Sunday, May 24, 2009

How To Make Better Choices

St. Matthias
(Seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on May 24, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 1: 15-26.)

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

Two men.

Two disciples.

Two men who had been disciples from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Two witnesses to the resurrection.

Two great candidates to replace Judas . . .

But only ONE office that needed to be filled!

That means a choice—a very important choice—had to be made.

And it was made, as we heard a few moments ago in our first reading: Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as a member of the Twelve.

I mention this today because all of us face important decisions like this in our lives: the choice, for example, of where to live; the choice of where to work; the choice of what college or technical school to attend; the choice of whether to get married, or remain single, or enter the priesthood or religious life.

The list goes on and on.

How do you make decisions on matters like these? What steps do you follow in your discernment process? What principles guide you in your attempt to make the right choice?

Here, I think, we can learn some very important lessons from these 11 apostles and how they finally picked Matthias. Their experience in picking a replacement for Judas can help us to become better decision-makers ourselves.

Let me briefly share these lessons with you now . . .

Lesson #1 that we learn from the apostles here: When making an important decision in life, know what you’re looking for. In other words, make sure you have the right set of criteria in place.

Notice that Peter and the other ten apostles knew exactly what they were looking for in Judas’ replacement. He had to be all those things I mentioned at the beginning: he had to be a man; he had to be a disciple; he had to be a disciple from the beginning of our Lord’s earthly ministry (that is to say, for the previous 3 years); and he had to be a witness to the resurrection in the same way that Peter and the others were.

Those criteria were firmly set in place before they ever started to evaluate individual candidates. They knew the kind of person they were looking for; they knew the kind of person they should be looking for.

What I have found in my priestly ministry, is that many people make decisions—especially moral decisions—without putting the right set of criteria in place beforehand, and that sometimes leads them to choose courses of action that are morally evil and disastrous for their lives.

For instance, when a teenage girl discovers she’s pregnant, she basically has three options: she can raise the child herself; she can give the child up for adoption; or she can have an abortion.

But if she wants to make the morally correct decision in that situation, she needs to put the right set of criteria in place before she starts her deliberating! And her first criterion should be that she will only choose a course of action that will respect the innocent life in her womb! That, of course, immediately eliminates abortion as one of the possibilities! Now she’s down to two. And if a second criterion is that the child be well provided for financially, that may narrow down the options to one, namely, adoption.

Another example that doesn’t get mentioned too often in homilies is the problem of infertility. It’s terribly sad when couples who want children of their own are physically unable to have them. But here, once again, there’s a need to put the right criteria in place before a decision is made on how to deal with the situation.

The Church teaches that infertility treatments which assist the marital act in bearing fruit are morally acceptable in most instances (this includes, but is not limited to, infertility drugs), whereas infertility treatments that replace the marital act (like in vitro fertilization and surrogate parenthood) are not morally acceptable. So obviously, when Catholic couples are faced with this difficulty in their marriages, they should resolve to pursue only morally acceptable solutions.

That should be the first criterion they set up for themselves in the decision making process.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always—but it ought to be.

And then, there’s prayer. They say nothing truly good happens without it. Prayer is lesson #2.

Notice that before the apostles made their decision about Judas’ replacement, they spent some time in prayer, realizing that God already knew who the replacement should be.

How often do you seek wisdom and insight directly from the Lord before making a life-changing decision?—“Lord, what do you want me to do with the rest of my life?” “Lord, what school do you want me to attend?” “Lord, how do you want me to handle this difficulty?”

If we believe that God knows everything, then he knows the answers to questions like these long before we do. The key is to pray, and then to learn to listen for God’s response.

We must remember, too, that sometimes God speaks through other human beings, as he did through Peter in this scene from Acts 1. In fact, I’m sure that there was a good bit of discussion among all 11 apostles before Matthias and Barsabbas were nominated and the lots drawn.

Lesson #3 follows from this: Before you make a big decision, talk about it with wise people who can give you good advice. On that note, Bishop Sheen always said that there are only two groups of people we should seek counsel from in our lives: those who have suffered a lot, and those who are holy.

I think that’s very good counsel—from a very holy bishop.

