Thursday, December 28, 2006

Everyone Needs A Family—A Spiritual Family

The Holy Family in a scene from the newly released movie, "The Nativity Story".

(Holy Family 2006 (C): This homily was given on December 31, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Samuel 1: 20-22; 24-28; 1 John 3: 1-2, 21-24; Luke 2: 41-52.)

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

A recent article in the National Catholic Register began with these words:

Robert was looking for love. What he found was a gang.

“I joined a gang for a family,” he told the PBS show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. “I never had one when I was growing up. I joined the gang for a family. That’s it.”

Living with his new “family” led him to eight years in prison—for robbery and carjacking.

I share this with you today, to illustrate a very important truth: We all have a need to belong; we all have a need to be loved. We are human persons, who find meaning and purpose in our relationships with others, and in being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

In the plan of Almighty God, we are supposed to have these needs satisfied—to some extent—within our natural families. In paragraph 2207, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

“The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.”

But what happens when a young person grows up in a family that’s extremely unstable or dysfunctional? What happens when a young person grows up without any meaningful family relationships? Well then, very simply, you have a potential “Robert” on your hands: someone who’s very likely to get involved with an unhealthy group of acquaintances, who will lead him down the wrong path in life. It might not be a full-blown street gang (as was the case for Robert), but it will be an unhealthy group of acquaintances nonetheless. Some of you may know this, sad to say, from your own experience. It happens all the time.

Now obviously someone who comes from a good and loving family can also fall in with a bad crowd. But, to the extent that a family is broken or unstable, the odds of this happening greatly increase. If Robert, for example, had grown up in a family where he had received love, and good moral and spiritual guidance—as well as some healthy discipline—in all likelihood he would have resisted the temptation to get involved with a gang. And he would have avoided spending 8 years of his life in prison.

So our natural families are extremely important for our full development as persons, and for our healthy integration into society. But so too is our spiritual family! It seems that many parents in our culture right now don’t understand this; hence, they don’t take their spiritual lives very seriously. And that lack of concern for the practice of their faith has a direct, negative effect on the lives of their children. It’s also a reason why so many natural families break up these days. You see, in the plan of Almighty God, participation in the life of a spiritual family is supposed to guide and shape the life of our natural family.

That’s certainly how it was for Hannah, Elkanah, and their son Samuel (all of whom we heard about in today’s first reading). Their faith—their active participation in the Hebrew spiritual family—was at the center of their lives. It says there that after Samuel was born, Hannah took him to Eli the priest at the temple in Shiloh and said to him, “I prayed [to have] this child, and the Lord granted my request. Now I, in turn, give him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the Lord.”

Hannah did that—she consecrated her son to God and to God’s service—because she took her religious practice and beliefs very seriously.

Obviously this was also the case for the Holy Family, whose Feast we celebrate this weekend. In today’s Gospel, for example, we hear about a trip that Jesus, Mary and Joseph made to Jerusalem when our Blessed Lord was 12 years of age.

Needless to say, they didn’t make this trip because there happened to be a “carpenters' convention” taking place in Jerusalem that Joseph wanted to attend. Nor did they make this trip to visit friends or for any other social reason.

They went, the Bible says, to celebrate the Passover! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were devout Jews who were deeply committed to God the Father and to the practice of their religion. They were members of the spiritual family of Judaism, and this was how members of the family celebrated the most important feast of the Jewish liturgical year.

And this devotion to their faith—this active participation in the life of the Jewish spiritual family—made a positive difference in their life together back in Nazareth. That’s clear from what it says at the very end of the story. There we are told that “[Jesus] went down with [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”

Now, to be sure, Jesus obeyed his earthly parents in his natural family first and foremost because he was God. but, on another level, it’s also true to say that Jesus was obedient to mary and joseph because of his active participation in his Jewish spiritual family! His Jewish religion, in other words, guided his moral conduct at home with his parents (as it guided his conduct everywhere else!). The fourth commandment of the Law said, “Honor your father and your mother,” so that’s precisely what Jesus did.

For us, the Catholic Church is our spiritual family. In fact, that’s one of the definitions of the Church given to us in the new Catechism. In paragraph 1655 it says, “The Church is nothing other than ‘the family of God.’” That is to say, it’s the spiritual family that God has established in this world through his divine Son.

It’s much more than an institution!

In this family we have a heavenly Father (St. John affirms this in our second reading today when he says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now”). We also have a spiritual Mother in our family, as well as a divine Brother and adopted brothers and sisters. We have a handbook of family life (basically that’s the Bible and the Catechism); and we have 7 special family “rituals” through which we receive from our Father all the graces we need for our earthly journey.

We even have a family inheritance awaiting us if we don’t turn away from it—an inheritance that’s literally “out of this world”!

