Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fight the Good Fight of Faith!

A true fighter!

(Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 30, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Timothy 6: 11-16.)

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

In the early 1990s, a new version of the New American Bible was published. It contained a revised and re-translated New Testament (for the most part, the Old Testament remained the same in both the old and new editions).

This revised New American translation is the one that we now use for our New Testament readings here at Mass on Sundays. It’s been that way for several years.

I do not know who the translators were who worked on this new edition of the New American Bible—I couldn’t tell you any of their names—but I can tell you one thing about them with absolute certainty: THEY WERE A BUNCH OF WIMPS!

Just look at today’s second reading from 1 Timothy 6. There Paul says to Timothy (and, by extension, to all of us): “Compete well for the faith”—or at least that’s how it’s translated in this revised New American version.

“Compete well for the faith” . . . Doesn’t that sound inspiring? Isn’t that a powerful line? Doesn’t it just make you want to go out and conquer the world for Jesus?

Well, if it does, God bless you—because it does absolutely nothing for me! To me that line sounds blah—and lifeless—and wimpy! It’s as if St. Paul were comparing the spiritual challenges of this life to a game of tiddlywinks!

I like the way this line was translated in the older version of the New American Bible—which is also the way it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version and the King James Version and just about every other English version that’s out there!

It reads: “Fight the good fight of faith!”

Now there’s a verse with some gusto! There’s a verse that has some power and conviction behind it! There’s a verse that conveys the real truth of what this life is about for the true believer!

And if you’re a serious Catholic—if you’re someone who is sincerely trying to be faithful to Jesus and his teachings in your life—then you no doubt agree with me. Because it’s not easy to be a Catholic Christian these days! Emmy award winning comediennes like Kathy Griffin, for example, regularly blaspheme Jesus Christ on national television and radio, and many in the liberal media call it “funny,” “interesting,” and even “refreshing.”

The teachings of the Catholic Church are viciously attacked on a daily basis in many schools, at work during lunch breaks, in newspapers and in magazines—and even during family gatherings. How often have you argued with some of your relatives about religious matters over Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner? It happens all the time.

If we’re going to stand our ground and live our faith and be true to what we believe as Catholic Christians, then we need to have a “fighting attitude”!

That’s why I believe the text should be translated, “Fight the good fight of faith!”

Now please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying we should have a belligerent attitude—that’s something different. To have a fighting attitude means to have a strong resolve and determination: a strong resolve and determination to live and love as Jesus wants us to! It doesn’t mean that we should be angry and hateful, or that we should be constantly looking for an argument!

In fact, for the most part, “fighting the good fight of faith” isn’t something that goes on externally with other human beings. Yes, it often does involve defending and explaining the faith to those who attack it. But our battle is not primarily with the Kathy Griffins of this world, as upsetting as those people can sometimes be. First and foremost, our battle of faith is with—and within—ourselves!

In my attempt to “fight the good fight of faith,” for example, my most troublesome opponent is not Mr. David Madden, who often attacks Church teaching with his letters in the Westerly Sun; it’s not the people who write unkind notes to me once in awhile because they want me to compromise the truth in some way. It’s not even the pro-abortion politicians in our government who annoy me constantly.

In my attempt to live out this Scripture passage from 1 Timothy 6 on a daily basis, my most difficult opponent is me! And that’s the way it will always be until the day I die!

By the same token, your most difficult opponent in your “fight of faith” is YOU!

You see, we each have a unique set of inner temptations and inner struggles that are constantly pulling us away from Jesus Christ. These are the forces that we must constantly fight against!

The inner temptations relate to the 7 deadly sins: pride, lust, greed, gluttony, anger, envy and sloth.

The inner struggles we have are rooted in the circumstances of our lives and in the defects in our personalities. Some of us, for example, have to battle moodiness; some of us tend to make rash judgments; some of us tend to hold grudges—those are just a few possible personality defects.

But don’t feel too bad, because even the great saints of the past have had these inner struggles! St. Paul had his “thorn in the flesh,” which he speaks about in 1 Corinthians 12; Thomas the apostle was prone to doubt; Peter’s weakness appears to have been his hot temper.

And Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta had her spiritual darkness to deal with! That was one of the places where she had to fight her good fight of faith.

And it wasn’t easy, as we now know from the things she wrote over the years to her spiritual director.

Many people, of course—especially those in the secular media—have completely misinterpreted this information. They say Mother Teresa’s holiness was all an act; they say she was really a depressed person who didn’t even believe that God existed.

Not true!

