Sunday, June 24, 2007

Bishop Thomas Tobin: A Modern-day John the Baptist

Bishop Tobin (center) blessing the new wing of St. Pius X School on November 7, 2006.

(Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist 2007: This homily was given on June 24, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 1: 57-66, 80.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Birth of John the Baptist 2007]

Listen closely to the following titles. Do you recognize them?

“Abortion 101”

“Should You Buy a Car on Sunday?”

“Reasons or Excuses?”

“Why We Need Lent”

“Immigrants Are People, Not Problems”

“Why Gay Marriage is Wrong”

“Questions About the Casino”

“Catholic Preaching: Powerful or Pitiful?”

“Breaking News: The Tomb of Jesus Is Empty!”

“Racism: It’s bigger than Imus”

“My R.S.V.P. to Rudy Giuliani”

If you didn’t know before, that last one probably gave it away. These are the titles of some of the columns that our bishop, Thomas Tobin, has written for our diocesan newspaper during the past couple of years. In looking them over the other day as I was preparing for this homily, I couldn’t help but think that John the Baptist would heartily approve! I couldn’t help but think that John, whose birthday we commemorate this weekend in the Church, would love our local bishop’s approach to pastoral ministry.

In paragraph 1558 of the Catechism it says this concerning the ministry of a bishop: “’Episcopal consecration confers, together with the office of sanctifying, also the offices of teaching and ruling. . . . In fact . . . by the imposition of hands and through the words of consecration, the grace of the Holy Spirit is given, and a sacred character is impressed in such wise that bishops, in an eminent and visible manner, take the place of Christ himself, teacher, shepherd and priest, and act as his representative.’ ‘By virtue, therefore, of the Holy Spirit who has been given to them, bishops have been constituted true and authentic teachers of the faith . . .’” (CCC, 1558)

Sadly, some bishops in the Church today are failing to take their teaching role seriously. Perhaps that’s because they know that if they did take it seriously, they’d have to be a lot like John the Baptist! In other words, they know they’d have to address really tough issues and take very clear stands and endure a great deal of opposition—like John did.

And they’d rather not do those things.

John, of course, addressed the toughest of all issues—human sin—in a very direct manner. He came to prepare the way for the Messiah by making people aware of their need for the Messiah’s gift of mercy. But the only way he could make them aware of their need for the Messiah’s gift of mercy was by making them aware of the fact that they were sinners! John’s father, Zechariah, said it perfectly on the day his son was born: “You my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”

John was very clear about good and evil, right and wrong; he also had no qualms about challenging people who were in positions of civil and religious authority! He didn’t hesitate, for example, to tell King Herod that it was wrong for him to be living with his brother’s wife, nor did he hesitate in calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers” at the Jordan River on the day they came to him to be baptized. (Believe me, Rudy Giuliani should thank God that John the Baptist didn’t write that R.S.V.P. column in our diocesan newspaper the other day. I can assure you that John would not have been as respectful and kind as Bishop Tobin was!)

Like John the Baptist, our present bishop is not afraid to tackle tough issues in the public square. Notice some of the “hot button topics” that are addressed in just the handful of columns I mentioned at the beginning of my homily: gay marriage, racism, gambling, immigration—and, of course, Rudy Giuliani’s stance on abortion.

For benefit of the few who might not have seen the bishop’s piece on Giuliani, I think it’s important to remember what precipitated it: an invitation from the former New York City mayor asking the bishop to come to a luncheon he was having here in Rhode Island to raise money for his campaign.

As our bishop said in his column: “I have no idea why I received an invitation to [this] fundraiser. I don’t know the mayor; I’ve never met him. I try to avoid partisan politics. Heck, I’m not even a Republican. But most of all, I would never support a candidate who supports legalized abortion.”

Bishop Tobin then went on to clarify the teaching of the Church on this issue—which is actually the teaching of Jesus Christ on this issue!—and to contrast that with Rudy’s position. (Rudy, in case you’re not aware of it, says he’s personally opposed to abortion and thinks it’s morally wrong, but he still maintains that it should still be a legal option.)

