Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why Jesus Ate The Fish

(Third Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on April 26, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Luke 24: 35-48.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Easter 2009]

Was Jesus hungry? Is that why he ate this piece of baked fish in the presence of his disciples?

We get hungry and need physical food because our earthly bodies are NOT immortal. If we don’t eat for an extended period of time, we die.

But the Scriptures make it clear that the risen body of Jesus was qualitatively different from ours. After his resurrection, for example, Jesus could walk through walls; he could appear in an instant, and could vanish just as quickly—as he did with the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus. And, most importantly, after he rose from the dead Jesus could not be killed, because his body was no longer subject to those forces that lead to death. In other words, he was what we would call “immortal”! Romans 6:9 puts it this way: “We know that Christ, once raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him.”

So he couldn’t possibly have been hungry.

Then why the meal?

The answer is that he ate for us! He ate for our benefit—and for the benefit of Peter, James, John, and the other disciples who were gathered with them that day, presumably in the upper room.

He ate to make it clear to all of us that he had a real—though resurrected—body. He ate to prove to all of us that he wasn’t a ghost or a mirage—which is precisely what some of his apostles were thinking at the time! That’s why Jesus said to them here, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.”

On that note, Bishop Sheen once pointed out that there’s a certain irony about the resurrection stories in the New Testament. The irony is that the apostles were the biggest skeptics of all! The apostles, who were supposed to be Jesus’ most faithful and devoted followers, had the most difficulty believing that he was alive. The Jewish religious leaders, on the other hand, who said they didn’t believe in Jesus and his teachings, actually stationed guards at the Lord’s tomb—as if they thought something extraordinary might happen!

It took a number of appearances, in a number of different settings, to lots of different people, before the apostles were convinced that the Lord really did rise from the dead in his human body on Easter Sunday.

But once they were convinced, they were willing to die for what they believed!

What would those apostles think of Christians today who hide their faith under a bushel basket?

What would they think about a Catholic university that covers up a monogram referring to Jesus Christ just because some politicians don’t want it on camera?

Most of you know what I’m referring to, I’m sure. Last week President Barack Obama gave a speech on the economy at Georgetown University, and the White House staff asked the school administration to cover up the monogram in back of the presidential podium in preparation for the talk.

The monogram had three familiar letters on it. They’re actually Greek letters, but they look like the English letters IHS.

These are the first 3 letters of Jesus’ name in Greek, which form an ancient and well-known symbol of our Lord and Savior.

Can you imagine how Peter, James and John would have responded to this request from the White House?

I can: “With all due respect, sirs, this is a Roman Catholic institution of higher learning. We live our faith, we don’t hide it. We love everyone; we respect everyone from the moment of their conception until the moment of their natural death—because we believe they’re created in the image and likeness of Almighty God. All we ask is that you treat us the same way. All we ask you to do is respect us and our beliefs. So no, we will not cover up that monogram on the back wall. We will not deny our Savior and Lord in that way. We hope this meets with your approval. If not, there are other state run schools in the near vicinity where the president can make his speech. And if those are unacceptable, there’s always the local street corner. It’s public property, so you can put anything you want in back of the presidential podium. No one will stop you.”

That’s how the courageous apostles would have responded. As for the spineless, gutless Jesuits who run Georgetown University at the present time, they put up a big, black piece of plywood and covered over the symbol.

To which I say, “Matthew 10: 33.”

In case you don’t have your Bibles with you, that line reads, “[Jesus said,] ‘If you deny me before men, I will deny you before my heavenly Father.’”

We live in a society right now in which the cultural elites do not respect Catholics and most other Christians.

But who can blame them?!!!

Why should they respect us, when we don’t have the self-respect to be true to what we say we believe? Why should they respect us, when even priests do imitations of Pontius Pilate and wash their hands of Jesus whenever it’s inconvenient to be faithful to him? The Georgetown fiasco and the Notre Dame fiasco (which I won’t get into today) are just the two latest and most noteworthy examples of a sad trend that’s found everywhere, among clergy and laity alike.