Blessed Mother Teresa experienced something that only a few souls ever experience on this side of the grave. It’s what St. John of the Cross and others have referred to as “the dark night of the soul.” Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is this: the person is closer to God than ever, but they don’t feel that way. It’s something like what Jesus experienced on the Cross, where he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus had not been forsaken by God—after all, he was God!—but in his human nature he felt like he had been.

In Mother Teresa these feelings of abandonment and separation from the Lord must have been especially intense, because early on in her religious life—in 1946 and 1947 to be exact—Jesus had blessed her with some very powerful experiences of his presence! As she later wrote, “There it was, as if our Lord gave himself to me in the full. The sweetness and consolation of those past six months passed but too soon.”

Once a person tastes the heights of mystical union with God like Blessed Mother Teresa did, the things of this world don’t have the same attraction anymore. Not only that, dealing with feelings of God’s absence becomes even more difficult—far more difficult than it would be for “normal people” like us, who’ve never had this type of mystical experience.

So Time Magazine was wrong in calling this situation a “crisis of faith” for Mother Teresa. Rather, as one priest said in a recent interview, this was “a trial of faith” for her—a trial of faith that she needed to approach with a “fighting attitude” for 50 years!

And she did.

Why did God allow it? No doubt for a number of reasons—one of which was probably to keep Mother Teresa humble, in the midst of all the accolades she received from people all over the world.

And we know it worked, because she once said (and here I quote), “The interior pain that I feel is so great that I don’t feel anything from all the publicity and people’s talking.”

God also allowed this spiritual darkness, I believe, for the benefit of the rest of us. As Catholics we know that offered-up suffering is like offered-up prayer: it draws down God’s blessings into our lives and into the world. Mother Teresa certainly believed this, which is why she once said, “I wish to live in this world that is so far from God, which has turned so much from the light of Jesus, to help them—to take upon myself something of their suffering.”

This means that Mother Teresa helped the sick and the dying not only by her kind words and physical care, but also by how she dealt with her own unique interior struggle—her spiritual darkness.

Some have said in recent weeks that these revelations about Mother Teresa’s inner life make her less of a saint—less of an example and inspiration to the rest of us.

Well those people—like the people at Time Magazine—are wrong!

In reality, all of this makes her even more of an inspiration and more of an example! Now no one can say, “Well of course Mother Teresa always had a smile on her face, of course she was kind and charitable—after all she lived in the clouds! She was so close to Jesus that she probably felt his presence with her every day! It must have been so easy for her. But my life isn’t like that; my life is filled with struggles.”

Well now we know—so was hers! She was not exempt from temptation; she was not exempt from having her faith tested—in a big way! Like every believer, she had to “fight the fight”.

But she won! That’s the key point and the bottom line. Even in the midst of her feelings of isolation and abandonment and emptiness, she emerged victorious by consistently doing God’s will with love.

And if she can win her fight of faith, then we can win ours!

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.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Has the Catholic Church Ever Officially Endorsed Human Slavery?

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (C): This homily was given on September 9, 2007 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon.)

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

In an article he wrote a few years ago, Catholic author Mark Brumley tells of an experience he had back in college, during a European History class. The professor, who was a fallen-away Catholic, stated during his lecture that the Catholic Church had supported human slavery at various points in her history. When one of Brumley’s classmates challenged the professor’s statement and tried to defend the Church, the teacher responded by saying, “I'd like to buy your argument, but the facts are other than you assert. How is it that Catholic countries such as Spain and Portugal promoted the slave trade in America, if, as you claim, the Catholic Church actually brought the end of slavery? How do you explain certain bishops of the American South defending the practice?"

Unfortunately, the student wasn’t able to defend his position, and, as Brumley said in his article, “the Catholics left that undergraduate history class thoroughly trounced.”

Now you know why some young people lose their faith in college! It’s because of conversations like that which take place in college classrooms in this country every day.

If that student had heard this homily prior to his encounter with that professor, he would have known the truth. Then he would have been able to say to his teacher, “With all due respect, Mr. Professor, you’re wrong! The Catholic Church has never officially endorsed the practice of human slavery! Quite oppositely, many popes—including Eugene IV and Paul III who lived at the time when the slave trade was in high gear—have vigorously condemned it. So does the contemporary Catechism of the Catholic Church condemn it—in paragraph 2414, to be exact! Now, have some individual Catholics over the years been silent in the face of slavery and other injustices? Of course! But, lest we forget, many atheists and people of other religions have also been silent. Have some baptized Catholic kings and rulers supported slavery during the last 20 centuries? Of course! Have some Catholic clerics—including some members of the Catholic hierarchy in the pre-Civil War years—also been in favor of the practice? Of course! But why should any of this surprise us? In every generation there are Catholics who personally support things that the Church officially condemns! Today, for example, there are Catholic lay people—and even Catholic priests—who support abortion and contraception and same-sex marriage and many other sinful behaviors. Catholics of the past who supported or who were involved in the slave industry were like just like these dissenting Catholics in the modern Church: they were Catholic in name only, not in what they taught and stood for!