At one point in his commentary the bishop offered these important insights: “Rudy’s explanation is a classic expression of the position on abortion we’ve heard from weak-kneed politicians so frequently in recent years. ‘I’m personally opposed to but don’t want to impose my views on other people.’ The incongruity of that position has been exposed many times now. As I’ve asked previously, would we let any politician get away with the same pathetic cop-out on other issues: ‘I’m personally opposed to . . . racial discrimination, sexual abuse, prostitution, drug abuse, polygamy, incest . . . but don’t want to impose my beliefs on others?”. . .

“Hey Rudy, you say that you believe abortion is morally wrong. Why do you say that, Rudy; why do you believe that abortion is wrong? Is abortion the killing of an innocent child? Is it an offense against human dignity? Is it a cruel and violent act? Does it harm the woman who has the abortion? And if your answer to any of these questions is yes, Rudy, why would you permit people to . . . kill an innocent child, offend human dignity, commit a cruel and violent act or do harm to the mother?”

The real problem here is that Rudy the Republican—like Jack Reed the Democrat—wants “the name without the game”. He wants to be considered a Catholic in name and reap the earthly benefits that come with that title (such as your votes!), while at the same time rejecting fundamental moral teachings of the Catholic faith!

Our bishop rightly points out that politicians who freely choose to claim the title of Catholic can’t have it both ways. And as the chief teacher of the faith in the Diocese of Providence, our bishop needs to do this kind of thing in the public arena, because unfortunately the lie is still circulating out there that a person can be a good Catholic and “pro-choice” at the same time.

That’s a lie that just won’t die!

In many respects our bishop is a modern-day John the Baptist. His message, like the message of the original version 2,000 years ago, is sometimes tough. But when it’s accepted with humility, it leads people to Jesus!

Those who heard the original John, accepted his message, repented of their sins and received his baptism were properly prepared to embrace their Messiah when he came.

May all those who hear our bishop—and who read his column in our diocesan newspaper—heed what they hear and what they read, so that they will receive Jesus Christ more fully into their lives.

Today I offer that prayer for everyone, but in a very special way I offer it for Mr. Rudy Giuliani.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Forgiveness Is A Fatherly Virtue

Michelangelo's David

(Eleventh Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on June 17, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 2 Samuel 12: 7-10, 13.)

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

Forgiveness is a fatherly virtue.

That, I believe, is the simple and clear message the Lord has for us on this Father’s Day.

Forgiveness is a fatherly virtue.

Let me begin by asking you to reflect on this question: What was your father like? Or, if he’s still alive, what is your father like? Would you say that he was—or that he is—a forgiving person?

That’s a very important question, because the level—the quality—of your earthly father’s forgiveness has a direct impact on you and on your family life right now. It also, believe it or not, has a direct impact on your present relationship with Almighty God.

More on all that in a few moments.

Paragraph 239 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that God is the “origin and standard” of human fatherhood and motherhood. Therefore if we want to know what it truly means to be a good father here on earth, we should look first and foremost to God the Father in heaven.

And when we do that we see that one of the most important aspects of our Heavenly Father’s Divine Personhood is his willingness to forgive. Our God is a forgiving Lord!

This is why I began my homily by saying that forgiveness is a fatherly virtue. It’s a fatherly virtue because God is forgiving—and God is the origin and the standard of all fatherhood!

We see the Heavenly Father’s forgiveness illustrated beautifully in the story of King David, part of which we heard in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel 12.

Most of us know it, but for the few who might not . . .

After he had been anointed King of Israel, David was taking a stroll one evening on the roof of his palace. As he was walking along, he happened to catch sight of a beautiful young woman bathing in the distance. The woman’s name was Bathsheba.

Unfortunately lust got the better of him at that moment, and David decided to invite the young woman over to his place to “see his etchings” (as Bishop Sheen used to put it).

Bathsheba came to the palace and she and David committed the sin of adultery. Not long afterward she found herself pregnant with David’s child. She knew it had to be David’s because her husband, Uriah, had been away for some time fighting in a war.

Well once the king found out about the pregnancy, he immediately called Uriah home from battle and told him to go home to see his wife. Obviously he was hoping that Uriah would sleep with Bathsheba and end up thinking that he was the father of the child. And since there wasn’t any DNA testing available at the time, David’s devious plan had a very good chance of succeeding.

