Sunday, July 22, 2007

Make Room for Mary (of Bethany) in Your Life

"Christ in the house of Mary and Martha," by Jan Vermeer

(Sixteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 22, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 10: 38-42.)

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

Fr. Stephen Rossetti is a psychologist as well as an ordained priest. In his book, The Joy of Priesthood, he tells a story about himself that ties in well with the message of today’s gospel text from Luke 10.

Several years ago, Fr. Rossetti visited a Carthusian monastery in nearby Vermont. The Carthusians are members of a very strict religious order that was founded in France in the 11th century by St. Bruno. Carthusians live a disciplined, ordered, prayerful life; they are definitely not “spiritual wimps”! Among other things they wear hairshirts (ouch!), they sleep on beds made of straw, they don’t eat meat, they live like hermits, and they eat only one meal a day.

Now you know why I’m not a Carthusian!

Although he’s a diocesan priest like me, Fr. Rossetti received special permission to stay at this monastery in Vermont for several months. During that time he never left the grounds.

When his extended retreat was finally over, he walked down the hill on which the monastery was built, and got on a city bus in order to start his journey home. It was then that he noticed something—something that he probably would not have noticed prior to his stay with these Carthusians. Listen, now, to his description of the event: “As I sat there among the people, I was struck and astounded by the amount of sadness on that bus. I thought to myself, ‘These people are incredibly sad. I wonder what happened to make them all so sad?’ Since the Carthusians do not read newspapers, listen to the radio, or watch television I had been cut off from news of the outside world. I figured something terrible must have happened while I was up on the mountain. But after a few moments the truth came to me: ‘Nothing happened to these people. These people are always this sad.’ But I did not know it until I had experienced true joy. Their 11th century founder, St. Bruno, spoke of the Carthusian life as ‘peace unknown to the world and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

So what’s the message here—that we should all go off to Vermont and join the Carthusians immediately? No!—although it’s possible that God is calling a few people here to embrace that type of vocation.

Rather, the message of this story is that if we know what’s good for us, we will make a special place for “Mary” in our lives (in this case I’m talking about Mary of Bethany, not Mary our Blessed Mother). Practically speaking, that means we will take personal, daily prayer seriously—very seriously! In today’s gospel passage Jesus commends Mary of Bethany for choosing the “better part”. He commends her, in other words, for taking the time to sit at his feet and prayerfully contemplate his words. Notice he doesn’t call Mary’s choice to pray “the only part”—as if Martha’s work was bad or unnecessary. Rather, he calls it the “better part,” signifying that daily, personal prayer is something that should have a certain priority in our lives.

In her frenzy to provide for Jesus’ physical needs and get all her household chores done, Martha was a lot like those bus travelers in Vermont, wasn’t she? She lacked peace; and because she lacked peace, she also lacked joy. She was full of anxiety and worry.

By the way, can you imagine what Martha would be like in 2007—living in our modern, American culture? In between the cooking and the cleaning and the hospitality, she’d also have to worry about answering the phone, and keeping up with her emails and text messages!

On some level, of course, we can all relate to Martha, since we all have worldly responsibilities that occupy a great deal of our time.

The problem comes, however, when we can relate to her TOO MUCH! From my conversations with Catholics over the years (both in and out of the confessional), I’ve come to realize that most of them do understand the importance of daily prayer; they know that their relationship with God will weaken without it. (Please hear that, those of you who went to Steubenville East last weekend! Your relationship with Jesus Christ will not grow and develop unless you read Scripture and communicate with the Lord every day!)

But even though most Catholics KNOW that having a consistent, disciplined prayer life is necessary, relatively few of them actually act on that knowledge! They will tell you, “I really know I should pray more often, but . . . “

And after the “buts” come the Martha-like excuses: “I really know I should pray more often, but I work a lot”; “I really know I should pray more often, but everyone in the family makes demands on my time”; “I really know I should pray more often, but I have too many things to do during the day”.

There’s an old saying: If you’re too busy to pray, then you’re too busy.

