Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Great Method of Evangelization: "Make a friend; be a friend; bring a friend to Christ."

(First Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on November 29, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani and Deacon Francis Valliere. Read 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Evangelization]

Mark Twain once said, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

Well, that may be good advice for some things in this life, but when it comes to personal conversion, we should not put it off--not even for a single second!

As today’s gospel reading makes clear, even tomorrow may be too late. This text from Luke 21, of course, is about the coming of Jesus Christ at the end of time. But if we don’t happen to stick around that long, then the truth of the passage can also be applied to the end of our earthly life: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life”—in other words, “don’t let the temptations of this life pull you away from Christ and the living of your Catholic faith, because it’s not worth it”; “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”

This passage reminds us of divine judgment, which we need not fear if we’re making every effort to remain in the state of grace and not delaying our conversion and repentance.

But the Catholic Christian life is not just about “me and Jesus”—it’s not just about MY personal conversion and salvation! The Catholic Christian life is about “me, Jesus—and my brothers and sisters!” We are to love our brothers and sisters in the human family as we love ourselves. St. Paul reminds us of this in our second reading today when he says, “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we have for you, so as to strengthen your hearts to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones.”

Notice what St. Paul does there. He connects 3 ideas: love, holiness and judgment. To be holy and ready for judgment, we must love others. That’s his message.

And if we love others with the love of Christ, our first desire for them will be their eternal salvation! To love is to desire the good for another person, and the greatest good is eternal life!

This is why I freak out when I meet children in our school or in our CCD program whose parents don’t take them to Sunday Mass every week.

Do these parents REALLY love their children? If they do, their first desire should be for their children to know, love and serve Jesus Christ in this life, so that they will live forever with Jesus in heaven!

But it goes beyond our immediate families. If we truly love our friends, and co-workers, and the many other people God has put in our lives, we will want them to know the Lord and to get to heaven more than we desire anything else for them.

This is why evangelization is so important. To evangelize means to bring people to Christ and to his one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church—for the sake of their salvation!

Our bishop, as most of you know, has declared this to be a year of evangelization in our diocese—a year when we make special efforts to reach out to those who don’t know Christ, as well as to those who did know him at one time but have since fallen away from the practice of their faith.

And this is supposed to be everyone’s responsibility; it’s not just the “job” of bishops, priests and deacons.

All that having been said, I have a modest proposal to make today. My proposal is that each of us make the commitment at this Mass to try to bring one person to Christ—or back to Christ—during the next 12 months.

That’s not too much to ask, is it? It could be anyone—a relative, a friend, a person we know from work or school.

But Fr. Ray, how am I supposed to do this? I don’t know the Bible and the Catechism as well as you do; how am I supposed to get someone to take me seriously?”

Well, I’m glad you asked. I have a simple method for you to use, which does not require long hours of Bible study, nor does it require that you stand on a soapbox on the local street corner and preach long homilies like me!

This is a method of evangelization that is easy, and non-threatening, and can be used by people of all ages. It’s a method that some of us learned when we made a Cursillo retreat sometime in the past. The method has 3 steps, and they’re very easy to remember. Step 1 is “Make a friend”; step 2 is “Be a friend”; step 3 is “Bring that friend to Christ”.

Now to show you exactly how this works in the real world, I’m going to invite Deacon Fran to come forward and finish today’s homily by sharing an experience he had of evangelizing a coworker a number of years ago.

You might call this “a tag-team homily.” I’ll now make the tag and give the pulpit to our deacon. . . .

It was on a Cursillo weekend so long ago, that I first realized that as a Christian it was MY responsibility to bring Jesus to others. Prior to this, the word evangelization was something I thought televangelists did. But that special weekend brought many truths to light and, for me, was an epiphany of sorts.