When making an important decision it’s also essential for us to put aside our own feelings and personal preferences, so that we can discern the perfect will of God. That’s another little lesson we can glean from this story. You know, there might have been several other great candidates for the position of apostle, who had become followers of Jesus after the resurrection. And perhaps Peter and some of the others would have preferred that one of them replace Judas.

But Peter and those others didn’t let their own feelings get in the way. They knew that wasn’t what God wanted. The apostles were the foundation stones of the Church, and those stones needed to be there from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

When we’re making an important decision like this, it’s very hard not to let personal feelings get in the way of objectivity. But we have to try—lest we make a foolish or hasty choice.

And finally, we can ask for a sign like the apostles did to confirm our decision, if we’re so inclined. Although we need to be very careful about this (that’s why I mention it last).

It’s been my experience that people can see “signs from heaven” where there really aren’t any signs from heaven: “Oh, Fr. Ray, I was thinking about so-and-so because I really like him a lot, and at that exact moment he called me on the phone! I think that’s a sign that I’m supposed to marry him!”

Wooah, now! Wait a minute here. That’s reading a bit too much into the situation, I think.

A good rule of thumb is: If you believe you’ve seen a sign from the Lord, check it out with several of those wise people I mentioned earlier. And only act on it if it’s confirmed a number of times.

When the apostles finally ordained Matthias and made him Judas’ replacement, they were extremely confident that they had taken all the steps necessary to make the right choice.

May God help us to follow their example and make better choices—better decisions—in our own lives.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ordinary and Extraordinary Signs “That Will Accompany Those Who Believe”

(Ascension Thursday 2009: This homily was given on May 21, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Mark 16: 15-20.)

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

It’s a pretty impressive list, isn’t it?

I’m talking about the one Jesus gives us in today’s gospel: this list of signs “that will accompany those who believe.”

  • Driving out demons
  • Speaking new languages
  • Picking up serpents (he doesn’t mean garter snakes either!)
  • Drinking deadly poison
  • Healing the sick through the laying on of hands

I’ve done a few of those things, and so have many other Christians in the 2.000 year history of the Church. They are extraordinary signs of the continuing presence of Jesus Christ in our world. They remind us that, even though our Lord ascended into heaven on the first Ascension Thursday in 33 A.D., in a certain sense he never left the earth. His presence continues among us in the sacraments, in the Sacred Scriptures, and in extraordinary signs like these that are mentioned in Mark 16.

But it would be wrong for us to confine the presence of Jesus only to the Bible, the sacraments, and incredible events like healing the sick and picking up deadly snakes. The fact is, there are many other signs of Jesus’ presence in our world today that are just as noteworthy, although much more “ordinary”.

Here’s a partial list of those signs, which also “accompany those who believe”:

  • Walking away from a really big temptation by relying on your faith in Jesus. (That can be every bit as impressive as driving out a demon or healing the sick, if the temptation is severe.)
  • Forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply, even though the other person doesn’t repent and never says they’re sorry. (It takes a special divine grace to do something like that.)
  • Holding your tongue when you’d really like to tell someone off, but know you shouldn’t. “Dear Jesus, help me not to say what I feel like saying right now!”
  • Speaking up when you know you should (for example, to correct an injustice at work), even though you’d much rather be quiet and say nothing. “Dear Jesus, give me courage—and the right words.”
  • Being kind and respectful to someone who is continually unkind to you and has no intention of changing. (It takes a special internal power to do that.)
  • Persevering in fulfilling your family responsibilities by tapping into God’s power through prayer, when deep down inside you feel like giving up. (That perseverance is a sign to others and to the world that Jesus Christ is present with you and within you.)

All these things I just mentioned are relatively “ordinary,” compared to driving out demons, drinking deadly poison, and healing the sick; and yet, they’re just as important as those other “extraordinary signs” of the Lord’s presence. In fact, in a certain sense they’re even more important—because they involve situations that we encounter almost every day. Let’s face it, in all likelihood we will not encounter a possessed person this week who needs an exorcism; but all of us will probably be tempted to tell someone off or hold a grudge or be unkind to a person who is unkind to us.