This is why staying connected to the Church—this is why staying connected to God’s spiritual family—is absolutely essential!

Remember what I said at the beginning of my homily: “We all have a need to belong; we all have a need to be loved. We are human persons, who find meaning and purpose in our relationships with others, and in being a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

If we don’t stay connected to the Church, and have these needs satisfied in God’s true, spiritual family, then we will naturally look to have them satisfied elsewhere, in some other group. Just like Robert did.

It might even be in a religious cult of some kind, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why do you think so many Jehovah’s Witnesses are ex-Catholics? It’s because once they rejected the true faith, they had a vacuum in their lives that needed to be filled! They needed some kind of “spiritual family” to belong to, so they joined one that teaches a lot of errors, after rejecting the one that teaches the full truth of Jesus Christ (which is the one that we are all blessed to belong to).

This, incidentally, is one of the primary reasons why I make evangelizing teenagers a top priority in my priestly ministry. It’s why I try to be there every Thursday night for youth group.

I’m committed to Thursday nights because I know how important it is that you teens get and stay connected with the Church. You need to know that the Church is there for you; that the Church is your spiritual family; that the Church is the place where you can learn the full truth of the Gospel—and find forgiveness, strength and hope for your lives!

Because if you find all of those things here, you’ll be much less likely to look for them ‘out there’—from those who would gladly lead you down the wrong path in this life.

Remember what Robert said: “I joined a gang for a family. I never had one when I was growing up. I joined a gang for a family. That’s it.”

Everyone needs a family—a spiritual family. And everyone has one—at least potentially—in the Church.

We pray that Robert has come to realize this since he was released from prison. And we have good reason to believe he has. It said in this National Catholic Register article that he’s now very involved with Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is a program in Los Angeles for ex-gang members, run by a Jesuit priest named Fr. Greg Boyle.

Dear Lord, on this feast of the Holy Family, help us to understand that the Church is much more than an institution. Help us to see that it’s actually a worldwide spiritual family, and that we are all blessed to be members of it. Most of all, help us to be open to the many graces that you give us through the Church, so that we will stay on the road to heaven, and so that our natural families here on earth will be happier and healthier--and holier! This we ask through Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Brother. Amen.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Which Will It Be: the Open Door or the Closed Window?

A good friend of Mr. Bird

(Christmas 2006: This homily was given on December 25, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 1: 18-25.)

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

I’ll begin my homily this Christmas Day by giving you a description of the rectory garage. This is probably the first time in history that a Christmas homily—or any other homily for that matter—has begun with a description of a garage, but I assure you there’s a valid reason for it—a reason that will become clear to you in a few moments.

The St. Pius X rectory garage has three stalls. It also has two clear glass windows on each of the two side walls. The windows are 60 inches long and 30 inches wide (I know because I measured them the other day. I wanted to be precise here in my homily).

So much for the description; now for the story . . .

One day not so long ago, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the door to the left stall and the door to the center stall of the garage were both open. They had been that way since mid-morning. Everything was quiet and peaceful; as far as I could tell no one was around.

I entered the garage, and was just about to get into my car (which was parked, as always, in the center stall) when all of a sudden I heard this banging and fluttering and screeching coming from somewhere to the left of me.

I jumped back about three feet!

Once I recovered from the initial shock, I looked over and saw what was going on: a little bird was trying desperately to get out one of the side windows. The only problem was the window was shut! So every time he attempted to fly out, he’d fly close to—or into—the glass! (Obviously, this was not a very bright bird.) There was also a ladder hanging across the window, so every once in awhile Mr. Bird would take a short break and perch himself on the ladder (which is where he was when I first entered the garage—that’s why it was so quiet); but once he caught his breath he’d go at it again: fly, smash, screech; fly, smash, screech—rest.

Then I noticed that on the outside of the window another bird of the same species was flying around in circles. Now I do not know if this was Mr. Bird’s wife, or simply a good friend of his from Birdland; but, since everybody enjoys a love story, let’s just say that this little creature outside the window was indeed Mrs. Bird. There she was, calling to her beau, “Come to me, my darling (tweet, tweet); come, let us fly south together.”

And there he was, smashing himself again and again against the glass!

Now some people mistakenly think that Fr. Ray does not love animals. Not true! I admit it, I’m no St. Francis of Assisi, but I do like animals, and my heart went out at that moment to poor, distressed Mr. Bird.

I thought to myself, “What can I do to help this little creature get out of my garage, so that I can go for my daily hour at the gym (which is where I think I was going at the time)?

Then it came to me. I thought, “I know what I’ll do. I will go to the outside of the window, and tap on it a few times. This will frighten Mr. Bird, and he will immediately fly away from the window. When he does that, he will see that the garage door is wide open, and he will fly out to freedom—to live happily ever after with Mrs. Bird.”