Jesus’ words made me stop and think about what my faith was really all about: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain". (John 15:16) I couldn't escape the fact that it was ME who was called by Jesus to "spread the Good News". If Christ's message and the Gospel were to be heard it was up to me to bring it to wherever I was. Whether at home, in my neighborhood or at work; no matter where I was, it was up to me to bring Christ to others. It was up to me to "Make a friend, be a friend, and bring a friend to Christ."

I remember one friendship at work. I had known a fellow co-worker, John, for many years but it was always either business or pleasure that was of mutual interest; and never had our faith been a topic of discussion. I met John while I was working on the second shift as the plant supervisor. John was a service engineer at the time and would troubleshoot problems with our products out in the field. Over time, our work relationship became more of a friendship; one founded on mutual trust. Simple honesty and courtesy and an eagerness to help each other were at the root of it.

My friendship with John grew over the years. So by the time I had made a Cursillo weekend, John and I shared a friendship that was something more personal than professional. My weekend retreat left me a changed person. As I said, it was the stark realization that it was up to ME to bring Jesus to the marketplace. Yet in all my excitement, never did I consider approaching John about it. But God had different plans. It was the Ash Wednesday after I had found my new calling as a Christian that things happened between John and I that changed not only his life but others as well. In past years, after receiving ashes but before going to work, I would return home and wash them off. I felt I looked a little foolish and wasn't prepared for the comments to follow; or at least what I thought would follow. However, this year I decided differently. Not only did I NOT feel foolish but I actually felt like it was a badge of honor to be a "fool for the Lord". Little did I know what the Holy Spirit had intended. About one hour into my workday, as I was exiting my office, I bumped into John in the hallway. He looked at me with surprise and immediately he noticed the ashes on my forehead. Later that day he approached me and said how impressed he was in seeing the Ashes on my forehead that reminded him of his own faith. This, of course, was the lead in the Holy Spirit placed before me; so I ran with it. We had a short chat about our Catholic faith which neither of us had known we shared as something in common.

As time went on, John would stop by to chat about his desires to "get back into his faith". He said he envied this new found relationship I had with the Lord and commented on how much I had changed after that retreat. This gave me an opportunity to share with him about my Cursillo experience and how grateful I was that I had been asked to attend the weekend. He expressed interest in the weekend and, as grace would have it, decided to go to the next men's weekend. Needless to say, when John came back from the weekend he was on fire for the Lord. He was excited about the prospect of sharing his faith with others. But he felt a little intimidated at the idea.

Realizing our dependence on each other for support, John and I decided that we would meet in my office at lunch time each day. This gave us an hour or so to share our faith. It also gave us the courage and strength to remain faithful to this call to evangelization. It was both a tool for personal growth and a basis for our evangelizing efforts. We would share about things that we were reading, such as scripture or other faith based books, or how our prayer life was going. We also discussed what we were doing to try to be good Christians. And of course we'd share how the evangelizing efforts were going.

Often times our discussions focused on the Eucharist. How we felt it was transforming both of us the more we received. Now, my office was pretty good size; large enough to contain three desks and numerous filing cabinets. One of the desks was used by my office assistant, Michelle. Even though she was at the opposite end of this office, she was in earshot of what John and I discussed. She was comfortable with being privy to our chats so we paid no attention that she was there. Little did we know that she was more than comfortable with overhearing our discussions! I found out she actually took a deep interest in them; especially when we talked about the Eucharist. One day she approached me expressing a desire to know more about this faith John and I shared. She told me she had been baptized in the Episcopal Church but had never been raised in that or any other faith.

Talking to Michelle about our faith was fairly easy. The "make a friend; be a friend" process had long been established. It was just a matter of now sharing personally with her this faith she had overheard for so long. Although she mostly listened, her participation in our discussions got her more into asking about how SHE could become a Catholic. Shortly after that we made arrangements for her to participate in the RCIA program. As her sponsor, I couldn't have been happier for this young woman. About 9 months after John and I had started meeting at lunch time in my office, Michelle, who had been pretty much un-churched all her life, was received into the Catholic Church, and received her First Communion and Confirmation at the Easter Vigil.