But Uriah was a good soldier who happened to be at war. And good Israelite soldiers at war were not supposed to go home to see their wives and families. So Uriah didn’t. Instead, he slept in the courtyard of David’s palace.

The next day, David got Uriah drunk and told him a second time to go home, but once again Uriah slept in the palace courtyard.

At that point, David had had enough. He immediately wrote a letter to his general, Joab, and told him to put Uriah on the front lines in the next big battle. Then he said to Joab, “When the fighting gets really fierce, pull the rest of your troops back, so that Uriah will be killed.”

Unfortunately, David’s plan worked this time. That made him guilty of two capital sins: adultery and murder.

And he felt no guilt about either of them, until the prophet Nathan presented him with a social problem that supposedly involved someone else. (It’s always easier for us to see someone else’s sin.) Nathan said, “David, what do you think about a very rich and powerful man who had flocks and herds in great numbers, but who went out and stole a ewe lamb from a poor man—the only lamb the poor man owned—in order to feed his hungry friend when his friend came for a visit?”

David said, “The man who did such a thing deserves to die!”

Nathan replied, “Well, it’s interesting that you should say that, David, because THAT MAN IS YOU!!!”

Then Nathan uttered the words we heard a few moments ago in our first reading. Listen to them again, now, in their proper context:

Nathan said to David: “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘I anointed you king of Israel. I rescued you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your lord’s house and your lord’s wives for your own. I gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were not enough, I could count up for you still more. Why have you spurned the Lord and done evil in his sight? You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you took his wife as your own, and him you killed with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah to be your wife.’”

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.”

David received forgiveness from the Heavenly Father once he sincerely repented for what he had done. That should give us hope for even the worst of sinners. Of course, David still had to face some negative consequences for his sins—one of which was the death of his infant son. But his own guilt was taken away, and it’s said that in thanksgiving he wrote “the Miserere”—Psalm 51—which begins with the words, “Have mercy on me God, in your kindness; in your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt, and cleanse me from my sin.”

Forgiveness is a fatherly virtue, because it has its origin in God the Father. King David was a living witness to that important truth.

Fathers, I ask you this morning: Do your children experience the Heavenly Father’s forgiveness through you whenever they repent? Or do you withhold forgiveness from them? (Now please don’t misunderstand the question. I’m not implying here that you shouldn’t discipline your children. Forgiveness and discipline are two separate issues. Remember, David was still disciplined after the Heavenly Father forgave him; he still had to face some negative consequences for his actions. But in the midst of the punishment he had to endure, David knew that his sins had been wiped away.)

At the beginning of my homily I asked everyone in the congregation to think of their own father. I said that the experience of our earthly father’s forgiveness (or lack of it) has a direct impact on us and on our family life now, and that it even influences our relationship with God in the present moment!

That should make perfect sense.

For example, if my earthly father refused to forgive me over and over again in my childhood, I will probably have great difficulty believing that my Heavenly Father will be willing to forgive me now in my adulthood. The tendency will be for me to project my earthly father’s unforgiveness onto God, my Heavenly Father—and that will have terrible consequences for me in my spiritual life.

This message, incidentally, is one that I also must take seriously as a spiritual father! It’s not only for you earthly dads! You see, if I treat people unkindly in the confessional—a place where they should experience God’s compassion and forgiveness—chances are they will project my anger and lack of charity onto Almighty God, and be spiritually scarred for many years.

They may even abandon the Church and the practice of their Catholic faith altogether. And we’ve all heard stories of this kind haven’t we?—“I told that priest my sins one day in the confessional. He yelled at me and screamed at me and humiliated me. I’ll never go back.”

I’ll conclude my homily today with two words. They’re the words of a request, which were first spoken by Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, as he hung on the Cross on Good Friday: “Father, forgive.”

Jesus, I believe, says those very same words this morning to all of us dads—even the spiritual ones: “Father, forgive.”

But he says those words to each of us not as a request; he says them to each of us as a command: “FATHER, FORGIVE! FATHER, FORGIVE YOUR CHILDREN—AS OFTEN AS THEY NEED TO BE FORGIVEN.”

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Healing Power Of The Eucharist

Pope Benedict XVI carrying the Eucharist in Bavaria in 2006.