So that’s what I did: I went outside the garage, and gave a couple of soft taps on the window. And just as I expected, Mr. Bird became frightened and flew away immediately.

I was feeling rather good about myself at that moment, and thinking that St. Francis would have been proud of me for what I had done, until I came around to the front of the garage.

I took one look at the situation and I said, “This bird is a lot dumber than I thought!”

As difficult as it may be for you to believe, my little feathered friend had actually flown right past the two huge garage doors that were opened.

And where did he end up?

You guessed it: at the little glass window on the opposite side of the building (also closed), where he was resuming his pathetic ritual: fly, smash, screech; fly, smash, screech!

Now some people also think that I am not very merciful; but, once again, they are wrong! Jesus gives second chances, and so do I!

I said to Mr. Bird, “My friend, you are not very bright—now I know where the expression ‘bird brain’ comes from—but I will try it one more time.” I then opened the door to the right hand stall of the garage (since that one was still closed), and I tapped on the glass once again.

I then ran around to the front, just in time to see Mr. Bird fly out through door of the middle stall; off, I trust, to join Mrs. Bird and his other little birdie friends in the wild-blue yonder.

Now I’m sure some of you are thinking to yourselves, “Very nice story, Fr. Ray. Thanks for sharing it. But what does all of this have to do with Christmas?

Glad you asked.

When I first encountered Mr. Bird in my garage all those weeks ago, he was, in a certain sense, looking for the same things we human beings look for in our lives: happiness and freedom. He was also looking for a way out of a bad situation that he had gotten himself into!

And he thought he had found it! He thought he had found the path to freedom and contentment at the garage window!

But he hadn’t. It seemed to be the right way to go—after all, he could see the love of his life, Mrs. Bird, flying around just a few feet in front of him! But every time he tried to get to her—every time he tried to take that particular path to happiness and freedom—he hit a dead end. Now interestingly enough, the true path to freedom and joy was right there—only a few, short yards away. But fear and confusion and frustration had such a hold on poor Mr. Bird that he never saw the open door—even though it was a lot bigger than the closed window.

And then, amazingly, instead of going immediately out the door when I startled him, he actually went to another closed window on the opposite end of the building.

Jesus Christ came into this world on Christmas Day—and offered his life on the cross on Good Friday—and rose from the dead on Easter Sunday—to open the door for us: the door to God; the door that Adam and Eve had closed when they committed the very first sin. This is what Gabriel meant when he said to Mary, “You shall name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

And so it shouldn’t surprise us that during his earthly ministry Jesus made this statement about himself: “I am the way”—I am the way (the door, if you will) to the Father; I am the way to heaven; I am the way to freedom; I am the way out of your ‘garage’ of sin—the garage you have put yourself into (like Mr. Bird); I am the way to inner peace and ultimate happiness.

But sometimes we can be just like that sorry little bird, can’t we? We will try any ‘window’ that seems to hold out the promise of freedom and happiness without a real commitment to the Lord. We will try anything—and everything—except Jesus Christ (the ‘door’) and his one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church!

And there are lots of windows that we can choose to fly to:

  • The ‘window’ of materialism: “Just a little more money, just a bigger house, just one big hit at the casino, and I’ll be happy. That’ll do it.”
  • The ‘window’ of hedonism and promiscuity: “Just one more girl; just a few more ‘one night stands’; just one more pornographic web page and I’ll be satisfied.”
  • The ‘window’ of self-indulgence: “All I need is one more drink; all I need is one more pill, and my problems will go away.”
  • The ‘window’ of easy religions: “I want a religion that makes me feel good all the time—not one that challenges me to change. That’s what will make me happy.”

But it never works. Sooner or later, we end up just like that little bird: frustrated, depressed and confused. And the really sad thing is that many people will spend years—or even their entire lives—going from one closed window to another. They’ll go back and forth, back and forth, and never get out of their “garage” of sin and hopelessness.

Today, God asks us to learn a lesson from Mr. Bird. You know, he might not have been very smart, but, to his great credit, Mr. Bird eventually found the open door to freedom and happiness.

Will we? (That’s the real question.) Have we?

The open door is Jesus Christ. And flying through it is a choice—a personal, daily choice. It’s the choice to leave the closed windows behind (which can be difficult); it’s a choice that involves putting Jesus Christ into first place in our lives (and that includes on Sunday mornings—or Saturday nights—when he calls us to worship him here at Mass). It’s a choice that involves repentance for all of our sins, not just for some of them. [That repentance, incidentally, might also need to include sacramental confession. But don’t worry, if I was merciful to Mr. Bird, I will certainly be merciful to you! So will any good priest—even if you’ve been away from Confession for many years.] It’s a choice that involves a humble admission that we need a Savior; that we can’t deal with this life or make it to heaven on our own.

