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.