So today, ask yourself this question, and try to answer it as honestly as you can. It’s an old question that you’ve probably heard before, but it fits in perfectly with the theme of his homily:

If I were on trial for being a Catholic Christian, would there be enough evidence—enough visible, public evidence—to convict me?

If you’re as convinced as the apostles were that Jesus Christ is risen and alive, then there would be plenty of evidence to keep you behind bars for a very long time.

And that, in this case at least, is a very good thing.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Three ‘Defects’ Of Merciful Jesus

(Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday, Year B): This homily was given on April 19, 2009, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 20: 19-31.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Divine Mercy Sunday 2009]

Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan was a Catholic bishop in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), who was imprisoned for his faith back in 1975 by the Communist government of Vietnam. He spent the next thirteen years of his life in jail, nine of them in complete isolation. He survived the horrors of that experience through prayer, and by secretly saying Mass whenever he could with a small piece of bread and a few drops of wine.

When he was finally expelled from Vietnam in 1991, he went to Rome, where he served in the Roman Curia under Pope John Paul II. He was made a Cardinal in 2001, the year before he died.

In 2000, the Jubilee Year, the Holy Father asked then-Archbishop Van Thuan to preach the spiritual exercises to him and to the members of the Curia. These talks were later published in a book entitled, “Testimony of Hope,” which I read not long ago. I mention this today because in the second talk of the series, Archbishop Van Thuan makes a very shocking statement—although, properly understood, it’s also a very meaningful statement, which can help us to better understand the incredible mercy of God on this Divine Mercy Sunday. Here are his words: “I left everything to follow Jesus, because I love the defects of Jesus.”

I left everything to follow Jesus, because I love the defects of Jesus.

Now we all know that Jesus Christ was sinless (that’s a clear teaching of the Bible and our Catholic faith), so does saying this make Archbishop Van Thuan a heretic?

No—although admittedly the statement does make him sound like one.

And he admits that. But then he goes on in the talk to clarify the meaning of his words. And he does that by giving several examples: several examples of “defects” that he has found in Jesus Christ—none of which, by the way, says or even implies that Jesus ever sinned.

I will mention three of them in this homily.

Defect #1 according to Archbishop Van Thuan: Jesus has a terrible memory. In other words, the Lord not only forgives, he also “forgets” our sins whenever we approach him with sincere repentance in our hearts. The gospels, of course, are full of examples of this phenomenon: the good thief; the woman caught in adultery; the prodigal son; Simon Peter; Saul of Tarsus—and on and on the list goes.

Now let me make one qualification here. When we say that Jesus “forgets” our sins, it doesn’t mean that he no longer knows what we did. Jesus is God, and God knows everything: past, present and future.

“Forgetting,” biblically speaking, means that the sin we’ve committed—and repented of—and been forgiven for—no longer comes between us and God.


God makes sure of it.

He still knows that we did it, but it’s now “over there, out of sight,” so to speak—and that’s where it stays. This, of course, is different from the way we sometimes deal with one another, isn’t it? Because of the fact that we’re weak and imperfect, we might forgive someone and put their sin “over there, out of sight” for a period of time, but then—if they hurt us again—we might bring that old sin back up and throw it in their face:

“You’re at it again! I knew you hadn’t really changed. I remember what you did to me all those years ago! You’re the same rotten person now that you were back then!”

Today on this Mercy Sunday we should say, “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for your terrible memory. Help us to be better at following your example.”

The second defect of Jesus which Archbishop Van Thuan mentions in his talk is that Jesus doesn’t know math. Now let’s be clear about it, this is not an excuse for the children in the congregation to avoid doing their math homework: “But mom and dad, even Jesus was bad in math!”

Sorry, boys and girls, that’s not gonna fly with mom or dad or your math teacher in school—because “schoolbook math” is not what the archbishop is talking about here.

He’s talking about “soul-math”. The point he’s making is that to Jesus Christ each human soul is equally precious and valuable. This explains the famous parable of the lost sheep, where Jesus talks about a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine of his sheep in the wilderness to go search for the one that’s lost. As the archbishop puts it, “For Jesus, one is equal to ninety-nine—and perhaps more!”

