Sunday, January 25, 2009

'Calls' and 'Falls'

(Third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on January 25, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Jonah 3: 1-10; Mark 1: 14-20.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of the Year 2009]

It matters not whether you’re big and tall—or short and small;
This simple truth applies to all:
You will most definitely have a call,
But just as certainly will you suffer a fall;
And how you deal with your fall has everything to do
with how well you live and fulfill your call.

Jonah was called—he was called to be God’s prophet to the Ninevites (we heard a small portion of that story in today’s first reading); the apostles were called—they were called to be leaders among the earliest followers of Jesus Christ (as we heard in this Gospel reading from Mark, chapter 1).

And we are called. We are called, among other things, to be different—different from those in the world who are materialistic and hedonistic and selfish; we are called to embrace and to live Christian virtues in every dimension of our lives (including when we go to work, and when we get behind closed doors). We are called to be holy and to serve God by fulfilling his perfect plan for our lives. For most people that involves marriage and natural parenthood; for some it involves priesthood, the diaconate and/or religious life; and for others it involves service in the Church or in society as a single person.

And within those 3 primary “calls” or vocations, there are particular calls that we each have to serve God in a chosen profession, or in charitable organizations, or in some other way.

But regardless of what your call is in this life, at some point along the way—and maybe several times along the way—you will fall. As I indicated a few moments ago, there is a call for every human being, but for every human being there will also be a fall. And here I’m not just talking about a little mistake; I’m talking about a decisive moment of failure that challenges your vocation or call and threatens to destroy it. It might be a big temptation that you start to give into—like the temptation to give up; it might be something more serious like an act of adultery or some other mortal sin.

And how you deal with this fall has everything to do with how well you end up fulfilling your call—as it says in the last line of the poem I read at the beginning.

What’s interesting and noteworthy about the prophet Jonah is that his call and his fall happened almost simultaneously! That doesn’t occur too often; usually there’s a period of time between the two.

God told him to go and preach to the Ninevites, so that they would repent of their sins and be forgiven. Jonah responded to that call by getting on the first ship headed in the opposite direction. Why? Because he hated the Ninevites and didn’t want God to forgive them, that’s why! Jonah wanted God to “fry” them, not forgive them! He wanted fire and brimstone, not kindness and mercy!

The Lord, of course, was not impressed by Jonah’s fall—or his juvenile antics—so he sent a terrible storm onto the sea, which resulted in Jonah being thrown overboard and getting swallowed by a big fish. Three days later, the fish spewed Jonah back onto the shore, after which God called him again.

This time Jonah went—albeit begrudgingly—and he preached the message God told him to preach; after which everyone repented, from the king of Nineveh on down!

Jonah, you know, is the envy of every preacher: The guy preached for one day, and everyone turned to God!

I should be so blessed!

However the story ends sadly with the prophet sulking like a five-year-old and praying for death. He prays for death because he’s incensed that God has forgiven the people of Nineveh and spared their city.

Apparently his days as a prophet were finished. And it leaves you wondering: How much more good could Jonah have done—and would Jonah have done—in his life, had he responded to his “fall” a little better?

How much good would he have done, had he responded to his fall like the apostles responded to theirs? Called by Jesus in this scene from Mark 1, they all fell extremely hard 3 years later on Holy Thursday night, when they either denied him or betrayed him or simply ran away in fear.

But they all came back, with the exception of Judas, who unfortunately responded to his fall with despair.

Although he could have been forgiven like the rest! As Bishop Sheen used to say, the great tragedy of Judas is that he could have been “St. Judas”—had he responded to his fall with sincere repentance, like the other 11 disciples.

How you deal with your fall has everything to do with how well you fulfill your call.

It’s never pleasant to hear of a fall, but it’s always a joy when you see someone respond to theirs in the right way, and then move on successfully to continue to fulfill their call in life.

I remember early on in my priesthood dealing with a couple who were experiencing severe difficulties in their marriage. They were both called to holy matrimony, but he had been unfaithful—and she had found out about it. Needless to say, she was extremely angry (as she should have been).

By the time I met them, which was long after the affair had ended, he had repented of his sin and was sincerely trying to make amends.

And she knew that; however she still had a lot of anger within her. In fact, at times she would slip into what seemed like an uncontrollable rage.

It was not pretty.

But to her credit, she persevered—and so did he; and together they both did the hard work that was necessary to restore the trust in their relationship.