So which will it be for you this Christmas? Which will it be for me? Will it be the open door—or will it be another closed window? When all is said and done, my brothers and sisters, those are really the only two options we have in this life.

Dear Lord, help us all to see the open doorand to fly through it, today and every day—like Mr. Bird.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Would Ben Franklin Say You Are Insane?

Ben Franklin

(Third Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on December 17, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Zephaniah 3: 14-18a; Philippians 4: 4-7.)

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

My original intention was to begin this homily by asking everyone in the congregation the following question: Are you insane?

But then I realized some of you would probably be offended if I did that, so I decided to alter the question just a bit. Consequently, instead of asking, Are you insane?, I will begin by asking, Would Ben Franklin say you are insane?

Now if you don’t like the question, you can blame Ben Franklin, not Fr. Ray! And Ben won’t mind at all if you blame him, because he’s been dead for over 200 years!

Ben Franklin, you see, is considered to be the source of the following well-known statement: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”

As most of us know, the season of Advent (which is improperly called “the Christmas season” by many people) is a time when otherwise normal, well-adjusted, rational men and women seem to lose all contact with reality! They become—at least according to the definition of Ben Franklin—insane!

And I’m not just alluding here to the wild and crazy conduct of people at the shopping malls (although that’s certainly a part of it). I’m talking about something much deeper.

I ask you, how many men and women—each and every year—make the same exact resolutions after Thanksgiving? They say things like: “I’m not getting caught up in all the commercialism this year. No way! I will resist it!” “I will spend more quality time with my family this December in preparation for Christmas.” “I will pray more this Advent, trying to get in touch with the real meaning of our Savior’s birth.” “I will really try to improve my relationship with God during the next month; I will make time for those in need; I will not get all wrapped up in myself!”

Good ideas; good intentions; great resolutions! But then it happens: within a week, all of them go out the window, and these well-intentioned people get caught up in the madness of the season, just like so many others. And then it starts again—what I would call the disgruntled holiday mantra: “I can’t wait for it to end! I’m so exhausted! I can’t wait for Christmas to be over! December 26th, come quickly! Please!”

Now I could understand if this happened during one Advent in a particular year; I could even understand if it happened two years in a row. But for some, this is an annual occurrence! They do the same thing every Advent season: they make these good resolutions, and follow through on none of them! And they expect the outcome to be different: “Well, maybe it won’t be quite so bad this time! Maybe I won’t need as much blood pressure medication as I needed last December!”

According to Ben Franklin, that qualifies as certifiable lunacy! Remember, insanity means doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.

I often wonder how Catholics like this deal with Gaudete Sunday. In Latin “gaudete” means, “rejoice!” On this Sunday of the year, we are supposed to be rejoicing as the birth of Jesus approaches. (That’s why the pink candle on the Advent wreath is lit today.)

Those who are experiencing Ben Franklin’s kind of insanity must have a terribly difficult time entering into the spirit of this weekend! That should be obvious. They must cringe at these Scripture passages: Zephaniah 3: “Shout for joy, O daughter Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.”

“Joy? Where’s the joy? With all I have to do? I don’t have time to feel any joy!”

And how about the second reading from Philippians 4?—this one must really get to them—“Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”

That one must nearly put them over the edge!

About 10 years ago there was a popular fitness program on the market called, “Stop the Insanity!”

Well, that’s precisely my message to all Catholics and other Christians in this homily!

If you haven’t already done it this Advent, do it now: Make the decision to stop the insanity for the rest of this sacred season!

Now the only way to do that is to consciously and deliberately adopt a new approach to things—an approach that will help you to put your eyes on Jesus and take them off yourself!

Let me offer, now, a few concrete suggestions:

  1. Finish your Christmas shopping ASAP—no later than Monday night. “But, Fr. Ray, I still have so many people to buy for!” My response: Don’t worry about that! In fact, I have the perfect way to deal with that particular difficulty: Apologize to those you don’t get gifts for and then promise them 2 gifts after Christmas when everything is half price! They’ll love you for getting them twice as much! You’ll be a hero!
  2. Don’t worry about cooking and baking so much! Don’t let that take up too much of your time. Be reasonable, not excessive! And think about it: if you cook and bake less, you won’t have to go on a diet in January! You’ll save yourself all that trouble.
  3. Pray in a quiet place—either in church or in your room—for at least 15 minutes a day. Meditate on the meaning of Jesus’ coming by using Scripture, or by praying the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. And at some point during the course of that 15 minutes practice “rejoicing.” “But, Fr. Ray, I don’t feel like rejoicing. I’m going through a difficult time right now.” That has nothing to do with it! All the more you should practice rejoicing! Remember, rejoicing does not mean “feeling happy”. Rejoicing is an act of the will; it’s not an emotion (although it often affects our emotions in a positive way). To rejoice means to choose to praise God for who he is and for all he has done in your life. “Lord, I rejoice that you gave me natural life; I rejoice that you gave me supernatural life when I was baptized; I rejoice that you offer me your mercy every day; I rejoice that you sent your Son to die for me, an unworthy sinner; I rejoice that you’ve given me hope in the midst of my problems; I rejoice that you’ve put good people in my life.” This is what it means to rejoice! Obviously it doesn’t mean that we’re always supposed to “feel happy”—if it did St. Paul wouldn’t have told us in today’s second reading to “rejoice ALWAYS”! Paul understood that no one is ALWAYS happy. But he also knew that even when we aren’t, we can still choose to rejoice! And sometimes, as I said a few moments ago, that will actually make us feel a bit happier.
  4. Another possibility: Take the family to see the new movie that just came out, “The Nativity Story.” I went to see it this past week. It’s excellent. And then take your family out for pizza to discuss what you saw!
  5. One final suggestion: Visit a person in need—perhaps a friend or relative who’s having a difficult time right now because of the death of a loved one. Remember what Jesus said: “There is more joy in giving than in receiving.”