There’s also another old saying that applies here: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

If prayer really is a priority for you, then you’ll find some way to integrate it into your daily life. If you have to, you’ll get creative. For example, you might decide to keep the radio off on the way to work each morning so that you can pray the Rosary; or you might make the decision to listen to Christian music while you’re running or working out at the gym; or you might put your Bible on your nightstand so that you’ll remember to read a short section of it when you get up in the morning and before you go to bed at night.

Or you’ll devise some other clever way to pray in the midst of your hectic schedule.

Of course, it’s much better when you can pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament in church (or in some other quiet place) for an extended period of time, because then it’s a lot easier to FOCUS and to LISTEN (prayer, remember, involves not only speaking; in prayer we should also make the effort to LISTEN to the Lord—like Mary of Bethany did).

But even when finding a peaceful, quiet place is impossible for us, prayer in some form is still possible.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Some of you may now be thinking, “That’s my situation, Fr. Ray. With my crazy schedule, I definitely need to get creative in my prayer life.”

Before you come to that conclusion—before you decide that you’re too busy to have a regular prayer time (at least 15 minutes) in a quiet place each day—I would ask you to do something: take a good, hard look at the way you budget your time. One way to do this is to keep a careful record for a couple of days of all your activities. Write down, in other words, everything you do from the moment you get up in the morning until the moment you put your head on the pillow at night.

Do you know what most people discover when they do this? They discover that they actually have a lot more free time than they ever thought they had! Many of them, in fact, come to the realization that they waste huge amounts of time each day! “Gee, I never realized that I watch so much television—3 hours a night! “My goodness, I didn’t know that I spend so much time talking on the phone, and text messaging my friends, and playing mindless video games!” “Wow, I wasn’t aware of the fact that I spend so much of my time sitting around doing nothing!”

The Lord’s message to us today is simple and clear: Make room for prayer—make a special place for Mary of Bethany—in your life.

And if you need any added incentive to follow this instruction and get serious about your prayer life, just think of those people on that bus in Vermont: Do you really want to go though life like them?

I certainly don’t.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Steubenville East 2007: "All Access!"

The theme of this year's Steubenville East High School Youth Conference was "All Access." It was based on this text from St. Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2: "[Jesus] came and 'announced the good news of peace to you who were far off, and to those who were near'; through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father." (Ephesians 2: 17-18)
Try to memorize that text, teenagers, because it reminds us of the fact that the sacrifice of Jesus has made it possible for us to have an intimate, personal relationship with God, the Creator of the entire universe!
We took more than 60 teenagers again this year. Almost all took advantage of the opportunity God gave them and opened their ears and hearts to Jesus and his gospel. I was greatly impressed by the focus of our teens, especially during the periods of Eucharistic Adoration on Friday and Saturday evenings.
I was also impressed with--and proud of--the two "Young Apostles" from our group, Zach Sexton and Ashley Hopkins. (Young Apostles help to lead the conference.)
A special thank you goes to the chaperones, who led (once again!) by word AND example.

Here are some pictures from the weekend. (Click on images to enlarge.)

They just love "The Happy Song!"

Our two Young Apostles at work!

Eric Benevides on stage

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Imitating the Good Samaritan

(Fifteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 15, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 10: 25-37.)

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

Every once in awhile, someone will come into the reconciliation room on a Saturday afternoon, confess their sins, and receive absolution. But before they leave, they will say something like this: “Fr. Ray, I’ve brought a friend of mine with me today. He hasn’t been to confession in 25 or 30 years, and he’s really nervous. He’ll probably need some help, especially with the Act of Contrition. I wanted you to know all this, because he’s coming in next!”

That’s a Good Samaritan in action.

I dare say, when most people hear this parable from Luke 10—this story of the man who was robbed and beaten on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho—they think of physical acts of charity only. They think, in other words, of what the Church would call the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, burying the dead.