And last I knew they were doing very well.

Ultimately they responded as a couple to this terrible fall in the right way.

As I was preparing this homily the other day, providentially I happened to come across the personal testimony of Chuck Colson online. His is yet another story of a fall after a call.

If you are old enough to remember the early 1970s—the time of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal—then you are certainly familiar with Chuck Colson’s name, since you heard it on television and read it in the newspapers almost every day.

Colson was chief counsel to President Nixon in Nixon’s first term of office. During that time, he was disdainfully called “the White House hatchet man,” and was once quoted as saying, “I’d walk over my own grandmother to re-elect Richard Nixon.”

I don’t think his grandmother was too happy about that—but that’s another story.

Needless to say, he was a ruthless and power-hungry individual.

And then came Watergate. Colson pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, and was sentenced to one to three years in federal prison.

In the midst of all that political and legal turmoil, Chuck Colson experienced a personal conversion to Jesus Christ—a conversion, incidentally, that was scoffed at by most people in the secular media.

They didn’t believe that he would change; they didn’t believe that he could change.

But he did. So much so that many years later, when Mike Wallace asked him during a 60 Minutes interview, “Chuck, how do you now look back on Watergate?” the former hatchet man responded, “Mike, I thank God for Watergate, because I learned the greatest lessons of my life. The teaching of Jesus is true. He who seeks to save his life will lose it. He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

Chuck Colson served seven months of his 1-3 year prison term, but in a certain sense he never left prison. I say that because in 1976, he founded an organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries, which has since become one of the largest and most successful prison outreach programs ever, with over 40,000 volunteers who minister to prisoners, to ex-prisoners, and to prisoners’ families.

He even has satellite programs around the world in 112 countries!

Some people thought Chuck Colson’s conversion was an act. Many others thought it was superficial and wouldn’t last.

But it has!—to the point where he is now one of the most respected and admired evangelical Christians in the world.

Here was a man who had a call—a call that very few people ever experience: a call to serve at the right hand of the President of the United States.

And then he fell—big time!

But out of that painful fall came a genuine conversion. And that led to a brand new call.

That, my brothers and sisters, is the kind of thing God can do, when we respond to our falls with faith and with repentance. In other words, when we respond like the 11 apostles, and not like Jonah.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

“The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it ‘the present’”: How These Words Apply To Baptism.

(Baptism of the Lord (B): This homily was given on January 11, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 John 5: 1-9; Mark 1: 7-11.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Baptism of the Lord 2009]

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it “the present.”

Fr. Dean Perri quoted that line in his Christmas homily a few weeks ago, as many of you will recall. He had recently heard it in the movie, Kung Fu Panda.

I mention it today on this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, because, believe it or not, this well-known expression is also very “baptismal,” as I hope to make clear in a few moments.

There are, of course, a number of differences between the baptism that Jesus experienced 2,000 years ago and the baptism we experience as contemporary Christians.

His was the baptism of John; ours is sacramental baptism. He didn’t need baptism of any kind; we need baptism in some form to be saved. He in a certain sense “sanctified the water” when he received his baptism; we are sanctified by the water when we receive ours.

Jesus was baptized in humble submission to the Father’s will, not because he needed forgiveness for his sins—since he had no sins to be forgiven for! He was not a sinner; although he was willing to look like one by receiving John’s baptism in the Jordan that day, prefiguring what would happen at the end of his ministry, when he would once again look like a sinner in his death on the cross.

Which brings us back to that line from Kung Fu Panda, and its application to the baptism we receive today as Catholic Christians: a baptism that draws its power from the cross—and resurrection—of Jesus: The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it “the present.”

Take the first phrase: The past is history. We all have “a past,” don’t we? Some of us, of course, have a more colorful and eventful past than others. Do we appreciate the power of baptism to take a person’s evil past and consign it to the dustbin of history? In other words, do we appreciate the complete and total forgiveness that baptism brings to us? Many of us might not, since we were infants when we received the sacrament, and so we didn’t have any “past” to be forgiven for. But we still did suffer from original sin—that is, the lack of sanctifying grace—and that needed to be wiped away before we could have any hope of eternal life.

And besides that, in the years since our baptisms we’ve all been forgiven for a lot of sins in the sacrament of confession (at least I hope we have!). Well, believe it or not, at the root of that forgiveness is baptism! Remember, the only reason we can receive the forgiving grace of the sacrament of confession is because we’ve already received the saving grace of the sacrament of baptism.
Baptism is the door to all the other sacraments; baptism makes confession possible.