These are just a few concrete ways to “stop the insanity”—the insanity that can easily affect all of us at this time of year. I’m sure if you put your mind to it, you can come up with many others.

I’ll close today with this thought: If insanity is defined as making the same mistake over and over again and expecting different results, then “sanity” should be defined as making the right decision, with good results, and then repeating that process—over and over and over again!

Dear Jesus, give us all the precious gift of “sanity”—this Advent, and every Advent in the future. Amen.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

May God, Who Began A Good Work In You, Bring It To Fulfillment.

Bishop Thomas Tobin blesses Paul Girard's 'good work': the new wing of St. Pius X School.

(Second Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on December 10, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Philippians 1: 4-6, 8-11; Luke 3: 1-6.)

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

When you’re ordained to the priesthood—and also when you’re ordained to the diaconate—you kneel before the bishop at one point during the ceremony and you put your folded hands into his. Then he looks into your eyes and says, “Do you promise respect and obedience to me and to my successors?”

You respond, “I do.” (At least, you had better respond, “I do”! If you say, “I don’t”, the ceremony immediately ends and everybody goes home!)

Once you’ve made this public promise of obedience to him, the bishop says these words: “May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment.”

That response of the bishop during the ordination ceremony is based on the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians that we heard a few moments ago—this text from chapter 1. There the apostle writes, “I am confident in this: that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

“But, Fr. Ray, St. Paul wasn’t writing this letter only to the priests and deacons who lived in Philippi at the time. He was writing to all the Christians who resided in that city!”

That’s correct. So, obviously, there’s a sense in which this text applies to everybody!—to every single person WHO’S A MEMBER OF GOD’S FAMILY, THE CHURCH!

So I ask those of you who belong to the Church: When did this happen? When did God begin a good work in you—a work that has yet to be completed?

If you’re thinking, “At my Baptism,” then you’re right. When you were baptized, you received sanctifying grace into your soul, which is the grace Jesus died on the cross to give us; it’s the grace you need in your soul in order to get into heaven.

Sanctifying grace . . . don’t leave earth without it!

You could say that the good work Jesus began in us at our Baptism was the work of building a palace in our soul through grace—A PALACE THAT HE INTENDS TO LIVE IN, BOTH NOW AND IN ETERNITY.

The work started the moment the priest poured water over our head and said the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

But now the work of building the palace must be completed. St. Paul understood that, which is why he also offered this prayer for the Philippians (and implicitly for us) in today’s second reading. He wrote: “This is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

Basically that’s a prayer that we will live our faith, so that Jesus will continue to build his palace within us, and eventually complete his “construction project”.

Now I learned quite a bit about construction projects during this past summer, as our school addition went up. Thankfully our general contractor, Paul Girard, began the good work of renovating the existing structure and of putting on the new wing and was able to bring it to completion before the first day of school in September.

But it wasn’t easy! Construction is never easy! In fact, there were several problems that he had to deal with along the way, which threatened to keep us from opening on the scheduled date.

I’ll mention two of them in this homily, because both have spiritual parallels.

The first was the weather. When we started this project, Paul said to us, “According to our best estimate, we should be done by mid-August. We certainly shouldn’t have a problem finishing up by the beginning of September, because we have a pretty large window of time at the end to play with.”

Well, almost immediately after they dug the hole for the foundation, that big window nearly shut on us! Why? Because of the rain! Remember all the rain we had in the late winter and early spring? There was one stretch of a couple of weeks where it rained every single day! It seemed like it would never end.

That rain came at the absolute worst time for us, because it was so early in the project. If it had occurred later on, when the walls were up and the roof was in place, it wouldn’t have mattered; people could have worked inside. But, at this point, Paul and his men needed decent weather to get the foundation and the basic structure in place.