They think that engaging in activities like these is what it means to be a “Good Samaritan”. And, in part, they’re right. After all, the Samaritan in this story performs several physical acts of charity for someone he doesn’t even know—someone who was a natural enemy (remember, Jews and Samaritans typically did not get along with each other).

But it would be a big mistake to see this parable only in physical terms; that type of perspective would be much too restrictive!

You see, being a good Samaritan also requires a concern for the spiritual needs of other human beings—a concern that’s actively expressed in the so-called “spiritual works of mercy”: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing sinners, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving offenses willingly, comforting the afflicted, and praying for the living and the dead.

If you bring someone to confession on a Saturday afternoon—a friend who’s been away from church for 25 or 30 years—you are being a Good Samaritan to that individual.

If you bring someone to an AA meeting or to the meeting of another 12-step group, you’re being a Good Samaritan.

If you bring someone to Jesus in prayer every day, you are (believe it or not) being a Good Samaritan to that person. They may never know it, but it’s true nonetheless.

If you challenge a friend who’s committing a serious sin (or who’s contemplating committing a serious sin), you are being a Good Samaritan to that person. They may not think of you as “good”—in fact they may call you every uncharitable name in the book—but that doesn’t matter. Admonishing sinners in a loving way is one of the spiritual works of mercy.

If you invite a friend to a mission or to a retreat—hoping that they will have a conversion or experience a deepening of their faith—you are being a Good Samaritan to that friend. On that note, as most of you know, many of our teenagers are at Steubenville East this weekend. When we’re in the process of preparing for that trip each year, I’ll ask individual teens in the parish, “Are you coming with us?” Every once in awhile one of them will respond by saying, “No, Fr. Ray, I’m not coming this year. It was a really good experience for me, but I’ve already been a couple of times.”

If you’re a teenager, I warn you: that’s the wrong response to give me! There are, of course, legitimate reasons why you might not be able to attend the conference, but that’s not one of them! I say it’s the wrong response because it tells me that you think your faith is about you and God, period! But it’s not! Christianity is about you, God—and others! So if you have a good experience on an annual youth retreat like Steubenville East, you should want your friends to have the very same experience, if you really care about them! In the spirit of the Good Samaritan, you should ask them to come along with you in subsequent years. First and foremost, you should go multiple times for their sakes, not for yours. When I was in high school I went on a Search retreat at the beginning of my senior year, and it had a big impact on me. So I tried to get my friends to go on other Searches afterward. Some did, and some didn’t. But at least I tried.

The last words in this Gospel story are spoken not only to the scholar of the Law who said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”, they’re also spoken to each and every one of us: “Go and do likewise”—“Go, in other words, and imitate the Good Samaritan.”

May Almighty God help us to do that—physically AND spiritually!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Mission Of The 72 In Luke 10; The Mission Of The Laity In The Church Today

Serving as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion: A secondary role for a lay person

(Fourteenth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on July 8, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 10: 1-12, 17-20.)

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

What do you do to serve the Lord?

I think many lay Catholics would answer that question by telling you what they do in and around the church—“I’m a lector”; “I’m an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion”; “I’m an altar server”; “I’m a cantor”; “I sing in the choir”; “I’m on the parish finance council”.

Now please don’t misunderstand me—all these acts of service are good! Lay people have essential roles to play in the liturgical and financial life of this and of every other parish. But these roles are only secondary! Even though they’re very important, they are not at the core of a lay person’s vocation in the Church.

In paragraph 898 of the Catechism, it says this (quoting one of the documents of Vatican II): “By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will.”

Very simply, this means that if you’re a lay Catholic (and most of you are), then you are to live in the world, but you are not to be “of” the world; and you are to take your Catholic faith with you wherever you go. That’s your primary calling! Your faith, in other words, is to guide your personal life, your marital life (even in its private dimensions), your family life, your recreational life—and yes, even your life at work and/or at school.