It’s in moments like these that we have the opportunity to witness to the presence of Jesus Christ in our lives by how we respond.

Speaking of such situations, when I was the process of writing this homily, the phone next to my desk in the rectory rang. It was a woman from the parish calling from Westerly Hospital. Her niece’s 1-year-old daughter had just drowned while taking a bath. The woman and her family were incredibly distraught, as you might imagine. But they were also clinging to their faith—and it showed! Their ability to deal with this horrible tragedy with at least some composure, was a sign to me (and I’m sure to many others) of the presence of Jesus Christ in them.

So today let us thank God for all the “signs that accompany those who believe”: the extraordinary ones that Jesus mentions here in this gospel text from Mark 16, but also the ordinary ones that are made manifest in the everyday—and sometimes tragic—circumstances of this life.

They are signs that Jesus Christ is with us and will always be with us—until the end of the world.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Three Signs of Positive Change

Saul's big moment of "change"

(Fifth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on May 10, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Acts 9: 26-31; John 15: 1-8.)

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

On this Mother’s Day, let me begin my homily by saying that it’s the question every good mother asks when her children go astray. She might not verbalize it, but at the very least she ponders it continuously in her heart—and it causes her tremendous anxiety:

Will they ever change?

That’s the question: Will they ever change? In other words, Will my son—will my daughter—ever become a good person again: the kind of person they used to be, the kind of person I raised them to be?

I’m sure that question is in the minds of some of the mothers—and fathers—in this church right now.

Now the tendency is to jump the gun and immediately say or think, “No, they’ll never be any different; they’ll never change for the better—even though I desperately want them to, even though I’m praying every day that they will.”

Maybe that’s because we live in a very cynical age of human history, where all too many have the attitude that, as the old saying goes, “A leopard doesn’t change his (or her) spots.” And so we tend to be suspicious of anyone who claims to have changed their life in a positive way. We think to ourselves, “Well, sooner or later, we’ll find out about the skeletons in their closet. It’s just a matter of time.”

If a baseball player, for example, tests positive for steroids at some point in his career, and then goes on to hit 50 home runs the following season, you can bet that most fans will doubt that he did it legitimately—even if he takes several drug tests during the course of the year and passes them all! He might have changed his ways, but the first inclination most people will have is to doubt it.

This tendency toward skepticism, of course, is not peculiar to our generation or culture. To some extent it’s always been present—ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of human history.

It was even present in the early Church, as we heard a few moments ago in our first reading from Acts 9.

Listen again to the opening words of this text:

“When Saul arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.”

Imagine someone told you that Osama bin Laden had all of a sudden become a big supporter and friend of the United States.

Would you believe it?

Well, that’s precisely the kind of thing these early Christians were being asked to believe about Saul of Tarsus! Remember, this was the man who had been an accomplice in the death of St. Stephen, the first martyr; this was the man who had probably arrested some of the relatives and friends of these early Christians and thrown them into jail; this was the man who only recently had been (as the Bible puts it) “breathing murderous threats against the Church.”

And now you expect us to believe that he’s “Joe Super-Christian”; you expect us to welcome this man with open arms? We don’t think so! He’s probably lying just to get into one of our Sunday Masses so that he can arrest all of us at one time!

In all likelihood, that was the initial reaction these Christians in Jerusalem had when they heard that their old nemesis was in town!

But Saul had changed, and, with the help of Barnabas, the apostles and the rest of the Christian community eventually came to recognize that fact.

So positive change is possible! It’s always possible. Even if your children have severed themselves from “the Vine,” Jesus Christ—to use the image of today’s gospel—they can always get grafted back on.

Most of us know the story of St. Augustine, who went from hedonist to saint after his mother Monica prayed for him for thirty-plus years—no doubt getting some very thick calluses on her knees in the process!

That’s another well-known example of somebody who changed for the better in a radical way. But the great thing is, for every famous conversion story (like that of St. Paul or St. Augustine), there are literally thousands of unknown ones which are just as real! They’ll never be written up in any book, that’s true, but they’re every bit as genuine.

Perhaps you have one of your own.