Make a friend, be a friend and bring a friend to Christ. Pretty simplistic! But then again, Jesus wasn't working with rocket scientists when he chose the twelve Apostles; and look what happened with them. I have often heard the saying, "But by the grace of God there go I." And so I often wake in the morning and ask God that today, Lord, make me your grace, that someone else may have this great gift you have given me. And for that gift; the gift of faith, hope and love; the gift of salvation; I give praise to Almighty God!

(At all the exits you’ll find a pile of these prayer cards titled “Return to me with all year Heart”. On the back of the card is a beautiful prayer. This prayer for Evangelization is urgently needed in a world that is quickly and systematically forgetting about and even denying both God and Faith in Him. There’s an old saying. Before you talk to your friend about Jesus, you first need to talk to Jesus about your friend. This prayer is a great way to start the day, every day)

In this joyful season of Hope; My fervent prayer is that all of you find comfort and joy in spreading this awesome faith we share. Together with Jesus we cannot fail.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Kingdom of God: It’s Wherever Jesus Rules!

(Christ the King (B): This homily was given on November 22, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Daniel 7: 13-14; Revelation 1: 5-8; John 18: 33-37.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Christ the King 2009]

In today’s gospel passage, Jesus Christ explicitly says, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” And yet in Mark 1: 15 this very same Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

So which is it, Lord Jesus? Is the kingdom of God somewhere else, or is it already here on this earth?

In the Lord’s Prayer (which Jesus taught us) we say, “Thy kingdom come”—as if the kingdom is something we will experience only in the future. However in Luke 17: 21 Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of God is among you.” (In some translations the text reads, “The kingdom of God is within you.”)

And then we have this line from today’s second reading from Revelation 1, which makes it sound like WE ourselves are the kingdom: “To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.”

What exactly is the kingdom of God?—and, just as importantly, where is it located?

These are questions that saints and theologians and biblical scholars have pondered for centuries.

One of the best explanations of the kingdom of God that I’ve come across was given by our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in his recently published book, “Jesus of Nazareth.” There he basically says that the kingdom of God is present WHEREVER GOD RULES. And since Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, we would say as Catholics that the kingdom of God is present WHEREVER JESUS RULES, WHEREVER JESUS CHRIST IS TRULY LORD!

This clears up a lot of the confusion regarding the biblical passages I just mentioned. Jesus tells us that the kingdom of God is at hand in Mark 1 because he is alive and active in today’s world. He’s alive and active in the sacraments. But beyond that—people perform acts of love and kindness in the name of Jesus every day. In those instances, Jesus is “ruling” their actions. Some of you, for example, have brought Thanksgiving gift cards for the needy to this Mass and will put them in the collection basket in a few minutes. That’s an act of love done in the name of Jesus, therefore it’s a manifestation of the kingdom of God.

Perhaps you’ve never thought of such things in that way before, but you should from now on. Acts of charity, done out of love for Christ, manifest his kingdom!

The kingdom of God is here on earth to the extent that God rules our actions; the kingdom of God is within us to the extent that Jesus rules our thoughts and words and attitudes.

But Jesus doesn’t rule us and our world completely, as we are all painfully aware—because of sin. He rules here on earth, yes; but imperfectly. It’s only in heaven that his rule is perfect and total, which is what he was referring to in today’s gospel when he said to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

The fullness of my kingdom, in other words, is not here.

And yet our desire as Catholics is supposed to be that Jesus will rule more completely in our world in the future. That’s part of what we are praying for in the Our Father when we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God expects us to pray that his kingdom will be more fully manifest in this world, and then God expects us to do whatever we can to make it happen!

That includes performing acts of charity, as I indicated a few moments ago. But it also involves proclaiming and standing up for the principles of the gospel in our families, in our schools, and in our places of work and recreation (in other words, wherever we happen to be).