When I was a deacon at St. Philip’s Church in Greenville in 1985, there was a lector at the parish who was involved in local politics. Now he’s a big political figure at the state level; if I mentioned his name, you’d all recognize it immediately. But this man was also pro-choice when it came to the issue of abortion. Thankfully, he eventually was told he could no longer serve as a lector. I mention him today because he’s a great example of a lay person who was “doing something for God” at Sunday Mass, but who was not doing for God what he really should have been doing for God out there in the world. He was fulfilling a lay person’s “secondary role” very well—he was an excellent reader!—but he was failing miserably in fulfilling the primary role of a Catholic lay person in modern society.

His problem, of course, was that he had “compartmentalized” his faith—as many Catholics today do! In the words of Pope John Paul II—words that he wrote in his famous document on the laity, Christifideles Laici—this man had engaged in the “unwarranted separation of [his] faith from [his] life.” (CL, 2)

I was reminded of the vocation of lay people as I reflected on today’s Gospel reading from Luke, chapter 10. In this story, Jesus sent out 72 disciples on a special mission—a mission that was a little bit different from the one he had given to his 12 apostles. Jesus told these 72 to go ahead of him to every town he intended to visit, to prepare the way for his arrival. They weren’t supposed to lead services in synagogues; they were supposed to share their faith with people in a less formal manner, to prepare them to receive Jesus and his message. That, of course, is exactly what you are supposed to do as Catholic lay people: by your words, actions and example—in the midst of your everyday activities—you are called to prepare others to receive Jesus and his message.

I spoke to a woman on the phone the other day who wanted to register for the parish and have her daughter baptized. That was wonderful. But during the course of our conversation she indicated that she hadn’t practiced her faith in many years, and she had no intention of practicing her faith in the future. Her idea was to have her daughter baptized, and then let her daughter decide what she wanted to be when she was old enough. This woman obviously does not understand her role as a Catholic lay person! As a mother, she is called to teach the faith to her child; she is called to be an example of faith and charity to her child—to prepare the way for Jesus to become the Lord of her child’s life!

Parents, I hope that makes sense to you! Jesus wants to visit your children and become the Lord of their lives—so he sends you ahead of him to prepare the way (like he sent the 72!). Jesus wants to visit your workplace and change the lives of your co-workers, and so he sends you ahead of him to prepare the way. Jesus wants to visit your school and change the lives of your fellow students, and so he sends you ahead of him to prepare the way.

Will everyone accept the message of faith and love that you offer? Of course not! Some—even perhaps in your family—will reject the truth of the Gospel, regardless of how lovingly and respectfully you present it to them! Jesus made that fact clear to the 72.

But the difficulty of the task doesn’t make it any less of an obligation!

I’m sure some of you have been following the exchange that’s gone on in the Westerly Sun in recent weeks concerning the issues of moral relativism, gay marriage, and embryonic stem cell research. As you know, on a few occasions—when the Spirit has moved me and when I’ve felt it was absolutely necessary—I’ve contributed my “two cents” to the discussion; but for the most part I’ve left the job of defending the truth in the hands of some very competent and faith-filled lay people from our community—because first and foremost that’s their role, not mine! It’s what they’re supposed to be doing as Catholic lay persons!

My role as a priest is to form them in the faith, so that they can transform our culture with the moral message of the Gospel! Jesus, believe it or not, wants to visit and transform this hedonistic, materialistic culture of ours; he wants to change it from a culture of death into a culture of life! But he needs committed lay people to prepare the way for him to do that, like the 72 prepared the way for his visits 2,000 years ago!

St. Luke tells us that when these 72 came back from the mission Jesus had given them, they had good news to report. Yes, they had faced difficulty and opposition, but because of their efforts many people were healed and many lives were changed for the better.

Your mission as a lay person in 2007 is like the mission of the 72 in many respects, but it’s different in this one sense: their mission lasted only for a brief period of time; yours—like mine—lasts a lifetime. When our missions are finally finished—on Judgment Day—we also will be asked to give a report to Jesus of what we’ve done in his service. Let’s pray that when that moment comes we, like the 72, will be able to tell Jesus lots of good news!