That should be a consoling thought, because if we’re not the “one” right now, we easily could be at some point in the future. All it takes is one bad, mortally-sinful choice.

It’s good to know that the mercy of Jesus is always there for us, no matter what we’ve done.

This brings us to the third defect of Jesus according to Archbishop Van Thuan: He doesn’t know logic. Here the archbishop makes reference to the parable about the woman with the ten silver pieces who loses one of them. When she finally finds it, the Bible says she calls her friends and neighbors over for a party, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, because I have found the silver piece that I lost.”

In commenting on this story, the archbishop states, “This is truly illogical—to disturb your friends over one silver piece and then to plan a feast to celebrate the find.”

It’s not humanly logical, that’s true, but it is what you might call “divinely logical.” It’s the same kind of logic that motivated the good shepherd to go look for his lost sheep. So it shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus ends the parable of the ten silver pieces with almost the exact same words that he used at the end of the parable of the lost sheep: “Just so, I tell you, there is more joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Thank you, Jesus, for the mercy that flows from your “divine logic”—mercy which is available to every repentant human person.

Mercy that was experienced by Thomas the apostle on the Sunday after Easter. We heard about that a few moments ago in our gospel reading from John 20.

In fact, you could make a very good case that the only reason Jesus made this appearance in the upper room seven days after his resurrection was to “find” Thomas, his lost sheep who didn’t believe that he had risen from the dead.

He didn’t need to appear to the other ten, since they already were convinced that he was alive.
For Thomas, it had to be a very unsettling experience. Can you imagine how he felt putting his fingers in the nail holes and his hand into Jesus’ side?

But once he had been forgiven for his unbelief, it was over.

Thomas probably remembered his sin vividly for the rest of his life (for obvious reasons!), but the Lord completely forgot about it, in the sense that he never allowed it to come between him and Thomas again.

Thomas repented of his sin, renewed his faith, and in the process he brought out the beautiful “defects” of Jesus and experienced his mercy. We do the same thing whenever we are truly sorry for our sins and make a good confession. We allow Jesus Christ to be for us what he was for Thomas and what he wants to be for everyone: an illogical, terribly forgetful, mathematically-challenged dispenser of divine mercy.

Please remember that, especially if you haven’t confessed your sins in a long time—or if you’ve neglected to confess some serious sins in the past that you know you need to confess.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Cross—And The Joy—Of The Priesthood

(Holy Thursday 2009: This homily was given on April 9, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 13: 1-15.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2009]

One day a woman decided to go to Confession. She had been away from the sacraments for 30 years. She entered the Reconciliation Room, made the Sign of the Cross and said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned; it’s been 30 years since my last Confession.” The priest, who obviously had gotten up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, immediately started to reprimand her for being so lax about her faith. After two or three minutes of this he said, “And why have you stayed away from the Church for 30 years?”

The woman replied, “Because, Father, 30 years ago I met a priest just like you.”


On this and every Holy Thursday we commemorate the anniversary of the institution of the Holy Eucharist by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. We also celebrate the anniversary of the institution of the ministerial priesthood. When Jesus said to his apostles, “Do this in memory of me,” he implicitly gave them the power to fulfill that command. It was, in effect, the moment of their ordination.

But as we reflect on the glory and the gift of the priesthood tonight, it is important for us to remember that “priests are people too” (in case you weren’t already aware of that!). We all have our strengths; we all have our weaknesses—and we all have our sins, as that story I just told makes clear.

But in spite of those weaknesses and sins, God uses us to bring his saving grace to people in word and in sacrament. Through us sanctifying grace is infused into souls by Baptism; through us forgiveness is given to men and women in Confession; through us spiritual and sometimes physical healing comes in the Anointing of the Sick; through us the Eucharist is consecrated (remember, no priest, no Eucharist!); and through us the Gospel is proclaimed so that people will know the truth that can set them free.

But, as St. Paul reminds all priests (as well as all lay people) in 2 Corinthians 4, we hold the treasure God has given us “in earthen vessels.”

