Sunday, September 16, 2007

When It Comes To Their Sins, the Greatest Saints Have the Longest Memories

Three men who have very SHORT memories!

(Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 16, 2007, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Timothy 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-fourth Sunday 2007]

There are many similarities, believe it or not, between great athletes and great saints. For example:

  • Both have clear, defined goals. For athletes the goal is to win championships; for saints the goal is to win the crown of eternal life.
  • Both are willing to make tremendous personal sacrifices to attain their goals.
  • Both are inspired by the great ones—the great athletes, the great saints—who’ve gone before them.
  • Both disdain mediocrity. Some professional athletes are happy just to compete and to be making a comfortable living at their chosen sport. For them, relative mediocrity is fine. But not for people like Roger Federer and Tom Brady and Tiger Woods. For athletes like them, mediocrity is totally unacceptable! They’re out there to win; they’re not just out there to compete. The great saints have the same outlook when it comes to morality and virtue: they don’t simply try to avoid mortal sin in their lives; rather, they try to be perfect as their heavenly Father is perfect.

But in spite of these and other similarities, there is at least one huge difference between great athletes and great saints; and it’s this difference that I want to focus on today in my homily. The difference concerns the length of their “memories”. In the world of sports, the greatest athletes are those who have the shortest memories when it comes to their failures. Most golfers, for example, will allow a really bad shot to affect them for several holes thereafter. (This is the voice of experience talking!) They’ll be on the 5th tee and they’ll be thinking back to how they ruined their score “with that triple-bogey on hole number 3” or “that ball in the water on hole number 4.”

Not Tiger Woods! Tiger Woods has the uncanny ability to get back on track almost immediately after he has a bad hole—or a bad series of holes. That’s one of the biggest reasons why he’s #1 in the world! Golf fans, I ask you: How many times has Woods started off the last round of a tournament with a bogey (or worse), and then gone on to win the tournament with a string of birdies at the very end?

It’s happened many times!

That’s because on the golf course Tiger Woods has a very short memory when it comes to his bad shots! He hits them just like the rest of us (although a lot less frequently); but when he does he’s able to put them out of his mind almost instantaneously. That enables him to give his full and undivided attention to the next shot he has to hit.

Tom Brady is the same way after he throws an interception; Roger Federer is the same way after he loses a set in a tennis match.

The greatest athletes have the shortest memories when it comes to their failures.

The great saints, on the other hand, are exactly the opposite. SAINTS—AND ALL THOSE WHO ARE ON THE ROAD TO SANCTITY—HAVE THE LONGEST MEMORIES WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR FAILURES (THAT IS TO SAY, WHEN IT COMES TO THEIR SINS). But, interestingly enough, their long memories don’t fill them with guilt; their long memories don’t make them depressed or put them on the verge of despair. Rather, because they know God has forgiven them and washed them clean through the blood of his Son, their long memories of their past sins make them deeply grateful and even more faithful.

Case in point: St. Paul! In today’s second reading, Paul writes to Timothy many years after his conversion to Christ. But it’s clear from what he says in this passage that he hasn’t forgotten about any of his past sins! He remembers very well how he persecuted Christians and had them thrown into jail; he remembers his role in the death of St. Stephen; he remembers the pride and the self-righteousness of his younger days. And yet, because he’s also conscious of God’s incredible love and mercy—and of the fact that he’s been forgiven for these and for his other past sins—he is thankful and not guilt-ridden. In fact, he starts off in verse 12 by explicitly stating, “Beloved: I am grateful to him [i.e., to God] . . . “ Then, after making a public confession of some of his sins and calling himself “the worst of sinners,” he rejoices in God’s mercy and praises the Lord!

The parable of the prodigal son that we heard in today’s Gospel reading is a powerful story of forgiveness and conversion—like the story of St. Paul. But the parable as we read it in the Bible does not answer a very important question: Did he stay? (Inquiring minds want to know!) Yes, this boy finally came to his senses, repented of his sins, and went home to his dad—and that was great! But did he come home for good? Did he remain converted for the rest of his life—or did he run off again at some point in the future?

I think those questions can be answered accurately in the following way: If the prodigal son’s memory was long—in other words, if he never forgot how painful and destructive his sin was, and how good he felt at being reconciled to his father—then he stayed. On the other hand, if his memory was short— if he forgot how much he had hurt his father and his family by the evil life he had led; if he forgot about all those rotten dinners in the pig sty; if he forgot how merciful his father had been to him when he finally came back—then he probably did leave again when a strong temptation came his way.

Let me leave you this morning with a few words of practical advice:

First of all, don’t make the mistake of trying to forget your sins by denying them or by ignoring them. Sins that are denied or ignored will affect your personality and your life in a negative way—that’s a promise! There are many people today, for example, who are filled with anger because they’ve committed serious sins and refuse to repent of them. And their families and friends and co-workers are usually the ones who are forced to deal with the unpleasant consequences. These angry men and women are miserable (although they might not know why), and in their misery they end up dragging others down with them.

Put it this way: A bad conscience makes for a bad personality.

Our sins need to be remembered, first and foremost, so that they can be acknowledged, confessed, and forgiven. But even after they’ve been forgiven they need to be thought of often—not so that they can drag us down—but rather so that God’s grace can lift us up!

It’s clear from today’s second reading that St. Paul was not dragged down when he thought of his past sins. Rather he was lifted up in his spirit—and filled with gratitude and joy—because he knew in the depths of his heart that he had received an abundance of God’s mercy through the blood of Jesus Christ.

As Catholics we have that same mercy available to us, of course, in the sacrament of Confession.

The greatest athletes have the shortest memories with respect to their failures; the greatest saints have the longest memories. Thus I think it’s fitting that I close my homily today with this little prayer: Dear Lord, please give us extremely short memories when it comes to our chosen sports (if we’re still blessed to be playing them!), so that we will be successful; and give us extremely long memories when it comes to all of our sins, so that we will be saints. Amen.