This is something, unfortunately, that Congressman Patrick Kennedy does not seem to understand, as we have seen in his recent public exchange with Bishop Tobin. Or perhaps, like many other Catholic politicians, this is something he doesn’t want to understand.

Mr. Kennedy would do well to read Quas Primas, the 1925 encyclical of Pope Pius XI which put the feast we celebrate today—the Feast of Christ the King—on the Church’s liturgical calendar. There Pius wrote that the kingly dignity of Jesus “demands that the state should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.”

Now the Pope knew that most non-Christian politicians would probably disagree with that statement. What he did not expect was to get the same type of negative reaction from politicians who profess to be faithful Catholics (which is what happens so often today!).

The Pope expected Catholic political figures to agree with what he said, and then to do their best by democratic means to enshrine Christian principles in the civil laws of their nations.

He definitely did not expect them to actively promote laws based on anti-Christian, immoral principles—as Mr. Kennedy does on a regular basis.

When he dies, the Lord will say to him, “Patrick, what have you done to further my kingdom? You said, ‘thy kingdom come’ so often in the Lord’s Prayer; what did you do to make it a reality? What did you do, first of all, to further my kingdom within you? Did you examine your conscience and say an Act of Contrition every day? Did you go to confession regularly? And then what did you do to further my kingdom in the wider culture? Did you embrace the principles of your Catholic faith—and allow those principles to guide your conduct everywhere, including where you worked? Or did you leave your faith in church on Sundays?”

That’s what the Lord will ask him. Of course, that’s also what the Lord will ask each of us, when our time on earth is over.

May Patrick’s answers—and ours—cause Jesus to say to him, and to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter now the kingdom—the perfect, eternal kingdom—prepared for you from the foundation of the world!”

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Catholic Church’s Teaching on Death and Judgment

(This homily was given on November 1, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3: 1-3; Matthew 5: 1-12a.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Saints 2009]

On Sunday, October 18th, my Aunt Louise passed away. She was 88, the last living child of my paternal grandparents. Their 3 other children—my dad, my Uncle Mike and my Aunt Anna—had all died at relatively young ages of cancer.

The funeral for my aunt was on Thursday morning at my home parish, Holy Angels, in Barrington; her wake was Wednesday evening.

On Wednesday night I stayed with my sister and her family in Barrington. Well, about a half hour after we arrived at her house after the wake, the telephone rang. It was my cousin in Georgia, telling us that my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother, had just been taken to the hospital.

Twenty minutes later, my cousin Jay called back to say that my Uncle Joe had died.

They were my godparents. I lost them both within the span of four days.

My Aunt Louise’s health had been deteriorating for a long time, so her passing was not unexpected, but my Uncle Joe was the picture of health until the Monday before his death, when he was taken to the hospital after passing out in a hardware store. They gave him a battery of tests, adjusted his medication, told him they thought he’d be fine, and sent him home. That was Tuesday.

He collapsed on Wednesday night, ironically enough, while routinely taking his blood pressure. He slumped over and never regained consciousness.

He was 78.

And my doctor wonders why I don’t like having my blood pressure taken!

Sooner or later, what happened to my aunt and uncle will happen to each of us. And so in November, toward the end of the liturgical year, the Church gives us two important days that remind us of the end of our earthly lives: the Solemnity of All Saints (which we celebrate this weekend), and the Feast of All Souls on November 2nd.

Since this is the case, I thought it would be good today to review briefly the Catholic Church’s teaching on death and judgment. Many Catholics are confused about these issues, which is to some extent understandable. Protestant evangelists who speak about such things as ‘the rapture’ and a literal ‘thousand year reign of Christ on earth’ have dominated the airwaves for years; consequently many Catholics think that the Church teaches these and similar doctrines, when in reality she does not.

The Church’s teaching on death and judgment is really quite simple and straightforward. It’s also solidly rooted in Sacred Scripture.

