Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Presence And Power Of The Holy Spirit In The Life Of Eduardo Verastegui

(Pentecost 2007 (C): This homily was given on May 27, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 2: 1-11; John 14: 15-16, 23b-26.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Pentecost 2007]

He was named one of the “50 most beautiful people in the world” by People magazine. He’s been a very popular actor in Mexico and in Latin America for a number of years, although he’s only 33. 

He’s been a soap opera star, a singer, and a model. In 2006 he starred in the movie, “Bella,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival.

“Bella” will be officially released in the United States later this year.

His name is Eduardo Verastegui. You’ve probably never heard of him before. Personally, I didn’t know who he was until last week, when I read a couple of articles about him—one in our diocesan newspaper, The Providence Visitor; the other online. It’s a sad fact that the lives of most Hollywood actors these days are terrible tragedies. But that’s definitely NOT the case with Eduardo Verastegui.

Quite to the contrary, the story of his life in recent years is the story of the Holy Spirit at work in a very powerful way: the same Holy Spirit who descended on the apostles at Pentecost—the same Holy Spirit who comes to us in Baptism and Confirmation, and who is, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel, “with [us] always”.

Eduardo has admitted that, early in his acting career, he wasn’t very discriminating when it came to the roles he played on TV and in the movies. It didn’t matter to him whether the character he portrayed (or the program he starred in) gave good moral messages to the viewing audience or bad moral messages. He was making money; he was doing what he wanted to do; he was becoming famous. In his mind, that was all that mattered.

But after awhile his conscience began to bother him. That disturbance, I believe, was caused by the Holy Spirit working through other people in his life. Here’s how the article in the Providence Visitor described it:

While studying English in Los Angeles, [Eduardo] found himself drawn to a deeper faith in Jesus through the example of his Catholic teacher, and he began to see all the reasons he had wanted to be an actor—fame, money and pleasure—as empty and vain.
He also realized that he had been typecast into portraying the unfaithful, lying Latin lover, which promoted negative stereotypes. He said the media portrayal of Hispanics in general demeaned both men and women, resembling nothing like the dignity and beauty of his mother and sisters in Mexico.
He discovered he had hurt people through his work, and the messages in his movies were ‘poisoning society.’
“It broke my heart,’ he said, ‘I realized I had offended God.”

He also started questioning things. As he put it, “In my search to know what was beyond this emptiness [I felt], I began to ask myself the great questions that everyone asks at some point in life: What am I doing in this universe? Where do I come from? Where am I going? What’s the meaning of all this? And in this search . . . I realized I had been selfish, walking ahead blindly in vanity and pride. . . . I wanted to do good things and I was not doing them.”

It was faith in Jesus Christ that changed Eduardo Verastegui’s life. That’s important to note on this Pentecost Sunday, because faith is one of the 3 most important gifts of the Holy Spirit (along with hope and charity). And what opened Eduardo’s heart to faith was the Holy Spirit-inspired witness of another human being: an ordinary person like you and me—his English teacher.

That’s often the way it happens.

Another major influence in this regard was his mother. In the online article I read Eduardo was quoted as saying, “[In my professional life] I was living in constant contradiction. What changed it was faith—the faith. It was a gift through the prayers of my mother.”

Now notice what the Holy Spirit did in order to bring Eduardo to the point of opening his heart to Christ—this is also very important: he convicted him of his sins! As Eduardo said, “I realized I had offended God.”

There are some who confuse the Holy Spirit with the “warm and fuzzy” feeling they sometimes get when they pray or come to church.

We’ve got to be very careful about doing that. Yes, there are times when the Holy Spirit will give us good feelings (and we should thank God for those moments whenever they occur); but at other times the Holy Spirit will make us feel anything but good! In those moments—because he wants us to repent of our sins and convert our hearts—the Holy Spirit will make us feel empty and uncomfortable (like Eduardo felt when he realized how much he had offended God in his acting career).

Many, of course, respond to this kind of inner conviction by resisting God and remaining in sin. But Eduardo Verastegui didn’t do that, which is what makes his story so noteworthy.

He let the Spirit in, reformed his life, sold many of his possessions, contemplated becoming a priest for a time, and finally returned to acting.

However he went back to the entertainment industry, as the Visitor article indicated, with a different attitude. He went back vowing “to refuse parts unless they affirmed life and human dignity.”

And guess what.

He wasn’t hired for 3 years!—because every part he was offered during that time involved the “same negative stereotypes”.

But he refused to give in.

In his Letter to the Galatians, chapter 5, St. Paul lists a number of “fruits” of the Spirit. One of those fruits is “patient endurance”. Eduardo Verastegui definitely manifested patient endurance by refusing to accept roles that would have caused him to compromise his faith and his morality.

And I’m sure that wasn’t easy, since some of those acting parts probably came with big, six-figure salaries!

He could have rationalized by saying to himself, “Well it’s only an acting part; all the other stars take roles like this.”

But he didn’t. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit at work.

Since then, this same Holy Spirit has motivated Eduardo to show love for his neighbor by getting involved in a number of pro-life activities. He’s spoken at pro-life conferences; he’s counseled women at abortion mills; and he’s founded an organization in California which offers assistance to women experiencing difficult or untimely pregnancies.

And in his professional life he’s co-founded a production company, Metanoia Films, with producer Leo Severino, another committed Catholic whom he met in 2004 at a weekday Mass. (Clearly the Holy Spirit arranged that meeting!) Their purpose is to make top notch films with good, moral messages. Their first effort is “Bella,” the movie I mentioned at the beginning of my homily.

Here we have two Catholic men in the hostile environment of Hollywood, fulfilling their Confirmation mandate through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Remember, the Holy Spirit comes to us in Baptism in order to free us from original sin, and make us God’s adopted children. But he comes to us in Confirmation for another reason: to empower us to be the Lord’s witnesses in the world! If you’re a layperson, that means you’re called in the power of the Spirit to take the Gospel with you to work every day, and you’re called to make the effort to transform that work environment with the love and truth of Jesus Christ.

And that’s precisely what Eduardo Verastegui and Leo Severino are doing! They’re not saying, “We’re Catholics, but”—“We’re Catholics, but we’ll act like pagans at work. We’re Catholics, but we’ll still make immoral films because that will earn us a lot of money.” Rather, they’re saying, “We’re Catholics, so”—“We’re Catholics, so we will act like Catholics—even at work! We’re Catholics, so we will make decent films with positive moral messages, regardless of how much money we make (or don’t make) at the box office.”

A lot of Catholic politicians could take a lesson here, couldn’t they?

My prayer on this Pentecost Sunday is that Eduardo Verastegui will continue on his present path, allowing the Holy Spirit to make him a bright and shining light in the moral wasteland of the modern entertainment industry. And may his story inspire all of us to be more open—and more responsive—to the Holy Spirit in our lives.