If a person is not baptized, then it’s baptism they need, not confession. And when they are finally baptized all the sins of their past life are forgiven instantaneously—without ever being confessed!
That’s the power of this great sacrament! Not only that, even the temporal punishment due to their sins is taken away (which means that if the person dies immediately after repenting of their sins and being baptized, there’s no need to pass through purgatory).

Perhaps it’s adult converts like Dr. Bernard Nathanson, who appreciate all this the most—because they really have a strong sense of what they’ve been delivered from. Born in 1926, Dr. Nathanson, was raised in a Jewish family but eventually declared himself an atheist. Back in the 1970s, as many of you know, he ran the largest abortion clinic in the world, located on the East Side of Manhattan, where he presided over approximately 75,000 abortions.

He even killed one of his own children.

He eventually became pro-life, not because he had faith—he was still an atheist at the time—but because he finally came to recognize the scientific truth that the fetus in the womb is a human being!

However his past continued to eat at him. In spite of all the pro-life work he began doing, he had no peace. As he later said, "I plunged into a very serious, profound depression. I found myself almost unable to go to work. I was deeply troubled by what I had done in my life. Another marriage was falling apart, my son was emotionally disturbed. I was getting older, and as I looked back all I could see was the baggage of 75,000 little lives interrupted and destroyed, and a great deal of adult lives that I had damaged. . . .I reached bottom spiritually in those years. . . . [and I seriously thought about suicide]. I felt there was really no reason to go on."

His conversion happened over a period of time, with the help of a priest you see on EWTN every once in awhile, Fr. John McCloskey.

Finally, on December 9, 1996, he was baptized—born again of water and the Spirit—at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Cardinal John O’Connor officiated at the ceremony.

Dr. Nathanson described the experience in this way: “It was a very difficult moment. I was in a real whirlpool of emotion. And then there was this healing cooling water on me, and soft voices, and an inexpressible sense of peace. I had found a safe place. . . . For so many years I was agitated, nervous, intense. My emotional metabolism was way up. Now I've achieved a sense of peace.

“I can't tell you how grateful I am, what an unrequitable debt I have, to those who prayed for me all those years when I was publicly announcing my atheism and lack of faith. They stubbornly, lovingly, prayed for me. I am convinced beyond any doubt that those prayers were heard. It brought tears to my eyes.”

The past is “history” the moment a person is baptized. Dr. Bernard Nathanson definitely understands that; hopefully we do as well.

As for the future, that’s a mystery—for him and for all of us—as that line from Kung Fu Panda makes clear. On that note, I received an email a few weeks ago from a young EMT in his twenties, who was having difficulty dealing with the sudden death of a police officer in his town.
This police officer was also in his twenties, and died of an apparent heart attack during the previous night.

The young EMT was upset in part, I think, because this tragedy brought him face to face with his own mortality, and with the uncertainty of this earthly life. It is, indeed, a mystery. But through the sacrament of baptism which he received more than two decades ago, this EMT was brought into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ; and through Christ I told him he can face the mystery—and the uncertainty of life—with faith and courage. So can we. As St. Paul put it in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in Christ, who strengthens me.” St. John conveyed a similar idea in today’s second reading when he said, “Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”

Which brings us to the gift that is today. Today is where we live, is it not? We may think about the future, and we may reflect on the past, but what we do now is what’s most important, because the now is all that we’re guaranteed. The Bible tells us to make the most of every opportunity—and that means making the most of every opportunity NOW!

Sometimes, of course, we don’t do that. We delay doing things we know we should do right away: we delay repentance; we delay acts of charity; we delay making the positive changes we know we should make in our lives. In other words, we do not make the most of the opportunities God gives us in the gift that is “today”.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Once again, if we’re living in a relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship that’s rooted in baptism—he will remind us of what we should be doing NOW (whether we want to be reminded of it or not), and he will give us the grace, through prayer and the sacraments, to follow through on our good intentions.

And he will help us to be more grateful for everything—even the crosses and challenges we experience.

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift—that’s why they call it “the present.”

O Lord, help us to remember how these words apply to the sacrament of baptism, and help us to live our lives accordingly—beginning right now! Amen.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

‘Wishing Upon’ the Right Star

(Epiphany 2009: This homily was given on January 4, 2009, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Matthew 2: 1-12.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Epiphany 2009]

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are . . .
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.