(Corpus Christi 2007 (C): This homily was given on June 10, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26.)

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

In his book “101 Questions and Answers on the Eucharist,” Fr. Giles Dimock touches on many aspects of the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. (Fr. Dimock, as you will recall, led us in our parish mission this year.)

I mention his book on this feast of Corpus Christi, because in the middle of it—in questions 50 and 51, to be exact—he deals with a phenomenon that most people don’t directly associate with the Holy Eucharist, although they should: healing.

Question 50 reads, “Are there healing aspects of the Eucharist?” and question 51 reads, “Are the healings from the Eucharist physical, psychological, or spiritual?”

I’ll use his answers to those questions as the basis of my homily today.

In addressing number 50 (“Are there healing aspects of the Eucharist?”), Fr. Dimock quotes St. Teresa of Avila, who once wrote:

“And do not imagine that this most sacred food is not an excellent food for our bodies and a splendid remedy even for bodily ills! I know for a fact that it is. I know a person who suffered from serious illness and was often in the greatest pain. That pain was lifted from her when she received the Eucharist so that she felt completely well.”

She was writing there, incidentally, about herself!

Now this really shouldn’t surprise us. As Catholics we understand that the Eucharist is not a symbol! Quite oppositely, the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, present under the appearances of bread and wine.

We know that Jesus healed people when he physically walked around Palestine 2,000 years ago. So why should it surprise us if he does the very same thing today when he comes to us in the Blessed Sacrament? (Remember, it’s the same Jesus!) One of the Dominican priests who prepared Fr. Dimock for ordination had a serious disease of the throat. As he was consuming the Precious Blood at Mass one day, this priest prayed that he would be healed of his throat ailment.

And he was.

Of course, it would be a big mistake for us to think of healing only in physical terms. Not all healings are healings of the body. As St. Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians 5: 23, we human beings are tri-dimensional: we are body, soul and spirit. That means we can experience healings in our souls and in our spirits, even if we don’t always experience healings on the physical level.

In his book, Fr. Dimock tells this story: “One priest-counselor who had many clients installed an oratory near his office where his clients prayed before the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance. He told them to gaze on the sacrament encased in the sunburst monstrance . . . and to imagine the rays of grace energizing them from the Body of the risen Lord. [The result was that] they felt less need to talk to him, less need for his help and counsel.”

His clients didn’t need his help and counsel as much, because they had already experienced some healing in their souls and in their spirits through the Eucharist during their time of adoration.

Along the same lines, Fr. Dimock speaks of a young woman he knows who led a very immoral life before she experienced a deep conversion to Jesus Christ and the Church. She told Fr. Dimock that she now loves to spend time in adoration, gazing on the Blessed Sacrament exposed in the monstrance, because she believes that as she looks at the Eucharist, Jesus is cleansing her eyes of all the unholy things she used to look at before her conversion.

If you struggle with an addiction to pornography (and many people today do—especially on the internet), I suggest that you make Eucharistic Adoration part of your recovery program. I think this woman would make the very same suggestion, based on her own personal experience.

Finally—and I would say most importantly—the Eucharist can bring healing to our soul and spirit by bringing us forgiveness for our sins—if we have the right disposition of heart!

Did you realize that?

No, the Eucharist will not bring us forgiveness for any mortal sins we may have committed (for mortal sins to be forgiven we need to go to Confession!). But if we have no mortal sins on our soul, and have true sorrow in our heart, the Eucharist can bring us forgiveness for lesser, venial sins—and it can help to strengthen our will against the temptation to sin in the future.

The Catechism puts it this way: “As bodily nourishment restores lost strength, so the Eucharist strengthens our charity, which tends to be weakened in daily life; and this living charity wipes away venial sins. . . . By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. The more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin.” (CCC, 1394-95)

Let me conclude today with this thought: When Jesus walked the face of this earth in the 1st century—teaching and preaching and healing—he was objectively present. He was really there among his people.

But not everyone who saw him or heard him or touched him back then had the same experience on the subjective level!

Some of those who encountered him had faith. They were open to his words and power, and they were greatly blessed in body, soul and spirit.

