Sunday, March 23, 2008

How to Keep Your Smile

Hurricane Katrina

(Easter 2008: This homily was given on March 23, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Romans 6: 3-11; John 20: 1-9.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Easter 2008]

Most high school students think of themselves when they’re on vacation. But last month I’m happy to say that one of our parishioners, Brian Strafach, spent his week off from Prout thinking of others. During his winter break in February he volunteered to take a trip to Louisiana, to help in the rebuilding efforts that are continuing to go on there in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
When he came back from his trip he told me this story . . .
Not long after the hurricane hit, a rescue worker who had just returned from his second tour of duty in Iraq, was walking through one of the devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans. An old man saw him, came out of his house and asked for help. He said, “I need someone to be my hero. You see, I’ve lost my dentures. I’m trying to find them in my house, but it’s full of mud from the storm. Will you help me?”
The rescue worker said, “Of course, sir,” and the two went inside. Well, they looked—and looked—and looked—and finally—amazingly—they managed to find his false teeth.
Needless to say, the old man was ecstatic—and extremely grateful. He said to the worker, “Thank you so much. You really are my hero. You know, Katrina may have taken everything else from me, but she didn’t take my smile!
As time goes on, my brothers and sisters, life “takes” many things from all of us. (That’s true even if we never have to deal with a terrible hurricane like Katrina.)
“Life” takes our youth; it takes our good health, sooner or later; it takes our physical and sometimes even our mental abilities. It can take away our possessions (as was the case for that old man in New Orleans); it can take away our freedom; it can take away our popularity (just ask a pro athlete who’s past his prime—the public acclaim he once reveled in isn’t there anymore). And, of course, life also takes many of our friends and family members through physical separation and eventually through bodily death.
And because of all this, life can very easily take away our smile (that is to say, it can take away our hope).
But, as the story I just told indicates, it doesn’t have to!
On that note, one of the things that really impressed Brian Strafach on his trip to New Orleans was the depth of faith he found among many of the people there—people from whom life has already taken a great deal. He said this about the family whose house he worked on (imagine, Katrina hit in August of 2005—that means this family has been without their own home for 2 and a half years!): “They [don’t dwell] on the past, and they say that all of their strength and hope comes from their strong belief in God.”
Life can take a lot from us, but it will not take our smile—it will not take our hope—if our faith is strong. But our faith needs to be in a god who is alive—in a god who has overcome all the negative forces of this life, including sin and death!
And there’s only one god who has done that. He’s the real God, the true God, the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead on the very first Easter Sunday 2,000 years ago!
And our faith in this risen God needs to be nourished on a daily basis, if it’s going to give us real hope! It can’t be once a year on Easter Sunday; it can’t be twice a year on Easter Sunday and Christmas; it can’t even be once a week at Sunday Mass (although being nourished in faith at least once a week with God’s Word and the Holy Eucharist at Mass is a necessary part of the process!).
Our faith needs to be strengthened daily, simply because life takes things from us daily! Have you seen the commercial where a man parks his nice, new, red sports car on a quiet city street? (This makes the point quite well, I think.) He pulls into the parking space, gets out of the car, locks the doors, and walks away. Two seconds after he leaves a rock hits the front window; then several young boys smash into the side door while playing street hockey; then a manhole cover gets blasted into the air and crashes onto the hood; then a truck backs into the rear end; then lightening strikes a nearby tree and the tree falls on the roof.
It all happens in the span of a 30-second commercial. At the end of it the announcer says, “Life comes at you fast!—be ready with Nationwide.”
He could have said, “Life takes from you fast,” and the meaning would have been the same. Yes, it can take your brand new car in 30 seconds! Actually, it can take your brand new car in less than one second, as you know from experience if you’ve ever been in an accident where your car’s been totaled.
But it can also take from us in much more serious ways. There’s a man in our parish, in his late 40s, who was the picture of health two short months ago. He literally—and I mean literally—could go out and run 10 miles with ease. And he often did. Then his back began to bother him. That’s all it was—just a backache. Well, after a few visits to the doctor and several tests he was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer.
Life takes—and it often takes quickly.
And if we’re not careful it can even take our faith, in the process of taking our health and other things! We all know people who have lost their faith in the midst of the trials of life. And when you lose your faith—specifically your faith in the risen Christ—you quite naturally lose your hope. Those two theological virtues are closely tied together.
I’ll say it one more time: This is why nourishing our faith each and every day is crucial; this is why our relationship with the risen Christ needs to be the most important relationship we have in this life. If our life isn’t built on the pillars of prayer, Mass, Confession and the Scriptures—all of which keep our relationship with Jesus strong—then it can all fall apart very quickly.
And at some point it probably will.
I’ll give the final word today to the late, great Fulton Sheen. Bishop Sheen, aside from being a university professor and television personality, was also the head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for many years. The Society for the Propagation of the Faith is an association that raises money to support the work of Catholic missionaries throughout the world. As head of the Society, Bishop Sheen would often visit the poorest of the poor in third world countries. That means that he met many, many people from whom life had taken a great deal. Listen now to his description of one of them:
“In the course of my life I have dealt with all kinds of people, with those who have been sinners and returned to the Lord and suffered much and had an indescribable joy. One of the most joyful figures I ever met in my life was a leper woman in Jamaica. She had lost her arms and half of her legs, but she was always smiling and happy and saying, ‘There’s going to be a resurrection [someday], and then I will have a [new], glorified body.’”
On the natural level, life had robbed this woman of almost everything. But it did not rob her of her faith in the risen Christ—or her hope of sharing in his resurrection after death.
She had her faith; she had her hope; and so she always had her smile.
May it be that way for all of us.