When things finally improved and the ground began to dry out, Paul wasn’t so optimistic in the weekly meetings we had with him. Instead of saying, “No problem,” he began saying, “Hopefully. . . . Hopefully we’ll be able to get things done on time.”

So that was one issue that almost kept this “good work” from reaching its completion. The other involved mistakes that were made by some of Paul’s workers and sub-contractors. Mistakes, of course, will always happen on a construction job, but the one that comes to mind for the purposes of this homily is one which involved a direct violation of one of Paul’s orders.

Paul had told a certain employee—explicitly—several times—how he should handle a particular problem if he ever encountered it.

Unfortunately, however, when the problem did occur in the old school building during the summer months, this employee disobeyed his boss. He knew what he should do—he knew exactly how Paul wanted him to proceed to rectify the situation—but he ignored established company protocol and did it his way.

To his great credit—and this is why, our principal, Henry Fiore, and I were so pleased with him—Paul Girard didn’t try to hide what had happened. He was always up front with us. He told us at our weekly meeting that his employee had violated his orders on a very important matter and had done the exact opposite of what he should have done. He apologized to Henry and to me, and said, “I assure you, gentlemen, the problem will be corrected—at my expense. And please don’t worry, this man won’t ever do it again, because he’s no longer working for us.”

Bad weather and this man’s sin of disobedience almost prevented Paul Girard from completing the good work he had begun at St. Pius X School earlier in the year.

And, believe it or not, those very same two realities—“weather” and sin—are what can prevent Jesus Christ from completing the good work he began in each of us on the day we were baptized. They can keep him from building his magnificent palace in our soul.

We all know, for example, that the “weather” of this life can change almost as quickly as the weather in New England does. And sometimes when the terrible storms hit, people react by turning away from the God who loves them and who gave them new life in Christ. We probably all know at least one person who has left the Church and lost their faith in the midst of a personal tragedy, a personal “storm” (like the unexpected death of a loved one).

In people like this, faith, hope and charity are replaced by things like anger, and bitterness, and unhappiness, and self-hatred, and even depression. Now that’s certainly not what God wants, but the Lord always respects our freedom to say no to him.

Can these men and women “re-convert” and have their faith restored?

Of course! And we need to pray that they do; because if they don’t, then God, who began a good work in them at Baptism, will not be able to complete it in the way that he wants to.

So the “weather” of life can interfere with God’s building project, but so can our sins—especially if they’re serious ones. And so, once again during the season of Advent, we hear about John the Baptist and his call to repentance. John was the main character in today’s Gospel reading. Sometimes people say, “Aw, the Catholic Church is too negative; the Church is too focused on sin.” No—the Catholic Church is focused on REALITY! The Church understands the human condition. Whether we want to admit it or not, the fact is that we all hurt the Lord and other people every day! Consequently, our repentance must be ongoing; it needs to be continual.

This is why frequent Confession is a good and healthy practice—provided we are examining our consciences well and being totally honest when we go.

Speaking of Confession, have you gone yet during this Season of Advent?

I’ll close my homily today, with a prayer for each of you. It ties all that I’ve just said together. At the same time, I hope you will offer this prayer in your hearts for me and for one another: May God help you to pass through every storm of your life—through every bit of ‘bad weather’ you experience; and may he give you a truly repentant heart always, so that he, who began a good work in you at your Baptism, will be able to complete it. And may that work—that building—be a truly magnificent palace for Jesus Christ to dwell in for all eternity. Amen.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The ‘Immaculate Reception’, and the Immaculate Conception

After making the 'Immaculate Reception,' Franco Harris races for the goal line.

If you would like to view this famous play, click here: Immaculate Reception and then choose either 56k, 100k, or 300k.

(Immaculate Conception 2006: This homily was given on December 8, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 1: 26-38.)

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

Every pro football fan who witnessed this event on December 23, 1972 remembers it. It was one of those unforgettable experiences—in addition to being one of the most bizarre plays in NFL history.

They later referred to it as the “Immaculate Reception,” and it literally turned around an entire football franchise. Prior to this incredible play, the Pittsburgh Steelers had been the laughingstock of the National Football League—for 40 years! In fact, during the 4 decades prior to 1972 they had never even won a single playoff game. After the Immaculate Reception, however, it was a very different story. As our bishop, Thomas Tobin and Fr. Dean Perri (both big Steeler fans) would happily tell you, after December 23, 1972 Pittsburgh went on to win many playoff games—and 4 Super Bowls in 6 years!

The event itself took place with 22 seconds left on the clock. The Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders 7-6, but they had the ball on their own 40-yard line. Unfortunately, however, it was “4th and 10”. For the few in the congregation who might not understand football, that means they had only one chance left to advance the ball 10 yards and stay in the game.