Which is part and parcel of the cross of the priesthood. This is something many lay people probably do not understand, but every priest does—experientially!

Yet this really shouldn’t surprise anyone—especially those of us who are ordained—since it parallels to some extent what Jesus Christ experienced as the Great High Priest.

Let me explain.

In one of his meditations on the passion and death of Jesus, Bishop Sheen made a very interesting observation. He rightly noted that before Jesus died he went through two trials: one was a religious trial before the Jewish religious authorities, the other was a civil trial before Pontius Pilate and the Romans. In the religious trial, Jesus was accused of blasphemy for claiming to be equal to God the Father (which, of course, he was); in the civil trial, he was falsely accused of being a closet revolutionary, and a direct threat to the Roman Emperor, Caesar. As Sheen put it, to the Jews Jesus was too divine for claiming equality with his Heavenly Father, and he was too human for the Romans who considered him a potential rival to Caesar.

And because of that, he was condemned to die on the cross.

Now we ministerial priests—who are blessed to share in a unique and special way in the priesthood of Jesus Christ—are definitely not divine like Jesus was.

But sometimes people treat us like we are! They put us on a pedestal that, quite frankly, we don’t belong on! And while it may thrill some priests to be treated in this way, for most of us it’s actually part of our daily cross—because we know who we really are, and we know what we’re really like; and we know that there is no way that we can possibly live up to the unrealistic expectations that go along with being God-like!

Here, by the way, I’m talking about good, faithful priests who are living good and decent lives. I’m not talking about the bad guys!

And besides all that, when people think of you as almost-divine they don’t pray for you, since they don’t think you need prayers! This only adds to your priestly cross, since you receive fewer graces from God than you otherwise would receive if these men and women did intercede on your behalf.

So for some, we’re too “divine.” But for others, who are at the opposite end of the spectrum, we’re much too human (in the worst possible sense of that term). We’re looked at by them with distrust and suspicion—and sometimes with downright hatred. Some of this is certainly fallout from the scandals of 2002, but to a certain extent it’s always been true. We priests, after all, are a little bit “different” from everyone else. We wear strange clothes, and live in mysterious houses, and we don’t get married and have natural families like “normal” men do.

We’re too “divine” in the minds of some; we’re too “human” in the minds of others—and those contradictions lead us to our cross, as similar contradictions led Jesus Christ to his.

And yet, most priests wouldn’t trade their cross for any other—which might surprise some of you! In fact, when Fr. Stephen Rossetti surveyed 834 priests after the scandals of 2002, he found that 92% of them either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” An LA Times poll of 1,854 priests yielded a similar result: 91% said they were satisfied with the “way [their] life as a priest [was] going,” and 90% said they would do it all over again. If they could turn back the hands of time, they would choose once more to respond to God’s grace and serve the Lord in the priesthood.

I think that’s because the glory of the mission keeps us inspired and going, when opposition and trials and our own human weaknesses would otherwise cause us to give up.
I remember Cardinal Humberto Medeiros of Boston coming to talk to the students and faculty of St. John’s Seminary not long after I first arrived there in the fall of 1982. And I remember him saying how much he loved being a priest, and what a great honor and privilege it was for him to be able to speak about Jesus Christ every day to large groups of people, and to nourish them with the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments.

Here was a man who carried a very heavy cross as archbishop of Boston, telling us it was all worth it!

I never forgot his words.