That’s what the student should have said.

I should mention at this point that I’m speaking in my homily this morning about the kind of slavery where human persons are deprived of their rights and forced into service and treated like property. I’m not talking about the practice of keeping criminals or prisoners of war in jail (some people classify that as slavery, but it’s really something different); nor am I talking about voluntary servitude, which has existed in various cultures during the last 2,000 years.

That also is something different.

All of this should help us to put today’s second reading in proper perspective. This passage is taken from the Letter of St. Paul to Philemon, and it deals directly with the issue of slavery. The entire letter, incidentally, is only 25 verses long (that’s verses, not chapters!). So I highly encourage you to go home and read the whole thing. If you’re a fast reader, it will take you about 1 minute (maybe less!); if you’re a slow reader, it will take you no more than 2 minutes.

So please don’t say that you don’t have time!

The letter is directed to a wealthy Colossian man named Philemon, who had become a believer in Christ through Paul’s missionary efforts. He was also a slave owner, like many other wealthy men of his time. Lest we forget, in the first century world slavery was pretty much a universal phenomenon. No doubt Philemon had owned slaves long before his conversion to Christ. In Colossians 4 and in Ephesians 6 Paul tells masters to treat their slaves with fairness and with kindness (which, believe it or not, was a radical idea for the time!), so hopefully Philemon treated his slaves with greater respect after his conversion. But nonetheless he did own them.

One of these slaves was a young man named Onesimus. Well at some point prior to the writing of this letter, Onesimus had escaped from Philemon—and he had taken some of his master’s “stuff” in the process! That made Onesimus a thief as well as a runaway slave.

But then he met St. Paul, who happily converted him to Christ. (Paul at the time was in prison.) The apostle then sent Onesimus back to Philemon; he sent the runaway slave back to his master—along with this letter.

Does this mean that St. Paul approved of slavery?

Not at all! In fact, it’s quite clear from what he says in this letter that he opposed it. But Christians like Paul found themselves in a difficult position. Remember, in the first century, Christians were members of a religion that was illegal in the Roman Empire; consequently they had no power to change existing laws regarding slavery (or anything else for that matter!). They were forced to tolerate the legal situation as it was, while at the same time trying to change people’s minds and hearts. It’s similar to the way pro-life Americans have to approach “life issues” today: we are forced to tolerate the unjust laws of our land that allow the killing of the innocent, while at the same time trying to change people’s minds and hearts—so that someday in the future every innocent human life will be respected in our nation from conception until natural death.

And the sad reality is there are still some minds and hearts that need to be changed on the issue of slavery. This is definitely not just a topic from the far distant past. Slavery still exists in our world—as well as in our own nation! We just call it by different names nowadays, such as “human trafficking”. Listen to this quote that I came across on a government web site last week: “According to U.S. government estimates, about 800,000 to 900,000 men, women and children are trafficked each year across international borders worldwide for sex and other purposes; approximately 18,000 to 20,000 of those victims are trafficked into the United States itself.”

Slavery by any other name is still slavery—and it’s still wrong.

That message is implicit in the letter of Paul to Philemon. In effect, the apostle says to the Christian slave owner, “Look, I could order you to do the right thing here and free Onesimus, since I’m your spiritual father: I’m the one who brought you to Christ. But I’m not going to do that. I want you to do the right thing of your own free will. I want you to choose to act virtuously here. So I’m honoring the law of the Roman Empire—unjust though it might be—and I’m sending Onesimus back to you. But please understand that after he escaped from your service, I brought him to the faith. He’s also my spiritual child now. And if he’s my spiritual child and you’re my spiritual child that makes the two of you brothers: brothers in the Lord. So I ask you to receive him back as your brother and not as your slave. And if he owes you anything because of what he stole, charge it to me. As his father and as his friend, I’ll be more than happy to pay his bill.”

A great Catholic writer once said, “I don’t want a Church that’s right when the world is right; I want a Church that’s right when the world is wrong.”

The Church was right about the evils of slavery from the earliest days of her existence. The Church was right about slavery when the rest of the world was wrong about it.

Take that thought with you today. And if you’re a student, make sure you take it with you to college when you go. It’s one of the thoughts that can keep you from losing your faith.