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw took the snap from center and went back to pass. Almost immediately, he was forced out of the pocket because of the strong rush of the Raiders’ defensive line. As he ran to the right and looked downfield, he suddenly spotted one of his running backs at the Raiders’ 35, a guy by the name of Frenchy Fuqua. So Bradshaw threw him the ball. However, just as Fuqua was about to catch it, he was hit hard by the Raiders’ defensive back, Jack Tatum. There was a huge collision, and the ball bounced off Tatum and high into the air.

At that point most people thought that the play—and the game—were over.

However, just before the ball hit the ground, a rookie running back named Franco Harris snatched it out of the air and ran 42 yards downfield into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Final score: Steelers 13 Raiders 7.

Now why do I recount this story of the Immaculate Reception on the feast of the Immaculate Conception?

Well, it’s certainly not for the purpose of confusing anyone—although this particular feast day is sometimes confusing! The Immaculate Conception refers to MARY’S conception in the womb of her mother, Ann. Some Catholics, however, mistakenly think that this feast refers to Jesus’ conception in the womb of his mother, Mary (which, of course, is actually the Annunciation—the event we heard about in today’s Gospel).

It’s fitting that the story of the Annunciation is read on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, because the Immaculate Conception prepared Mary for that decisive moment when Gabriel appeared to her and asked her to be the mother of the Lord. God saved Mary and preserved her “from every stain of original sin” (as the dogma of the Immaculate Conception puts it), so that she would be a pure and holy vessel—a pure and holy “tabernacle” if you will—through which the Savior would come into the world.

But that still doesn’t answer the question I posed a few moments ago: Why this story of the Immaculate Reception on the feast of the Immaculate Conception?

Well, it’s really very simple. . . .

Franco Harris received a tremendous “gift” when that football bounced off of Jack Tatum and into his hands on December 23, 1972. But what’s crucial to note is that when he received it, he didn’t just stand there—HE RAN WITH IT! Franco Harris took the gift he had received and he immediately ran with it toward the goal line.

Our Blessed Mother also received a gift on the day she was immaculately conceived in the womb of her mother, Ann—the gift of sanctifying grace: the gift that her Son, Jesus Christ, would win for the world by his passion, death and resurrection. But what makes Mary such a great inspiration and role model for us is that she took that gift and “ran with it”! And not for just a few moments, like Franco Harris! Mary “ran” with the gift she received FOR THE REST OF HER EARTHLY LIFE!

That’s because she was never “tackled” or “knocked out of bounds” by personal sin! Not even once!

When we come into this world at birth, we are not preserved from original sin as Mary was; we are not “immaculately conceived”! But we do receive the gift that she received—the gift of sanctifying grace—into our souls when we’re baptized. And we’re supposed to “run” with that gift in the same way that Mary ran with hers, by living a life of radical, complete obedience to God and his word.

But we don’t. Even after original sin is taken away, we suffer from what theologians call “concupiscence” (or the inclination to sin). And so, unlike Mary, we do sometimes stumble on our run to the goal of eternal life (by committing venial sins); at other times we may actually go completely “out of bounds,” so to speak, by committing a mortal sin.

Just think, for example, of how many Catholics commit mortal sins by failing to come to Mass on a holy day like this! It’s scary.

Let me summarize it all in this way:

Franco Harris got one chance to run with his gift to the goal line; Mary, our Blessed Mother, only needed one chance to run with her gift toward the kingdom of heaven.

Thankfully, we all get lots of chances; in fact, we get as many chances as we need to run toward our spiritual goal of eternal life with Jesus Christ. That’s the good news of God’s mercy!

But it’s not automatic. The only way to get back onto the field and into the running after we’ve committed a mortal sin and gone “out of bounds” is through perfect contrition or through sacramental Confession. Hopefully we all understand that.

Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. Pray that we will always be honest with ourselves, and in that honesty recognize when Satan has knocked us out of bounds through mortal sin. And pray that after we come to this recognition we will have the good sense to repent, and make a good Confession—and get back in the game and on the run, so that someday we will happily reach our goal, as you happily reached yours.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Satan’s Lullaby: ‘Rock-A-Bye Christian’

(First Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on December 3, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Advent 2006]

It’s a lullaby that we all know:

Rock-a-bye, baby, in the tree top

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

For generations, mothers have sung that lullaby to their little children in order to put them to sleep. Sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes (sad to say) it hasn’t—as most of the mothers here will surely attest.

Now Jesus doesn’t explicitly say it in today’s Gospel text from Luke 21, but he certainly implies it: he implies that the world in which we live sings us a kind of lullaby each and every day, for the purpose of putting us to sleep spiritually. And so he warns us: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.”