So always pray for your priests. Pray that we will be joyful and persevering in carrying our priestly cross, especially when people think we’re better than we are, or when people look at us with suspicion and distrust and perhaps even hatred. Pray that, like Cardinal Mederios, we will serve the people of God faithfully—asJesus served his apostles in today’s gospel by washing their feet. And pray that, like the good Cardinal, we will never lose sight of the glorious mission God has given us to bring him to people and to bring people to him.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Palm Branches: Our ‘Smoking Guns’

(Palm Sunday (B): This homily was given on April 5, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Philippians 2: 6-11.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Palm Sunday 2009]

The following three news items, believe it or not, are all true:
  • Police in Minnesota went to arrest Grayson Clevenger on a burglary charge in July of last year. When they arrived at his house, they spotted someone matching his description driving away in a stolen Dodge Durango. The detectives tried calling Grayson, who answered his cell phone by saying, “Dude, I can’t talk; I’m being chased by the police.” He then hung up. Guess who got arrested shortly thereafter—on 2 charges, burglary AND theft?
  • A Chicago man walked into a bank and handed the teller a robber’s note. The note read, “Be quick. Give me your cash or I’ll shoot.
    The only problem was that the man had written the note on the back of his pay stub, which also had his name and address on it! He walked out of the bank with $400. If convicted, he’ll get 20 years in jail.
  • A man tried to rob a Village Pantry convenience store in Indiana. He demanded money and cigarettes. However, when he was getting ready to leave the store, he accidentally shot himself in the leg as he was putting his gun back into the waistband of his pants! The surveillance camera in the store filmed the whole thing. A short time later, the police found the guilty man at his home. As you might imagine, he was pretty easy to identify!
When legal experts speak of a “smoking gun,” they’re referring to something that provides indisputable evidence of a person’s guilt. Those 3 stories I just shared with you all contain smoking guns of one sort or another. (I found them, incidentally, in an article entitled, “The Top 10 Dumbest Criminals of 2008.” The title certainly fits!)

When you came into church today, you all picked up a piece of palm and carried it with you into your pew. Now you probably didn’t realize it at the time, but spiritually speaking, you were actually carrying with you a big “smoking gun”. Think, for a moment, of the people who spread palms on the ground in front of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago, as he entered the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast of Passover. On that first Palm Sunday, these men and women were shouting, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But on Friday of that same week—a mere 5 days later—most of those same people were shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

These palms remind us that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and redemption, just as they were sinners 2,000 years ago in need of forgiveness and redemption. They are a smoking gun that we hold in our hands, testifying to our guilt.

Of course, there’s another dimension to all this that needs to be mentioned here. In the ancient world, palms were a special sign of victory. Palm branches were given, for example, to winners of athletic contests. And so these palms that we hold today, which do remind us of our many sins, also point us to the victory that Jesus Christ won for us by his passion, death, and resurrection.

So they’re a twofold sign—negative, and at the same time positive.

Today the Church invites us to walk with Jesus through this upcoming Holy Week. We begin this morning with our smoking gun; we end next Sunday with his victory. In between, we are challenged to reflect on the love which led him (as we heard in today’s second reading) to “empty himself” and “humble himself” and “become obedient unto death.”

What are you planning to do this week to make Holy Week “holy” for you? What opportunities will you take advantage of to reflect on the Lord’s mercy and love? We have morning Mass here Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 7am; we have adoration all day on Tuesday; we have Stations of the Cross at 6:05 on Tuesday after Benediction. We have morning prayer Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the regular Mass times. And most importantly we have the Liturgies of the Triduum: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at 7pm on Thursday with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the church hall until 11pm. On Friday we have the celebration of the Lord’s Passion at 7pm, and Stations twice: once outside at noon (weather permitting), and then at 3pm here in church. And finally, there’s the first Mass of Easter—the Easter Vigil Liturgy—at 7:30 on Holy Saturday.

I would encourage you to make every effort to put Jesus first this Holy Week by participating in as many of these prayer experiences as you can; it will help you to put him first during the rest of the year.

And this is something we all need to do: put Jesus first always. You know, if there’s one thing this economic crisis is teaching us it’s that we are foolish if we put our ultimate hope in the things of this world. As many of us have discovered, with a few bad days on Wall St., it can all go “poof”!

What should matter most to us is our relationship with God, because, as my mother used to say, “At the end of your life, when all is said and done and you get to that final moment, it will come down to you and Jesus. Period.”

And I don’t know about you, but when that moment comes for me, I want Jesus Christ to take the smoking gun of my guilt out of my hand and to give me a crown—not a crown of palm, but a crown of pure gold that will last forever.