As some of you know, those are the first two and the last two lines of a song that was written way back in 1940 for the Disney film, Pinocchio.

It won an Academy Award that year for the Best Original Song.

But I submit to you today that this little tune (or at least the 4 lines I just quoted) could be the theme song for the feast we celebrate in the Church this weekend, the feast of the Epiphany. Or at least it could be given the #2 spot behind “We Three Kings.”

I say this because the Magi followed the Star of Bethlehem with a real religious fervor. All of their hopes, all of their wishes, all of their deepest desires were somehow connected to that incredible star, and to the great King that the star would lead them to.

And so they were not discouraged by the length of their journey (which was probably over 1000 miles), or by the many difficulties they faced along the way (including the encounter with crazy King Herod!).

And it didn’t matter that they were Gentiles either! When you “wish” upon a Star—and the Star is Jesus Christ—it makes no difference who you are.

Jesus came to save the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike; the Magi remind us of that extremely important truth. On the practical level, this means Jesus came to save all the people we love and all the people who love us; but it also means that he came to save all the people we have difficulty getting along with, and even the people who hate us.

And the dreams of the Magi definitely came true, as the Disney song says. In fact, I’m convinced that their experience actually eclipsed their dreams. Think about it: they were looking for the greatest king on earth, and what they found was the King of heaven and earth; what they found was the King of kings and the Lord of lords!

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. . . . When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.

That is true if your “star” is Jesus Christ; that’s true if you pursue Jesus Christ and a relationship with the same kind of religious fervor that the Magi pursued him with.

Your dreams ultimately come true. They come true to a certain extent here on earth, but fully in heaven.

Actually, in heaven, according to St. Paul, our dreams will actually be eclipsed (as the dreams of the Magi were eclipsed), since according to Paul heaven is much greater than anything we can possibly dream of or imagine right now.

But what if you wish upon another star? What if the star you wish upon in your life turns out to be like a “black hole”?

I should say at this point that the star you “wish upon” is whatever you pursue with religious fervor. We are supposed to pursue Jesus Christ—and only Jesus Christ—in this way (like the Magi did). As the first commandment reminds us, we are to put no “strange gods” before the Lord. He, and only he, is to be the ultimate passion of our lives.

Put him first, and everything else gets in order and stays in order; put something else in his place, and everything else eventually falls apart.

That last one, of course, is a temptation we all constantly face in this life. And sometimes we give into it—because we’re weak. The key is to catch ourselves quickly when it happens, repent, and get our focus back on Christ as quickly as possible.

But many don’t do that, as we all know. Many men and women today wish upon the wrong star and stay focused on that wrong star—stubbornly—until it falls from the sky and crashes and ruins their lives.

And for proof of that, all you need to do is pick up your daily newspaper and look at the headlines.

We’ve been reading and hearing lately about the governor of Illinois, who allegedly tried to sell Barak Obama’s senate seat to the highest bidder. His life and career are now in a shambles; even people in his own party have turned against him. That’s what happens when you pursue the “star of power” with religious fervor and forget your faith and morals.

Every once in a while we read in the sports section about athletes who have pursued the “star of greatness” through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. And so their careers, which were once considered great, become forever tarnished. That’s because they’ve pursued greatness, and not God, with a religious fervor.

And what about the famous celebrities whose careers—and personal lives—unravel because of alcohol or drug abuse, or because of sexual promiscuity? They pursue the “star of pleasure and fame” at the price of their marriages and their families and their personal health—and sometimes their sanity.

I thought of this last one the other night as I watched an episode of a very depressing reality show on TV. It’s called, “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.” Have you seen this show? If you need some added motivation to focus on the right star in your life, just watch one episode of this series. That should provide you with all the incentive you need!

It will scare you straight!

My brothers and sisters, there were many stars in the sky back in the first century—as there are many stars in the sky today. The Magi “wished upon” the right one and followed it perseveringly—and it led them to salvation. If they had made the mistake of following another one—any other one—they would not have ended up in Bethlehem. I hope everyone realizes that. They would have gotten lost, and their journey would have ended somewhere else.

May God help us to follow the example of these wise men by pursuing Jesus Christ, the true light of the world, every day with religious fervor, so that the perfect joy and peace we dream about will someday come true for all of us.