It begins by recognizing the truth that Jesus Christ suffered, died and rose from the dead, giving us the hope of eternal life. As the Catechism puts it in paragraph 1010: “Because of Christ, Christian death has a positive meaning. [St. Paul said in Philippians 1,] ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’ [And in another passage of the Bible he wrote,] ‘The saying is sure: if we have died with him, we will also live with him.’”

That’s really the same message that St. John has for us in today’s second reading when he says, “We are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

But in order to pass from what we are now to “what we shall be,” we have to die. And by the way, we only die once, as it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9. Reincarnation is not a Christian teaching. We do not come back to this life as Fido or Flipper or anything else—or anyONE else for that matter!

So what exactly happens at death?

Well, the Catholic Church believes that (and here I quote the Catechism, paragraph 1022) ”each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately—or immediate and everlasting damnation.” At death, in other words, our souls are separated from our bodies; we are then judged in a “particular judgment” and our souls go either to heaven, hell or purgatory. Those in purgatory go to heaven whenever their purification is complete.

This, incidentally, is why we pray for all deceased people who are not canonized saints. If they’re canonized saints they don’t need our prayers; they’ve already arrived in heaven. We know that because there have been at least two verified miracles which have been attributed to their heavenly intercession.

There are many people in heaven, of course, who are not canonized saints (Hopefully some of our relatives and friends are among them; we honor these men and women today on this Solemnity of All Saints; they’re the people St. John saw in his vision in today’s first reading). But we should never presume our deceased relatives and friends are already there unless they’re canonized, because if we do presume they’re already in heaven, and they are, in fact, still in purgatory, we will be depriving them of the Masses and prayers and helps they need to pass through their purification more quickly.

Purgatory, by the way, is not a “second chance after death.” Souls in purgatory are saved—they died in the state of grace—but they need some final purification before they can come into the presence of the one, true, perfectly-holy God. (These are the “souls” we pray for in a special way on November 2nd, All Souls Day.)

Chapter 21 of the book of Revelation reminds us that nothing unclean can enter God’s kingdom. Nothing! This means that if we die with even one, little venial sin on our soul, we will need purgatory! Hopefully now you understand why the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews said, “Strive for that holiness without which no one can see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12: 14)

I think it’s safe to say that most people who end up in heaven pass through purgatory. Msgr. Struck used to say that all he wanted to do was to get in the back door of purgatory! Because he knew that if he got in the back door, he’d eventually go out the ‘front door’ and into heaven!

The Catholic Church also believes that, as the Apostles’ Creed says, “Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” at the end of time. When this will be, no one knows (so please tell your Jehovah’s Witness friends to stop trying to figure it out!).

However—and here’s something many Catholics might not be aware of—according to the teaching of the Church “before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers.” So says the Catechism in paragraph 675. This will involve some sort of “religious deception” orchestrated by the individual referred to in Scripture as “the Antichrist.”

The second coming of Christ will then take place; “this passing world” will be brought to an end by God's direct intervention; followed by the resurrection of all the dead and the Last Judgment.

It’s at this point that our souls will finally be reunited with our bodies. Then, as it says in Matthew 25, the damned “will go away into eternal punishment, [and] the righteous into eternal life.”

Purgatory will cease to exist, since no one else will need to pass through it.

That’s what we all have to look forward to. And it is something to look forward to—if we have faith, and are striving each day to live the Beatitudes that we heard in today’s gospel.

Let me close now with this thought:

Jack Fox from our parish is fond of saying, “Always make sure of two things: that you’re in the state of grace and that you have your insurance paid. If you do those two things, you’ll be ready to take the ‘deep six’ whenever the Good Lord calls you.”

If you ask me, that’s pretty good advice. This is why it’s so important to go to confession regularly! And if you have to pick one or the other, my advice is to forget about the insurance, just make sure you’re in the state of grace—that’s infinitely (and I do mean INFINITELY) more important!