Let me close now by sharing with you 3 visible signs which indicate that a true conversion has, in all likelihood, taken place. I mention these today because they were all present in Saul of Tarsus after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus 2,000 years ago.

Moms (and dads), these are signs to look for in your child which will indicate that your prayers are working, and that your child either has changed, is changing, or is on the verge of changing for the better.

Sign #1: New friends. It’s very hard to change your life in a positive way if you continue to hang around with the people who encouraged you and supported you in your old life of sin! You need new friends to encourage you and support you in your new life of virtue.

In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul wrote these words: “Bad company corrupts good morals.”

That was something he probably knew from his own experience! Needless to say, in his days as a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus would not have been “best buddies” with somebody like Barnabas!

But after he came to Christ and was baptized, Barnabas became one of his closest friends and allies, as we heard in today’s first reading.

So, moms and dads, if you’re praying for your children to change, start by praying that they get some better friends! Virtuous friends can make an incredible difference!

Sign #2: An honest assessment of the past. This is another important indicator of positive change: when a person can sincerely acknowledge their evil, pre-conversion behavior. There are several examples of this sign in the writings of St. Paul, none of which is more powerful than this line from 1 Timothy 1, where Paul says of himself, “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance . . . “

Paul didn’t try to excuse or “whitewash” the sins of his past life; he was completely honest about everything he had done.

Moms and dads, if you don’t encounter that same kind of brutal honesty in your son or daughter, chances are they haven’t really changed—even if they insist they have.

And finally, sign #3: A recognition of the need to remain vigilant, lest they fall back into their old ways. When a person says, “Oh, I’m different now. I’ll never even be tempted to do that stuff again,” watch out! That’s a clear sign of pride; and, to paraphrase Proverbs 16: 18, “Pride precedes a fall.”

Those who have really changed understand their own weakness and the need they have to be vigilant over their thoughts, words and actions. They know they need to (as the Act of Contrition puts it) “avoid the near occasion of sin.”

St. Paul expressed this attitude in 1 Corinthians 9: 27 when he wrote, “What I do is discipline my own body and master it, for fear that after having preached to others, I myself should be rejected.”

Paul was not a prideful fool—and that’s one of the biggest reasons why his “change” lasted.

The final paragraph of today’s first reading says, “The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Sprit it grew in numbers.”

“It grew in numbers” for one very simple reason: because an awful lot of people changed their lives for the better!

So take heart, worried mothers and fathers: if it happened all those years ago for those early Christian converts, it can happen once again today—for your wayward children.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Good Shepherd and ‘The Other Shepherd’

(Fourth Sunday of Easter (B): This homily was given on May 3, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 10: 11-18.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Easter 2009]

Who am I?

Try to figure out who I am.

My head looks like a computer monitor or a television set. It transmits images to people constantly—but only the ones that I allow it to transmit. That’s because my mind is programmed to think in a certain way, and to reject any information that contradicts what’s already been put into my mental database—even if that additional information happens to be true. With my mouth I say some things that are correct and others that are completely false, but almost always with a purpose: to manipulate people into thinking and behaving in certain ways. Because of this my eyes are usually described as “shifty” by those who know me well. One other detail about my appearance is worth noting: in one of my hands I am always holding an iPod; in the other, I am always holding a daily newspaper.

So—who am I?

The correct answer is “the other shepherd.”

Now I know the individual I just described to you doesn’t sound very “shepherd-like,” but he is! In fact, he competes with the shepherd we heard about in today’s Gospel—the Good Shepherd—for our obedience and our allegiance every single day, whether we’re aware of it or not.

He’s got a head like a computer monitor or a TV set because those are two of his favorite methods of “informing” us and leading us. Another way he gets information to us is through the written word, especially through daily newspapers (that’s why he always has a copy of one in his hand). Still another way is through the lyrics of contemporary music, which is why he’s always got an iPod in his other hand.

Some of what he says, thankfully, is true—but a lot isn’t. And all too often the false information he gives is designed to manipulate us into thinking and acting in certain ways. He’s been pre-programmed to do this and he does his job very well. In fact, he usually does it so subtly and so effectively that most people don’t realize it’s happening. They think they’re being informed by an objective source of information, and they’re really being deformed by a subjective source of disinformation.

