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.