But others were not open, and hence they were not blessed—like the people of his hometown of Nazareth. The Bible says they put no faith in Jesus (who obviously looked too “ordinary” to them); thus our Lord wasn’t able to perform many miracles while he was in their presence.

I’ve shared these thoughts with you this morning on the healing power of the Eucharist, because our situation is quite similar. Jesus Christ is objectively present to us in the Holy Eucharist, as he was objectively present to his fellow Jews on the streets of Palestine in the 1st century. But even though Jesus is objectively present to us in the Blessed Sacrament, we can still get little or nothing out of the experience of being in his presence! We can even receive him into our own bodies and not be changed on the subjective level!

So much depends on whether or not we have faith! So much depends on whether or not we have allowed God to give us the right attitude—the right mindset—the right disposition of heart.

My prayer is that the message of this homily will help us all to approach the Eucharist in the future with a deeper and more expectant faith, so that we will be open to ALL the healing graces God wants to give us through the Body and Blood of his Son.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Dogma Of The Trinity And ‘Gay Marriage’

(Trinity Sunday 2007: This homily was given on June 3, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Proverbs 8: 22-31; Romans 5: 1-5; John 16: 12-15.)

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

The dogma of the Trinity—which teaches us that there is one God in three Divine Persons—may sound theoretical and abstract, but in reality it has some very practical implications for our daily lives.

I’ll share just one of those implications with you in today’s homily—one that relates to a controversial social issue of our day.

The dogma of the Trinity reminds us that the one, true God is actually a FAMILY of Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Each is omnipotent; each is omniscient; each is eternal; each is God.

If this is true (and of course as Catholics we believe it is)—if God is indeed a Trinity of Persons—and if we are made in God’s image and likeness (as Scripture tells us we are), then so-called “gay marriage” is not within the realm of human possibility.

Oh sure, a state or society can choose to make it legal through a legislative act or through a judicial decision. But if such a thing happens (as it did a few years ago in Massachusetts), then that’s all it is—legal. It’s not real. And it’s not real—that is to say a gay marriage can never be a marriage in the true sense of the term—because of who God is as a Trinity of Persons, and because of who we are as human beings made in his image and likeness.

Let me explain . . .

In the Blessed Trinity, the Father loves the Son with an intense, perfect, eternal love. That love is so intense that it’s actually another Person—the Holy Spirit—who, as the Nicene Creed tells us, “proceeds from the Father and the Son.”

So please notice, in the Blessed Trinity, love is fruitful: the Father loves the Son, and from that love the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally.

In a speech he gave in Africa in 1988, Pope John Paul II said this: “Christian family life is a reflection of the life of the Blessed Trinity, where there is mutual giving and receiving of love among the three Divine Persons.” This, of course, shouldn’t surprise us, because we’re made in God’s image and likeness. Our family life is to reflect the life of the Blessed Trinity, because we’ve been made in the image and likeness of the Blessed Trinity!

All this having been said, if a marriage here on earth is to reflect the life of the Trinity properly, that marriage obviously must be FRUITFUL (or at least it must have the natural potential to be fruitful).

It must be fruitful (or at least potentially so), because the Father’s love for the Son in the Blessed Trinity is fruitful.

But a so-called “gay marriage” can never be fruitful, can it? You learn that in Biology 101. Two men cannot have a natural child of their own; two women cannot have a natural child of their own. It’s impossible. Only the marriage of a man and a woman has the natural potential to be fruitful!

There are many reasons to oppose gay marriage. One of the most important, of course, is that children thrive best when they’re nurtured by a man and a woman who are committed to one another in a traditional marital relationship (studies have shown this again and again). Legalized homosexual marriage, many experts tell us, will eventually lead to legalized polygamy, incest and pedophilia—and possibly even to legalized bestiality! It will destroy the institution of marriage as we have known it. It will certainly lead to the passage of laws specifically designed to stifle religious freedom; and it will mean that children in public schools will be taught that sodomy and traditional marriage are morally equal—and you as parents will have nothing to say about it.

But standing behind all these reasons—and all the other valid ones—is the simple truth that gay marriage is “ungodly” because it’s “anti-Trinitarian.” The love of the Father and the Son in the Blessed Trinity is fruitful. The love in a gay relationship is not.

And it never can be.