Let me illustrate the subtlety of this other shepherd with a very timely example.

One of the finalists in the Miss USA pageant this year was a young woman named Carrie Prejean. She was Miss California. In the interview portion of the contest, which was held on April 19, one of the judges—the openly-gay Perez Hilton—asked her the following question. He said, “Vermont recently became the fourth state to legalize same-sex marriage. Do you think every state should follow suit? Why or why not?”

Carrie’s response, in case you didn’t already know, caused a national crisis—at least among a certain small, but very vocal segment of the population. She said, “You know what, in my country, and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman—no offense to anybody out there. But that's how I was raised. And that's how I think that it should be between a man and a woman. Thank you.”

This, of course, is exactly what the majority of people in Carrie’s otherwise-liberal home state of California believe. Californians made that clear in the 2008 election. It’s what the majority of Americans believe; and, hopefully it’s (still) what we all believe.

But from the way the story was covered by “the other shepherd”—a.k.a., “the liberal media”—you’d think that only 5 lunatics in the local insane asylum actually still cling to the crazy idea that marriage should be between one male and one female!

And if you think I’m exaggerating, go home right after Mass and “Google” Carrie Prejean’s name; then read some of the news stories that have been written about this incident. What you’ll find in these articles is that most of the men and women quoted are strong supporters of gay marriage; people with the opposite viewpoint are almost never cited.

Is that a coincidence? Is that because they couldn’t find anyone to defend traditional marriage?

Of course not! That was done by design! Remember what I said at the beginning: the other shepherd only puts out the information that’s already in his mental database. Opposing viewpoints are not welcomed! Consequently, readers all over the country have been given the message (in a very subtle way) that most Americans right now believe in gay marriage—which isn’t true!

In addition, almost all the articles I’ve read on this subject in recent days have been filled with loaded, emotionally-charged language—language that is specifically designed to manipulate our minds on this subject. For example, one headline I saw read, “Miss USA Stirs Controversy”.

Now you might react to that by saying, “With all due respect, Fr. Ray, that particular title sounds pretty harmless to me.” To which I respond, “Don’t be fooled!”

Here we see a perfect example of the subtlety of the other shepherd. Think about it. What’s the subliminal message that’s being given to all of us in this one little headline? The message is: “If you want to avoid controversy (and most of us do), then don’t say anything in support of traditional, heterosexual marriage. Don’t be like ‘controversial’ Carrie Prejean! Just be quiet, say nothing—then people will always say nice things about you.”

In truth, of course, the only people who have found Carrie Prejean’s words controversial are liberal activists who have a definite social and political agenda to advance.

But the media wants you to think that everybody—or almost everybody—has that same agenda.
In this gospel Jesus tells us that his sheep hear his voice. But this is something that we, his sheep, need to “practice” daily! We need to continually train ourselves to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd when he talks to us—or we will almost certainly end up confusing his voice with the voice of that “other shepherd.”

The Good Shepherd speaks to us in the Sacred Scriptures; he speaks to us through the Catechism of the Catholic Church; he speaks to us through the pope and the bishops in union with him.

Those are the primary places where we hear the Good Shepherd’s voice and receive our instructions on how to live as his faithful and obedient sheep.

So obviously we need to be reading Scripture and the Catechism often.

If we aren’t, then we will almost certainly be easy prey for that other shepherd—who is really a wolf in disguise!

The day after she was denied the Miss USA title because of the answer she gave to the gay marriage question, Carrie Prejean was asked how she was feeling by one of the national news services. She responded, “Honestly, happy. This happened for a reason. By having to answer that question in front of a national audience, God was testing my character and faith. I'm glad I stayed true to myself.”

Those are the words of a courageous young woman, who, from all external indications, is sincerely trying to be a faithful sheep in the Good Shepherd’s flock.

She might have lost the Miss USA crown, but it seems that she’s well on her way to winning another one—a much more important one—made of pure gold.

A crown that will last forever.

May God help us all to follow her example—and win the same crown.