The “day” he’s referring to here, of course, is the “day of judgment”—the day we will see him face to face and have to give him an account of our life. St. Paul intercedes for the Thessalonians in today’s second reading, praying that they will be ready for that decisive day in their future. In a certain sense, he also prayed these words 2000 years ago for you and for me: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you, so as to strengthen your hearts, to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”

Satan, obviously, doesn’t want us to be ready for the coming of the Lord! He wants us to be “asleep”: caught up in ourselves and in the pleasures and concerns of this earthly life. And so, through his agents in the world (and there are many of them out there these days), he sings us what might be called his “Rock-a-bye Christian” lullaby! It’s not a song that we hear with our physical ears, but it’s definitely a “tune” that’s in the background of so much that we see and hear on a daily basis.

And it seems to be working with many. Sad to say, Satan’s Lullaby (which might also be called “the World’s Lullaby”) seems to be having its desired effect on a large number of professed followers of Jesus Christ.

Think, for a moment, of the some of the areas of life where many Christians appear to be “asleep”:

  • Every year at this time, the so-called “Christmas wars” begin. Men and women all over this country are more than happy to make a buck off of Jesus’ birthday, but some of them don’t want to acknowledge that he even existed! You know the story: your employer tells you to say, ‘Happy Holidays’ and not ‘Merry Christmas’ (funny how freedom of speech goes out the window when Christianity is involved!); the ACLU sues a town for allowing a crèche scene on public property, but totally ignores the menorah and the Islamic star and crescent displayed on the same public land; children are told they can’t sing Christmas carols in their public school, but in the name of ‘diversity’ and ‘tolerance’ they’re forced to study Islam and Judaism in one of their classes. The list, of course, goes on and on. And unfortunately many Christians are totally passive in the face of it all! They do and say nothing as their Savior is slandered and their freedom of religion is undermined. They’re asleep.
  • The very fact that the Supreme Court has had to deal with a case on partial birth abortion in recent weeks shows how asleep many Americans are when it comes to issues regarding the sanctity of human life. You mean we can’t figure out that it’s wrong to kill a baby when everything but the child’s head has come out of its mother’s womb? We need 9 judges to tell us whether it’s right or wrong? Satan’s lullaby has really worked relative to that one.
  • And it’s working more and more with respect to issues concerning the traditional, nuclear family. Where, for example, is the united Christian opposition to so-called “gay marriage”? As Catholics, of course, we are to love everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation. It’s not a sin to have same-sex attraction; what’s sinful is the activity associated with it. Thus we must oppose “gay marriage”. But it still may become a reality in our society in the near future, because all too many professed Christians refuse to make their politicians accountable for the positions they take on the issue. They’re asleep.

And how many Christians are remaining silent as the gay agenda and the gay lifestyle are being promoted more and more, especially in our schools? It’s gotten so bad that even Wal-Mart is now on board! Did you know that Wal-Mart recently joined the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and has agreed to support that organization financially? Think about that as you do your Christmas shopping this year. Believe it or not, one way to show that you’re not “asleep” is by the way you shop. [I am pleased to note that, due in large part to the protests of Christians who are “awake,” Wal-Mart has changed its policy since this homily was written. In an official statement, the company said: Wal-Mart will not make corporate contributions to support or oppose highly controversial issues unless they directly relate to our ability to serve our customers.”]

  • As I hear the sad news about marriages breaking up on an almost daily basis, I’m reminded of how asleep many people are when it comes to the issue of pre-marital cohabitation, which became fashionable in the 1960s and is extremely common today, even among Catholic couples. Here’s another ‘did you know’: Did you know that couples who live together before marriage have a 50% higher divorce rate compared to couples who don’t cohabitate before the wedding? Most people don’t know that—and believe me Satan is quite pleased that most people in our country are ignorant of that fact! And 60% of the couples who live together before marriage never even make it to the altar! Without question, the statistics tell the story: Just on the practical level alone, cohabitation isn’t a good thing! But obviously many young people today are sound asleep when it comes to recognizing its dangers.

Rock-a-bye, Christian, faithful and true

Just listen to me, I’m in it for you

Forget about Christ; come under my spell;

And some day you’ll join me, forever in hell.

Whether we are conscious of it or not, that demonic lullaby is sung to us every single day, in many different situations of life (including the ones I just mentioned). But in the midst of all this there is some good news. The good news is that we, as Catholics, have the knowledge and the power available to us in Christ to resist the promptings of this lullaby! The knowledge comes through Scripture and the Catechism; the power comes through prayer and the sacraments.

Knowledge and power—knowledge and grace—can keep us awake! They can keep us from “nodding off” and falling into serious sin, like so many others. You could say they’re the spiritual equivalent of that product, “No-Doze”.

May this Advent be a time for all of us to grow in knowledge and in power, so that we will wake up (if we’re not in that condition already)—and so that we will stay awake until the “day” when we personally meet Jesus Christ face to face.