Affairs here in our diocese, working even with state agencies to improve living conditions and give educational opportunities to the needy in Rhode Island.

But his love is not provincial; as most of us know it extends far beyond the borders of our state to one of the poorest countries on earth, Haiti. Through an organization he established, Providence-Haiti Outreach, Father Giudice has worked to provide health care, education, food, shelter, and religious instruction to the poorest of the poor in that tiny nation. It’s a cause that’s near and dear to his heart. And he doesn’t just ask other people to support it financially (although he’s really good at doing that!): he also does it himself. For example, when we give him a check for all the Masses and services he provides for us at St. Pius (which is what you normally do when a guest priest helps you in your parish), that check is never made out to him: it’s always made out to “Providence-Haiti Outreach.”

That’s why it came as no surprise to me when—in the same spirit of charity—he decided to coordinate an “Elm St. School Reunion” earlier this year to help raise money for St. Pius X School; and when he stepped forward a few weeks ago and agreed to be a member of our capital campaign committee to raise money to pay for our new school addition. The desire to help those in need is something that’s deeply ingrained in the heart of Fr. Francis J. Giudice. St. James said, “Faith without works is dead”; in the heart of Fr. Giudice, faith in Jesus Christ—which gives birth to good works—is very much alive.

The third lesson I learned from Fr. Giudice concerns the cross. In today’s Gospel Jesus told us, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Everyone has crosses—they’re part of the human experience in a world tainted by original sin. But for the disciple of Jesus Christ, the cross is never the final chapter of the story—as the cross was not the final chapter in the story of Jesus. Every cross leads to a resurrection. Speaking of himself, Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.”

The resurrection of the body is a future reality for us; it will only happen at the end of time. But if we trust in the Lord and are obedient to him right now—in the midst of our present earthly sufferings—we will have little “resurrection experiences” even in this life. Like Fr. Giudice had in Barrington when I first met him over 4 decades ago.

In case you don’t know the story, he had been sent away after ordination by the bishop to do graduate studies in hospital administration at St. Louis University. Naturally, when he had finished his degree, he thought he’d be given a big administrative post in one of our diocesan hospitals—St. Joe’s or Fatima. And he was excited about that; it’s what he’d been preparing to do. Unfortunately, however, he made the mistake of running into Bishop McVinney on a day when the bishop needed to find a curate for a small, Italian parish in Barrington: a parish community that had no money, bad buildings and terrible morale.

It was the last place on earth he wanted to be assigned! But he obeyed, took up his cross, and made the best of it. When he got there he soon realized that the people needed something to bring them together as a community and give them a sense of self-worth, so he proposed the idea of building a brand new church. In doing that he almost gave the old pastor, Fr. Iannetta, a heart attack! Fr. Iannetta didn’t think it could be done; almost nobody thought it could be done—the parish had a terrible track record of financial giving at the time—but it was built and paid for within a few short years.

And Fr. Giudice not only helped to erect a new church in Barrington; even more importantly he helped to “resurrect” the faith of the people there, sowing the seeds of 4 priestly vocations in the process: Yours Truly; Fr. James Ruggieri; Fr. Angelo Carusi; and Fr. John Codega.

For Fr. Giudice, the cross was not the end of his story in Barrington. I and the 3 other priests who’ve been ordained from Holy Angels since 1985 are living proof of that.

When I prayed about how to close my homily today, a favorite passage of mine from the book of the prophet Jeremiah immediately came to mind. I think it applies in a special way to Fr. Giudice because, even now—at an age when most people are doing very little or nothing at all—he’s still out there plugging away, doing the Lord’s work with youthful enthusiasm.

The prophet writes:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is the Lord.

He is like a tree planted beside the waters, that stretches out its roots to the stream:

It fears not the heat when it comes, its leaves stay green;

In the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.”

God, our loving Father, we thank you today for the abundance of good fruit that Fr. Francis J. Giudice has produced for you and for your kingdom during the last 5 decades of his life, in his moments of joy and in his moments of drought and distress. Through the intercession of Mary, the Mother of all priests, may he continue to put his trust and his hope in you, so that he will continue to bear good fruit among us for many years to come. This we ask through Christ, our Lord. Amen.